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Steve Gerrard

Notes from the Underground: An Hour with Steve Gerrard

­­­Prologue: My journey into what we now call “technical diving” began with an introduction to some of the veteran members of diving’s “underground.” I was fascinated by their exploits and stories and decided right then and there I wanted to become a cave diver. In my mind, cave divers were the vanguard of a new class of sport diving that was emerging and that’s exactly what I wanted to write about ­­­in my then soon-to-be launched magazine, “aquaCORPS Journal.”

My interview with Steve Gerrard, past president of the National Association for Cave Diving (NACD), editor of the NACD journal, and one of their most active cave instructors, was the first in what would become a series of in-depth interviews with the explorers, engineers and entrepreneurs that would eventually define and facilitate the emergence of technical diving in the braoder sport or recreational diving community. I went on later that year in 1990 to complete my full-cave course with Gerrard. Within a few years Gerrard moved his operation to the Yucatan i.e. “new frontier,” and I made numerous trips to Akamal to dive with him, cumulating in my participation in the Ejido Jacinto Pat Expedition in 1996, the year that I was forced to close the doors aquaCORPS. I reported on the expedition for Asian’s Diver’s Tec.Asia. Here is the original interview as it appeared in aquaCORPS Journal #1: “UnderPressure,” January, 1990.

My first exposure to cave diving came in a telephone interview with National Association for Cave Diving (NACD) technological chairman Bill Gavin, while researching material for this issue.  Working through a list of carefully worded questions with growing fascination, I finally popped the question, “Do you do a lot of decompression diving?”  Gavin’s answer was a little more than I was prepared for.  “Nah, we don’t do much decompression diving any more. At least not on standard air. Since that time, I’ve discovered there’s almost nothing standard about cave diving.

Unique in their focus and commitment, the cave community represents the underground of diving.  Made up of just plain folks (if there is such a thing in this industry), high school teachers, engineers, anesthesiologists, pilots, paramedics and philosophers—cave divers have given new meaning to the phrase “pushing the envelope.”  From record penetrations 780 feet down—a dive requiring 10 1/2 hours of decompression—to an intercave traverse 8750 feet long at an average depth of 240 feet, cave divers are redefining the limits of diving. Regarded as crazies by some, revered by others, most critics would agree that the cave diving community sports some of the most technically sophisticated divers in the world.

In the overhead environment of cave systems, a diver can’t surface directly, regardless of the nitrogen uptake. Decompression is one or more stops, and every dive’s a night dive.  Line entanglement, zero visibility silt outs, and equipment failures are challenges that must be solved at depth, and for good reason: safety is a matter of life and death.  Every accident—a subject for meticulous scrutiny by the prudent—can be fatal, a fact reflected in the cave divers’ handbook, “Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival.”

Environmentally conditioned, cave divers have developed a technical experience base that’s a model for the industry, paid for, as one of its members said, “in blood and tears.”

To the serious cave diver, redundancy is an exacting science.  The standard issue includes three lights, an auxiliary reel, dual manifold, back-up regulators, SPGs and masks.  Air rules and standard operating procedures are a matter of religious zeal.  Dive computers—often 16MHz laptops and minis running specialized mix decompression programs before a dive, supplement “on board” DCs which are carried in pairs.  Mixing your own is a matter of course, and tinkers and garage workshop technicians are the rule not the exception.

Founded in 1968, the National Association for Cave Diving and its sister organization, the National Speleological Society Cave Diving Section (NSSCDS), has guided the community through the issues of standards, education, training and safety. In its 21 years, the non-profit organization has impacted a lot of lives, including that of its past president, Steve Gerrard.  A certified cave diver since 1975, Gerrard is an active cave diving instructor, course director, and editor of the NACD journal.

At 36, Gerrard personifies the spirit of cave diving, incorporating its principals into his daily life.  As anyone who has ever tried can attest, reaching Gerrard by phone is a study in redundant systems.  A first call gets you a friendly answering machine greeting which invites the caller to leave a message, or call a second number.  At the second number, again machine-answered, several more alternatives are offered, including a third number to try but only after 11 P.M.  At the third back-up phone system, leaving a message with the ubiquitous machine will get you a return call from Gerrard. as soon as he’s available.  Cave diving is a time consuming commitment.

In addition to a full-time teaching schedule, running NACD, editing its journal, and guiding the uninitiated through the cenotes and nacienmentos of Mexico, Gerrard still finds time to sneak in a cave dive of his own on a regular basis for “mental conditioning.” During our interview, he responded to an off-the-cuff question of a more delicate character regarding the manner in which cave divers handle the call of nature during those long decompression stops.  “You have to understand, “ Gerrard said, “cave divers are a special breed.”  Judging from Gerrard and his colleagues, I have to agree.

What attracted you to cave diving?  Is there an experience that stands out?

I took a scuba course when I was 19 at St. Petersburg Junior College, and I met two people who were into cave diving.  At 19, of course, maybe I haven’t changed, but looking back, I can definitely say that at a young macho age, cave diving intrigued me because of the mystique around it.  That was in 1973. Then I transferred up to Florida State University and met a cave diving instructor who was teaching an NACD course.  After the course, I just fell in love with it and have been ever since.

When did you decide to make it a full-time job?

About six years ago. I don’t know why I’ve been successful, but I must be doing something right.  Of course, I don’t have a lot of competition.  Cave divers are a very small percentage of the dive population, and there are only a very small teaching it.

NACD has roughly what, five hundred members?

Yes, and the other major organization, the cave diving section of the National Speleological Society has about 500 or 600 members.  And there’s an overlap. A lot of divers are members of both.  It’s a very small percentage of all recreational divers.  It will always be that way.  Most divers don’t really have an interest in cave diving. Most people regard us as a bunch of crazy nuts.  That’s what it boils down to.  Cave divers are a different breed.

Why is that?

The unique thing about cave diving is the commitment.  It’s a commitment because of the expense, the equipment involved, the effort you have to put into it, the preparation, thought, planning, the execution; and it’s a commitment because of the time involved.  If you’re going to spend the time required, you have to really love it.

How difficult was it in the early days of NACD?  Was it a struggle developing standards?

Politically yes.  It’s been a struggle particularly in creating standards and guidelines. The difficulty is that we have a variety of personalities, viewpoints and opinions.  Some people are satisfied with one set of standards, and then other people feel they must be stronger, or have more quality control, which is fine.  That’s honorable.

A balance between individual freedom and the need for a consistent group standard?

That’s been the struggle.  One person could say, “We’ll do it this way,” which is pretty simple and to the point.  Then another person will demand that we have a much stronger standard.  From one viewpoint, that’s great, it’s better.  But when you deal with the general population, it discourages them from doing it at all.  They’ll just  say, “screw that.”  They won’t even bother with the standards; they just go ahead and do whatever they want anyway.  That’s just human nature and you can’t control that.

As an industry, I think, there needs to be a lot more cooperation for diving to progress in a positive direction.

The recreational dive training agencies stress safety and education, but to some degree their approach has been to set limits: “Thou shalt not dive below 130 feet, “ and so on.  That’s one way of dealing with safety.  The cave diving community has taken a different approach.  How’s has it worked?

There has to be a distinction made when you talk about recreational scuba diving.  Though cave diving is  recreational in some sense, it’s more advanced.  It’s a much more advanced form of scuba diving as far as knowledge and the techniques.  There are limits, but for the most part they’re defined by a  diver’s experience and equipment as opposed to an industry mandate.

We don’t preach not to dive below 130 feet, or say that you’re not smart enough to dive below that depth on compressed air.   It’s gray area where, yeah, a lot of people will take that risk a go a little bit deeper and do it. I’m not going to say do it “safely”, but obviously they do it successfully because they’re still around.

I recently got a copy of “Basic Cave Diving” by Sheck Exley.  He uses accident analysis to derive the basic principles of cave diving.  Would you talk a little about those principles?

We have five golden rules in cave diving. Five recommendations to follow.

  1.  Number One: Training.  Statistically if you’re religious about training, you’ll most likely learn to be a safe, competent cave diver.
  2.  Number Two: always dive with a continuous guideline.  The guideline is our primary navigational tool.  It lets you know where you are as far as being certain of how to exit the cave system.  It keeps you from getting confused.
  3.  Number Three: always allow two-thirds of your air supply to exit the caves.  Breaking the rule  down, use one third of your air supply in, one-third out, and reserve one-third as a safety for any delay or problem.
  4.  Number Four:  Avoid deep depths.  We’ve had 15 certified cave divers drown in the history of cave diving.  Of those 15 fatalities, ten of were depth-related.  Statistically, depth has always been the biggest killer of trained cave divers.
  5.  Number Five is always use a  minimum of three lights.  We’re very redundancy-oriented.  We always have back-ups: back-up lights, back-up regulators, and now even back-up computers.

Those are the golden rules.

Although the NACD doesn’t promote decompression diving, it incorporates it into its training programs.  What’s your experience been on that?

I’ll put it this way, cave divers have a great record–not a perfect one, unfortunately–but a very good record as far as not getting killed in caves.  If divers are trained and comfortable in caves, they don’t get killed.  But it’s generally accepted that cave divers have a lousy record as far as getting the bends.

It’s never been proven, because no one will admit it.  No one is going to volunteer, “Oh yeah, I got bent on this dive.”  Some people are going to take exception with my saying that cave divers have a lousy record on this, but if they were honest, they’d admit that it’s true.  It’s true because of the nature of the dives. Cave dives typically involve more bottom time and higher volumes of compressed air. And in most cases they require decompression stops.

Most cave divers do their best to minimize the risk.  I firmly believe that.  But with the variety of computers and tables that are now on the market, you have to develop a personal  philosophy on what you’re going to choose to follow as a guideline.  Scuba diving is still in its infancy as far as I’m concerned. There’s still a lot that we don’t know.

TECHNOLOGY

Cave divers have developed some very specific  operating procedures and equipment.  How have these contributed to scuba diving as a whole?

Cave diving is responsible for several tools for recreational diving. They were the ones that invented the alternate air source, or “octopus.” Why buddy breathe off a single regulator when you can have two regulators that draw from a single air source. The power inflator was also invented by a cave diver, a guy named Mike McCaskill who lives in Spring Hill, Florida. He’s the principal of Bronson High School. It wasn’t anything genius. He said, “Heck, we can take a hose and inflate our buoyancy device with the air supply in our tank, instead of orally inflating it.”  The recreational community thought it was a great idea, and it caught on. Cave divers are also responsible for smaller knives. We’ve been preaching them for years. Strapping those  big macho Bowie knives to your thigh is, for the most part,  a thing of the past.

All you basically need is a small knife to cut things.

What has the dive computer done for cave diving?

I don’t think it’s really done anything productive, except give people a little more insight and guidance.  I will say this though, a lot of people who use the computer and let it guide them end up getting bent.

Why is that?

All of the computers on the market–and this is my opinion–are geared toward making it simpler and easier to dive within safe limits, with no decompression.  I mean, why pick up tables or think it out when you  have a computer to do it for you? The trouble is they are geared toward no decompression diving.

Cave divers, on the other hand, are usually pushing it to the extreme because of the nature of the dives. And when they push it to the edge, it increases the odds of getting some type of symptoms.  I’ve seen it.  It hasn’t been documented, but I’ve seen it.

I’m not saying computers are not safe; they’re tools, but people still have to know their limitations.

In many ways, technology is enabling people to do more decompression diving. If you look at what’s happening, there’s a lot more decompression diving going on. 

I agree 100 percent with that. I’ll give you an example.  Last Labor Day weekend we sponsored a day-long decompression seminar.  We limited it to 60 people.  From the pessimistic viewpoint, I was skeptical about getting 30 people signed up.  It sold out two weeks before it happened.  That really helped me revamp my whole thinking about the interest in decompression.  In fact, it inspired me that so many people were interested in becoming more knowledgeable.

What are some of the other hot issues right now in diving?

Definitely dive tables.  For many years, the dive community followed the US Navy dive tables.  I’m not saying these were the best tool, but for a long time, they were the only tool available.  Now every agency has their own version of the Navy tables with different color codes, or different ways to present it.  I feel sorry for the dive-boat operators; they have to follow some type of standard because of liability. The other issue of course, is what is a “safe” limit for scuba diving.

Those limits may be very different in five years with new technologies liked mixed gas and rebreathers  coming on to the market.

Another thing I find interesting is the variety of people that are now coming  into the sport.  I can give a cavern course and I’ll have a gifted teenage athlete, and next to him a 65-year-old woman. What’s happening is that diving is becoming more popular because everything’s gotten easier; the power inflator, the buoyancy device, the jackets.  Back in the fifties and sixties, a diver was usually male and more than likely,  a macho type guy in good shape who could muscle his way through. Now, I’ve taught people skinny as a bone, up to as big as you want to get.  I look at some people and think they’ll never make and they do great. Others look like they’re going to be a great diver, and they’re lousy.  Physique is important, but diving is predominantly a mental sport.

A lot of people regard cave divers as the crazies of the diving community. Some might argue that the reputation is deserved. What is the cave diving community doing to change that perception?

One thing the community id doing is to use science as a tool to gain credibility.  I’ll give you an example. Here in Florida, we have tremendous population growth, and the state has a problem with water quality, a problem that’s going to get more acute.  South Florida typically has to  ration water each year, and a lot of  it from North Florida.  Cave divers are helping scientists learn more about the State’s aquifer systems. It’s a very valuable tool for science to improve water quality and understand more about geology and archaeology.

Last question: cave diver of the future.  Right now, we have the Sheck Exleys of the world doing record dives, mixed gas technology is coming into the consumer market. What will cave divers be doing in ten years?

That’s a pearl of a question.  In the seventies, cave divers were explorer types seeking adventure.  Now, the sport has evolved into two distinct groups: tour cave divers and explorer cave divers.  The majority of what I call tour cave divers are diving in already-explored cave systems which does not require the same degree  of skill as exploration. The true explorers, of course, represent a very small percentage of the community.

Florida has been recognized in the Western Hemisphere for the last 15 years as the headquarters for cave diving.  Now, because of the expansion of interest, the growth, cave diving is moving at a dramatic pace into new frontiers: Mexico, the Yucatan, the Bahamas.  For the explorer cave diver to find more territory will require more of an expedition undertaking.  And it will involve extreme conditions and moving into new dimensions.  The Cold Springs Project was a perfect example.  They went to depths of 300 feet using trimix or mixed gas, and diver propulsion vehicles.  That’s the future – all of which is of course very expensive.  A small minority will have access to that.  You’ll need sponsors, you’ll need a crew, and you’ll need lots of money. That’s where explorer cave divers are going: sponsors, fundraising, extreme conditions and expeditions to remote areas.

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