“I’M DOWN IN A BLACK WETSUIT”. I’m four foot six because I’ve got no legs on. I look like a seal. Well, what do sharks eat? Seals. That’s what’s going through my head.”
It surprises me that Josh Boggi is afraid of anything – including sharks. Since the former Royal Engineer stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device) while on tour in Afghanistan – resulting in the loss of both his legs and one arm – he has learned to walk again, taken up cycling, won medals at the Invictus Games, completed the world’s hardest endurance cycling challenge, the Race Across America, learned to dive, and has now been certified as the world’s first triple-amputee Rescue Diver.
The first time Josh saw a shark – an uninterested grey reef – he says he nearly spat his reg out. Pretty understandable for someone who had been afraid of sharks since watching Jaws as a kid!
In fact, he hadn’t felt comfortable in the ocean, and is sincere when he tells me: “If I couldn’t touch the floor, I didn’t like it.”
But his perspective is that “you’ve got to put yourself in situations that overcome these fears.” That’s why he dives: “Every time I go under water, I think I’m going to be attacked by something bigger than me, but this is exactly why I do it. It takes me out of my comfort zone and puts me in a position where I’m constantly being challenged.”
It’s also why he is booked onto a shark-diving liveaboard later this year.
JOSH FIRST TRIED SCUBA while on honeymoon in the Maldives in 2016 (if you don’t count perforating an eardrum during a military diving aptitude test aged 20). He was “a bit bored” with sunbathing and, spotting a dive-centre, went in to ask if he could do a try-dive.
The instructor, Josh tells me, grinning, looked him up and down and said: “Diving? This could be interesting!”
The instructor cancelled his plans for the following day and Josh contacted his surgeon in the UK to get the necessary medical permissions. He was diving the following afternoon.
It’s clear how much Josh loves diving – he lights up when talking about his first underwater experience: “I was all over the place on the first dive but I fell in love with it straight away. It was amazing.” He decided “then and there” to get his Open Water Diver, and describes diving as his “favourite thing to do in the world”.
Josh doesn’t use special equipment – or even fins – to dive. While some of his friends put fins on the end of their stumps, he has yet to try that (he doesn’t want to look “even more like a seal” to the sharks). Once he’s buoyant, he swims breaststroke instead of kicking.
A YEAR AFTER qualifying, Josh saw a Facebook post from a double-amputee friend who had been diving with Deptherapy, the charity that runs specially adapted scuba programmes for seriously injured personnel and veterans of the British Armed Forces. Since being founded in 2015, it has completed 10,500 hours of volunteering, helping 73 veterans. That’s 2000 hours of diving!
Inspired, Josh decided to complete his Advanced Open Water: “I flew out to Egypt with Deptherapy, got in – and I’d forgotten everything.
“I hadn’t dived for a year. I knew how to breathe and everything and get buoyant, but I was all over the place, and it took a day or two to get back into it.”
He is clearly fond of the charity that has done so much for him. “The healing power that diving has is unreal,” he tells me. “I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for Deptherapy.”
People like Josh with physical injuries – amputations, broken legs, backs, gunshot wounds and so on – can suffer from constant aches and pains.
There is freedom in being under water, in this case in Truk, but it can be hard work when you don’t have the benefit of finning.
While diving, he tells me, “there’s no pain whatsoever. You’re just existing down there. Just being, taking it all in.”
Diving can also help with post traumatic stress disorder or brain injuries, because it’s calm and silent under water. Josh noticed that the soldiers with PTSD who were initially “ready to bolt and not actually get on the plane” were “completely different people” by the end of the week.
As someone determined to rise to any challenge, Deptherapy’s “hands-off” approach appeals strongly to Josh. “They let you do the thinking,” he explains. Rather than telling him what to do, they show him how an able-bodied person would carry out the skill; then it’s down to him to figure it out: “It’s all about adapting and overcoming.”
Importantly, Deptherapy doesn’t lower its standards in consideration of Josh’s injuries. If anything, its expectations are higher: “Obviously, they’ll give you advice here and there, but that’s what I love about them. They’re not there to give people ticks in the boxes… they make you work hard, and it’s great.”
Dr Richard Cullen, Founder and Chairman of Deptherapy, told me how impressed he had been by Josh’s hard-working, can-do attitude: “Josh doesn’t understand the words ‘can’t’ and ‘impossible’. Since he started diving with us, he has shown a determination not to be defined by his life-changing injuries.”
AFTER COMPLETING HIS Advanced Open Water Diver, Josh wanted to further improve his diving, and decided to do his Rescue Diver. When he started his course, he knew that he would be scrutinised to the hilt: “There’s a standard you need to nail – and more – because no one’s done this before.”
There were many tough skills to complete. Most, let’s be honest, are hard work for able-bodied divers. But rather than be overcome by the challenge of lifting an 80kg man out of the pool with one arm, Josh breaks the task down into stages: “I need to get him to the side, get out myself, get him out… and then go into rescue breathing.”
Similarly, working out how to ascend with an unresponsive diver took a while and a few failed attempts (“first time I was halfway up and I dropped the bloke!”) but, after chatting it through with his Deptherapy instructor, Josh figured out the best approach.
As if being tested on the skill again, he runs me through the process: “Straight in, check they’re unresponsive, reg in. Right. I’ll literally reach around with my stump on the reg, dump everything, inflate, clamp on the cylinder and get them up. Obviously slow ascent rate. Get them to the surface, smash the BC up, weights…” and so on.