Diving is risky. How risky depends on a whole laundry list of factors, but let’s agree that there are more risks involved with diving than, say, sitting in your basement watching curling on TV. Now using the same logic, we can probably press home the point that Solo Diving carries an additional level of risk over and above the “run of the mill” stuff associated with regular diving. There are a few subtle points of contention in that last statement that we will get to in a few paragraphs: let’s simply agree that solo diving carries a few risks that are unique to… well… diving solo. Fact is that there are a whole lot of people who will give anyone admitting that they dive alone or who are even thinking about diving alone the sage advice that they are crazy. “You are risking certain death, because solo diving is nuts,” is the usual line.
A while ago, a brand-new training agency – called Scuba Diving International (SDI) – took the old-school recreational diving market by the scruff of its neck and gave it a good shake. They did so by launching a unique specialty course called Solo Diver, a program that taught recreational sport divers what tools and techniques would help them stay safe when diving on their own. This was something no other agency had dared do before.
The logic behind the launch was that as risky as solo diving might be, divers were doing it anyway – many unaware they were effectively diving alone. At least with a structured and sanctioned training program in place, people could at approach solo diving with the right mindset and equipment to do it with the proper controls in place.
When the folks at a training agency come up with a brand new idea like: “Hey, let’s teach people to dive solo,” taking that concept from a doodle on the back of a paper napkin to a full-blown program with instructor guides, student materials, and standards underwritten by a reputable insurance company, involves a great number of steps that follow a well-defined pathway.
The first step is to define what it is you intend to teach. For the top brass at SDI, solo diving was defined as self-sufficient diving. It might be someone diving alone in the water with nobody else around. But it could also be defined as someone diving with a buddy who is way less experienced and upon whom they would rather not rely in the case of an emergency. It might also be someone who dives with other folks in the water, but who is doing “their own thing,” which is a diplomatic way to describe the buddy skills of most underwater photographers! It may also describe a travelling diver who finds himself on a dive boat coupled with an “Insta-buddy” whose experience, abilities and dive habits are a total mystery. And it fully describes every instructor who takes students into the water in a class setting. In an emergency, that instructor MUST be capable of “self-rescue,” because it would be unfair and perhaps unrealistic to rely on a student to help.
Having defined what solo diving is, the next steps are to understand and define just how risky each of those situations is, and if those risks are manageable. In essence, with its solo diver program, this involved SDI’s training advisory panel is looking really closely at that blanket statement that “You are risking certain death, because solo diving is nuts…” to see if it is indeed true or simply blinkered thinking.
In the world of diving, risk management always begins with a risk identification stage: what risks does the activity – in this case solo diving – carry with it and what are the potential outcomes of these risks? The next stage is to assess each of the identified risks on a scale that stretches from Very Likely to Extremely Unlikely. And the third stage is to come up with a tactical plan that avoids or mitigates ALL the very likely and likely risks, as well as dealing comfortably with the risks that have only a small chance of happening.
Perhaps the most commonly cited “additional” risk associated with solo diving is running out of something to breathe. To the classically trained old-school open-water dive instructor – and graduates from his courses – flipping your buddy the OOA sign and breathing from one of his regulators is the tried and true solution in this scenario. Obviously if you are diving without a buddy, there is nobody with whom to share gas. Clearly, that presents a challenge.
To someone with a background in technical diving, and the folks who started SDI certainly had that since they were all experienced technical diving instructors, the concept of running out of gas and relying on a buddy to get you back to the surface, is careless at best. For example, what if your buddy isn’t around; what if her gas supply too is down to seeds and stems; what if you really should do a safety stop and your buddy isn’t in the mood to hang around at six metres for a few minutes before surfacing?
A far most constructive and robust solution is to NOT run out of air, and this can easily be accomplished by using a real gas management plan.
Properly trained solo divers knows their personal gas consumption rates. They know how many litres of cubic feet of gas they have at the start of their dive and they budget their time and depth, not just on the time that their PDC (personal dive computer) will allow them before decompression, but more importantly the time and depth that their STARTING GAS VOLUME will allow them while keeping a sensible amount back for contingencies. There is nothing difficult or revolutionary about teaching proper gas management to sport divers; however, it is often neglected. For a solo diver it is a required and an important skill to master if one wishes to dive with any margin of safety.
There is of course, another side to the running out of gas scenario: equipment failure. While the practice is common among sport divers, diving with a single regulator first stage, and therefore no redundancy should that piece of kit decide to go on vacation while at depth, is extremely risky. Once again, the “normal” solution is to rely on your buddy to help. For someone committed to self-sufficiency and diving alone, the better solution is to carry a back-up. A properly equipped solo diver carries a small volume cylinder of gas fitted with a regulator and SPG. In the parlance of technical diving, this extra cylinder is often called a stage bottle, but in the language of solo divers, it becomes a buddy bottle. Effectively, it supplies enough gas to get the diver from his maximum depth back to the surface at the prescribed ascent rate, including a safety stop, with a margin of contingency gas… just in case.
Another risk that is presented by those who pooh-pooh the idea of diving without a buddy is getting lost or entangled. The thinking is that with a buddy in tow, he will offer assistance. He will help if you are confused about the location of the exit, lose your mask, or are attacked by a strand of kelp or discarded fishing line. Once again, this shifts an awful lot of responsibility for one’s own well-being off your own shoulders and into someone else’s. There is another way.
SDI solo divers are taught to carry and use a delayed surface marker buoy and a spool or reel so that it can be deployed from depth. This effectively becomes the diver’s personal ascent line and alleviates one issue. Carrying and being able to deploy a back-up mask deals with another. Entanglement is a more sticky issue. Solo divers are taught to avoid areas where entanglement is a real threat, but just in case carry more than one cutting device (and train how to extricate themselves from an entanglement using one of those tools and or common sense). In all three of these issues, one of the key guidelines is to avoid panic. Stop, think, act are the watchwords and are perhaps more valid for a solo diver than for any other.
The ability to control panic when things go pear-shaped at depth is a function in part of experience, and SDI’s take on the prerequisites for diving solo are for the diver to have logged at least 100 dives. The agency believes that although logging that many dives offers no guarantees, it’s a workable benchmark.
There is one other risk that’s quoted as unique for those without a buddy to keep them in check. When diving alone, it is possible to drift beyond one’s comfort zone and into the land of panic. A buddy, in the best-case scenario, provides a sober second opinion and will help prevent you from pushing beyond the limits of your training and experience.
Once again, well-trained solo divers follow a personal dive plan that takes this “shortcoming” into account. They are taught to draw up a plan that outlines goals, waypoints, contingencies and LIMITS. Those limits include ones that take into account the limitations of their equipment, their training and their experience. They are also trained to “self-assess” their personal stress levels before a dive and to call off any dive that seems too much for them on that particular day. One of the responsibilities accepted by solo divers is to plan all their solo dives well within those limits.
Solo divers are also encouraged to share and discuss their dive plans with a friend or family member BEFORE putting the plan into action and going for a dive.
Finally, there are some risks that simply have to be accepted. For example, having a medical emergency underwater while diving alone has a very small chance of happening, but the magnitude of the potential outcome is the most serious possible. A good risk management plan will have some suggestion to mitigate that risk, but it is one of that specific risk – maintain a healthy lifestyle and work to stay fit – but that can never be totally avoided. If that is unacceptable, never dive alone.
When SDI brought Solo Diving from behind the curtain and began to teach regular divers how to do it, the agency believed that self-sufficiency begins with good training and part of that training is realistic and detailed risk analysis. In doing so, they have helped to produce a cadre of better divers, and ironically, a lot of really good potential dive buddies!
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