Blog posts from Gareth, Imogen and Neil
"The first half of the dive is yours. The second half of the dive is mine" - Danny Riordan.
So what does that mean. Basically it means you spend the swim in looking at the cave, practicing your propulsion techniques. You look at what you are swimming through, and slow down enough to take it all in. You are practicing being a cave diver. That's the swim in. On the swim out, Danny stretches your capacity, your ability as a team to overcome failures. If you get it all right, your trip out of the cave will probably be fairly smooth. If you start doing stupid things, then more and more will go wrong. It's not a beasting. It's not pointless stress. It's a steady pushing of your boundaries to improve your ability to cope with things going wrong. It's a gradual exposure to disaster to give you tools and the level-headedness to look at a problem and think "what resources do we, as a team, have for dealing with this". I've been a team diver for a long time now, but it really only sank in when I was inside the cave. You have to keep track of every resource the team has. Who's on their backup mask already? Which valves are working on which diver. Whose primary torch has failed? The goal is to make you understand that you can deal with this, no matter what. Danny makes a big deal about this. He opened the failures day with a mantra.
"You can get out of this"
He encourages you to tell yourself this in the cave, because it would be easy to forget it. Much in the same way a wreck instructor will tell you "you swam in, you CAN swim out". Cave diving is a mental game. You cannot help but be aware you are underground. You cannot help but be aware that it COULD turn nasty very quickly. Your equipment is no defence against that. Your brain is your defence against that, and it needs to stay switched on.
The plan today was to head back to carwash. I was delighted about this, because it gave me plenty of new material to take the piss out of Neil. He could hardly take a step without me warning him not to fall over. In truth, it must have been a bit weird for him being back there, but to be fair to it he just got on with the business of cave 1. We had two twinsets each in the back of Danny's truck and the intention was to do as much diving as possible. Unlike Eden, where they had been burning leaves to keep the insects down, the buzz was in full flow at Carwash, and I got eaten alive. I was busy slapping insects when Imogen said from behind me, rather nervously, err..is that a tarantula. standing in front of my twinset was the biggest spider I have ever seen. Luckily, spiders do not bother me. Imogen, on the other hand, is as bothered by spiders as I am of wasps. Remarkably, however she swallowed her fear and strode over to have a look at it. I thought it was cute. Then a mammal about the size of a small dog appeared, which Danny described as a Coatimundi. This was seriously cute, except that it looked properly rabid, and Danny pointed out that they typically travel in groups of 50. He also chose this moment to inform Imogen that sometimes the Tarantulas climb tress and hide in the leaves above you. We all laughed nervously. And then looked up. Enough of this shit, we kitted up and got in the water. It was sticky as hell, so we all kitted up and got in the water pretty quickly. Once we all safely/helplessly bobbing up and down in the water, Danny across to a log on the other side of the Cenote and said "look, a crocodile". the log then grew legs and disappeared into the water. FFS. Not content with the insects with tardis teeth, the tarantulas that hide in trees above you, and the packs of rabid animals, we were now going diving with logs that had legs. and teeth. I'm English for fucks sake. I get upset if someone leaves the tea steeping for too long. I complain if the temperature goes up by five degrees because "it's a bit muggy", and the wildest animal I see is the Tomcat from across the road that fancies my female Burmese, and is the mortal enemy of my own tomcat.
Anyway, we dropped into the water and into a thick green algae. This did not bode well, but Danny promised that it would clear a couple of metres down. We dropped into it. Bugger me. It didn't just clear a little bit. The algae was a couple of metres deep but below that there was another two metres before the bottom of the cenote. two metres that was utterly crystal clear. And I really do mean crystal clear. I haven't seen water that clear since Narvik. I was in position 1, so I had the reel ready. I did the primary tie off and swam into the cave. A quick secondary tie off and we went in search of the main line. I've quite a bit of line laying on wrecks so I was ok about this, but I didn't keep the line close enough to the floor of the cave by contouring, something I had to personally work on during the week.
Contouring. Let's bust a GUE myth whilst we are on the subject. There seems to be a belief that GUE divers only care about flat trim. I've always thought this was nonsense, because as an instructor I need to get myself into some pretty bizarre positions, and you can't do that if you are worried about going feet up. However, it's when you start cave diving, or wreck penetration, that you really realise how much nonsense that is. A GUE diver needs to be able to swim, and hover in any position. In the entrance to Taj Mahal, later in the week, I would be hovering vertically feet up whilst watching my team deal with a problem. The geometry of the cave dictates the appropriate trim, so you have to be able to put yourself in any position without getting stressed about it. If you are worried about being feet up then cave diving isn't for you. Or rather, sort things out so you are NOT worried about being feet up. One thing I had to work on all week was to stay in contour with the cave to keep me near the bottom when laying line.
We swim in without incident, and the cave was stunning. Danny had asked us to swim for 8 minutes and then turn the dive, so this we dutifully did. So sooner had we turned and begun to swim out than my primary torch went out. When a torch goes out in a cave, it REALLY goes out. The darkness was remarkable. The theory is that you switch on your backup torch and signal the team, but in reality the guys were so keyed up for impending doom that as soon as the lights went out they started reacting. Neil was in position two and signalled Imogen in position 1. They both started to turn around, with Imogen in position one grabbing hold of the line to reference the way out. At the same time I was switching on my own backup, stowing away my dead primary, and then unclipping the backup. This order proved critical. Unclip a torch without switching it on at any point during the course and Danny would take it off you, as a lesson that if you dropped a torch that wasn't switched on you might never find it in the darkness. We re-ordered the team to put me in the middle as the compromised diver and started to swim out. bubbles started somewhere above me. I felt above me for an indication of where they might be coming from and it appeared to be my right post. I started to shut that down whilst signalling the team, whom by now were probably wondering why they had bothered bringing me with them. Imogen took over diagnosing the problem and, oh lucky me, the problem appeared to be unfixable. we continued the swim out until we got outside. Well that wasn't a drama. Danny had some helpful hints to tidy things up but no big issues to speak of, so we hopped out for some field drills.
We did the blind diver exit as a field drill. this is all abut keeping the team together in complete darkness, navigating the various tie offs and obstacles that a team will find on its way out. We spent some considerable time doing this, learning to let the person at he back drive the exit, learning how to signal to move the team forwards, or back. Learning how to navigate past tie offs and placements without disturbing them. We repeated this drill several times. If the person in the front forgot to wave their hand around to avoid swimming into something then Danny would slap them lightly on the head. You only forgot once. Once we had completed this drill we had a spot of lunch, thanking god fo rhte cool box Danny had brought and the massive rock he put on it to stop the Coatimundis from breaking into it and stealing the food. Then it was back into open water to do the skill. Danny laid a square and we swam round it blind again and again until he was satisfied. Then we switched roles and did it again. Meanwhile, I was thinking "where's that fucking crocodile?"
After this it was back into the cave. Inevitably, more hilarity ensued, with torch failures and fixable and unfixable right and left post failures. At one point Danny asked us to stop and basically asked Meredith to go and hide. He made us wait with our eyes closed and hands over our masks for 90 seconds before starting to search for her. We checked the time, and then performed an initial search in all directions and up and down. Then we started to swim back, looking all the while. we knew that if we hadn't seen her, the place to start looking was about 15 metres back, so we swam back and then all of us covered our torches. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness we spotted a dim glow high up in the cave in the distance. Imogen and I stayed on the line and Neil swam up and over to look. We had found her. Back to the line and continue out, with all failures back in place. A little further on, and Danny stopped the team again. Apparently it was time for me to lose the line.
He put the other two on the line, with hands firmly grasping it, and lights off, and Meredith hovering overhead in the darkness for safety. Using a backup light he then led me about 10 metres off the line. He indicated back to the line and I took the quickest of glances back before the cave went black. And I really do mean completely black. In fact, I've never experienced a complete enveloping darkness like it. And I've been to Birmingham. Hell, I've been to Rhyl. And this is where I had my biggest epiphany of the course. You see, your brain plays tricky with you to make cave diving sensible. You perceive the cave as a tunnel with a single way in and a single way out. The line gives the cave an artificial structure, a false sensibility. It's a swim THROUGH the cave. But that, I'm afraid is just bullshit your brain tells you to keep you sane. Once you lose the line, you realise that a cave is just a big room, with lots of real and false entrances and exits even if you view the cave as 2D, and once you take the third dimension into the equation you are basically in a cathedral with hidden alcoves, multiple layers, tunnels that lead no-where, exits that double back or disappear towards places unknown. There is usually one way in, and one way out. Without the line, you can very quickly lose track of where that is. THAT'S why we build the mental notebook of clues. That's why we always have someone reference the line no matter what else is going on.
So there I am, in complete blackness. I had a rough idea of which direction the line was, but that's good enough for an initial search and nothing more. Searches must be systematic. So I went into the drill, mocking an initial search with a light even though it was pitch black. i then used my spool, and did my search according to the GUE way of doing it. counting kicks I swam for about 7 metres and bang. Found the line. I tied off to it in the blackness and put a cookie on the line in the direction I thought the exit was. Danny's light came on. He swam me back to where I had been. I could see that if I had picked another direction I would have been searching for a long time. He was happy with my tie offs, and happy with the line I laid. The tie off to the mainline was a little rushed, and the cookie a bit far away from the junction, but again no big dramas. Danny decided enough was enough for the day and we swam out of the cave. Near the exit we had multiple failures and had to start thinking "who has what left?" We got to the point where Imogen was out of gas but couldn't go to Neil who was nearest because he had only one working reg and was on a backup torch, so had to swim around him to get to me. I made the mistake of simply swimming the team out there rather than finding out why she was out of gas and it all got a little untidy. We lived, but we didn't make best use of the resources we had available to us. Lesson learned. We had, at least, remembered to do our decompression. One thing we found in a cave was that it's very easy to forget about decompression. You are limited on your ascent to the shape of the cave, so sometimes can you can do a nice ascent profile and sometimes, well, you just can't. with multiple failures going on it's easy to let your focus come off the fact that you have stops to make on the way out of the cave, so its important that one person remain responsible for this. In a minor restriction, this can mean people sharing gas, or diagnosing problems, whilst one person hovers vertically feet up and the other two hover feet down. It's all quite amusing really, but not the place for having a lot of gas in your suit.
That evening we reflected on our day's training. We were pretty exhausted, but still having a great time. I announced my intention to write a very strongly worked letter to Halcyon stating that although I was mightily impressed with how bright our torches were, they did seem to be failing rather a lot. Neil's arm had survived the day, although he was in a lot of pain. Mojitos followed, plus a breakdown of the lost line drill that Imogen and Neil would be facing the next day. We also knew we had to do the blind exist for real, whilst switching sides to avoid obstacles. We had complex valve failures to deal with, and lost masks. Should be another fun day.