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When Silly Drills Become Serious Skills

by Chris Richardson:
cave diver

A few years ago, okay… close to a decade (I’m getting old) I got together with a friend to have him evaluate me for some new Instructor Trainer ratings for technical diving. I had a few choices of who I could get together with to be evaluated but chose this particular evaluator because he has a reputation of being tough, was a friend, and he and I hadn’t been diving together before but knew each other well from being in the dive industry. Frankly I wanted to see if I was up to it.

We met up very early over breakfast and discussed the day’s plans. After lunch, real students would be joining us and he expected me to teach the class, but first we would go over and jump in confined water where he wanted me to demonstrate drills and skills.

When we got to the confined water site I was told to bring not just one stage, but two stage 80’s and a 40. I was in twin 104’s and drysuit. In other words, fully configured (kitted for those of us from the commonwealth) for a full on multi-stage dive.

First we did a buddy check and S-drills. Then he asked me to demonstrate, while neutral in trim, at no less than 8 ft and no deeper than 10 ft, stage management and gas switching from back gas through all three of the stage/deco bottles. Anybody that has ever dived with me knows that I ALWAYS want to do a warm up dive or two before doing any teaching, big dives, or being evaluated. This day I was going in cold and to my great relief I had no great difficulty managing the skill and surfaced to an evaluator with a somewhat evil grin on his face. He informed me that that was “pretty good” made a couple small suggestion for improvement then told me to do it again… without fins on! I must have looked at him like he was crazy because he laughed and asked if I had ever tried it before. I said no, of course not. He then informed me that “all” his students have to and that was that. Well… off my fins came, I settled down to the required depth, got myself in trim and neutral with some difficulty and then started the gas switching.

Yeah that didn’t work out so well.

It was humiliating and I provided great amusement to my friend. When he stopped laughing at me he informed me that I passed. I gave him a look and asked “WTF are you talking about?” He started laughing really, really hard and informed me that he does do the no fins but does NOT expect the student to do gas switches… then started laughing again. We had hadn’t fully communicated, he expected me to simply get there and get stabilized in trim and buoyancy, I thought he wanted me to fully do the earlier skill only without fins.

I then stated that, “I think I can do it, let me try again”. He raised his eyebrows and said, “Go for it”. I did, and I did. I took my time and if it had been a real dive with gas switches done so slowly I would have had to add another deco bottle to offgas the extra ongassing from how slow I was, but I did it. He was surprised and said he wasn’t sure he could manage it, he tried and he did it after a couple tries, we laughed and then the students showed up and we enjoyed the class.

I liked the skill as watermanship development for technical divers and use it when I teach (without the gas switch) but do tell people they should try it when they get comfortable with just the trim and buoyancy no fins drill. I also demonstrate both of these to my students to show it’s possible (I do only one stage however) I have had frustrated students protest that “the skill is stupid, why would you dive without fins?!”

Fast forward to two days ago.

Myself, and Edd Sorenson from Cave Adventurers in Marianna, Florida, were doing a fun dive together. The plan was he would show me some new cave in a well known cave system he had discovered and laid line in. The plan was fairly simple, we would scooter out a couple thousand feet with a stage, drop the stage and the scooters and go swim the new passage, come back, get stages and scooters, head back and deco.

The new section Edd found is pretty tight… not crazy stupid tight but certainly snug. We had to pay careful attention as to not stir up the bottom silt. There was one spot that was quite tight, almost crazy stupid tight. We reached the end of one line, turned around and Edd headed out with me behind, coming up to the restriction Edd slipped through, I followed and in the tightest spot it happened… I felt my left fin slip off my foot. I knew what happened. It’s a prototype fin that I had been testing, the strap was a little too big but not horrible and I knew that but wanted to dive the fin anyhow. The tight spot meant that I needed to stick my head and torso down, and then arch upwards to get through. Air went up my drysuit leg and into the boot and it popped the fin strap off. I couldn’t bend to reach my foot (okay, it was crazy tight there) so backed out to look for and put said fin back on. At this point the old saying “SILT HAPPENS” came true and needless to say, I couldn’t find it. After not finding it I came out of my silt cloud, showed Edd my “issue” and he decided to go get my fin… well that didn’t happen either. The good news, it’s not hard to move through low passage with one fin on, really. But as soon as we got out of the new passage into the main cave system which was much bigger the lack of a fin was MUCH more noticeable.

Using skills developed doing a silly drill, I retrieved my stage and my scooter, performed a gas switch to my stage, and started the scooter ride back. If you’re curious, scootering with one fin is easy at slow speed, not so easy at a medium speed and downright difficult at full speed on a good scooter.

The exit was uneventful; I was alternating between slightly embarrassed and quite amused I lost the fin. Upon surfacing, Edd ‘s first words were, “You made an event a non event”

We talked it over, I told him about the no fin skill, I admitted I was stupid to keep diving a fin I knew wasn’t a perfect fit and we discussed the event in the context of how we each could use it in teaching students so hopefully they could also turn “events into non events”. We also laughed about the fact that NOBODY but Edd or I would ever find that lost fin.

I’m writing this in the hope that other divers can learn to appreciate how important those safety, watermanship, and comfort skills we practice are. The place to fail a skill or a drill is in confined water while training, don’t short change yourself. Practice hard so you can dive easier.

4 replies
  1. David Mason
    David Mason says:

    The amateur practices until they get it right, the professional practices until they can’t do it wrong.

    I am a member of the local Sheriff’s Dive Team. We mostly do search and recovery in rivers, lakes and ocean at depths from waist deep to around 30 feet, but not more than 100 feet. Extended time in deep water is better left to a commercial diving company. We train monthly, and everything we do is practice/skills. for shore dives, we lay out the tarp, and set the gear in the prescribed patterns, and plan the dive just like it was a response. Every practice dive includes basic skills like flood and clear the mask, retrieve lost gear, switching tanks, donning/ditching gear, buoyancy control, etc.

    Reply
  2. Jeff johnson
    Jeff johnson says:

    Yep, I train my better cave student a single f’in exit. CCR I have the better ones share a loop in ow. But what is discouraging is the divers that do so well through multiple courses and then become “so good” they tell you your recommendations are stupid.

    Reply
  3. Greg Maciejowski
    Greg Maciejowski says:

    I always try to think of a new skill that may improve mine and my student’s over all ability to respond quickly to a problem. All divers should practice stress and problem solving skills. Because it is not in the instructor manual it does not mean it cannot be practiced. As long as it is done in confined water with responsible buddy.

    Reply
  4. Robert Cutcher
    Robert Cutcher says:

    Excellent article Chris. Yet another reminder that we train, learn and train more for all the situations we can think of but even more importantly, for those situations we have not thought of. Congrats on having the discipline and skill set to overcome what could have been a challenging event.

    Reply

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