Monday, July 23, 2007

Skills and Training/Calling a Dive

Only YOU truly know your skill and comfort levels.

As most of us know, diving is not an inherently a dangerous sport. It is not without dangers or risks, but proper training, properly maintained equipment, and updated skills all play a part in minimizing these risks. No sport that I'm aware of is completely without risk. Even if you're just playing billiards, a ball can get launched off the table and whack you on the foot... or worse, whack some big burly dude on the foot who proceeds to whack you with a pool cue in return.

In football, players wear an assortment of pads and a helmet. In baseball, the catcher wears pads, a metal cage around his face, and has an oversized glove to fend off the ball while the batter wears a helmet. In hockey, the players also wear helmets, face masks, pads, and gloves. But in all cases, the players spend a great deal of time practicing and honing their skills. You won't see players taking a month off to relax before playing the Stanley Cup Finals, the Super Bowl, or the World Series.

While it's not likely I'll ever sell tickets to anyone wanting to see me backroll off a dive boat into the Atlantic with a speargun in my hand, there's a good deal of preparation and ongoing study that goes into each dive I do. From the meticulous way that I always pack my gear bag to setting my computer and my pre-dive safety checks, I'm always checking and double-checking before it's dive time. Most of the time, nobody even notices what I'm doing because it's just second nature for me, but you can bet every piece of my gear has been inspected before I splash.

In fact, most divers have no idea that I have watched how comfortably they've gotten their stuff together or that I've actually spun their tank valve to make sure it was on while they were sitting on the gunwale. The casual way I rattle off the pre-dive makes it sound like I'm talking to the fish, but you'd be surprised how often it reminds someone that they need to put in their weight pockets or set their computer to Nitrox. If they don't catch the hint on their own, I'll be a bit more direct like, 'Are you diving without your fins today?'.

Unfortunately in scuba diving, it's not uncommon for a certified diver to dust off his/her gear after a year of non-use, load up the boat, and jump in the water without having reviewed anything other than the Weather Channel to check on the day's conditions. It's not uncommon, but it should be.

While the diving industry essentially polices itself with regard to certifications, there is no law enforcement agency responsible for making certain everyone who giant strides or backrolls off a boat into the ocean is certified or even knows what they're doing. On commercial dive trips, dive shops and dive boat operators ask divers about their experience and certification levels, ask for dive logs to verify the date of the diver's last dive and experience level, and of course, having skilled personnel on the boat to conduct safety reviews and dive plans.

On private boats and beach dives, it's up to the individual divers themselves to ascertain whether or not they're properly prepared for the dives they're about to do. Perhaps the most difficult task is taking one's ego out of the equation and making an honest assessment of skills, equipment, and comfort levels. I've been on dive trips with divers who talked a great game, but were completely inept in the water. As a trained Divemaster, I can recognize some of the problem signs and can intervene where possible, but we can't be everywhere all the time.

For example, I was once on a charter as a paying diver. One of the other customers had apparently faked his dive log to get on the deep-water dive. He was on vacation from West Virginia and talked a lot on the way out about all the places he had been diving. However, once we were under water, I could tell something wasn't quite right by the way he was handling himself. His buoyancy was off and his fin kicks were awkward. I kept an eye on him and decided to intervene. We had initially descended to 100 feet and were coming back up across the reef to 60 feet on a guided tour. I swam up to him and gave him the signal for a gauge-check. He shrugged his shoulders and pushed the gauge console toward my face. At 60 feet with no apparent intention of ascending, he was already down to 300psi. Bad form - time to go.

I signaled to the rest of the group that this diver and I would ascend together. I grabbed onto his BCD and started our ascent. I put my alternate air source in my mouth and handed him my regulator (I don't use an octopus). As he put it in his mouth, he reached across to check my gauge. I still had 2,000 psi, so he signaled for us to rejoin the group and continue the dive. Needless to say, we did not. When we got to the downline, I stopped to do our 3-minute safety stop at 15 feet. I checked my air and we were already down to 750psi. Then, without warning, he looked me in the eye, smiled, waved, dropped the regulator, and free ascended to the surface. Brilliant!

Back on the surface, I informed the captain and the divemaster of the multi-faceted fiasco. Within a few moments, he chuckled that this was indeed his deepest dive ever, that he hadn't been in the water in over a year, and that perhaps he 'fudged' his dive log just a little. They politely advised him that he would not be making the second dive, nor would he be invited back on the boat. I have no doubt in my mind that had I not intervened when I did, he would have breathed his tank dry and then free-ascended to the surface; probably getting bent or suffering an air embolism in the process.

In short, never be afraid to call a dive because you're uncomfortable. I say this on most of our dive trips and really do mean it. I don't care what you're uncomfortable about - the depth, the profile, the plan, the current, the waves, the visibility, the way your gear just doesn't seem right, the cheesy shark flick you watched the night before, or even the way that seagull appears to be sizing you up. If you're uncomfortable - call it!

I know that people can sometimes peer pressure their friends into trying some new things, and divers are no exception. But it's up to each of us to know when to bow out gracefully. Simply put, if you are uncomfortable with the conditions, the dive profile, or just uncomfortable in general, don't make the dive. There's no shame in admitting that maybe you're not as confident with your skills as you would like to be or that perhaps you would rather do a few shallow dives to polish your skills before making a more advanced dive.

Of course, if you're not properly trained for a particular dive then you shouldn't be doing the dive in the first place. Take the time and make the effort to not only get the proper training upfront, but also to maintain your skills along the way. If it's been a year since you've been in the water, at the very least, you really should be diving with a professional, and preferably, you should be taking a refresher course before you get on the dive boat.

Refresher courses are inexpensive and could actually save your life. Even if it's just review, if you pick up one thing or it helps you remember that the first thing you do when you're in trouble is drop your weight belt, then it was well worth the time and expense.

Spare-time divers often forget the basics and skilled divers sometimes push the envelope a bit. But all of us can use some extra time dedicated to brushing up on our skills, properly maintaining our equipment, and always diving safely.

Remember that the life you save could be your own.

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