When to call a dive: the definitive guideline to no-fault bailout
There are plenty of things that the technical diving community has borrowed, begged or stolen from the North Florida cave diving community. The list includes the use and routing of a long hose on one’s primary regulator, gas management protocols such as the Rule of Thirds, the now common pre-dive S-Drill and Bubble Check, and even the basic backplate, wing and simple webbing harness configuration that seems to be the default for techies (and a growing number sport divers) the world over.
However, one item that has probably helped the diving community at large avoid more mishaps than any other is what originally was called the “Cave Diver’s Credo,” also known as thumbing a dive or the preferred, no-fault bailout. You may see it written in textbooks as: ANY DIVER can call ANY DIVE for ANY REASON at ANY TIME without fear of REPROACH or RETRIBUTION.
This phrase may strike you very differently, but to me it sounds a little as though it was written by a legal assistant trying to win brownie points. The parking lot version goes along the lines of: “Any time during our dive you ain’t comfy, y’all thumb the dive! We can go drink beer instead… I got no problem with that at all!”
My guess is that the majority of technical divers have pulled the plug a time or two during a dive (or even BEFORE a dive) and been thankful their buddy or buddies, subscribed to “The Credo.” I know I have. And of course, the converse is true too. I have been ready to rock and roll only to have a dive mate call it all off in a heartbeat. No worries. No questions. No nasty remarks as the gear is packed away and we head for home (or to the nearest pub with draft Guinness and pulled pork sandwiches).
As a matter of fact, one of the qualities many experienced technical divers look for in a team member is that they fully understand and agree with the whole concept of no-fault bailout; and the related issues of risk identification, assessment, avoidance and management. It helps keep everyone healthy!
When aspiring technical divers first learn about this concept, there is usually some debate about what reasons constitute calling off a dive. And in fairness, the question deserves a more complete and specific explanation besides the generic response: “ANY REASON.”
Since we recognize where the concept of no-fault bailout comes from, it seems logical to conclude that it developed because of the very nature of caves. A solid overhead environment – with no quick and easy access to the surface and fresh air – brings with it by default a whole new respect for pre-dive checks. It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that in an environment as unforgiving as a cave, the number of checks increases and the diver’s attention to them is more focused. There is simply no room for compromise and no place for “well, that’s good enough for now” attitude. And all this translates seamlessly for ANY form of technical diving, whether in a cave or someplace else.
The easiest way to explain this to the newly-minted technical diver is to point out the focus on equipment and gas checks. These include inspecting hoses for leaks or strange kinks and poor connections; inspecting harness webbing and wing for nasty-looking abrasions or weak spots; checking and pre-breathing regulators; working valves and inflators to make sure they operate the way they should; making sure every cylinder of gas is analyzed, tanks are marked with MOD (maximum operating depth), and each tank is cross-checked with the dive profile and our buddy’s gases. The list continues with divers working out to the most exact amount of volume each gas required for each phase of their dive, including the additional gas required for contingencies like a massive leak in the buddy’s primary cylinder or deco. The last step is running through visual and tactile checks on accessories like primary lights, back-up lights, bottom timers, wetnotes, spare masks, bolts, snaps, straps and so on. Of course, anything not 100 percent has the potential to cause the dive to be called, postponed, or modified. And, all this is checked BEFORE anyone even gets their face wet!
More difficult to explain is the whole concept of comfort zone and personal stress assessment. These topics alone could form the outline for a complete dive book, but the Cole’s Notes version is that panic is about as welcome at depth as a lit cigar is in a fireworks factory. Panic and everything that leads up to it has to be well-managed by all divers; but most especially for divers who do not have the luxury of a direct and clear path to the surface.
For the most part, panic can be avoided by following a few simple guidelines: do not exceed your level of training and experience; increase the scope of your diving by small increments; never allow yourself to become so task-loaded that you lose the plot; watch your depth; plan to avoid surprises but be ready to deal with them; and never succumb to peer pressure.
If one follows those guidelines, managing panic becomes a learned skill. One of my favorite illustrations is a quote from Bill Hogarth Main. Bill is a cave diver/guide and lends his name to the minimalist approach to gear configuration and dive prep so popular (and so misinterpreted) with a whole raft of divers who have never been in a cave or heard of Bill Main. He said when asked about panic and its control that “it is worth understanding that a piece of dive equipment breaking underwater is unlikely to kill you… but your reaction to it could be disastrous”. Experience breeds a cool head and a cool head is a very useful tool when a dive goes off the rails.
And of all the dominos that can fall and start off the chain reaction that could result in diver panic, perhaps the most insidious is the trust-me dive. The classic “trust me” dive is one where a diver or a group of divers are pressured into doing something they have no business doing because their bolder, fool-hardy dive buddy says something like: “Don’t worry, I’ve done this dive a thousand times… trust me on this.”
These two little words – trust me – have gotten heaps of otherwise sensible, caring, intelligent men and women into the nastiest, tightest, most dire situations imaginable. If you hear those words as part of a dive briefing, drop everything and run for your life! They mix about as well as oil and water.
In the final analysis, the right time to call a dive is as soon as something breaks or stops working the way it should. I know this sounds simplistic, but there are a lot of examples of people continuing their dive AFTER a failure of something that on the surface they would classify as LIFE SUPPORT. You too may have heard about divers who shared a computer because theirs failed to fire up when they jumped into the water; or divers who continued their swim around a reef or wreck breathing from their buddy’s double cylinders because they had used up all the air in their single 80.
The right time to call a dive is also when things start to look or feel different to the plan; or when your buddy starts to deviate from the plan.
The right time to call a dive is BEFORE things get so complicated that you start to lose sight of the simple fact that diving is supposed to be FUN.
You may agree that the Cave Diver’s Credo translates equally well, whether divers are carrying more gear than a Himalayan Sherpa or the bare minimum single tank and stab jacket, and regardless of whether they are back in the engine-room of a deep wreck breathing trimix via the most sophisticated and up-to-the-minute computer-controlled rebreather or cleaning the bottom of their neighbor’s pool using air delivered to them by a lovingly restored vintage twin-hose regulator. If something does not feel fun, never, never hesitate to put up your thumb and let your buddy know: “It’s Miller Time baby; and we are outta here”!
Steve Lewis is SDI/TDI Director of Communications, a published author and accomplished Diver / Trainer. Take Steve’s lead and continue to hone your skills with the training of your choice! Visit https://www.tdisdi.com to plan your next training adventure.
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