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Safety Issues for Sport and Technical Diving: Training and Equipment

by Gary Taylor

This incident occurred nearly 13 years ago. I had just returned from the NSS-CDS Workshop and was helping a fellow cave instructor teach. The Memorial Day weekend and the Workshop meant that there were plenty of divers at the springs and sinks of North-Central Florida.

We decided that Sunday night we would get away from the group for a fun dive and determine the degree of difficulty in diving Cow Spring on the upstream side with back-mounted doubles, rather than a sidemount configuration (which was the traditional fashion in which the upstream side as visited at that time). We put our doubles in the fill tank at Hollis’ River Rendezvous and waited for Jim to fill them.

It took a while for the fills due to the all you could eat Barbecue Buffet and Jim was helping to serve guests in the restaurant that evening. During the wait, a diver asked me, “Where are you guys going to dive tonight?”

Instead of my usual vague, “We haven’t made up our mind,” I told the truth and said, “Upstream Cow.”

I immediately got the reply, “So are we!” (so much for avoiding “the crowd”).

My intuition told me, “Something isn’t right!” At first, I dismissed it as me just wanting to have the only silt stirred up at Cow to be that of my dive buddy and myself. (In other words, I wanted it to be very clear! I don’t go in caves to feel my way through, but rather to enjoy the beauty.)

That little voice wouldn’t be dismissed so easily. “Ask more questions!” it said. So I asked this other diver, “Are you sidemounting?” To which he replied, “Yes, these are my cylinders there and my buddy is bringing his.”

One look at the cylinders and my intuition soon chided, “I told you so! What is wrong with this picture?” One cylinder, an aluminum 80, had a rather thin piece of black surgical tubing around its’ middle, barely held on by one tie wrap. No stage straps, D-rings, clips, etc. You could almost hear the voice whisper, “I’m a sidemount wanna-be.”

The other three cylinders, all aluminum 80’s, were completely naked (with the exception of the hexagonal topped cylinder boots). I don’t know about your “inner voice” but mine has a sense of humor — not always appreciated by everyone (not always 100 percent politically correct, either). It was busy in the background saying things like, “I bet these guys will come equipped with ‘cave snorkels!’ You know the boots are probably so they can set their cylinders upright, should they have to drop one during the dive.”

Now that I had them cornered, I asked, “Have you guys ever been in the upstream side of Cow?”

Their reply was, “No, but we’ve poked our heads into the entrance.” The warning alarms were now going off at full blast! As most of you cave divers know, Cow Spring upstream is considered an advanced cave dive. The look on my face must have betrayed the thought processes taking place within, because the two divers quickly disappeared remarking to Jim, “We’ll be back for our cylinders in a little bit.”

Before supper that night, I related the conversation I’d had with the two divers to my dive buddy and fellow cave instructor. I told him I didn’t want to dive Cow upstream if we “had to eat the silt of the dive team of Laurel and Hardy — or, worse yet, had to be part of a recovery team.

During supper, I put on my detective hat to try and find out if anyone knew the background of these two divers. After a short time the facts were quickly in hand: They were found to be only cavern certified. Both had been observed pushing beyond the cavern zone at several sites. They had justified what they were doing to others because, “Cave equipment and training just costs too much.”

I was at this point livid. My dive buddy arrived at the table in his usual “timely” manner and must have sensed what I was thinking. I asked him if he remembered almost twelve years previous, while we were camping at Peacock Springs, watching Mark Leonard twice warn a couple of divers from Oklahoma that they should stay out of the cave zone because they lacked both the equipment and the training for such dives.

He answered in the affirmative. Then I asked, “Do you remember the outcome?” He indeed did remember that in less than an hour and a half, after listening to Mark warn them, he witnessed his first body recovery from a cave. I remarked, “Same scenario — they don’t have the proper equipment nor the proper training to do the dive — not to mention experience.”

My buddy said, “I don’t think they are going to show up. They know you are ‘on to them’. I think they decided instead to go on a night dive at Troy Spring.” My comment was, “I hope so because, should they show up, I would be the last person in their book to be nominated for Mr. Congeniality.”

Fortunately (for us and them) Laurel and Hardy didn’t show up that Sunday night at Cow Spring. We had a great dive. We surfaced, somewhere after midnight from an awesome dive with a half-hour deco, to the sounds of owls hooting in the woods. I hope that by “Divine Providence” this article finds its’ way into the hands of the mis-adventuresome duo while they still have time to “repent” — before the demons of the watery netherworld lay claim to their life through the gate of their own ignorance.

Moral of this story: The price of proper training and proper equipment (training and tools) is quite inexpensive compared to:

* The price of pain and suffering in the event of death or injury to:
o The victim.
o The surviving buddy (if one survives).
o Family.
o Friends.
o Acquaintances.

* The price that could have to be paid by the dive community in:
o Additional government regulation and restrictions.
o Negative publicity and public sentiment.
o Closed or severely restricted access to dive sites.
o Increased course and equipment prices to cover higher liability insurance premiums brought on by deaths and injuries.

Proper Training

Divers need proper training for specialized environments, equipment and gas mixtures.

* This may involve training for a particular environment such as: Cave Diving, River Diving, Ice Diving, Wreck Diving, etc.

* It may involve training for the operation of a specialized piece of diving equipment such as: Full Face Mask, Twin Sets (Doubles), Dive Propulsion Vehicles, Rebreathers, Dry Suits, etc.

* It might involve training for the use of various breathing mixtures (such as Air, Nitrox, Oxygen, Trimix, and Heliox) at a variety of depths and for decompression applications.

Sometimes training may involve a combination of the above types of training.

The training you get is only as good as your instructor. Here are some things to consider when selecting you dive instructor for any particular dive course:

* Level of training.
* Diving background.
* Performance of the instructor for the level of training.
* Ability to convey knowledge and concepts (teach).
* Level of knowledge in the subject being taught.

As in any profession, those with the greater levels of expertise may charge a bit more. Remember that it took time and money to obtain their level of expertise and will doubtless require more to maintain it! One should be very wary of an instructor who has risen through the ranks too quickly. If an instructor brings a high level of expertise, a majority of diver will be willing to pay for it.

Proper Equipment

When it comes to equipment selection, too many students put the cart before the horse. Students will sign up, ask what equipment is needed and with little more than a “shopping list” go out to purchase equipment for Sport or Extended Range/Technical diving equipment.

Hopefully, when they come to class, it will turn out that the equipment they purchased actually is suitable for the type of diving that will be doing. During the lecture section on equipment, all fingers are crossed that the small fortune the students have invested in their new diving equipment will not become a major loss. “You must have the right tool for the job”, a quote my grandfather was fond of, couldn’t be more appropriate when applied to proper selection of dive equipment.

To avoid problems:

* Schedule with your dive instructor, where possible, a time prior to the course to obtain advice as to what is equipment will be needed for the course as well as the criteria that should be used in selecting the equipment.

* Read through the Equipment section(s) of the course manual.

* Check the complete list of required equipment as outlined in the certification agency’s Standards and Procedures for that course.

In addition your instructor should also have listed the appropriate equipment required for the environment(s) in which you will be operating during training (and as it fits your goals afterward). Find out the additional equipment your instructor deems necessary above a beyond that listed above.

* Become educated about a wide variety of equipment choices (brands and models) that would fit the course criteria.

* Find out from your instructor if it is appropriate and workable to wait until they have covered equipment lectures for the course before selecting your diving equipment.

* Your instructor should quiz you as to your future diving goals and needs as they apply to equipment usage. This way you may be directed into dive equipment that has broader latitude of cross-platform usage.

I can’t over emphasize the importance of proper equipment selection. When applied to Extended Range or Technical diving, where the environments are less forgiving of poor choices, inadequacies, undependability, lack of primary redundancy, you must be certain that you have the right tool for the job.

Equipment must be viewed as what it truly is: underwater life-support. The selection process is an essential part of proper training as well a diving safety.

Remember:

* “Dive safety happens not by accident!”

* “Plan your dive. Dive your plan.” — Hal Watts

Gary Taylor is President of the Professional Scuba Association International (PSAI).

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