With the ever-increasing popularity of sidemount, you might think that our dear friend, the twinset may be feeling a little neglected. But there are still plenty of divers choosing to take their first steps into technical diving with a twinset.
One of the skills you need to come to grips with on an intro to tech course is shutting down the valves. This can be a challenge for many divers, even experienced twinset divers.
It can sometimes feel like you’re rubbing your belly and patting your head. Just when you think you’ve got it, you realise that you’re patting someone else’s head… in the grocery store queue. A sure sign you’re thinking too hard about it.
There may be a multitude of reasons why reaching those valves is so difficult. Often, divers take matters into their own hands and make changes to their set up that seem perfectly logical but make it more difficult. Here are a few steps you can take to make your life a little easier.
First, I need to be clear on what this article is not about.
This article is not in any way, shape, or form about how to do a valve drill, shutdown, boom scenario or whatever else you call it. How you twiddle those knobs behind your head is for you and you alone to decide, hopefully after having a detailed discussion with your instructor on the different approaches. Opinions on the how’s and why’s are easy to find on the internet too.
This is about things to consider that will help most divers to reach their valves with relative ease. Unless you have an injury that impairs the mobility of your shoulders, arms, or back, a shutdown shouldn’t be a huge struggle.
Though it is much easier to successfully reach your valves in a wetsuit in tropical water, it should still be relatively painless in a drysuit with warm underlayers and wet/dry gloves on.
I used a fantastic post written on a diving forum in 2010 by Gareth Burrows as the template for this article- no point in reinventing the wheel, you start with equipment. There is a lot to consider before moving on to technique. Gareth laid it all out very logically and thoroughly, and I think explains it all better than me. I have just added my take on it. You can read it here. It’s also interesting to read the comments below his post.
Let’s begin at the beginning; having the right set-up.
As tempting as it is to mess around with the height of your cylinder bands, don’t. The top cylinder band should be set as high as it will go on the cylinders, which is just below the point where the tank shoulder starts to curve in towards the neck. The lower band is then set to the standard 28cm/11in. This is the optimal position for you to reach the bands.
You physically can’t put them any higher. If you put them lower, it’s only going to make it even harder to reach back.
The logic behind moving the bands lower is that it will make the valves closer to your hands. This is not true. The valves will be higher up, but they’ll also be further away from you. This is because you have a straight twinset sitting on a curved back.
Shifting the twinset up creates a greater distance to your pinkies. Moreover, as moving the bands shifts the position of the twinset, it will also affect your trim in the water. Leave the bands in the right place.
Step away from the isolator
No, turning the isolator so it’s angled down will not make things easier. It increases the angle that your wrist needs to bend to get a decent purchase on the valve turnwheel. The more your wrists are bent, the lower the dexterity of movement in your hands and fingers. Try it now. Use an imaginary screwdriver and twist your wrist. Now do it again with a 90-degree bend on your wrist. Hopefully, you’re not out in public whilst doing this.
One more thing about valves. Maintain them regularly and ensure they are well lubricated. What’s the good in being able to reach back if you then need a vice-like grip just to get them turning?
Backplate and harness
Properly configuring your backplate and harness is hugely important. It affects your trim, and, oh yeah, whether you can reach the valves or not. As far as ease of configuring goes, most divers one continuous piece of webbing is best, plus a crotch strap. If you are a small human, you need a smaller backplate.
Let’s start with the shoulder straps. Do they need to be loose? Tight? Do you need to be Harry Houdini to be able to get into your gear? No.
The shoulder straps need to be tight enough so that when you’re wearing the harness you can reach back and touch the top of the backplate with ease. If they are really loose it will sit too low on your back. If they are too tight they will inhibit your ability to move your arms back. They need to be loose enough so that you can make a fist and put it between the harness and your chest. Getting into your harness should not induce contortions, weird facial twitches, or involuntary grunting.
You should realise that the twinset is too low on your back before getting into the water; it will be horrible and awkward to walk around in, and you’ll be hunched forward. If for some weird reason you don’t realise this, in-water it will be harder to maintain trim- you’ll be more leg-heavy. With the twinset lower down your back, the valves will be further away and harder to reach.
A quick tip for getting each strap the same length is to stand on your crotch strap and lift the backplate with both shoulder straps. You will easily see if they’re the same length or not. Also, remember to set the D-rings and buckle in the right place after making any adjustments.
For the crotch strap, pay attention to how tight it is. Obviously too tight is not good for reproductive purpose; your anatomy will have paid attention on your behalf. It’s more likely that it’s too loose. If it is too tight, it will pull the harness and twinset down and away from your hands when reaching back. Really loose, and the twinset may ride up, which puts you in the same position as having the cylinder bands too low. When wearing the harness with the buckle fastened, pull the crotch strap tight. The top of it should be an inch above the waist strap.
What about the waist strap? It needs to be comfortable, not baggy and not like wearing a corset. Wait, how do you know what wearing a corset feels like? It should never be so tight that it can affect your breathing. That’s way too tight. Once you’ve made any of the above adjustments, put the harness on and see if you can still touch the top of the backplate. If so, your work here is done.
If you’ve made all the above adjustments and are still having issues, at least we’ve whittled down the list of culprits. A few major factors remain. These are flexibility, drysuit, technique, and mindset. Regarding flexibility, most humans are not flexible, especially middle-aged ones. Those rare creatures that are very flexible should still consider the factors outlined above. Your freakish feats may be over-compensating for wrongly configured equipment. This could improve other aspects of your diving.
It’s always a good idea to do flexibility exercises when you get the time. Here are some good ones specifically for the shoulders. Just ensure that you keep doing them to see progression. Increased flexibility won’t happen overnight. Don’t expect immediate results because you spent an evening leaning against a wall whilst watching Seinfeld re-runs. You should see tangible results within a couple of months, and it can make a big difference.
How should you go about reaching for the valves? To see how you should reach back, we, or rather you, can do a little practical experiment; time to look silly again. Stand up straight. Keep your head straight and looking forward. Now, straighten one arm and lift it out to your side until it’s parallel with both shoulders (like a straight teapot). Bend your elbow and twist it back to reach for those imaginary valves. Make a mental note of how far you got. Now point your elbow forwards straight in front of you (hand pointing towards the sky) and reach back again by moving your arm vertically over your head. You’ll need to move your hand and arm out a little towards the left or right valve.
See how much further you got? It should be quite a bit. We’re not finished yet. Do that again. When you can’t reach any further, lift your head up. This should give you that little bit more reach. Arch your back a little also but don’t go banana-shaped.
How many divers do you see doing a shutdown with their head down? It’s very common. Now hopefully you see it’s bad for shutdowns. It’s also bad for awareness, but that’s another article. The differences in these movements is simply the mechanics of how the body can and cannot move well. In the first example, you’re relying on the very limited range of your elbow. In the second and correct example, the shoulder is in charge and it’s moving in the orientation it’s designed for.
By the way, it’s okay to grab a hold of whatever you can- a first stage for instance. Then walk your fingers to the valves. Another thing you can do for the middle post is to put your hand on the back of your head and lift your head up. It really helps.
The middle post is usually the hardest one to reach in a drysuit. That and the left post because most people are right-handed. The less dominant arm is usually less flexible.
Drysuit and undergarments
This is a big one and sadly, there’s not much you can do if you already own the wrong suit. (Sorry about that.) What’s the right drysuit? Quite simply, a correctly sized one that gives you the right combination of mobility and warmth. These are directly related. Increased warmth either means a neoprene drysuit or more underlayers in a membrane suit. Either reduces mobility. Correct sizing requires a bit of forward thinking.
If you’re in the market for a drysuit, think about the coldest water that you think you will ever be using it to dive with. The drysuit needs to be large enough to accommodate the appropriately sized undersuit and still give you enough movement. Don’t go too large; air in the suit will have more room to move around, which will affect your balance. But you do need enough space in the chest area to allow the shoulders to rotate.
Similarly, the arms need to be long enough to accommodate extension comfortably. You don’t want your seals to ride up your wrists, or your fingers to be pressing into the end of your drygloves. I can’t help you if your actual arms are too short.
Always go for a tailor-made drysuit, if possible, and give the manufacturer an idea of what thickness of underlayers you think you’ll be using. Think about the overall length of the suit as well. You don’t want to put the suit on, feel like it fits like a glove, and then realise you didn’t stretch up to see how tight it got. Telescopic suits give you some play in this regard.
Suit type matters too. Neoprene drysuits allow less movement than membrane suits. This is especially true when you want to stretch your arms. The seam in the armpit may severely restrict your ability to reach the valves. The same goes for underlayers. The thicker they are or the more layers you wear, the more you will feel like the Stay Puft marshmallow man.
It’s about finding the balance of warmth versus mobility. There are some amazingly thin yet warm undersuits available nowadays, you just need to shop around and talk to other divers about their experiences with them.
A final word on drysuits. Whether you use your drysuit for buoyancy or just to get rid of the squeeze, you need to have enough gas in it to allow you to move. It sounds silly to even say that, but it’s easy to get distracted and it could well be the cause of why you can reach the valves one day, and not another.
Drygloves and wet gloves
When working in Iceland I had some lovely Ultima drygloves. Before using them I wore 5 mm “lobster” gloves. Though they keep your hands surprisingly warm in 2⁰ C/36⁰ F water, it’s virtually impossible to do anything when wearing them. It’s that trade-off again; warmth – mobility – dexterity. Tactile feeling is gone with gloves anyway, but that’s not so much of an issue with valves. You can still figure out if you’re holding the first stage or the actual valve wheel. Thinner gloves do help with dexterity, but if you can’t feel your fingers because they are numb, you won’t be turning any valves even if you can reach them. It’s a personal thing, but I fare better with drygloves in very cold water.
After I put my undersuit on, I stretch my arms to the sky. I do the same again when I have the drysuit on. Then when I get into the harness, I do another stretch and pull some of the material up before tightening the waist strap. When on the surface and conditions allow, I close the drysuit dump valve, fill the suit with air and stretch myself out. Not like a starfish- I stretch out one arm and the opposite leg. A few times either side. Then I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. It looks ridiculous, but it certainly makes a difference to me. Just remember to open the valve again.
Think about it. You have all this weight on your back. If you can get it to stay in the right place, do that, stay flat. A correctly configured harness will help prevent the twinset from slipping away from you if you go slightly head-up, but that’s not so much the point. The point is that now the weight of the twinset has really tightened your shoulder straps. This will do two things:
Make it harder to move your arms
Make you physically tense up.
Neither is particularly good.
When you struggle to reach your valves, here’s the chronology of what generally happens.
You’ll strain your arms to eek out as many fractions of a centimeter or inch of extra stretch possible. This will make them tense up and prevent them from moving any further.
As you do all this, your head will drop and you’ll be so focused on the movement that you’ll lose your awareness.
You’ll start breathing harder, so now your buoyancy will deviate and give you another thing to think about. The straining is also starting to affect your trim and now the twinset is harder to reach anyway. Task-loaded, losing buoyancy, out of trim, breathing hard, tensed up.
Then you give up and you’re angry. This makes you even more tense during the second and third attempts.
Eventually, you’ll get out of the water and beat yourself up about it for the rest of the day. Now you have this shadow hanging over you. This one damn thing.
How do you move on from this? Before practising any skill it’s hugely important to get yourself neutral. I don’t mean neutral as in buoyancy (that should be obvious). I mean neutral as in physically and mentally ready- your trim is good, you feel balanced, and you’re generally feeling comfortable.
The next step really can’t be emphasised enough. Relax. As soon as you tense up, you reduce the ability of your muscles and tendons to stretch. If you feel it happening, just pause what you’re doing, straighten your arms and focus on relaxing again.
Get your breathing under control and then continue where you left off. Really take your time and concentrate on staying relaxed. It makes a huge difference. Do that as many times as you can until you can do it all in one go nice and slowly and as relaxed as possible. You can speed it up when you’ve trained yourself to stay relaxed.
If there’s one thing to take away from the above steps, it’s this: You’re not following this process just so you can get a shutdown done. This is how you should do a shutdown, every single time. Important but subtle distinction.
Practice and more practice
It’s amazing how much of a confidence boost it can be when you finally nail it after all that frustration. Let’s be clear on this, things like setting up the harness and having the right drysuit are the essential first steps. The rest is technique when buoyancy and trim are already there.
One important point to make is that in a wetsuit, you may very well be able to reach the valves when things like the harness are not correctly configured. You likely won’t have this luxury with a drysuit. Choose an instructor that regularly teaches both and doesn’t view taking the time to set up the basics as an “equipment solution to a skills problem”.
When you can do it with properly configured gear and good technique, keep doing it; practice, and focus on putting everything together smoothly; buoyancy, trim, awareness, and positioning. It won’t be the last thing that frustrates you when learning new diving techniques and procedures. The important thing is to keep moving forward and not be too hard on yourself.
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