Game, SETT and Match – It’s all over for the SETT Tank, Gosport

In a recent press release the Royal Navy announced the SETT Tank in Gosport was closing. They said:

“For the last time the team who teach submariners how to escape from a stricken boat gather at a Gosport landmark before the iconic structure closes.

…During the peak of usage in the 1960s and 70s, around 4,500 submariners every year made the daunting ascent – it’s thought the escape tank has been used more than 150,000 times in its 66-year life.

Today the tank is just one element of the UK’s submarine rescue capability, which also includes the Submarine Parachute Assistance Group (who leap from aircraft into the water to help crew who’ve escaped from a boat as taught in the SETT), and NATO’s Submarine Rescue System ‘Nemo’, also based in Faslane…

…In the SETT’s existence, only one British boat – HMS Artemis – has been lost (she sank at her moorings in an accident in 1971, ironically just a stone’s throw from the tower), without any casualties…

In its place, opening later this year, is the Submarine Escape Rescue Abandonment and Survival Training Facility (SMERAS TF). The team will be moving en-masse from Gosport to Faslane, leaving a skeleton team behind on the south coast.

As for the SETT, it will be preserved as it is a listed building, “protected by law for its national and international role in submarine safety.”

What was the SETT Tank and what was it for?

The SETT tank is tucked away at the back of a Naval base in Gosport. It would be hidden, except its height means that it towers above all the other buildings and can be seen from miles away!


The 900,000 litres of water in the SETT tank was kept at 36.5 degrees warm, the internal temperature of the human body. This was because the men who worked there, wore swimming trunks and were in the water for hours at a time. Their job was to assist the trainees negotiate from the very bottom of the tank at 30 metres (below the bottom plates we freedived to), all the way up to the top.


They were being trained in how to escape from submarines, and the escape was dangerous in itself. If they didn’t keep blowing out the air in their lungs all the way to the top then they would have a lung expansion injury which could kill them.


Submarine-Escape-and-Rescue - SETT Tank


SETT staff members would be positioned at various depths throughout the SETT, breathing air pumped into the blisters in the sides. They told me that if someone wasn’t breathing out, then they would dart out and punch them in the stomach to make sure they exhaled enough!


The staff were also amazing freedivers. They would demonstrate their skill by pulling down to the bottom of the ladders around the sides of the SETT. They would then turn upside down, and push off the bottom rung, shooting like darts all the way to the bottom. At the bottom they would then turn around and pull back up to the surface via a central cable.


My Memories of the SETT Tank

I first heard about the SETT tank whilst standing outside a bar in the pouring rain just after midnight on New Year’s Eve in Fuerteventura. I had been thinking about freediving for a few years, but it remained a secret dream until that night. I was on holiday with a friend and we had spent the early part of the night at a restaurant, talking about what we would do if we had ‘another life’. I confided that I wanted to be a freediver and told her what little I knew about it.

After the restaurant we went to find a bar to see the new year in, and got chatting to a British man who said he lived on a boat in the Canaries. ‘What do you do?’ we asked. ‘I’m a freediver’ he replied. It seemed like divine providence and I dragged him outside so I could hear everything he had to say. It was he who told me about the SETT tank, and the group of British freedivers who went there on the weekends to freedive.

Back in the UK, I found them, got in touch and travelled all the way down from Manchester to Gosport for the weekend for my first introduction to freediving. Little did I know at the time that this was the start of a whole new chapter of my life.

I remember the sense of awe the first time I negotiated the severe security guards and made my way to the classroom for a safety briefing on the ground floor. The main corridor was lined with photos of former students, photos of submarines, world records of ascents from submarines, and memorabilia from navies around the world who had sent students to do the escape training course at the SETT.



Nothing prepared me however for travelling ten floors up in a lift to the top of the tank and looking down over the edge to the bottom, 28.1 metres below.

sett layout

I suffer from vertigo, and I felt dizzy looking down through the crystal clear water. It seemed so very very deep.

Teaching at the SETT Tank

I started teaching at the SETT tank in 2003. The Navy had closed their doors to freedivers the previous year and I was keen to be able to get back in. At the time, I was Head of Freediving Education for and Stephan Whelan (the owner of DeeperBlue) and I were also founding members of the AIDA Education Commission, writing the first AIDA freediving courses.

The Navy would only allow us in if we could prove what we were doing was safe and regulated, so we adapted the AIDA ** Freediver course in the the AIDA Deep Tank Freediver course and set up structured weekends for qualified and unqualified freedivers. We also implemented a number of safety and rescue standards, including mandating the wearing of wrist straps and D rings for every freediver, and having pony bottle and lift bags at the side of the tank to assist with any rescues if needed.
I am extremely proud of every standard we put in place, and after we started bringing freedivers to the SETT we did not have a single hypoxic incident. We taught for many years and certified hundreds of students, until the SETT was closed to all divers.
Emma and Zania at SETT Dec 2009

Emma teaching Zania Kidd at SETT Dec 2009

Whilst the future of the SETT was being decided, the tank remained functioning even though no divers were allowed back in. The only time I got to go back was when I was working with the British Paralympic swimming team. We took them for a day of freediving. and it was an incredible to once again show people the magic of freediving, and the SETT. Even though I hoped that there would be a future for diving there, I knew that it was going to close and this would be the last opportunity we had to dive there.


I have so many memories of the SETT tank: The voluptuous mermaid painted at the bottom, the first time I pulled down to the plate, the staff, the green dressing gowns, the lift all the way down to the ground floor in order to have a pee, the movement of the building in high winds, and seeing the choppy sea out of the windows.

Emma at the bottom of the SETT, photographed by Fred Buyle


The SETT was the place I was introduced to freediving, fell in love with the sport, and made the decision to change my life and career. It was the place I first taught students, and where I met world champion freediver Fred Buyle, who went on to provide all the photos for my freediving book ‘One Breath, a Reflection on Freediving.’ Little did I know that first weekend, how the next twenty years of my life would unfold, all thanks to the SETT.


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