Twenty minutes into the dive, I lose all feeling in my fingers. It’s a slow process — first tingling, then mild discomfort, then burning, and finally, with a strange sense of relief, my hands become like dead weights on the ends of my arms. My left hand curls like a frozen claw around the safety rope, which stretches away in the murky green water, angling up toward the light and the distant hole in the ice. It’s about this time that I curse my decision to stick with neoprene gloves, through which my body heat is losing a battle with the 36°F water. Fortunately, our dive is short and it’s time to turn around. I give three tugs on the rope, signaling to the tender to start taking up slack and reel us in.
Ice diving is neither for the fainthearted nor the claustrophobic. Beyond the discomfort, there are very real hazards that simply don’t exist in more temperate, open-water diving. Once you get past the ludicrous notion of dropping through a hole in a frozen lake, there are risks such as disorientation, hypothermia and even knocking yourself out on the thick ceiling of ice above your head. Of course, the most insidious threat is the cold water itself. While a drysuit does an incredibly effective job of retaining body heat, water that is mere degrees above the freezing point can play havoc with equipment: masks fog easily, plastic parts become brittle and, most concerning, regulators can freeze up and have your air supply freely flow out in a matter of seconds. In other words, ice diving is the perfect place to test the Supermarine 2000, a new dive watch from Bremont, a company that claims its watches are “tested beyond endurance”.
Bremont is a young British watch company that has seen a meteoric rise in its decade of existence. Equal parts dashing and daring, its watches are well suited to the types of gentlemen explorers for which Dear Old Blighty is known, from Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott to new British heroes like Jake Meyer, Ben Saunders and Bear Grylls. Indeed, Bremont watches have been worn on polar expeditions, round-the-world motorbike journeys and atop Himalayan peaks. While there are countless watch companies that crow about their timepieces’ durability, Bremont back up their claims with innovative technologies and torture tests that would make NASA proud and most watch lovers cringe. All of its watches boast COSC-certified chronometer calibers, and are surrounded by antimagnetic shields and floating shock-absorbing movement holders. Of course, none of this was on my mind 30 feet under the ice, but it was reassuring to see the seconds hand of my Supermarine 2000 sweeping on my frozen wrist, business as usual.
Ice diving has been described as a mix of diving and mountain climbing. Indeed, the sheer amount of gear required rivals that of a Himalayan expedition: ice screws, carabiners, tents, chainsaws, augers and hundreds of feet of rope, not to mention the usual diving apparatus of regulators, tanks and layers of drysuit and insulation. And while a normal dive trip in the Caribbean involves its own set of logistics, it is nothing compared to diving under a frozen lake in Minnesota. For an hour underwater, it takes no less than three or four hours of preparation: shoveling snow, sawing holes open, drilling vent holes and anchoring ropes. Tents are set up over the holes for relative comfort during suiting up and to keep the rope tender and safety divers out of the wind as they wait on the ice. But it does make for an experience unlike anything else.
While Bremont definitely has an aviation bent — as was reflected in their first offering of a pilot’s watch — the introduction of its first dive watch, the Supermarine 500, filled a hole in its portfolio. Of course, Bremont couldn’t leave airplanes behind entirely, so the name of their dive watch pays homage to the legendary British seaplane: the Supermarine S.6B. The S.6B won the Schneider Trophy in 1931, was the first plane to exceed 400mph and led to the development of another legendary plane, the Supermarine Spitfire. The Supermarine 500 is an eminently capable watch, with 500m of water resistance and a fit and finish befitting the Bremont name. Unsurprisingly, it became a cult favorite with dive-watch enthusiasts. But this past winter, Bremont took the Supermarine deeper — 1,500m deeper, to be precise. The result is the bigger, more robust Supermarine 2000.
At 45mm in diameter, the S2000, as it is sometimes known, is no trembling flower: its dimensions are entirely within the standard range for dive watches these days. In fact, the 2mm increase in size from the S500 makes all the difference, addressing one of the — ahem — shortcomings of the watch. The other minor gripe dive-watch aficionados had with the S500 was the lack of a luminous flag on the sweep seconds hand. In the simple, yet specific, world of dive-watch requirements, the ability to tell if a watch is running at a glance is of paramount importance, even in the dark. Therefore, a luminous seconds hand is fairly important. The S2000 now has a prominent round, luminous flag near the end of its red-tipped seconds hand, satisfying even the most discriminating diver.
While it may seem downright masochistic to do anything underwater during a Minnesota winter, the fact is, the water is almost always warmer than the air. Once you pass through two feet of ice, the thermometer hovers somewhere around 34–37°F, which is warmer than the frigid, wind-scoured surface above. Of course, water has an insidious way of pulling heat from the body at a much faster rate than air does, so some protection is necessary, usually in the form of a drysuit. Sealed at the neck and wrists with latex rubber and fitted with welded-on rubber boots, no water enters the suit, hence your body heat creates a tolerable, if not comfortable, micro-climate within — that’s assuming you’re wearing some insulating underwear instead of a tuxedo. A low-pressure air hose from the scuba tank connects to the drysuit, allowing for fine-tuned buoyancy adjustment and relief from the water pressure, which compresses the suit against your body in as little as three feet of depth.
Certainly, a drysuit adds bulk, and suiting up is considerably more arduous than slipping into a 3mm wetsuit and backrolling into the briny Caribbean. There’s an extra hose, a hood and thick gloves with which to deal, not to mention the added weight required to keep from bobbing like a cork, pinned to the underside of the ice sheet. Everything takes more time to do, from pulling fins on and over the clunky boots to strapping on gauges and a watch. The Supermarine 2000 is offered in a supple, molded rubber strap, but it’s also available in a one-piece nylon strap with hook-and-loop closure. I wore the watch with the latter option for ice diving, making certain not to strap it on over the hole in the ice, given my lack of dexterity. The watch fit well over the wrist of my 5mm glove, and just prior to sliding off the snow berm that was my entry point, I gave the timing bezel a twist.
Bezels are doubtlessly the calling card of the dive watch, and there have been countless executions of this simple, yet vital, component. Getting it just right is more difficult than it seems it should be. I’ve tested a lot of dive watches in many circumstances, but I can confidently go on record saying that the Bremont dive bezel is the best I’ve used. It stands proud from the case, both in height and diameter, and just enough to be gripped with ease; the teeth on the top edge are deep enough to get purchase, even with thick gloves. The one-way ratchet — a safety mechanism to prevent the accidental addition of time to a dive — has just enough give to keep the fingers from slipping, and a firm, confident click keeps it in place, once set. The demarcated scale on top is executed in scratch-resistant sapphire with luminous minute markers all the way around. I might wish for a slightly larger zero or “descent” marker, but that is a minor criticism.
Sliding down through the triangular hole in the ice is disconcerting. Growing up in a land of long winters and frozen lakes, I’ve read stories of people falling through the ice to be trapped underneath, vainly searching for a way out as their last breath disappears along with their body heat, only to bob to the surface when spring comes. But ice diving is an almost-obsessive practice in safety procedures. Clipped to my buoyancy vest with a locking carabiner is 100 feet of one-inch rope; at the other end, the rope is anchored to the ice with an ice screw, and a tender pays it out foot by foot until I reach the end. Thus, I explore a 100-foot radius of lakebed as I communicate my progress with a series of tugs on the rope — to either pay out rope, take in slack or, in the case of an emergency, tow me back to the hole urgently.
Two other divers are clipped to the same rope at intervals behind me, and we all keep a wary eye on each other, watching for signs of hypothermia or a free-flowing regulator. The lake is remarkably clear, the cold water and lack of oxygen killing off the plant life that usually obscures view in the summer. Small fish dart across the moonscape, while a large northern pike eyes us warily from under a rock ledge. We limit our dives to 20 minutes to preserve body heat, which, despite our drysuits, is being sucked away, particularly through my vulnerable head and hands. And while my lips are numb around my rubber mouthpiece, it’s my fingers I start to worry about. Had I opted for rubber gloves, which seal onto the drysuit sleeves and keep the hands dry, I would have been OK. But this is the second dive of the day, and the neoprene around my digits is losing the battle with the freezing water. I signal that it’s time to turn back.
While Bremont aren’t yet making their own calibers, they decorate, adjust and assemble them all in England and fit them in some truly extraordinary cases. Their so-called Trip-Tick case is a three-piece consisting of a top section with beautiful, downward-curling lugs; a thick caseback that, on the Supermarine, is engraved with a likeness of the Supermarine S.6B; and a trademark case middle of contrasting black textured steel. A subtle helium-release valve on the left side of the case is a nod to the commercial divers who bought up the limited-edition North Sea Supermarine 500 that Bremont made especially for them.
Some dive watches are clearly not built to see wet work — they’re simply too pretty. Others are brutes, made to take a beating but then left in the dive locker after hours. The Supermarine 2000 manages to straddle the gravitas of a tool watch and a finish level on par with the best watches from Switzerland. Somehow, the result is distinctively British, in the same way a Range Rover or tweed jacket looks equally at home in the field or at the manor house. There is a distinctly English appreciation for the durable, the careworn and the sense of tradition. Its 2,000m water-resistant case, helium-release valve, antimagnetic cage and anti-shock movement holder say, “Once more unto the breach”, while the textured, pinstriped dial, applied markers and elegant hands keep you appropriate (and on time) when you dust off for tea afterward. As if to drive home this point, the dial proudly, but subtly, bears the mark of origin at six o’clock: “London”.
Angling back for the hole, the view looking up is otherworldly. Our exhaled air is tangible, dancing in amorphous blobs on the underside of the ice sheet above. Spokes and arrowheads shoveled in the snow on the surface radiate out from the entry hole, letting sunlight pass through to guide us to the exit, should we lose our way or become detached from the rope. As we approach the hole, I can see the underside of our companions standing above in the bright, sunlit world, clutching cups of coffee against the biting wind, and I want to be there with them. Finally, it’s my turn to be pulled up and heaved onto the ice like an awkward seal. I wriggle out of my tank and plunge my frozen gloved hands into a tub of hot water and feel the life return. The date on my Supermarine 2000 reminds me that it’s 10 February, and I smile, remembering that I have a flight to the Bahamas in a week.