learn to tech dive

How to Become a Confident Diver: Learn Technical Diving

By Christina “Huck” Sophonpanich

Here’s me. Both happy as a clam and terrified. SPG trailing, inflator nowhere to be found, one overly-deep breath away from shooting to the surface. “Okay!”

reef diver

Figure 1 My first OW dive in the Red Sea (Egypt).

For as long as I’ve been a diver, I’ve loved it. And been afraid of it. This love-fear relationship started when I was a teenager and was plunged under the surface by an instructor in Thailand. My first breaths from the regulator were in a total panic. I couldn’t breathe. Then I breathed too much. It was chaos.

But my instructor firmly held me and signaled to inhale slowly…and exhale slowly. Then he pointed to some fish swimming by and I got distracted enough by the wonder of the underwater world that I calmed down. I spent the rest of the dive clutching him for dear life as he led me around a reef, watching the marine life in amazement. 

This theme of near-paralyzing anxiety paired with total wonder followed me later on in life when I started my Open Water course. I was with my boyfriend by the Red Sea. It was our first vacation together, and he already had his Open Water certification. I wanted to catch up to his certification level so we could dive together. It was harder than I thought. Even pool drills made me feel out of control. I spent a good part of our training on my bum.

dive training pool

Figure 2 Feeling very uncoordinated underwater (Egypt).

I came to see diving as blissful chaos. I battled a sense of claustrophobia each time I kitted up and submerged. Here I was trusting my life to an artificial air supply fed by the single cylinder on my back. Its possible failure was something I had no backup for. I had no confidence in myself.

dive training pool

Figure 3 Skills practice for my Scuba Discovery course (Egypt).

I had even less confidence in the conditions surrounding the diving itself. Each instructor and dive center did things differently. Most of the time, my gear would be set up for me and checking it oftentimes came as an afterthought. What I learned during my Open Water and Advanced Adventure training was how to dive “well enough” so that I could wing it each time, fully dependent upon my instructor in case anything went wrong, and never fully understanding how diving and all its related components really work.

In short, I was this girl:

new diver

Figure 4 Floating away and being held down by my instructor (Corsica).

Needless to say, I never got over my pre-dive trepidation. Not even with meditation or medication. It was all the more exacerbated by a couple of bad experiences and there were several moments where the thought crossed my mind, “I am never doing this again.”

dives hanging on line

Figure 5 Three minutes prior to saying “I am never doing this again”. (Corsica).

But I did do it again. Why? Because deep down (no pun intended) I love diving. When I finally find that calm moment, my buoyancy is right, and I just feel myself floating and watching the marine life swim by. It’s a tranquility and a sense of wonderment that I’ve never felt elsewhere. Looking back over these early dives, there’s at least one picture like this:

reef divers

Figure 6 My boyfriend and I, both proud of my having completed the Open Water Diver course (Corsica).

There had to be a way to get over my anxiety. Was it just about doing it over and over again? 

I looked into more courses and read about technical diving. But I hardly gave it a second glance. The images I saw were of men in “skydiver poses” in cold, murky waters, wearing stern expressions on their faces with rebreathers and drysuits. It just wasn’t “me.”

tech diver

Figure 7 My boyfriend ready for his head-to-toe check before a deco dive (Malta). Boyfriend is not stern in real life.

And then there were decompression divers — I had enough trouble with one cylinder. Why would these divers want to carry even more? The words fun and relaxing don’t spring to mind. Nothing about technical diving seemed to fix what I felt wasn’t right. That is my confidence in myself and in my equipment. The opposite, even — there was even more equipment in which to feel claustrophobic!

good trim

Figure 8 My boyfriend acting as a “tank mule” on one of his deco dives (Malta).

In the end, I decided to get my feet wet by taking the Drysuit Diver course. I felt this at least might help me be less cold. I might not be confident, but at least I’d be comfortable. Good? Bzzzt. Nope. It took me at least a dozen dives to get even remotely comfortable diving in a drysuit. There was a lot of panic mixed into those dozen tries… talk about feeling claustrophobic! Needless to say, my air consumption suffered.

So I continued to dive, and to my diving fears added drysuit failure. Over time, though slowly more experienced, I never really felt confident, and my anxiety caused me to have such a high air consumption that I’d often be the first to signal the end of a dive around the 30-minute mark. 

Yes, I was that diver. I’m sorry, anonymous dive buddies over the years. 

open water divers

Figure 9 Struggling with stress and hyperventilation (Egypt).

Then one day, watching some technical divers do their head-to-toe checklist and bubble check, I suddenly realized that would probably help me feel a lot better about my own equipment. In my own dives, the pre-dive checklist was much more casual. And equipment failure mentioned only in hushed, secret voices.

The more I thought about tech divers’ methods and equipment, the more it chilled me to think of what would happen if one ever were to have a free-flow on a single cylinder dive. Where is our back-up anything? I realized that a lot of my anxiety came not knowing what to do in the event of failure, where failure seemed always possible.

Moreover, even if I mastered the subtle art of trim, how would I ever feel confident, and thus less anxious, knowing that small failures could result in calling the dive at best? Keep in mind that to me at the time, trim at the time was what I saw in other divers.

divers on line

Figure 10 Trying for “good trim”(Egypt).

I was essentially useless as a dive buddy 

Then the last time I went diving while on vacation in Mozambique, I came up with less than 20 bars/300 psi more than once. That should never happen. What if more than one person in my group had a similar air consumption as me, and needed to share air with our divemaster? What if my dive buddy’s equipment had failed and he would have needed to depend upon me?

The more I paid attention to what these pre-dive checklist folks were up to, the more I saw that technical diving had merits I was missing. After my 20 bars/300 psi incident, I resolved to switch to technical diving. Bring on the stern faces and sky-diving poses!

So just what does technical diving mean to me?

I used to think technical diving was all about multiple cylinders and incomprehensible jargon. (Don’t forget sternness.) What I realized instead was that it’s about redundancy for everything, about being in control of yourself and your gear; and above all, about being safe in an unforgiving environment.

It means being at 30 m/100 ft and knowing exactly how much gas it’s going to take you to reach the surface, including your safety stop, plus accounting for your dive buddy’s needs should they run into trouble. Because everything is planned out in advance. It’s about knowing where that pesky SPG actually is instead of needing to root around in BC pockets. And it’s about using those pockets — for your backup gear.

In short, technical diving means consistency in equipment configuration across all divers and dive centers. It means checklists and backup plans. This is exactly the sort of training I needed. Not to mention that with two cylinders, I’d double my bottom time!

divers on line

Figure 11 “I survived one more dive! But I’m never doing it again.” (Corsica).

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6 replies
  1. NATHANIEL WILSON
    NATHANIEL WILSON says:

    I very much agree that being a Competent Recreational diver means learning a bit about how technical divers approach diving.
    1.) Dive computer. Most of us start diving a bit challenged regarding where to spend money. On of my first purchases was a $300 wrist dive computer which is now my backup. Having a better dive computer that collects tank pressure is essential. Proper set up and use allow for the predictive analytic program to “mom nag” you about when it is time to head back to the surface, when to do a deep stop, not to ascend too quickly, etc.
    2.) Primary and Regulator. They are not all equal get one with a good warranty. At the end of each dive connect to a tank and rinse in warm water which operating the controls. Take it in for service after 100 dives even if that is before the recommended service interval.
    3.) BCDs and rigging. Watch some Utubes on the topic and learn what tech divers do to keep it simple. Attach equipment to D rings with bolt snaps. Put on your BCD without the tank and make sure you can reach everything easily. If not adjust the D ring locations, etc.

    Reply
  2. Jeannette Murray
    Jeannette Murray says:

    Hi Christina,
    First, thank you for such an interesting and beautifully written article. I am a writer myself so I so appreciate good, interesting writing imbued with humor. You have described my feelings and reactions so well it’s as if you were in my head. I am a BRAND NEW diver, not even fully certified, past the pool debacle and feeling so much angst and trepidation at the thought of my first open water dive, which will be soon. I have to say that just reading your words and knowing I’m not alone in feeling the way I do has helped me tremendously. I do Yoga and do the breathing naturally, but in the pool I felt myself struggling to breathe, claustrophobic, floundering like some flotsam on the surface or plummeting clumsily to the bottom. It was humbling but also frightening and I have never had a fear of water. I think of myself as a fish with two legs!
    Needless to say, it is both comforting and reassuring to know that even experienced divers such as yourself have struggled with the same fears and insecurities. You are an inspiration to me.
    Thank you!!
    Jeannette Murray

    Reply
    • Christina
      Christina says:

      Dear Jeannette,

      Thank you for your wonderful feedback, that really meant a lot to me that my article resonated with you so well.

      No, you are not alone, and even fish with two legs can learn to float and breathe calmly underwater!

      Good luck with your certification, you’ll get there!

      Best,

      Christina

      Reply
  3. Kate
    Kate says:

    The tech side got me into the most reliable and consistent gear so I knew what I had, where it was and what I had to do with it if things went south. I also enjoy the feel and balance of diving with doubles. Being streamline, having alternative kicking options and just being more calm and confident made the tech courses worth it for me.

    Reply
  4. Mark Manthey
    Mark Manthey says:

    Great article. I would describe diving as a battle within. With skill comes confidence, and with confidence, you can aquire more skill. It’s like building a house. You need a good foundation. Unfortunately, we learn more from our failures than we do from success. I believe the fear of failure keeps people from growing and learning. In my estimate, to become a skilled diver, we have to confront, and conquer, our fears.

    Reply
  5. Hayato Davis
    Hayato Davis says:

    Hello Christina, your blog is really very helpful and informative. Thank you for sharing all tips and instructions during scuba diving course. Keep sharing!

    Reply

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