Doing It Right - An Essay
I wrote this one to delve a little deeper into DIR. To try to explain why things are what they are. You might also want to check this one out. It's shorter!
Doing it right really means to do it properly. No skimping and no compromises. It sounds easy enough but it is not - it requires balls of steel.
The DIR system is a strategy and the goal is safety. It encompasses both procedures and equipment but more important are the values or ethics that were used to come up with the rest. Some call this mindset.
Let me tell you a story. When I was kid in school I occationally went to the library to kill some time and play chess. There was one guy there who was a regional champion of some kind and every time we played I felt that I had chance at winning but never did. After having played and lost many games I asked him to think about the game we just played and tell me what I did wrong. I was very surprised when he told me that I didn't do anything wrong but the end was inevitable anyway. The key he said was in the opening of the game were he would gain an advantage in position and tempo that later on in the game was impossible to do anything about. So while I was searching for things to do differently the true answer lied in the strategy and the preparation before the "war" started so to speak.
It is the same with diving - strategy and preparation. Sometimes I hear people arguing that shit happens and you just have to live with that and deal with it when the time comes. I don't believe that at all. Well, that is not entirely true because if a meteorite hits planet Earth I don't believe there is anything we could have done. Other than that when it comes to diving most of the things that goes under the "shit happens" is avoidable - for those that have prepared for it. And preparation is the key to safety. Being prepared means to know the risks, know what to do when they occur and have the skill to do it. That requires knowledge and practice. And some problems are not solvable under water so you better have backup plan for that.
To get knowledge and skill you can take a class. But the classes are too short to get all the information. That's why you need experience. The class will cover the basics and keep you safe enough so that you can go on learning the rest on your own. That is also why you should not dive above your training - there are a lot of things the instructor didn't have time to tell you.
Of course to take the time and effort to prepare yourself you first need to realize that diving is a serious life threatening activity. If you don't believe that...well go to http://www.iucrr.org/report_a.htm for cave diving deaths or http://www.bsac.org/techserv/increp05/fatalities05.htm for scuba diving fatalities in the UK or google for DAN's reports covering accidents and diving fatalities.
When you try to learn a life threatening activity you need learn from other peoples mistakes because you wont live long enough to make all those mistakes by yourself, even if you are lucky enough to survive them. Learning from other peoples mistakes are very difficult but even more difficult for some people.
Having done all kinds of training I should know better but one time my primary light failed just as I was about to enter the water on a night dive. It was a shallow wreck only 11 meters deep about 50 meters from the shore so against better judgement I continued with the dive using a backup light. Hey, it was only 11 meters... My buddy had his light of course. After coming down on the wreck the viz was about 1-2 meters and as my eyes adjusted I could see fairly well with my little backup light. About 20 minutes into the dive I was positioned slightly head down outside the wreck when my suit inflate valve stuck or frooze in the open position. I didn't notice immediately and when I did it was too late because it was so shallow and I didn't have room or time to get feet down before being dragged up to the surface - feet first. I hit my head on something going up but just enough to make me slightly dizzy. Of course my buddy couldn't see a flashing backup light in the low viz and he looked the other way for a second when this happened so he never saw me disappear. Since he was inexperienced and just getting his DIR-F scheduled he didn't know what to do when he couldn't find me anymore and surfaced after searching for five minutes or so. Myself, I was doing the Michelin man impersonation on the surface.
So, nothing serious happened but it could have. What if it was deeper, what if I really hit something on the way up ending up laying on the surface unconscious? What if my drysuit inflator got stuck on a deep dive? I know for sure people have been seriously injured by that. Would me having a primary light made any difference? Yes, it would. I could have signalled my buddy and he could have helped me. If he had proper training he would also have known that if we got separated we would both backtrace to the position we last had visual or touch contact. Funny enough today he is both GUE Tech 2 and Cave 2 trained.
So of course something else would go wrong when I decided to "break" the rules and dive with my puny backup light. Think about it. It's easy to think the dive is easy but people have been killed in 3m of water too. And you don't know what day you are going to need that reserve gas or backup light or whatever. What seems like easy conditions may quickly turn into something else. Sure you could be lucky diving with slightly faulty equipment or not having enough helium for deeper dives but someday you might not.
So just as you learn to dive or learn other things in life you also need to learn to when to dive and when not. It much easier to try and jury rig something, dive on the wrong mix or skimp on safety just to get to do the dive but it's not worth it because if you dive long enough someday it will bite you in the ass. This is fundamental to safety and DIR and that's why it even has a name: "option no 1 - do not dive".
In part one we talked about the core values or mindset that was the base of DIR where safety was the ultimate goal. Let me expand on this.
When we dive we venture into a hostile environment. Since we can't breath water we are at the mercy of our equipment. More important though is that we at the mercy of mother nature.
Diving in aggressive environments like high flow caves mother nature will spit you out if you're not careful. Even if you never been in a cave just imagine trying to swim against a current of several knots. It is like going up in a boxing match with Mike Tyson where your best tactics would probably involve hiding or running away and it's the same in the cave. Hiding from the flow and making headway using intelligence rather than brute force is essential to success. The most effective way to accomplish this is to be very streamlined carrying only the most important equipment. This is the concept of minimalism and the setting where DIR was born.
When I try to describe the minimalistic approach I think of a battle field. One approach would be to go there with tanks and heavy artillery and just blast the enemy into pieces. Another would be to send in a small team of highly trained special forces that would use snipers and sabotage techniques to disable the enemy just as effectively as wiping them out would be.
The minimalistic approach is central to DIR. As an extention of this when it comes to procedures or equipment, simplicity usually wins over complexity and lo tech over high tech. The problem though is that extreme minimalism can be a safety problem so we need to find a balance between the two.
When diving we are at the mercy of our equipment yet equipment will fail, no matter how careful or prepared we are. Consider a regular no decompression dive with a single tank. If you have a problem and can't use your regulator you could signal your buddy and share gas with him. Now, if he has a problem too you could both swim to the surface. That's two failures and both are survivable. Since swimming to the surface is not an option when doing decompression dives or being in an overhead environment we need to carry more equipment to have the same amount of safety - redundant equipment in another word.
On a tech dive we would have a double tank with two regulators. If one fail we switch to the other. If that one failes we share gas with our buddy. Now, as you can see our buddy is paramount to our safety because we don't have enough options without our buddy. We could of course instead carry more equipment but that would be detriment to streamlining and would slow us down. So a buddy is the best option and also gives us redundancy when it comes to decision making and navigation. It also gives us the option to assign different tasks to members of a dive team which will lower our taskload and enable us to accomplish more in a single dive.
It's funny to talk about DIR as a minimalistic approach because as the exploration dives has become bigger so has the amount of equipment. It's still the minimum required but if you look at the pictures of the wkpp and others it sure doesn't look like it. Anyway, a lot of the bottles that are carried and transported in and out of caves are for safety and not for actual use.
If being prepared is one cornerstone of DIR and the minimalistic approach is another then consistency would be the third. Consistency means we try to do everything the same all the time which implies standardization.
If we look at a practical thing like having good trim. What's the point if there is no current and you dive over a sand bottom? Well, consistency. If you venture into a more aggressive environment you need to stay of the silt floor and also be efficiant which means streamlined. If you dive like that all the time it will become your natural instinct and it wont require any additional concentration the day you really need it. I guess one could call that being prepared too. In fact conducting tech and cave classes it's often easy to spot students that have not practiced trim and bouyancy enough for it to become second nature. Their skill level will look fine when everything is calm but when problems are introduced they will revert back to their natural state - often feet down. For instance in a cave that would mean highly increased risk as every problem encountered would have the added problem of zero viz due to inadequate skill level.
Consistency is also important when doing dives at different levels and in different environments. If we can keep the base the same it would be much easier to transfer your responses when you progress in your diving or when you go to different environments.
For instance I explained earlier why the buddy team is so important and the ability to help your buddy giving him a functional regulator is part of the safety net. When we are sharing gas we always donate what we are breathing. That respons doesn't change if we are doing a single tank dive in 30ft or a 300ft dive carrying multiple bottles. An excellent example of consistance across the board. Unfourtunately, there no immediate way to accomplish "donate what you breath" with the RB. That is to some extent countered by additional training and the fact that a gas sharing scenario is more unlikely to happen on the rebreather. It's the price we have to pay to be able to use it.
If we look at consistency in equipment configuration everything looks the same with different layers of complexity. A single tank diver has a backplate, wing, longhose, backup reg, one first stage/tank. A double tank diver has the same rig except two first stages and canister light. A more advanced diver would add a number of stage bottles and deco bottles and perhaps a scooter or two. An even more advanced dive would use a rebreather placed between the regular doubles and add the rebreather mouthpiece and switchblock to a regular doubles setup.
I also wanted to add another thing about the standardized equipment which is that standardization means compromise. You could always find a more optimal solution if you define a smaller range of operating conditions. For example if I only do ice diving I could alter my configuration to be more optimal for that but then of course even less optimal for other types of diving. That is why the DIR system is a compromise because it has to cater for backmount diving in recreational, tech and cave settings. Don't get me wrong! I believe it is d*mn fine compromise and in the name of consistency I'm prepared to sacrifice some small gains of increased performance in certain areas. One example of that would be the use of large bolt snaps with heavy gloves. It would be optimal for a beginner to use the largest possible. For the more advanced diver that is not a good solution because he has to clip more stuff to his d-rings and larger boltsnaps are easier to clip into each other and take up more space. So a better solution would be to practice more so you can operate the smallest bolt snaps with the biggest gloves. Another non DIR approach, not considering minimalism and the following simplicity, would be to add some kind of device to make it easier to operate the bolstsnaps or maybe just increase the size of the d-rings instead.
Using different criterias is one reason why equipment can be a source of debate between DIR divers and others. Often people don't realize that the DIR equipment has been choosen with a set of prerequisites like having a competent buddy or trying to use a minimal set of equipment when others use a different set of core values or mindset to determine the best configuration for their diving.
When it comes to procedures consistency or maybe we should use the word standardization becomes ever more important. When I know what my buddy will do in a certain scenario and he knows what I will do, we add to the safety of our team. For instance if we get separated we will follow a set procedure making it more likely that we can reunite. If I have some kind of problem I know what I can expect of him and I will be expected to do the same.
For example if I have a severe problem breathing O2 at 6m I expect my buddy to be there and if possible take me to the surface with danger for his own life. There are many stories from cave diving where people have left each other in the cave because they felt uncomfortable or where running low on gas. Of course they didn't feel it was important to inform their buddies so they just turn around and swam out. And it was in fact the unpredictability and non commitment to safety and buddy awareness that become the seed to DIR. Why would you want do dive with someone who aren't commited to your safety when you are commited to his? Fighter pilots say "never leave your wingman" and I for one find it hard to dive with anybody who doesn't believe in that. This was the number one reason to "not dive with strokes" as George Irvine would have put it. We say don't dive with unsafe divers because everybody understands that and it isn't a negative remark. Anyway, that is probably why some believe that DIR divers only are allowed to dive within their own groups which is nonsense but when it comes to increased risk it only natural to avoid any unnecessary risks. And remember safety was the goal in the first place.
Actually avoiding unnecessary risks is what we should strive for. By being prepared for the environment we dive in, having good buddies to do it with, practising to stay sharp, keep learning and having the right tools for the job we have done what is reasonable from a safety point of view. Of course staying home is the best option but I for one feel that I want to do what is possible to increase my odds while still pursuing a life threatening activity.
Part 3 - The Application
Strategy and all sure is interresting but what about some examples?
Well, I once did a dive on single tank in a mine. Maximum depth was about 30 meters and maximum penetration was about 80-90 meters. Just after turning at max pen I got caught with my fin in some old line. While turning around to free myself I could see my buddy continue swimming and disappear in the dark. My heart started to pund even faster but I managed to free myself after a while. Looking at my pressure gauge I think I had about 80 bar left (10 liter 300bar bottle). I was certain of my ability to swim out of there even if I run out of gas. Not because that I had tried it of course and not because I knew my normal swimming pace in meters per minute. I just thought I could by using sheer will power. After freeing my self I continued out and met up with my buddy at the safety stop. There where some navigation involved and of course we didn't have a line. The vis was about 3 meters but it sure was fun....kind of.
So what did I do wrong? Well nothing as I didn't know you should have doubles for an overhead environment, use a continous guideline to open water, plan your gas using thirds or more conservative and having the training, skill and practice to do it safely and be able to handle problems while being inside. I didn't know cave diving even existed.
So let's get something straight. No amount of tech or open water training prepares you for the overhead environment. Not GUE Tech1, not Tech2 and certainly not DIR-F.
Another time I did a wreck dive where the bottom was around 40m. Also a single tank dive with a nitrox mix. This time I used a reel because visibility was known to be bad (1-2 meters) and I thought a reel would be a good idea to find our way back to the upline. After hitting the wreck we started swimming and managed to get separated as I continued straight with the reel but my buddy followed the contour of the deck. It took a while before realizing he was gone and while I did that my heart started pounding again. Well, it's no big deal, just reel the line in and swim back I thought. So I did until the line went up into the roof, visibility turned to absolute zero and I realized I was somewhere inside the wreck. After being absolutely certain of my imminent death I managed to get a grip on myself and through deliberate searching I got out. 30 bar left.
So what was the deal here? Well, 30 meters is the absolute maximum depth you should do on a nitrox mix. Don't let anyone else convince you otherwise. Narcosis and more important CO2 narcosis is not something that hits you. It something that is there all the time getting increasingly worse as depth and workload increases. I see people fuck up everytime I put some pressure on them when they are in the range 25-30m due to narcosis. They may not realize it but that is another matter. When you encounter situations that you know nothing about, turn around. You will see people disregard what I said many times and they seem to do just fine. Sure, but eventually Mr Murphy will get them. I will always remember one nice guy that had a vary casual attitude towards diving and his inspiration RB. He's on the inspiration list today. Yes, that list.
A few other dangers when wreck diving are percolation, entanglement and line traps. Yes, you need to know how to use a reel even for navigation. My line had slipped through the planks in the deck and that was why I wasn't able to follow it out. It's called a line trap. Percolation is when you exhaust bubbles hit a silty ceiling and it starting to rain silt and stuff on you. In my case turning viz to zero. I probably swam into a cargo hold or something.
Also gas management. When you encounter something unknown or just some bad visibility you need to increase you reserve gas. Don't do wreck diving on thirds or some other kind of rule without knowing exactly what the reserve gas you have can do for you. It doesn't matter what class you got taught that in.
One time I did a deco dive in the ocean and had to go to the bathroom but still had about 45 minutes of deco to do. I had to shit in my underwear and swim around in it for that time.
Lesson learned: Diving is serious business and deco diving even more. It's not difficult and you can teach a monkey to do it but never forget the implications of not being able to terminate the dive when you want.
Another time I did a short deeper dive in the ocean and suffered a suit failure. I did about 20 minutes of deco instead of 45 to avoid hypothermia.
Lesson learned: Besides the the seriousness of deco diving remember the seriousness of cold water diving. A nice dive can quickly turn into something else.
I was swam into a small wreck with the intent to swim out the window. I didn't fit. And the viz turned to zero and it took me 10 minutes to find my way out. It was about 4 by 4 meters.
Lesson learned: Don't underestimate the overhead environment and always run a line. And don't forget that light doesn't mean exit.
Once I did a dive on a charter boat. We did a light deco dive using doubles and one deco gas. When we surface in the middle of the archipelago the boat was gone. It had to leave because two novices had been in trouble and they had to fly them to the chamber.
Lesson learned: The boat and the crew and everything involved in your diving is your problem too. Just becuase it's not your buddy doesn't mean you won't get in trouble. Be careful when selecting charters and ask about emergency procedures and equipment.
On a seminar with some other tech instructors we did some skills and some of the guys sucked so bad I would not have certified them for what they were about to begin teaching others.
To observe when you take a class - don't trust your instructor blindly. Some of them suck, even big names. If that affects their classes I don't know.
I did a couple of deep cave dives and almost run out of gas due to one guy being away from cave diving for a while and had a lot of cramping in his legs. He was GUE cave 2.
Lesson learned: A card means nothing and practice is needed to stay sharp.
Just some examples of why diving needs to be taken serious and some examples on why you need to look beyond your training and at the big picture.
Hope you enjoyed this essay!