It takes a lot of guts to leave your family and friends behind to pursue your dreams. I had a good job in a lovely school. I had options for progression and I was making decent money. However, I was adamant that I wanted to give it all up to become a beach bum.
Leaving Everyone Behind
It all happened quite quickly. There was only about two months between my sabbatical being confirmed and me sitting on a plane heading to Malaysia.
During this time I literally sold everything I owned. My life was up for grabs on eBay and, surprisingly, I managed to make enough for my air fare. Who'd have thought my collection of crap could raise so much money. People will buy anything - even my second hand slippers...
Understandably, the parents weren’t best pleased with the news. The initial shock turned into sadness, and although they were dreading the day they had to take me to the airport, they supported me. My mates were over the moon for me. I'm not sure whether it was because they were proud of me for chasing my dream, or because of the cheap holiday option... maybe a combination of both.
Just to throw a little extra drama into the works, this was also the time when James and I started courting (as my granma would say). We’d known each other for like, 3 years, but we thought it would be a good idea to get together just before I was leaving on a jet plane…
I started working for Eco Divers in July 2012. It was amazing. Lying in my hammock watching the thunderstorms pass on the horizon, I couldn’t be happier. I knew I’d made the right decision. Of course I missed my friends and family. And I missed James. So I made it my mission to get him over to the island.
It took a fair bit of persuading. He didn’t have any money, he liked the idea of the "2.4 children family life" that so many of his friends were enjoying and, at that time, he was still a Divemaster.
I was in it for the long game though, and after months of niggling away at him and bragging about how good the island was, he finally gave in and took his IDC with Gary. A few weeks later, he was on his way to Tioman.
We worked hard at Eco Divers, and we continued to learn. We were pretty much in charge as the owner, Jeff, was based on the mainland. It's a popular little dive centre with a laid back, almost bohemian feel. We were always touting for business and when we were busy, it was tough to keep everything flowing smoothly with limited resources. We loved the challenge and the constant problem solving. We started to make a lot of friends from the other dive centres as we begged, stole and borrowed to get by.
Some days were quiet. We'd sit on the step waiting to strike up conversations with passer-by's. Some days we spoke to no one, so in an attempt to stave off madness, we closed up and headed over to the bar at B&J. Over time we got to know the team and even picked up a bit of freelance work here and there. When the opportunity came up to work for them full time, we jumped at the chance.
A Set Up For Success
We got stuck straight in with the team. We started as instructors, but we were ambitious. We took it upon ourselves to learn as much as we could, and we began to work our way up the ranks. I tried to get experience in every job going. I mucked in with everything from filling and humping tanks, servicing gear and even cleaning rooms. We took every opportunity, every course, every seminar we could. I became Branch Manager, with James at my side as Dive Ops Manager.
The learning curve was huge. I’d managed people before – but nothing like this. B&J is one of the biggest dive centres in Malaysia. They process over 1,500 certifications each year and it’s not just a dive centre – it also has a luxury resort.
The team was huge, made up of really cool people with different backgrounds and nationalities. Between James and I, we were responsible for everyone - from divemasters to instructors, compressor crew to maids. My Bahasa Melayu really benefited from working with the local crew. When I was talking about hotel rooms being cleaned, you'd think I was fluent. But this was only because our maids spoke zero English and I needed to learn how to communicate with them. In fact, they were Indonesian, but the two languages are quite similar. When conversation changed from the hotel to anything else, their hand signals (and shouting) were a big help. Saya bodoh!
The working relationship was completely different to anything I’d ever experienced before. The team aren’t just your work colleagues, they’re your family. Can you imagine eating, sleeping, playing, arguing, drinking and diving with your brothers and sisters while working 12+ hour days with 4 days off a month and still maintaining professionalism and trying to promote mutual respect? That’s a difficult thing to pull off. I hope I got there in the end, but it wasn’t easy and I learnt a hell of a lot about myself.
I’ve always cared about the environment – I think it goes hand in hand with diving. Divers know that this beautiful underwater world they call their playground needs to be looked after and will do just about anything to protect it. Our efforts really stepped up while we were in Tioman. The place is so damn beautiful, we took every piece of litter, every discarded fishing net and every unthoughtful diver as a personal affront. We made very good friends with Alvin and Sue from Reef Check Malaysia who spurred us on to conduct countless clean ups and promote environmental awareness in our courses and the business in general.
I became more involved with Project AWARE and, because of Hannah, I was featured in a number of articles in the Undersea Journal. I even got the chance to head out with Project Labyrinth as part of their documentary on marine debris. For these opportunities I will be eternally grateful – I had so much fun while doing really important work.
During my time managing, I developed the business skills that would be integral to the next step in my journey. Like how to deal with customers, how I was a massive part to their holiday experience, how to build a website, how to drive social media, how to schedule courses and plan events, how to clean a wetsuit after someone’s had issues with last night’s dodgy food, how to network, how pricing and profit margins work, how to manage risk, how to use judgement and pass this on to others… the list is endless.
If it wasn’t for B&J then we would never be in the position we are now. We'll be forever grateful to the owners, Ben and Martin, for giving us the opportunity (and the trust) to manage their successful dive centre. They let us make mistakes, held us accountable and showed us how to fix them. I'm also thankful for my island family – you know who you are, but especially Moose, Stefan, Croy, Cameron, Darren, Kara, JWow, Ollie, Apple, Anis, Fara, Adam and Danny. Without you guys I wouldn’t have developed as a manager and a human being.
Making the decision to come home was, believe it or not, even harder than deciding to leave. We had a good thing going in Tioman, but our dreams were evolving. We wanted our own dive centre.
While we were home for Christmas last year, we met Nic and Rob in a pub for Sunday dinner. They told us they were thinking of selling Arbeia.
I remember sitting in the car with James afterwards going “we couldn’t… could we?”. Then I remember going to WH Smiths and buying a black notebook, one black pen and one red pen then heading to a pub to write down the pros and cons of leaving Tioman.
It was a bit of a head wreck for us. And after a lot of backwards and forwards, I decided to confide in my dad. We went for a walk through Hulne Park on a gorgeous sunny day and shared my thoughts. It definitely didn’t sink in straight away.
I daren’t tell my mam. I don’t know why; I suppose I didn’t want to get her hopes up in case it didn’t happen. However, my mam is a bit of a modern day Sherlock Holmes. Somehow, she managed to deduce exactly what was going on from two clues: having dinner with Nic and Rob and going on a walk with dad. She just said “Do it. Do it and we’ll help you”.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
The diving world is small and its funny how things come full circle.
Although it turned out that we couldn’t take over Arbeia (as much as we wanted to), fate is making it look increasingly likely that The Fifth Point will be based on the same site as the old dive centre. Rob was the officiant at mine and James’ wedding - the obvious choice as it was because of him and Nic that we ended up together. We feel so lucky that they support the new venture and want to be involved.
I’m still in touch with the guys I met in the Bahamas. Mitts and Gabes came to visit me on Tioman, and I even tried to get Ian a job at B&J – it was just a pity he couldn’t speak French or German which is what we needed at the time. Plus, I’m definitely going to see Siobhan for a dive between the tectonic plates as she’s based in Iceland now.
I love my little Tioman family to bits. I’m sure they enjoy their breakfast facetime calls from James and I after we’ve had a few too many and think it’s a good idea at 3am... I can’t wait for our reunion in December. Stefan, Croy and Cameron are heading for fun and games in the toon – who knows we might get a dive in too!
The Fifth Point will open in January. There’s so many people who’ve been instrumental on our journey so far and so many people who will become part of it. We just wanted to let you know we will never forget it.