To meet he is stocky and fit. The grin is wide and frequent. He laughs easily. But he is a serious guy and diving is just one of a range of activities he does well.
"I started diving in Hawaii when I was twelve. I walked past a swimming pool where they were doing try dives. I thought let's have a go at that". The go ended up with a scuba dive on a nearby reef and Andrew was hooked. Press him on why, a decade later, he remains captivated and he answers eloquently. "It's an exploration, I think, more than anything else. You can't see it just by looking at someone else's pictures".
But a twin hose characteristically did not elude him for long. He held a Saturday job at Ocean Optics, the London based underwater photography specialists. During 2001 the company took him to an underwater imaging festival in Antibes, France. On a used equipment stall, Andrew spotted what would become the genesis of his regulator collection.
"I didn't really recognise it for what it was", Andrew chuckles. "I had to ask Mike Warren (an Antibes based collector and friend of Andrew's) if it was even worth having...". In fact he had chanced upon a La Spirotechnique Royal Mistral. Manufactured from the early sixties until at least the mid-eighties, the Royal can trace its lineage directly back to Jacques Yves Cousteau, the father of sport diving. In 1942, during the occupation of France, Cousteau had approached engineer Emile Gagnan with the concept of a diving demand valve or regulator. The problems the duo hoped to overcome would confer freedom, duration and safety. Standard diving equipment tethered the diver by an airline to the surface. For a working diver salvaging a shipwreck or harvesting pearl beds, staying put was fine, but it severely limited exploration. Another Frenchman, Yves LePrieur had already come up with a diver-carried air cylinder and valve. This freed the diver from the reigns of the air hose. But LePrieur's invention required the diver to turn the valve on and off by hand in time to his breathing. It was wasteful of the limited air supply. Dives were frustratingly short.
Andrew takes up the story: "It was definitely one to have. It was in excellent condition. Everything worked. The neck straps had been cut off from the mouthpiece, but that apart it was perfect". Unwilling to trust his prize to the hold and finding his hand luggage tipping the scales at over 5 kg, Andrew flew home with the Royal hung around his neck.
Regulators are a mainstay of any diver's life support system. Andrew determined to service his. He had to cope without a repair manual. "I took it apart, cleaned the bits, put it on a scuba tank, breathed off it and it was fantastic".
"I suppose all this that stuff I've done is based on the fact that someone has been willing to let me share that experience". He's quick to thank the HDS Working Equipment Group, South, for his aquarium dive. "The equipment I used was all privately owned, very expensive and perhaps irreplaceable. Yet the WEGs members brought it along to dive not just themselves but also to let other people try. You do that because you have a passion, because you enjoy it and you want to let other people do the same".
But if Mike Warren had been kind enough to steer Andrew in the right direction for his first Mistral, he scuppered Andrew's initial attempt to buy a collectible depth gauge. Unsure whether the hand written price tag was one hundred Euro or one thousand, he asked Mike to interpret. Some rapid fire French was exchanged and Mike pocketed the gauge.
Andrew might have missed out then, but he has since built up a collection of fine diving instruments. A La Spirotechnique Delta depth gauge, far more desirable than the one he ceded to Mike, recalls a time when diving instruments were crafted from brass. A flexible diaphragm transmits pressure via a rack and pinion mechanism to a needle. This counts off the divers depth. The Delta series were among the most accurate mechanical gauges ever built. Andrew's is almost certainly an early example and may well date back to the sixties.
An especially lucky find is an SOS DCR decompression meter. Its significance became apparent when it attracted the attention of HDS exhibitions officer Phil Thirtle. Andrew met Phil in 2002. Each year the HDS mounts displays at two diving shows organised by Diver Magazine in London and Birmingham. The shows attract upwards of ten thousand punters, many seeking bargain equipment and cheap holidays in a market atmosphere. The HDS is one of a small number of stands that focus on education. Andrew had been invited to exhibit some cameras from Optics but also took along his personal instrument collection.
But Andrew's DCR seems to have been made in much smaller numbers, probably between 1976 and 1980. It was an evolution of the classic SOS Decomputer and works in much the same way. Andrew elaborates: "It's got a compressible bladder which, under pressure, forces gas through a sintered filter into a tube with a plunger. The plunger then moves along the tube and allows you to read off your decompression status against a scale". The simple pneumatics are a techno age removed from the electronic boxes that calculate safe dive times today.
Hard hat equipment is highly collectible and attracts premium prices. It's regularly disposed of through Christies. Scuba equipment is probably only just becoming so. Prices for regulators, for example, range from as little as twenty five pounds to several hundred at most. Markets are also regional---during the fifties and sixties when most twin hose regulators were produced, few seem to have been exported. Famed North American regulators such as those made by Sportsways, Voit and Dacor rarely crossed the Atlantic. Here it was more likely a regulator would have been built by British companies led by Heinke, Submarine Products and the legendary Siebe-Gorman. Perhaps the most universally distributed across the globe was the Spanish manufactured Snark III, to which the honour of being the last twin hose ever produced for the public must go. The regulator went through several minor mods during its forty year life and Andrew owns several examples. Included is one with a beautifully engraved outer casing whose story remains tantalisingly obscure, at least for now. But if Andrew has met his goals of owning and exhibiting diving collectibles, what of his ambitions to also dive with it?
In the Maldives, Andrew determined to dive in the old style. He needed the divemaster's permission. But he couldn't locate her. Ever the optimist he set up his tank with a simple harness and his forty year old Siebe Gorman Mistral regulator anyway. The scuba industry must wrestle with the ever present threat of litigation. It would have been understandable, expected even, that the divemaster would have refused permission for the dive to be made. But she didn't.
He fondly recalls the reactions of the other guests. "There were jokes about going to check the heads to see if the plumbing was still there, because that was what the gear looked like". But the ribbing was good natured and soon an old dive knife was volunteered to complete Andrew's outfit.
In his efforts to experience sport diving from a halcyon time that had ended fifteen years before he was born, Andrew lacked two things. In the fifties and sixties many continental and North American divers monitored their air supply using a reserve valve. This is a mechanism usually built into the tank that warns you when you air gets low by restricting your breathing. Pulling a lever opens the restrictor and allows you to breathe freely again while you beat a hasty return to the surface.
By the late seventies virtually all divers had swapped the reserve valve for a simple pressure gauge. This lets the diver see precisely how much gas he has left at any point during the dive.
The rental tanks were not fitted with reserve valves and Andrew's Mistral was not equipped with a pressure gauge.
"From the previous ten days diving I knew roughly how long my air should last. We'd been making deep dives and arriving back on the surface after eighty minutes with a good safety margin. For the history dive I dropped straight to 20 metres, then quickly made my way up into the shallows. My buddy stayed close and had an octopus - a spare regulator he could pass off to me so I could breathe from his set if I'd misjudged it".
When Andrew surfaced after forty minutes, the dive boat was tailing the main group. It would be another twenty minutes at least before even the heaviest breathers would start making their way up from the top of the reef. So Andrew broke surface early and in the wrong patch of Indian Ocean.
"If you are correctly weighted for a dive", Andrew told me, "you float pretty much at eye level. On the surface you put a bit of air into your buoyancy jacket to lift your head and shoulders clear of the water. Then, if it's calm, you can spit out your mouthpiece and breathe normally".
Andrew wasn't wearing a buoyancy jacket. However his buddy was carrying an inflatable day-glo tube, used to hold overhead to alert the boat handlers to a surfaced diver's location. Once that was pumped up with air, Andrew used that to stay afloat.
So far, Andrew has concentrated on collecting sport diving equipment. But he'd like a set of standard gear to use and exhibit. Top of the lust list is a Siebe Gorman six or twelve bolt hard hat outfit. Such a system could broach £7000. For a student, such goals may seem unattainable. But Andrew Pugsley is an achiever. The future may yet see that dream realised.