Blog posts from Gareth, Imogen and Neil
This "secrets" series is a set of articles I am going to write over the next few weeks. They come about because I get asked a lot of the same questions again and again, and thought it would be useful to jot down some of my typical responses in the hope that the answers may be of use to all divers, not just those thinking of GUE training. the first question is "how do you assess divers on the very first dive of GUE fundamentals - what are you looking for".
Dive 1 of GUE fundamentals doesn't really have many skills on it. You basically get in the water, and have a bit of a swim about. You practice hovering, and have a go at frog kicking, but that's about it. The point of dive 1 is really just to give divers a chance to chill out. People bring so much stress with them that it's usually good idea just to get them in the water and show them that I'm not going to hit them with a taser or stab them or something. It's a chance for them to relax.
It's also a chance for the GUE instructor to assess what we have to work with. A chance for us to ask three questions
1. What skill level is the diver at
2. How much stress / personal pressure has the diver placed on themself
3. How hard is the next 3 days going to be :)
So, that raises the issue - what do we look for in order to answer these questions?
So let's take a journey through a typical GUE fundamentals dive 1 and I will explain my thought processes as we go along. I'm going to talk about two divers. Each diver will be at the extreme end or comfort and skill level. Each diver will also be male. This is not through any sexism or intention to suggest that only men do fundamentals, it's because I'm a lazy writer. I'm going to explain the 5 things I look for on dive 1, and what they reveal about you as a diver.
We're only going to 10 metres or less, and we'll be in there for less than an hour or so, so it really is a very easy dive for you. I will have briefed you very thoroughly on the surface, and reassured you that there will be no surprises, so you can just relax and enjoy the dive. Watch me, and follow my instructions.
Off we go then.
You hit the water. Now is the time I start to assess you as a diver. It's not fair of me to assess you on the surface, because the equipment might be new to you. On the surface, however, there are two types of diver. The first type of diver inflates their wing, closes their suit valve and puts some gas in, and just chills out. Their legs are still because they know they don't need to kick to keep themselves up. They might be checking their kit, or watching what is going on, but really they are just using positive buoyancy to do the work whilst they wait to be told what to do. They typically watch the rest of their team join in. The second diver is very different. The second diver cannot stop moving their arms and legs. My alarm bells are already ringing. In the classroom, and on a non-instructional dive, they understand perfectly the basics of basic buoyancy control, but it's like they left it in the car when kitting up. They are breathing heavily and going red in the face. They are in their own little world of pain with their equipment, unaware of the rest of their team and often ignoring my vocal instructions until I am right in their face. they are fighting the dive, not relaxing into it.
So what I am thinking at this point. I am not thinking "OMG what's going on here" because my fundamentals course was no different. What I AM thinking is that this diver has brought extra helpings of stress with them. This might be because they are frightened to do poorly. It's often because they are an instructor on a course where their fellow students are vastly less experienced and qualified than them and they are feeling huge personal pressure, but either way they are hugely stressed. I can't make any assessments about them as a diver yet, but I do recognise that I need to keep an eye on this diver for safety's sake.
Sign one: What's happening at the surface
So, sign one is "how is the diver behaving on the surface. What you need to do is take the time BEFORE you hit the water to let the stress drain away. I tend to close my eyes once I am kitted up and just slow my breathing down. I visualise something peaceful, such as lying on the sofa with my cat purring next to me. Then I am ready, I open my eyes. I refuse to be rushed into diving. I am supposed to be having fun. I make sure my wing is inflated before I hit the water and when I do hit the water I lean back and let the equipment do the work. If I'm in the sea I might have to kick for a shot but that's fine. A good skipper will have dropped me where I shouldn't to work too hard for it.
We're ready to do Dive one now, so it's time for the descent. Diver 1 will look over and make sure his team mate is ready to descend. He will give a slow, leisurely thumb down and if you were to draw a straight line between the two diver's eyes, diver one's thumb would be in the way. He waits for the signal to come back to him, and then descends. As he descends, he falls. He just lets negative buoyancy take him down. His eyes are on his team mate. His legs are kicking gently, just to ensure he stays next to the shot line. As he descends, he intermittently puts gas into his wing in order to slow his descent. At the bottom, he recognises the end of the descent and compensates for his buoyancy before getting to the bottom, finally drifting slowly into a neutrally buoyant position hovering just above the bottom. Yeah. Right. Haha, Sorry. Very, very few divers do this on dive1 of Fundamentals. I certainly didn't. Most divers are more like diver two, who is a very different story. Diver2 eventually sees the thumb down being given to him by diver1 and, irritated at the distraction, flashes a thumb back in the vaguely general direction of diver 1. They are not saying "OK, I am ready to descend, let's begin". They are saying "FFS I'm busy, whatever, stop giving me signals I have enough to do". Diver two descends the shot line like a dying Messerschmitt (thanks Helen Hadley), spiraling around the shot line as they descend through a combination of frantic arm and leg movements. All the way through the descent they are completely unaware of me, the video diver, or indeed their team mate. They are in the own world of stress and discomfort. As the bottom approaches they do, well, typically nothing, and the impact when they arrive at the bottom is similar to the sound made when Krakatau went boom. You can tell within about 5 seconds of the beginning of the descent which diver is going to be which. This is usually the first indication that I am going to earn my money on the course.
Sign two: What's happening on the descent.
You carry enough shiny things and base metals that you should, at the beginning of the dive, be able to descend like a stone. In fact, like a lump of lead. You are also carrying enough buoyancy to bring this process to an end. What I am looking for on the descent is "Is the diver aware of their buoyancy and able to react to it, and are they looking at their team mate or completely self involved". This is far more common than yo might believe. Divers admit to me all the time that they kit together on the boat, jump off, and then meet up at the bottom. What happens in the middle is often a bit vague. Sometimes a complete mystery. Yet the descent is when things are likely to go wrong. Your equipment may be fine at the surface, but is most likely to fail when coming under pressure during the descent. This is when lights go bang, and regs start to do unpleasant and undesirable things. Slow it down and use your equipment to make your life easier. Let yourself fall through the water, don't try and kick yourself around. Descend together, either face to face in calm water, or right behind each other in more demanding conditions. Imogen and I will often descend in touch contact down a shot line in the sea. If I am first, I can feel her every now and again bumping into the back of me. If that stop, I slow down and wait. That way, we end up at the bottom together. I am not looking for smooth, synchronised descents on Dive of GUE Fundamentals, but I do hope to see divers attempting to stay in contact with each other, and ending up at the bottom together. We're only going a few metres after all. So, the second thing that gives you away on GUE fundamentals is the descent.
We're on the bottom now. Diver 1 moves into position on the platform as I briefed on the surface. They may, in fairness, take a little reminding. A light across the eyes and a finger pointing at the platform is usually enough. Diver 1, when reminded of what he is supposed to be doing, will give me an OK signal, and swim over. This all has to happen fairly quickly, because right now diver 2 is attempting to commit suicide. They have gone for a swim and are probably descending down a ledge on their own somewhere. What they are actually doing it trying to turn on their torch. Or clip something off. Or something. Lights across the eyes are ignored. Hands waving in front of their face mean nothing. the video may show them head down in the silt trying to kick themselves underground, or perhaps going back up to the surface, still looking at their torch. This is sign 3. This has nothing to do with skills. Five minutes from now they will be hovering in front of me doing a skill. This is task fixation. The third thing I look for on GUE fundamentals is a diver that has a tendency to become self absorbed as soon as they hit the bottom.
Sign 3: How aware is the diver
There is no magic to awareness underwater. It's like awareness underground. I'm sure you can think of examples in your life where your competence at something, and mental state, allows you to be more aware of what is going on around you than someone who is stressed or task loaded. Examples are everywhere. I watched a film the other night about someone performing major surgery through a hole the size of a ten pence piece. The surgeon was holding conversational chat with the other people in the OR. At one point he asked for music to be put on. And then started singing. My guess is that he didn't do this the first few times. There are a few tricks to becoming more aware. The first is skill. This is what you are on fundamentals for, so there is no shortcut here I'm afraid. The second, however, is speed. Slow everything down and it becomes easier. The next, and this is a biggie, is focus. Diver two's focus had a lot of "my" in it. Is my torch on. Should I clip my thing off. How's my buoyancy. How much of my gas is remaining. Take the time at the bottom to think of "we". Are we both safely down at the bottom. Are we OK and happy (there's a useful signal for checking if your buddy is ok, when you get to the bottom is a useful time to employ it). How are we for gas. Are we in the right place. It's a change of focus, but it makes the difference between two divers in their own world who happen to be in the same geographical location, and two divers who are working together as a team.
I've now got both divers on the platform, and all I'm asking them to do is hover for a bit, to practice the buoyancy tricks and tips I have given them. Now is the first time I get a chance to assess their skills as divers because I have asked them to do something - hover motionless. Diver 1 drops into position and their body is motionless. The first thing I think it "shit". Divers who struggle through Fundamentals are easy. They turn up stressed, finding it difficult to stay still in the water, and four days later they are a different diver. Divers who turn up that just drop into position perfectly are rare, but damn hard work when they do. They have paid like everyone else, and deserve their money's worth. Anyway, diver two does not drop into position. they take a while to get into neutral buoyancy. I may have to work with them quite a bit to make that happen. That's fine, it's what I'm there for. However, if I have two divers that drop into position neutrally buoyant here is what I look at. Their fins. The fins are the windows to the diver's soul. If a diver's fins are moving, it highlights a problem. A diver who is unstable will compensate with their fins. A diver that is negatively buoyant will compensate with their fins. A diver that is stressed will kick with their fins. I see no end of divers attempting to kick their twinset up their back in a vain attempt to get their valves nearer their hands. People swim circles around a platform when trying to put up an SMB. A waggle of the fins may point to a tiny, almost unconscious compensation of negative buoyancy. When doing a frog kick, fins may be in control and disciplined, creating an efficient, smooth propulsion, or they may just be thrown together. They may be flat, creating a stable platform, or pointing up at the sky.
Sign 4 then, is the fins.
You can tell everything you need to know about a diver by looking at their fins, I encourage you to get feedback from your buddy about what they are doing. If you suddenly realise your fins are all over the place, stop and ask why. If you realise your wins are waggling constantly, it's almost certainly a buoyancy issue, so stop and address it. You will find the more negatively buoyant you are, the more your fins will go. Put a bit of gas in your wing and they will slow down. A bit more gas, a bit less waggle. Can you see a pattern emerging? The truth is that there can be lots of reasons why your fins waggle away without you consciously doing it. The important thing is that you are hiding an underlying issue, and it's only by forcing yourself to keep your fins still than you will reveal the real problem and fix it.
Now imagine we have two divers in front of me. Both are hovering neutrally buoyant. Both have relatively still fins, and their arms are calmly held in front of them rather than conducting Mahler's first symphony. To all intents and purposes they appear to both be relaxed and calm, and both appear to have achieved neutral buoyancy. Both are looking at me for instruction. Before going on with the dive, I look at sign five.
Sign five: breathing rates.
Diver 1 is hovering in front of me. Between each stream of bubbles there is a long gap as diver one takes a slow leisurely breath. When the bubbles do come they start with a few, and end up with a long stream lasting several seconds. Diver one is pretty chilled out. He’s clearly not working hard. Diver two's breathing tells a different story. His bubbles appear in a rush. A sudden exhalation. There is virtually no gap between streams of bubbles. On the video it looks like he is breathing out for 60 minutes. This is a sign of a diver that wants to do well, but is working far too hard. He is compensating for buoyancy with his lungs, or simply stressed out by the effort of doing nothing. Sign 5 then is breathing rate. A rapid breathing rate like this is a fast track to a CO2 incident. Following close on the heels of rapid breathing are headaches, anxiety, increased stress, confusion and dizziness. This is easily fixed, at least in open circuit divers. If, for any reason, any reason, you notice that you are breathing hard, then bloody stop it. Diving is supposed to be fun. There is little that you should encounter in your diving that a rapid breathing rate will fix. Stop. Just grab hold of something, which will remove the stress of maintaining buoyancy control, and slow your breathing down. If you were in the middle of doing something, such as putting up an SMB, then stop it. Wait for everything to calm down. You will be amazed how much easier everything seems once your breathing rate is back to normal.
So, the five things I look at on dive 1 of GUE Fundamentals
1. The surface.
Calm down and let your equipment do it's job. Just relax and watch what is going on around you.
2. The descent.
Let yourself fall without physical effort, but stay in contact with your team. Remain aware of where you are on the descent and adjust accordingly.
3. The awareness
Think about "us" rather than "my". Take the time to look about and give everyone an OK when you get to the bottom. Try to avoid becoming task fixated
4. The fins
If there are all over the place, just keep them still. Something will happen. That something is why you were waggling your fins in the first place. Fix that.
5. The breathing
Calm. Slow. Regular. If you are doing anything else, well that's unacceptable. It won't end happily, so slow down and breathe normally. If a task is stressing you out, let someone else do it.
Finally, before someone has a go at me, please do not think for a second that I sit there watching these issues, laughing quietly at how the video will look whilst the diver fights and struggles. My job is to spot these issues quickly and then address them. I don’t care about a diver waggling his fins, but I will make him stop to find why he’s doing it and fix that. I won’t let a diver who is stressed out and breathing like a train carry on. I’ll stop them quickly and bring the exercise to a close, or even the dive if need be. I haven’t talk about how I fix all of these issues because, well, that’s what training is for and there is only so much you can fix on the internet.
Next week, I will talk about is
"What are the most common problems and mistakes everyone makes on Fundamentals, and how can I avoid doing the same"