Cave Lines, don’t get caught in a tangled mess

By Jon Kieren

Cave divers rely on their equipment, skills and a calm state of mind to ensure a safe exit from a cave.  These three items are all interconnected and directly relate to every aspect of cave diving.  Whether it’s navigation, emergency scenarios, team awareness and communication, etc., a diver must utilize the proper equipment, be proficient in its use and maintain their composure in order to effectively manage any given scenario in a cave environment.  While cave training prepares a diver to handle most situations in a cave, this article will focus on line use and avoiding entanglement.  We will briefly discuss a variety of lines and reels used in cave diving, specific skills required to manage line in a cave and how a cave diver can prepare in order to maintain their composure when dealing with lines and possible entanglement scenarios.


Permanent Guidelines are lines which have been installed in a cave system.  These guidelines eliminate the need for a diver to install and retrieve their own guideline in the majority of the cave dive sites around the world.  These lines are usually well placed and routinely inspected by cave instructors and local “line committees”, and typically do not pose a significant entanglement risk under normal conditions.  A diver should pay close attention to the location of the permanent lines in the cave, avoid swimming underneath the line whenever possible, pay close attention to not pull off any tie offs or line placements in the cave.

With that said, it is not necessarily against the rules to touch the line.  If a diver needs to pass or swim close to the line, it is common practice to use their thumb and index finger to create an “O” and simply hold the line out away from their body and equipment.  This keeps the line safely away from the diver and helps avoid potential entanglements.  Whenever making contact with the line, the diver should take special care to not pull excessively on the line in any direction, as doing so can possibly damage the cave, break the line or pull off a tie or placement.

Reels in the context of this text will describe either a reel with a handle and winding knob or a simple spool.  There are many varieties of reels and spools, and the selection/use is up to the user’s preference.

Jump/Gap Reels are used by cave divers to connect sections of permanent guideline, which are left disconnected intentionally to simplify navigation within the cave system.  These reels or spools are typically around 15 metres / 50 feet, and are installed by the diver when making a jump from one permanent line to another on the way into the cave, and the removed on their way out.

Safety Reels are used in emergency scenarios such as lost line or lost buddy situations where the diver needs to install a temporary line quickly as a reference while conducting a search off of a permanent line in the cave.  These reels are usually around 45 metres / 150 feet, and stored in a way that it can be accessed quickly by the diver in an emergency.

Primary Reels are used to install a temporary primary line from open water to the permanent line in the cave.   Permanent guidelines are often installed so they begin well within the cave so as to not entice untrained open water divers to enter the cave system.  For this reason, a cave diver often needs to install their own primary line from the open water area of the dive site to ensure they can make a safe exit from the cave in the event of a complete loss of visibility.


Proper line management techniques are critical for safety, cave conservation, as well as cave diver etiquette.  Proper use of various tie-offs, placements, reel use, signaling, communication and teamwork are emphasized beginning on day one of a cavern course.  Because these skills and procedures are usually new for even the most experience open water diver, it will often take hours of practice for a new cavern/cave diver to become truly comfortable and proficient.

For a new cavern/cave diver, using a reel in a cave can be extremely stressful.   Diving in a new environment and working with unfamiliar equipment can get out of control very quickly, creating a cascading effect of frustration and anxiety.  It’s important to remember there is no rush, and the diver should take as much time as they need to install or retrieve their lines, gas and decompression obligations permitting.

Conservative gas management will ensure the diver has plenty of time to complete these tasks without feeling pressure to move quickly.  If there is another team behind you (as long as they have not signaled to notify you there is an emergency), they will be happy to wait while you take your time and complete the task correctly; we all started out as new cavern/cave divers at some point and can appreciate someone taking their time to do it right as they learn versus rushing and potentially becoming a tangled mess.


As previously stated, working with line in a cave can be stressful for many divers under optimal conditions.  When things begin to go pear shaped, visibility is often diminished, gas supplies run low, and the stress and anxiety compounds quickly.  This stress and anxiety can cause the diver to make simple mistakes, pulling permanent lines of placements or tie offs creating excessive and dangerous slack in the line, or jamming/birds nesting their reels which can quickly lead to entanglement.  If the diver had to deploy a safety reel in an emergency, the stress level may be exceptionally high already, and the additional stress of a jammed reel can easily create an unmanageable situation if panic sets in.

So how do we avoid this loss of composure when it really counts the most?  Practice.

A diver can only get better by practicing.  Most diving skills such as buoyancy control, finning and communication are naturally practiced on every dive.  However, line laying/management skills are often neglected.  Many  popular cave sites have moved the permanent lines very close to the cave entrance.  While this is certainly convenient, reduces clutter in high traffic sites, and reduces damage to the cave, divers are no longer practicing critical line skills (no, running a jump/gap reel 3 meters / 10 feet with one placement doesn’t count).  These skills degrade quickly when not used, and then when called upon in an emergency, can create the issues described earlier.

So when/where can a cave diver practice their line skills?  In open water. Use your local open water site and set up simulated cavern/cave areas to run line through.  Practice running, following, and retrieving lines until you are proficient and comfortable while simulating loss of visibility (blackout mask or eyes closed).  This way, when it comes time to use these essential skills, it will not add to your stress level potentially contributing to the error chain.  And remember, these skills degrade quickly, so practice regularly.

Proper equipment, skills and a calm mindset can mean the difference between a routine scenario and a catastrophic entanglement.  Use the right tool for the job, be proficient in its use and practice regularly so you can maintain your composure when it comes time to call on these skills where it counts the most.

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