Are the Tools in Your Toolbox “Rusty”?

By: Mark Phillips

A while ago, my son and I were trying to organize some fishing poles that were stacked up in a corner of my Aunt’s beach house. We had the idea that we could expand the space by nailing a flat board perpendicular to the 2x4s of the garage wall. The butts of the poles would sit on the flat board and we could better organize all of the rods and reels accumulated over the years. It seemed like a great idea at the time. 

We didn’t actually have a lot of materials; we had a board that needed to be cut, some nails, seven screws we found in a zip lock bag and a small hammer. We also had the contents of three tackle boxes, some nylon string and cold beer. For the record, beer was not a factor. It was there and there was no reason to ignore it.

I mentioned that the board needed to be cut…

In one of the tackle boxes, we had a good kitchen paring knife. Neither of us knew where it came from, but we knew it had been there for a while and no one ever mentioned they were missing a paring knife. 

So, we held the board up against the 2x4s and scratched a line with the knife where it needed to be cut. We laid the marked board on the floor. Then placed the cutting edge of the paring knife on the line and struck the dull side repeatedly until we drove the paring knife blade through the piece of wood. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked, just like on those survival shows on TV.

Next, we straightened a couple of the nails and nailed the board in place. We moved the rods to the board and then watch said rods fall to the floor. The angle at which they sat was not allowing them to stand straight so they simply fell off.

Well that didn’t go as planned

We needed to add something to stabilize the butts of the rods so they would not fall.


We made a horizontal holder to keep the rod butts from falling off by placing a screw on either end of the board with a piece of nylon string. Of course, to cut the string we had to saw it with the now dull paring knife. 

Now the rods fall behind the board instead of in front.


A beer break allowed us a time to rethink the project. We decided we just didn’t have the materials or tools to do what we wanted. We finally tapped out and we concluded that if we balanced the rods very carefully, they would stay on the board until someone takes one down. When that happened all the others would fall.

A few months later… 

Flash forward a few months. My wife and I take our grandson to the beach for a weekend. We need a storage room in that same garage. We have house stuff, kid toys, a boat, and fishing stuff and it all needs to live in the garage.  Someone is building a new house next door and they have a large construction dumpster and it contains a lot of scrap lumber.

My grandson and I decide we will salvage some lumber from said dumpster and see if we can build some actual shelves in the garage. We manage to get a number of cut-offs in a variety of sizes as well as some really odd angle pieces of plywood. 

Perfect. Go get the paring knife and hammer…. NOT.

Bring in the tools, let’s get to work 

The next weekend my wife and I returned to the beach house and this time I brought tools from home; actual, real tools. I had a skill saw, a carpenter’s hammer, an electric drill with screwdriver bits. An assortment of boxes of nails and screws, a tape measure, square and other assorted hand tools I thought might come in handy. This included an old hand saw I have had in my garage for over 20 years. I do not remember where it came from, but I know I have no memory of ever using it.

I dismantled the dysfunctional rod holder and took it down and set out to build something that would work, be functional and look decent as well. The more I did, the more I got inspired to do. By the end of the weekend, I had built custom shelves for almost everything, redesigned a workbench and had an awesome storage spot for our fishing poles. I even built a storage area for the leftover lumber; just in case we wanted to tackle another project. 

I wish I could say it all went smoothly. 

Near the end of the last day, when I was the most tired, hot and sweaty and ready to be done, I was cutting a 2×4 with the skill saw. Somehow the power cord of the skill saw curled up and was caught by the saw blade. With the cord cut into separate pieces, the saw would not work. I was almost finished! I needed to cut three more pieces of wood. Just three more. No – I did not even consider the knife and hammer method. I had that old hand saw I had brought from home. I was saved!

The hand saw to the rescue 

At least I thought so until I tried to cut with it. I learned how to use a hand saw when I was very young and excelled with them in Junior High School Wood Shop. There was a difference though. In wood shop, the saws were clean and sharp and well cared for. 

Mine had been stored behind a cabinet in a storeroom, was bent and was covered in rust. But I just needed to make three cuts. 

Each time I tried to use it, the hand saw blade hung or jumped out of the cut where the blade was bent. When it did actually cut, it was very difficult to use because of all the rust. I had a tool I knew how to use but had not touched in 20 years or more. I had no doubt I was using it correctly, but it had not been cared for properly. I had a tool that should have done the job but because of my neglect, I could not make it function properly. After failing to make a single complete cut, sweating like I was in a sauna and frustrated I gave up. Done…

But, I just needed to make three cuts. 

I went back to the skill saw hoping I might be able to splice the wires together. I cut the wires on the skill saw, stripped the insulation off and twisted the bare wires back together. Now I needed something to keep the wires from touching and shorting out. 

An hour and a half later, I still had not found ANY kind of tape that I could wrap on the stupid wires. There are two hardware stores within a five-minute drive where I could have bought tape…. But I am a man… In desperation, I separated the wires so that they stayed apart and plugged the cord back in. The saw worked!

I managed to get two of the three 2x4s cut. I marked out the piece of plywood and discovered I was going to need at least two more pieces of 2×4. No problem now that the saw is working again! I measured and marked them out to be cut. When I started the next cut there was a bright flash, a mini-explosion and the only light in the garage was coming from the flame where the electrical short caught the 2×4 on fire.    


I hear a voice from upstairs, “The TV receiver is not working, is the red light on at the box down there?” 

I don’t want to have to admit to killing the power much less how it happened or why. But I still need to make a couple of more cuts. So, I ask my wife if she will go to the store and get me some electrical tape while I investigate what is going on with the TV receiver. As soon as she was out of sight, I unplugged the smoldering bit of cord and flipped the breaker back on.

She is back in twelve minutes. I have the wires properly spliced and taped and the saw working in another ten. I finish the project in twenty minutes.

Stay with me here 

I know some of you are wondering what this has to do with anything related to Public Safety Diving. 

We often use the phrase “Another tool for the toolbox” when we teach. When we discover something new that we can use, we add that “tool” to our mental and sometimes physical toolbox.

But how often do we actually LOOK inside that same toolbox? 

How many of your tools are rusty and bent? 

How many of your tools did you learn to use years ago and then were put away and neglected or even forgotten? (H3)

I have had the opportunity over the last few years to participate in a number of scuba classes where I acted as a student more so than as a visiting instructor. For me, it was, and is always, a challenge to be quiet and be a student. But each class I have been able to participate in has provided me with an enlightened experience. 

As a student, I am there to learn that instructor’s skills and techniques. I am not there to teach; I am there to learn. As a consequence, I am often reminded of the skills and techniques that I have not used in years. In some instances, during those classes, I had to perform those skills and it was not pretty. 

You would think that I would be really good with those skills, especially if I wrote the training program and book used for the class….  It was embarrassing to suck at some of the things I had to do. But it was a reminder that we all get comfortable with what we think we know and what we assume we can still do.

A basic challenge

For years now, I have challenged teams and individual divers to work on improving basic scuba skills. Some of the teams who took up the challenge were surprised at how much they thought they could do compared to what they could actually do. Have you and your fellow divers mastered – truly mastered – basic scuba skills? Those skills are the foundation of the tools in your toolbox.

What about the rest of your tools? When was the last time you actually needed to use a rope throw bag? When you first got them, you practiced until you could hit your target, a drowning victim saved every time. Right?

Try it now. You are going to miss. It is going to look bad. If you are on an actual call, someone might die.  A simple rope throw bag can make a life or death difference to someone in trouble. You know that. It is why you have rope throw bags. You practiced with them so that you could use them to make a difference. Then they and their associated skills got put in the toolbox and left.

Your most used tools 

How likely is it that the only tools you use from your toolbox are only the ones on top – the same tools over and over? They are easy to get, usually familiar to the hand and relatively clean from consistent use. Sure, you can work with them but if you are honest with yourself, is it possible that when you are unable to do what is needed you blame the tools? 

How many search patterns are you proficient with? Are the rest of your team members as knowledgeable or as proficient?? 

Perhaps you only use a sweep pattern because you have decided it is able to do everything you need. Or perhaps you only use the sweep pattern because it is the easiest to run? What happens when the bottom topography isn’t sweep pattern friendly? Can you run a jackstay pattern? How about a walking line pattern or a deep-water boat-based circle pattern? 

Dig deep into your “toolbox” of skills, techniques and actual tools. Can you use every one of them efficiently? Better yet, can you teach the new guys what those tools are AND how to use them correctly? 

It is not always fun to practice harder techniques or difficult skills. It can be embarrassing for some to appear rusty in front of their peers. But these are TEAM skills and tools. They are in your toolbox and your TEAM toolbox because they are useful and important. If you have the knowledge but have lost the muscle memory, get out and knock the rust off. Clean up your tools and refresh your toolbox. Use the opportunity to teach and share with your younger team members who are just starting to fill their own toolbox.

Will you accept the challenge?

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