Scuba Madness on Koh Tao!
SSDC - Taking the Reagan Approach
The Divemaster's, Instructors and Managers who run the dive shops and dive schools on Koh Tao are fiercely competitive. There were two methods dive shops and schools would pay their DMs and Instructors: A flat-rate monthly wage or a percentage based wage (based on how many paying customers there were). Potentially the latter would be more lucrative, but only with a good flow of customers. Without a steady stream of business the bills would just mount up steadily.
At first all went well, the relaxed, stress-free atmosphere and Will's hands-off 'Reagan Approach' to being the boss seemed to be paying off.
As far as I was concerned I was on the up and up though, the shtty parts of SSDC were certainly nothing in the grander scheme of things and at the time you just made do and got on with the job. I wasn't the strutting alpha-male minded dive instructor (something Koh Tao is overrun with) and several of my peers did not like the fact that a mere Divemaster walked into a job straight after getting his DM ticket. Looking back the other divers who went on to get their OWSI ticket did seem incredibly petty in some ways.
SSDC - The Rise and Fall
The first few months went well, the dive bookings were high and money was rolling-in. We'd just installed an air-compressor on board the sea dragon (ending the back-breaking chore of transporting scuba tanks on and off the boat each day) and an order was placed for a speed-boat to be built-to-order. The rainy season was still around but this didn't dampen the diving spirit! It was one big party with the PADI logo seemingly looking down on us as the children of the beach.
The Diving Knights, Barons and Kings
Our other diving 'musketeers' at SSDC, aside from Wildren were a varied species indeed. We had a tattooed part-time instructor who claimed to be an ex-US Marine on-the-run. This was despite having an Aussie accent and having the manner and way of a Walter Mitty. He never really got the message that he wasn't employed by SSDC but just as a free-lancer (brought in for any overspill we couldn't handle). He got booted, but it took a while.
The feather in our cap was Bob, a retiring but astute dive instructor who'd recently got his Staff Instructor ticket. A Brit who had travelled around the world and had built up a network of diving contacts. His encyclopedic knowledge of diving was second to none and he was a very talented instructor.
A roving technical diving instructor 'Loz' also joined our merry band. A real maverick, he followed his own path, having worked all over the world but could charm a bird from the trees and make it look like childsplay. He and Bob were often at loggerheads and would jockey for supremacy as 'senior' instructor. It wasn't an unfriendly rivalry though, one was from the murky world of technical diving the other from the fresh and breezy recreational sphere. There was respect for each other other. The same was also apparent with Loz and Wildren. At first Loz's quirky ways and happy-go-lucky charm aggravated Wildren, who brooded that he was too much for SSDC but we won him around and the team was almost complete.
There was another Divemaster, a matronly girl from Finland who spoke fluent english and Finnish. She had a seemingly innate artistic talent, any artwork or painting that needed doing around the place she took care of. Even without being asked.
Then there was me, Johnny B!
Besides the usual donkey work that Divemasters are saddled with I was very much the glue that helped the place stick together. I helped build up the dive shops website, ran the marketing and promotion of the place made sure the DMTs weren't destroying the place and did all the routine crap that DMs often do. We'd do a lot of stuff pro-actively too. Looking back I was a very different person then. These days I'd tell a person to take a hike if I was a DM all over again, but back then, on Koh Tao the 'Micro-Universe' effect was that you just did what was expected of you and party to beat the band. We even had our own Island dialect and language.
If you took a girl out, that was laying siege. First base or kissing was taking the walls. Inside the castle but not the keep was oral and sleeping together but not full sex. Taking the keep was going all the way. As you can imagine, we could be speaking about many things and even fluent english speakers would struggle to understand what we were saying if we used dialect.
The land our diveshop was built on belonged to the thai owner 'Balm'. Originally the locals in Koh Tao were crab fishermen and coconut farmers, when the tourists and back-packers came along the locals moved more into restaurants, building dive shops and bungalows.
He was a washed-up drunk (or wood hippy as Wildren called him) who usually spent the latter half of the day drunk on 'Spy' wine in the restaurant and the rest away from Koh Tao doing a college course in Engineering. I took him to be a 'hands-off' kind of owner but he was a lurking snake of man in many ways. We'd bring a load of divers in for a days diving and he'd announce that the dive boat was going to be used for a day-trip for thai (non-diver) tourists instead! His meddling really did damage to the diving operations.
I got a phone call from Planet Scuba on the second day of work, they wanted me to start work immediately. I turned them down and committed to SSDC. Wildren made a show of this, proclaiming that the 'underdogs' had poached from the one of the big boys.
Koh Tao is a party-island and after the diving was finished for the day the crazy drinking and partying would begin. Almost every dive shop or school has a bar or restaurant (often both!). There was/is a party almost every night somewhere on Koh Tao and to be honest there is probably as much money made in the islands bar industry as in diving! Buckets of sangsom, 'snorkal tests' and a whole host of other drinking games all add to the island madness.
The dive establishments are almost always owned by the original Thai Restaurant owners. After almost a month of working non-stop the rosy facade of diving began to crack under the hard truths and facts to working on Koh Tao, especially a shoe-string dive operation. The the only industrial grade generator on the island provided on-the-grid power from dusk till dawn (1800 and 0800), any power needs outside of this time had to be from independent generators. SSDC had but two, one that was for running the compressor and restaurant at night and for the diveshop, a small jungle-based system that only under 'Balms' consent' could be turned on.
The diveshop was under-funded and the lack of a reliable power supply really exposed our achilles heel. Time and time again customers would be dumbfounded as all the fans, lights, TVs and videos cut-out in the midst of an Open Water course lecture! We'd then struggle to get the battery linked system fired up while cursing balm and his satang saving tricks. Only to find that the battery's had been drained the previous day/night from the thais watching videos! The lack of any aircon was a real grind, especially when we learned that the next-door dive school 'New Wave' had Aircon piped in and running for free via the 7-11 generator! When the setting sun hit the diveshop from 1530 to 1730 it was like being in a furnace. A solar powered system would of been a boon but none existed back then on Koh Tao, so we often would just sit and wait for the magical hour of 1800 when the main island generator would fire up and the fans would jump into life.
Mosquito's are a gripe anywhere in Thailand. But one thing about Koh Tao and especially Sairee village that they don't tell you in the tourist books is how much swampland and marsh there is that the dive industry is built on and around. The little bstards would buzz everywhere and Sairee's main swamp was less than 50 yards from the gear room! Every time you'd go to lift off a BCD a cloud of them would emerge.
One thing about Divemastering is that the money (like most jobs in Thailand that foreigners get into) was lousy and one of the few perks was free diving on party island. I think that the most I ever earned in one month was about 18,000 baht. This was in late 2003, and even back then it was poverty-line stuff when you factor in visa-runs and the party-atmosphere in Koh Tao. God bless the savings, I think most of us out there pretty much lived off our savings unless you were an instructor for Bans Diving or the like. You'd be dipping in a time here, a time there when money was tight! But when you're cresting the wave and having a blast these things like money can take second place, especially when you live the diving lifestyle in Thailand.
The hours were long, I'd get to the dive shop about 0730 - 0800 hrs, process the fun-divers (usually having them already sized them up with rental scuba gear the previous day), Capt Nemo would bring in the victuals and then it was time for a days diving (usually 2 dives) off the main dive boat - The Sea Dragon. At the end of the diving we'd get back to the mooring, shuttle back via longtail and then it was time to clean the gear, sign the log-books and head to the bar for drinks! This would happen every day if we were in full swing.
If I didn't stay for drinks you'd typically be getting into the room at about 1800 - 1830 hrs.
Our diveshop was the last of its breed on Koh Tao, an independent place which didn't affiliate to the big name brands like Bans or Big Blue and partying for the hell of it and damn the establishment. A Thai government man had recently been ejected unceremoniously from attempting to audit the tax on Koh Tao, we saluted the act. We went out on island clean-up and pulled down power-lines in a drunken blast across the port village Mae Had, it looked hairy for a moment when the local policeman raced over. 'No problem here' bellowed Wildren and simply blamed it on Buddha View!
SSDC and the French Rebellion
A recent 'revolt' as it was termed resulted in about 2 instructors and a few divemasters being fired from SSDC. This happened months previous to my 'tour' on Koh Tao but was often spoken about and good for a laugh.
Will had gone wild partying at the Full Moon party on Koh Pha Ngan, gone on full 'barbarian-unleashed' mode with various illicit substances and passed out at daybreak. He missed the boat back and ended up hitching a ride on a speedboat. By the time he'd got back to the dive shop the senior instructor, a sniveling frenchman, had nearly convinced the rest of the dive squad to elect him as dive manager, using Wildren's wild ways and his absence as good grounds for him to take charge. Will, still hung-over and suffering from dehydration arrived back to the dive shop to a hostile standoff in the office with nearly all the divers siding against Wildren. After a heated argument Wildren had barracked and blazed the 'coup' to a stalemate. Some of the divemasters and instructors now started to question among themselves if the would-be-usurper would be up to the job, after-all Will had proved himself more than capable of bringing work their way AND sticking the course. Wildren was the immovable force but then the frenchman pulled out his trump card, 'Balm'. He reckoned that applying 'French-style' creative reason and Wildren's flaws he could convince 'Balm' to fire Wildren out of hand. So off he went down the slope to where 'Balm', ever the grinning monkey as long as he had his Spy wine to sup, sat at his table. All looked on as, for thirty minutes, he exasperated himself fruitlessly to 'Balm'. At the end of the thirty minutes the look on his face as he meekly approached the diveshop said it all, he'd blown it. Wildren didn't hesitate, he grabbed the Frenchman's divebag and hurled it full force at the guy bidding him a sardonic farewell (I forget the exact words). The remaining divers now abandoned any notion of forcing a leadership challenge and either swore allegiance to Wildren once again or played down their part. Will was tempted to fire the lot of them but getting a new diving team rapidly was a chancy business. Over the next few days the Frenchman gloated from his bungalow nearby, expecting SSDC to fall due to the lack of manpower, thankfully, along came (big bad) Bob to fill the gap along with several other divemasters.
So ended the 'French' Rebellion.
The Norseman Cometh!
The wild ride got wilder when a crazy Norwegian drug dealer 'Strom'(on holiday no less!) with a hulking bodyguard in tow showed up. He was blown through his Open-Water course and before long I had to take him fun-diving! I helped him underwater and, with Wildren's Nordic roots and hell-raising antics in the local bars soon established firm bonds with Strom and before long he soon took to our underdog diveshop as official patron. The days of us sitting in the diveshop now became days sitting on the beach with Strom buying bottle after bottle of the finest french white wine for his favourite dive team! Life suddenly became very opulent indeed.
It didn't stop there either. Strom was intent on leaving behind his more nefarious past and going more straight and narrow. He announced he was making arrangements for massive investment into SSDC and we all thought the mythical ship of gold had landed. A Go-go bar, an overhaul of the dive shop and radical improvements to the dive fleet. It was the equivalent of kings ransom but money was no object in Strom's eyes and he was on a roll.
The only hitch was, we needed Balms consent as the land was his. Compounding matters was a thai family that also had their beady eye on SSDC's Restaurant and spare land too. Strom was determined that if he couldn't have the spare land for development then the deal was off.
We held our breath and crossed our fingers. At first we thought we'd cracked it, the thai family could clinch the deal, the price wasn't right for Balm.
Right after they left it was Strom's turn. He turned on the charm via Wildrens mistress interpreting rapid fire english into thai.
The chips were down and 'Strom's' cash from his 'contacts' was waiting for the go-ahead in a Norwegian bank. Then came the crunch, 'Balm' didn't want to relinquish hold on his restaurant without retaining control of the menu, 'Strom' was adamant that change was needed, radical change. The menu had to change, it was too boring and needed variety. The deal ended in a stalemate. Balm was interested but not enough to agree to full sell-out. 'Strom' wasn't into half-measures either. So the deal was put on hold. We returned to the bar and mused on what could of been but for Balms fickle ways.
Weeks later 'Strom', probably bored by now anyway. Severed all chance of a deal when his wine bill kept getting rigged by one of 'Balms' dodgy underlings 'Nong'. It was a greedy and foolish thing even by thai standards. They saw Strom as a money hemorrhaging whale. But he was a clever whale and if they had been patient he may yet of compromised and committed. But Thailand is Thailand so the Strom adventure ended. Although I didn't always see eye to eye with Strom (a long story) I admired his dogged determination. He threw a lot of money into SSDC, spending fortunes on courses and diving he was generous to all of us. Wildren didn't have a bike, 'Strom' would reach into his pocket and get him one. Drinks for the boys, no problem. Visa run next week Johnny? No problem here's the tickets. He was that sort of guy.
The next character was an Irish girl who taught english on the mainland but came back to Koh Tao to dive again. She nearly got herself killed one night when she thought it would be a good idea to ride stoned and drunk then swerve in front of a thai motorbike. The luck of the Irish was with her though and she got away with concussion and a massive bill for the damages and injuries (both to her and thais). From then on she hung out at the diveshop doing nothing in particular but singing random tunes and (badly) imitating a thai dancer. Following a berserk outburst and hissyfit in one of the jungle 'nightclubs' she alienated herself and drifted back to the mainland to start teaching again!
A canadian millionaire showed up next, throwing money into course after course for him and his family. He was wise but had no idea to apply things to others different to himself. He also never tipped me for one fun-dive either, stingy bustard!
The good times were getting fewer and fewer though, we were living on borrowed time carrying on the way we were. Times had changed, fewer and fewer back-packers and travellers were passing through Koh Tao. Love 'em or hate 'em it was the independent and free-spirited types like them that helped bankroll us and as they got fewer and fewer our wages dropped.
The new 'samsonite-brigade' diver preferred the cozy and all-inclusive world of the "flood 'em and fleece 'em" mass-diving operator like Bans and Big Blue.
Wildren, in typical character, decided a different approach was needed. First was a TV set with a DVD showcasing the diving we'd done running dusk till dawn. This worked to an extent but after the numbers fell again Will decided on a more 'hands on approach'. We got totally wasted inside the dive shop then went outside hooting and hollering for all and sundry, near and far to come in for some diving! This didn't have much effect but made us feel a whole lot better.
I think the final nail in the coffin was a left-wing nut-job Brit girl who created the Koh Tao Dive Operators Club (or KTDOC for short). It sounds pretty neat but the reality was (and is) that every two-bit dive shop, dive school and resort was induced to price-fix. This is fine for the big schools who have a large influx of pre-booked divers and savvy touts, but lousy for small schools whose existence depended on smaller profit margins and 'walk-in' business. The new price list for diving were way too high to justify our maverick and low-end style which also meant cheaper prices for diving.
We just didn't have the facilities and high-end quality that the big schools had to justify the higher rates. Shoestring and a make-do ability were our watchwords, swimming pool and mega-bucks resort facilities theirs. The big diving factory's like Bans that could churn out armies of divers. You'd see them crammed onto converted fishing boats rammed like cattle, barely able to move. We still had an edge and that was the quieter area, proximity to the beach, small-groups specialty and up-to-date quality dive gear. This edge helped for repeat business was noticeable.
But it was only a slight edge that soon dulled when our rival 'small-group' school - New Wave Diving followed suit. They'd taken a different strategy of employing an utter shark of a ferry tout who'd work the ferry's coming in from Samui and Chumpon. Our own tout who'd been well-schooled by Wildren and was unbribeable did his best, but up against the seasoned and aggressive tout veterans he stood no chance. He was a mild-mannered soul and unsavvy to the ways of salesmanship. Which, there was no denying, New Wave's tout had. It was even reckoned, at one point that he was the richest single thai man on Koh Tao.
We were going under and only Bob and I saw the writing on the wall. Wildren was defiant though, he'd change the subject or blame the lack of effort on his team in touting divers. Whenever I proposed radical changes it was angrily dismissed.
Our other options were ditching the speed-boat in favour of a pick-up for transporting customers from the Mae Haad pier to Sairee or even a mainland office in Chumpon for booking in divers fresh off the bus and train. To be honest, Wildrens fierce pride and the fact that he didn't really have as much power as he let on. A manager no doubt, but one that was still under Balm's very limiting sphere of change. For all that though Wildren held in there and kept going long after a lesser manager would of fled into the night.
We tried to recruit divers from bars and in the streets but 9 times out of 10 they were already locked-in to another school. It was getting to the point that the money we made wouldn't even cover the rent! Morale had sunk from the dizzy heights of December to the low-season blues, by February I'd had enough and felt the winds of change blowing through Koh Tao. Money was tight and 'Balm' paid divemasters only a fixed rate per dive as opposed to a percentage-based system (which the instructors got) was really pissing us all off. This was a bone of contention for us, especially when we weren't paid a salary and relied upon numbers of divers diving.
For a time Wildren towed the line and I dreaded that we'd join the sheep dive schools and fall-in to the KTDOC bs. Not Wildren, he just cut his prices to match the reduced operating costs compared to the big boys. Soon enough the customers returned in numbers and we were back on top again. The long-awaited speedboat arrived. It was hardly what we had been led to believe. Thai-built, it was a rough, tough and shoddy machine. Seaworthy but lacking a fibre-glass hull for high-speed planing the machine was nothing more than a white elephant. It was still a good addition to the fleet but the timing was way off when more customer numbers and expansion was key, as opposed to a nice extra.
Balm was still edgy though, the other thai land owners of the dive schools (who run the dive scene behind the scenes) were squeezing him. To compound matters the farang element of the big schools tried to get in on the 'strong-arm' action. Big Blue (one of KTDOCs main backers) had an industrious-minded Japanese girl who tried the softly-softly approach. First it was banter. Then came the pressure:
Big Blue: 'Raise the prices in-line with KTDOC policy'
Us: 'Why should we?'
Big Blue: 'Oh it keeps the quality of diving services for all dive-operators on Koh Tao'
Us: 'We don't need KTDOCs policies to keep up our own quality and safety'
Finally the threats came via notes and phone calls other diveshop's. Wildren met fire with fire and despite the threats and bullying we held our own.
A dark side of the story came when the Japanese girl disappeared and was found dead in the jungle a week later(2004).
Some said she had jumped off a high cliff, others that she'd been strangled with a regulator hose and thrown off the cliff. Fingers were pointed at her co-manager in Big Blue. She was from an affluent family who kicked up a real stink and questioned the islands coroner verdict but none of it came to anything.
The end for SSDC didn't come from external attack, but like many fledgling organisations, it came from within.
'Balm' had a shrewish, craven mistress that he'd whisked away from Surat Thani whilst attending studies there.
She soon started to exert a 'Svengali' influence on him that seemed to amplify when the Spy wine started flowing. Always at his side, all business dealings would be listened-in on by this vixen of a woman.
Seeking to curry favour she demanded we raise our prices again. Wildren ignored her at first but one fateful night with everyone fueled up off Chang, Sangsom and Spy she exploded at Wildren, hands flying everywhere Wildren threw her to the ground violently. 'Balm' was a pussy in most senses but he still had some clout, being a land-owner and 'an islander' by birthright.
Now, spurred into action he mobilised our once loyal thai workforce into action. We barely had enough time to grab our gear before 'Balm' had them close the dive shop and chain the doors shut!
SSDC had had its last dive! The island affair was over for me and a few others but it was one hell of a ride!
Bob went on to greener pastures at Planet Scuba in Mae Haad where he is rumoured to be the Course Director now. The Finnish Divemaster met and married a traveller and announced in an email she was severing all ties to her old life of diving, which included all her friends (quirky folk these finnish birds!). 'Strom' had enough of Thailand as he preferred women who were 'more fleshy and voluptuous'. Last heard of knocking about S. America.
The weird 'ex-marine' dive instructor 'Bruce' drifted away to LV Divers then tried getting in on the teaching english game out in S. Korea. When this failed he faded from the diving scene. Wildren had to flee the island to escape 'Balms' wrath. He mooched about for awhile in Hua Hin before going back to being a roving diver-for-hire around Thailand last heard about working on Koh Tao again! Balms wrath now eclipsed with more Spy induced pacifism no doubt!
Part 1 | Part 2