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The road to technical instruction

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My students are required to descend at precisely 10 metres per minute to the bottom, swim for a prescribed period or until the failures I give them force them to turn the dive, return to the shot line, ascend from 30 to 21 at precisely 9 metres per minute.

Then ascend to 15 metres at precisely 6 metres per minute. Then gas switch and deal with any failures I give them before executing precise stops until 6 metres. They are required to maintain precise buoyancy control and control of trim all the way through the dive.

OK signals all round. Slow thumbs all round. Dump the wing. Reset the clock. Follow the students down. 10 metres. Mental note: They are 15 seconds late. Tell them to come closer to the (shotline). 20 metres. Now 30 seconds late. 25 metres, the bottom appears below. Slow the descent. They hit the bottom at 3.28. Make mental note of time. Mental note: only one of them flow checked, but both of them checked their depth and time. They swim off. Fall into position behind them to check their fundamentals skills. Frog kicks good, buoyancy good. Check their depth. Mental note: fundamentals skills are good, frog kicks are good, but when swimming close together perhaps a flutter kick would be more appropriate or as the visibility is good, separate slightly. 5 minutes in. Time to initiate the planned failures. Swim up and check gas of both students. Concentrate to select student for failure based on how the multiple failures will affect gas consumption of both divers, and check left post is open. Swim next to student and adjust my buoyancy. Bubble right post. Student stops, signals team, closes valve, breathes down reg, bubbles stop. Switches reg, clips it off. Perfect. Team mates comes in before being asked. Stop team mate and make mental note about working as a team to resolve issue. Now ? has been asked. Team mate confirms to me which reg victim is breathing, flows checks valves, opens right post. Bubbles. Team mate tries to fix but failure is non-fixable. Team mate signals to victim that right post is broken. Victim flow checks all valves. I re-open closed valve and check student’s gas. They decide to turn the dive. I fall behind into the back again. Mental note to remind them to communicate about putting the compromised diver in the front. Head feels a little sluggish at 30 metres. So much to remember. Hard to visualise the rest of the dive. Make a mental note to myself that if I ever teach this course for real do the 30 metre dives on 30/30 when possible. Swim up and check both their gas contents. Time to initiate out of gas situation. Check valves of diver that will be donating. Swim up to diver who already had one failure. Adjust buoyancy to match diver. Bubble left post. Diver stops and signals out of gas to team mate.  Mental note to congratulate them on remembering that they were already operating on one post. Team mate comes in and donates gas. Diver shuts down post and purges. bubbles stop. Asks team mate for help. Team mate comes in and flow checks, then confirms reg is actually broken. Signals to victim. Victim flow checks. I re-open everything and check both diver’s gas. Safe for drill to continue. Divers swim back to upline/shotline. I give the signal to ascend. Time to first stop is excellent. They have 60 seconds to get from 21 to 15 to simulate mid-depth ascent. Good communication. Check their gas again. They reach 15 metres perfectly on time. Compromised diver does perfect gas switch. Donating diver resets long hose and performs gas switch. I fail his decompression gas. Watch their buoyancy. Good. He tries to fix the decompression gas but it is not fixable. They run out of time and move to 12 metres. Failed diver asks to share decompression gas. Other diver “forgets” to ask for diver to watch him switch to back gas. Mental note. They share decompression gas. They go back to back gas. Ascend to 9 metres. Good stop. Good time. Mental note. They move to 6 metres. Bang on time now. They signal correctly a doubling of the shallow stop. Mental note. They share gas. Half way through the stop they switch to back gas. end of stop. two minutes to the surface. Planned time 27 minutes. Actual time 29 minutes. Back on the surface, time for the debrief….


As with everything in GUE, instructor development follows an evolutionary process. For example, GUE’s most popular and well known course, Fundamentals, has undergone not only several changes since I started diving with GUE, but has been significantly revised. The process for developing technical  instructors has also been reinvented. Originally it was a very demanding and harsh bootcamp selection process. This then evolved into an exhausting instructor training course followed by internships and a final examination and has now finally developed into a modular process whereby candidates can select their preferred path, and make use of everything from live Skype demonstrations and feedback to 1-to-1 sessions with instructor trainers. In addition there is a structured instructor training course lasting a week held a few times a year throughout the world. Technical instructor training is now going through the same evolutionary process. 

GUE has learned from its experience in teaching and developing fundamentals instructors with the process for technical instructor development also now becoming modular. Each instructor candidate has a form containing dozens of criteria. Each criteria can be graded from 1 to 5, with a 5 being “exceeding expectations”, a 4 being “ready to teach” and the remainder indicating decreasing levels of competency. Candidates can intern with instructors, (a long, expensive process which whilst undoubtedly producing superb instructors who have learned from a variety of world class educators), but means the process can last years and is restricted to those that can afford to travel frequently around the world. The other mechanism is to attend an ITC, where you experience intense development, with the intention of ticking off as many of the criteria as possible. The focus on the ITC is in-water work, because classroom presentations and field drills can be done using Skype or GoPro video after the course.

The ITC I planned to attend was being held in Krnica,Croatia. This is, in my opinion, fast becoming the new centre of the world for GUE. The organisation has its roots, and base, in Florida, but divers from Europe and the US regularly descend on Krnica. From the second week in May, the place is swarming with GUE divers for the following five weeks as various courses, expeditions and a wreck documentation contest are held. The roads are significantly better than the UK, the speed limits more sensible, and everywhere is more friendly.  The food is good, the weather lovely. Oh, and the place is staggeringly, almost breathtakingly beautiful. At one point on the three drive from Zagreb to Krnica I actually burst out laughing because the view of the the mountains and coastline couldn’t not have been more perfect if you had asked an artist to do it. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Croatia has it’s problems, but having now been there a couple of times I haven’t seen them. 

This ITC was being taught be Krill Egerov, and planned a year in advance. Kirill is the assistant training director for GUE. He’s one of two people in the world who can teach Tech 2 and Cave 2, the other being Jarrod Jablonski. He’s a former university lecturer in physics and archaeology with a passion for cooking. Originally from Russia, he has lived all over the world, picking up a love of curry from the UK. He is direct, brutally honest and requires a degree of precision I didn’t know was possible. I wasn’t sure how to write this next sentence becomes it just becomes embarrassing. It would be easy to say that Kirill is one of the most competent instructors, and divers, that I have ever seen. It would certainly be true. However, there comes a point where I have to stop saying that on every course or GUE event I attend. The reality is that you’re probably not going to stumble across a Tech 2 instructor or IE that isn’t superbly competent. 

I was sharing a room with a gentleman called Jesper Kjøller from Denmark, who turned out to be a really nice guy. He’s a former professional musician now a Tech2 Cave 2 diver and rebreather diver, an SSI instructor trainer and PADI course director with thousands of dives across 40 countries. He also makes a mean pasta dinner, and has an excellent way with students. The other guy on the course was Sander Evering from the Netherlands, who runs dive solutions, speaks three languages, and teaches physical education. They were both friendly, outgoing guys who loved teaching diving and who admittedly, like myself, to be nervous about the course. 

This brings me to another point. There is something very embarrassing abut being a UK GUE diver or instructor within GUE. Oh it’s fine when you are teaching in the UK. You feel like you are working hard, and doing well. However as soon as you start to travel and really take part in the global GUE thing you suddenly realise you are a moron. Within five minutes of sitting down in the classroom it became apparent that despite the fact that I was the only one in the room with English as a first language, the class was being taught in my language. Everyone else spoke “a number” of languages. I immediately felt pretty humbled - and spoiled in all honesty. I had nothing but admiration for the guys in the class who were going to be held to the same standards as me, but actually had to translate every sentence they were giving into English before starting to speak. As the week went on the dive centre filled up with GUE instructors and divers, all of whom dropped into English to speak to me. They might as well have patted me on the head and given me a bowl of water. I almost felt like a fraud calling myself a “global” instructor.

Let me give you a summary of the course. The course lasted 7 days. Every day we spent four to five hours underwater and four to five hours doing theory. Then we would have 3 hours homework. So the reality was 11-14 hour days. Outside this time we had to obviously eat, take care of all the logistics, prepare kit etc. The real summary of the course is that by the end, Kirill wanted us to have presented every theory session, every dry run, and executed every dive that students would experience on Tech1. In the classroom, someone would go first to give a full presentation from start to finish - this might last an hour. Kirill would then give detailed step by step feedback, pointing out where structure had broken down, the presentation had not flowed, or critical information had been missed. Where a presentation went well he would still give feedback, giving us extra information we could include, or tools to help people learn. Then the next person would give the same presentation. Then the next. Each time more structure was expected, and a smoother flow. 

This is probably where I was the strongest. Obviously I had a clear language advantage. The guys did awesomely well but clearly were sometimes fighting to think of how to say something in English rather than struggling with the materials. That being said, none of us were perfect and it was a humbling experience. It took a day or two for all of us to get our heads back into “student” mode. This is an interesting point that all of us admitted. When you are diving as a GUE instructor you are almost always in the water with people who look up at your diving abilities. This does not make for a healthy ego, or for honest self assessment. The course brought us crashing back to reality. If nothing else it would turn us into more effective and disciplined fundamentals instructors. Each evening we would prepare our presentation for the next day. This process started out as three individuals, but of course by the end of the week we were comparing notes and examples, trying to learn from each other. 

Whilst we were giving presentations Kirill was doing the classic instructor examiner thing. This means that as long as you stay on track and keep your presentation relevant and concise he will listen, quietly nodding to give you reinforcement. If you say something stupid, however, you will get an innocent “why”. And you’d better know the answer, because if you gave another half answer you’d get another “but why”. At this point you either had to come up with the real answer, or shut up and admit you didn’t know. Or dig yourself a big-ass hole to climb out of. Of course, Kirill had a gift for knowing when something was being deliberately skimmed over, and would either pick up on it on the debrief, or ask the instructor for clarification. I decided to call the moment he asked “why” the “oh shit” moment, because you felt like you had just been caught with your hand in the cookie jar. 

After the theory sessions, we would head outside into the bright sunshine to do dry runs. This was just perfect. The weather was lovely. Sunny and warm but not the “Raiders of the lost ark melting faces” hot of diving in Poland nor the frankly ludicrous Mexico heat where it is so humid you don’t need a whiteboard because you can just draw pictures in the air and wipe it away when you are done. It was lovely. The dry runs were all done in a very specific order, and it was clear the Kirill was starting to try and make us see the bigger picture. You cannot do a dive about non-fixable failures until you have done the dry run. You cannot do manifold failures until you given presentation X, and dry run Y. Very quickly it became apparent that Tech 1 is a very interconnected course. Everything has pre-requisites which have to be mastered before moving on. It also became immediately apparent why Tech 1 instructors like John Kendall have always told me it is critical for people coming to Tech1 to focus on getting their fundamentals skills right rather than practising anything else. If you go to Tech1 with poor buoyancy control, trim or an inability to perform a competent valve drill, then your course will be a disaster. Practicing gas switches or anything like that is a complete waste of time. Focus on the basics. Back to the dry runs. 

We did dry runs for setting up and labelling decompression bottles, running line, fixable and non-fixable valve failures, manifold and erroneous failures, fixable and non-fixable decompression gas failures, the list went on. All in a very specific order. Again we did it one at a time and were assessed for structure, flow, assessment of student learning. Kirill had us write up the dry runs we had done each evening to give us a template going forward. During the week the dry runs got smoother and smoother as we started to put the structure in without it sounding forced. Essentially we were relaxing into instructor mode.

Every day we would also have a dive session. These were mammoth. Five hour sessions were not unknown, so it was a good job that the water was warm. I’d love to say the visibility was awesome, because it usually is in Krnica, but this week tragically it was only a few metres. 

The first dive is worth recalling. A six metre dive, where I was the instructor. Take the students down, monitor their gas, do a fixable right post failure followed by an left manifold failure, with a light failure in the middle. I handled it as best I could underwater but when we go to the surface my mind was a blank. I couldn’t debrief the students. I was mortified. I spend my weekends where I am not diving with my wife or friends giving people long debriefs on the surface, trying to make them educational, telling them what they had done well, what they had not done well, and how to fix those things. On this dive I could remember nothing and simply looked at Kirill and said “I can’t remember anything”. The other guys then did their dives with varying degrees of success, but the reality was that they had proved their experience and I had blown it.

I was pretty dejected that night, and had to do some soul searching. Why was I here. Was I the fraud I suspected myself of being, in it for the ego and glory rather than the benefit of the students or growth of the organisation? I had to have a very long talk with myself. Why did I want to be a Tech1 instructor? I came to the conclusion that I had been approaching my diving all wrong. Becoming a GUE instructor had been a dream for me, but it means nothing without the diving. My personal diving had been increasingly falling by the wayside because I had lost purpose. “Becoming a Tech1 instructor” was not a good enough purpose. That meant I was doing it for my ego rather than to help GUE divers improve. Suffice to say a sound mental thrashing was delivered. I went for a midnight run and gave myself a good talking to. I decided that when I came back to the UK my instructional role within GUE would continue but cease to be my driving purpose. I decided my role within GUE was to grow the GUE community, and as a result I would work with clubs to setup diving projects, as others have done with, for example Rich Walker with Portland Harbour wrecks. I literally had an epiphany. I had taught the GUE introduction so many times but not listened to it myself. What is the purpose of GUE? To reconnect divers with their passion. To train people so that they can achieve their goals, not just training for the sake of it. I listen to clubs that tell me they have lots of active divers but a lot of them don’t seem to have the joy for diving they used to, because they don’t have a purpose. Well, I’m going to find a willing club and work with them to see if I can do my bit to change that. If becoming a Tech1 instructor is part of that then great but, if not, I decided it would no longer be my priority. That being said, I also told myself to man up and do the best I could on the course. 

Back in the water the next day I took a different strategy. Anyone who has done any coaching with me will know that I advise people to break it down into its component parts so that it does not become overwhelming in the same way that a climber might look at how to handle the next single pitch rather than being freaked out by the concept of a vertical mile of rock. I decided to approach every aspect of the dives I was instructing the same way. How did the descent go? How were the fundamentals skills on the bottom? How were the failures on the bottom? How was the ascent section? How was the failures on the ascent? Everything started to become easier. I started to remember the dive. It helped that Kirill recognised he had pushed us a little hard on the first day and wound things back a little. I think he wanted to stretch us and then allow us to grow at a more relaxed pace. It worked really well, even if it was uncomfortable at the beginning. For the rest of the week he kept us barely within our comfort zone, learning at the maximum pace without quite stepping into overload. It was, in fairness, the closest to my comfort zone I have been consistently kept at in any diving course I have done. 

The instructor trainer debriefs were tough. What the gas pressure of Diver A at X metre stop? What was the pressure of diver B when you initiated the OOG? Why did you choose this diver over that diver for a particular failure? What was the variation in depth at the 3 metre stop for Diver B? Did Diver A remember to reset the timer on his gauge after the gas switch? Did Diver B return the change depth signal at 6 metres? What was their frog kick like? How was their trim on the bottom?  What was their primary tie off like? I couldn’t for the life of me understand how anyone could keep track of this much information yet Kirill demanded more and more. Each time we went diving we seemed to remember just enough to satisfy what was needed on the LAST dive, but not enough for the newer, more complex dive.

As the week went on we started to go deeper, and I had another epiphany. Tech 1 is a truly terrifying course to teach. On fundamentals, if the students mess up, they will hit the surface a few seconds later with only their egos bruised. It’s all very controlled. At tech1 a poor instructor could easily allow students to hurt themselves. In fact, a poor tech1 instructor could easily hurt the students, as was proven when one of us very, very nearly put both of our students out of gas at 6 metres. 3 experienced technical divers. 3 experienced GUE instructors. All Tech2 divers. A PADI course director. An SSI training manager. And we nearly put ourselves out of gas at 6 metres on a recreational dive. We would have had two divers OOG and one diver having to deal with the situation. Kirill had it all under control but it was a hell of a wake up call to us all. All you have to do is select the wrong student for the wrong failure, and the gas picture can change dramatically in a short space of time. There is so much to keep track of that that the capacity required to do so is frightening. I realised that becoming a tech1 instructor isn’t just a new card from GUE, it’s a huge step in trust from the organisation, and a mammoth step in personal responsibility. Tech1 graduates will go off diving to 51 metres with only our training between them and injury or worse. So along came my second epiphany of the course. With the mindset of “me, me, me” that I approached the course with, I was not a safe person to be a Tech1 instructor for GUE. In addition, I am simply not good enough. The first changed during the course. I threw myself into just being the best teacher I could and putting my “student’s” safety at the front of my mind, even if it meant failing to remember everything I had to. I now understand the gravitas and responsibility of a technical instructor and will always give it the level of seriousness and professionalism required. I understand that everything is about the students safety and success. In fact, it has made me a far more professional and competent fundamentals instructor. The second issue I believe I can work on.

Towards the end of the course we started to get tired, and we started to make mistakes. Small ones mostly, but also the clanger I described above with very nearly 3 OOG divers. 

By the end of the seventh day we were pretty much done, and I was glad when I gave the last presentation of the course. After that, as with all GUE courses, it was time for an individual debrief from the instructor, feedback to him, and a path from him on how to go forwards. At that point I knew I had done ok, but to be honest was more focussed on how I was going to move forwards as a diver rather than an instructor. I was genuinely stunned when Kirill told me he was giving me a full signature, signing off every box except the swim test as the swimming pool was, err, broken. We decided against doing the swim in two inches of water so I’ll need to get that ticked off in the UK. However, that’s not a drama. Once the swimming test has been done, the next step is an instructor exam, which means teaching the course from start to finish, organising all the logistics etc, with no flaws. 

I am not ready for this event. Unlike fundamentals, where I was overexcited and keen to get going, I think Tech1 requires a little more thought. I want to go diving for a bit. To work with a club and kick off a project. To hone my own personal diving skills, and think through how to run a class in the most efficient and safe manner. Then I’ll go for the exam. However, even then I’ll make sure the focus is the students, not me. If ensuring the student’s safety and progress coincides with what my examiner wants to see from me then great. The course has given me a little humility, a significant refocus of my diving priorities, and a profound respect for people like John Kendall and Rich Walker, who make it all seem so easy, balancing every aspect of a course in and out of the water without seemingly breaking a sweat. Another lesson, which I already knew, is that Narcosis is progressive and insidious. When we arrived at 30 metres in the instructor role all was good, but both students and instructors reported feeling it increasingly difficult to stay focussed and clear headed on the details of what was planned, and everything we had to keep track on. It become clear we had to give the students the more complex failures at the start of the dive , because giving them such failures at the end had a dramatic effect on how long it took even experienced divers to resolve the problems. Remembering everything as an instructor was challenging to say the least. The thought of teaching below these dives on non-helium mixes appears more and more dangerous, at least to me. 

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Gareth Burrows is a GUE Instructor trainer, and a personal diving coach for recreational and technical divers of all levels, specialising in improving buoyancy control, trim and stability, in-water confidence, and ascent management. He has trained with PADI, TDI, IANTD and GUE as well as serving as a DO in a BSAC branch. He has been diving cold water wrecks in Europe and around the UK for over a decade, and can usually be found diving out of Brighton, Portland or Plymouth. He is qualifying later this year as a cave diver and looking to become a GUE tech1 instructor in the 18 months. He has trained or coached hundreds of divers from newly qualified open water divers, to course directors and technical instructors.