Bret Gilliam

When I first met Bret, I disliked him intensely. My friend Rob Palmer, a self-effacing Englishman, had invited me over to the Bahamas for the launch of the Draeger semi-closed circuit rebreather and I found myself in the company of a group of loud-mouthed American technical diving pioneers, each competing with the other to hold the floor and Bret’s booming voice dominating all of them. Bret could be a bit of a bully and I noticed he would pick away at any perceived weakness of character or physique.

It was at the TDI (Middle East) conference later, when Rob Palmer, my room-mate, went missing, last seen at 400 feet and still descending, that Bret and I bonded in the grief and lack of understanding as to why it had happened.

When we boarded the charter flight back to the U.K., Bret drily observed that he usually travelled in Business Class. I opined that I’d be happy if I didn’t have to sit next to a fat bastard. It was at that point Bret realised he’d met a soul mate.

Before I visited him in his homes in Maine for the first time, he sent me over eighty photographs of his properties. I retorted I was coming to see him, and didn’t really need the realty sales pitch. To his dismay, I turned up with my wife and two young children. He discovered to his delight that none of my family would take shit either and they became more soul mates too. My view is that if you can give it, you’ve gotta be able to take it too. Bret had a similar philosophy.

Meeting him by chance, diving in PNG, for example, bystanders were amazed at the way we insulted each other by way of greeting. But Bret was a stalwart and loyal friend who was quick to insert himself into any confrontation that his friends might find themselves with others. His technical witness work in litigation cases and extensive knowledge of diving meant that opposing lawyers competed to get him into their camp. As one judge was heard to say, “I know Mr Gilliam. He’s never started a fight but I’ve seen him win a few.”

Bret was generous to a fault. He once invited me to join him on a musical pub crawl in Ireland. We found ourselves on a tour bus with a number of ready victims from America. We laughed all the way. More recently he invited me to do the same and join him and friends on a trip to the Grand Tetons. Alas, I was not able to make it. As always, all expenses were covered. He used to regularly invite a great gathering of notables (and me) to dinner while at the DEMA show, all paid and taken care of by him.

Because I was tall, thin and English, and in those earlier days wore my hair in a pony tail, he likened me to Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac. He even had a framed photo on his wall of the drummer and some people questioned why he displayed a photo of me. I always signed my emails to him, ‘Mick’.

If you stayed in his home, you were careful not to over-do the cookies and made sure to replace the drip cup under the coffee machine.

John Bantin

Rating: 5.0/5. From 5 votes.
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1 thought on “Bret Gilliam”

  1. I was lucky enough to have enjoyed the early exploration (prior to GPS and modern technology) of Belize and Honduras aboard the Ocean Spirit in the late 1980s. Brett had converted a small cruise ship into a diver’s dream: 12 dive boats in the hull with easy access via this “marine deck.” One hook up simultaneously filled all the tanks with air to expedite refills. There was a hyperbaric chamber on board (with trained attendants) and local fisherman (some had spent time in the chamber at no cost, with the bends from excessive free diving for lobster to earn their livelihood) were hired to navigate the dive boats thru the reefs, shallows and local spots that are now renowned (Mary’s Place, Glover’s Reef, the Elbow @ Turneffe, the red footed booby bird sanctuary at Half Moon Caye, etc). On board we were encouraged to rent the brand new (first generation) Dacor Micro Brain dive computers since we did 4 multi level dives each day. Mine still works (with a battery replacement) with its P-3 tables. I keep it as a back up/souvenir as the screen is so small it is hard to see with my 60+ year old eyes. With trips originating from New Orleans and later from the port of St. Petersburg, FL for the one week trips (to central America and Cozumel), both times I was on board the ship had the maximum number of divers but was never crowded. Unfortunately, the additional capacity for non divers was never filled enough to make the Ocean Spirit economically viable for the long term due to the undeveloped land based tourism infrastructure at that time. There was virtually nothing to do on land for the non divers. I dove with Brett a number of times and although he was somewhat of a “cowboy” diver he always encourage us to stay safely within the computer’s non deco limits)and became personally acquainted (mostly over adult beverages after diving was completed). He truly was a SCUBA pioneer and will be missed.

    Rating: 5.0/5. From 1 vote.
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