Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Team Diving, Success & Safety

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The terms team diving and technical diving tend to go hand in hand. Any training manual from any agency will give you that.

The question I wanted to throw out is whether many technical divers have ever actually participated in a truly functional dive team, or even fully grasped what the term actually means? Sad to say, from observance of the many people that pass through my hands for training and diving, the answer to the question can quite often be ‘No’.

This is a real shame. Quite apart from the obvious loss of a genuine safety benefit, they are losing out on the tremendous power of a team to make things easy for themselves, to achieve success, and thereby experience a vastly enhanced sense of satisfaction, reward, and of fun. Lets remember that fun is a goal not to lose sight of when operating at the technical levels. Unfortunately again I seem to see technical divers not enjoying it anymore. Maybe they got into it for the wrong reasons, their expectations were off to start with, but often times they seem to be making things just that bit too difficult for themselves to get the results and therefore the fun, out of their dives. Then they drop out. Good teams don’t seem to have that problem. By teams here, I’m talking in the broadest sense, everything from a buddy team on straightforward deep reef, to assemblies of maybe dozens of highly focused exploration level divers.

Some reading this will understand exactly the issues I am raising. You’ve been there yourselves. Others might be just a little hazy on the benefits I’m pointing to, so I’ll attempt to illustrate by example.

Take success of a dive as a benefit of team work. At one end of the spectrum we have examples like the recent extensions of the Doux de Coly?? in France. Just eleven volunteers, lead by Michael Waldbrenner and Reinhard Buchaly, in a mere seven days, set up and push a coldwater, 60m deep cave to a distance over 5400metres. Somewhere in there, was some very, very slick teamwork, and with the results achieved, some very proud and happy men. Rightly so as these are repeatable, incident free performances. The procedures are down pat.

Most of us will never get near a dive like that, though we can measure success in similar terms — we were happy about our dive, we had a good time. Countless dives I’ve made with regular buddies, we broke no new ground that day but the dives were perfect. Clockwork, completely relaxed. Even the inky black winter ones were smooth as silk. No separation issues, the same directional decisions, finding ourselves interested in?? looking at the same things, edging shallow at the same time with barely more than a nod of acknowledgement, and feeling the security of a partner watching, giving full attention through the whole of the deco. The way it should be. Those who have had the pleasure of diving with a buddy like that know the mood the dive creates, even if there wasn’t much going on, you dived well, you knew it, and felt good about it afterwards. The teamwork created the atmosphere and the team grew stronger.

With partners like that you have what it takes to break some new ground when the opportunity arises, to extend yourselves a little. I have clear recollections of visiting wrecks here, where many have dived before, we dropped in, tied off, reeled down three sets of stairwells, Bingo! Engine room hatch at 70m. Nobody had seen it yet but we got it first dive. It’s so easy when you work and think together, and attach importance to watching each others back. The same sense of satisfaction came from recent diving in Truk.?? Routinely getting back on board with video footage of parts of the ships that even the liveaboards crew didn’t know existed. Again, knowing each other, each others gear and how to help, each others thoughts. Down go the stress levels and up comes the ability to focus on the dive, and out comes, not a world record by any stretch of the imagination, but an experience that makes it worth every penny you’ve spent on getting to that level.

Contrast that to diving with a non-buddy. One who keeps you on edge wondering what they’re up to next, that you weren’t happy with how they set up or checked their gear ( ie/?? your gear if something goes wrong ), who had different ideas on deco schedules, on gases and how to mark them, who wasn’t paying attention to you during the oxygen stop. How on earth are you going to enjoy a dive like that? How are you ever going to break new ground and feel yourself growing as a diver when you are on your toes the whole dive watching ‘buddy’ , rather than buddy making it easier by being on the same page? No team spirit, no fun, no progress.

Success and reward aside, another benefit of good teamwork is safety.?? Examining this issue can lead us to look at what is, and what is not, a team, and into some quite contentious areas. My opinions come from things I have witnessed in years of being around the water, but they remain opinions. Make of them what you will.

A big, basic point for me is that a team of one is not a team. And is not a group of individuals doing their own thing and calling it a team.?? A team stays together. Have I ever dived alone? Yes. Will I ever do it again? No. With open eyes one has to admit that, safety wise the track record is appalling, and its more often than not experienced divers that are lost. Last month in the States an instructor was lost on Closed Circuit, found dead in 12m of water having swum off alone. That hit the headlines because of the equipment used, but there are so many more that don’t make world news. A few miles from my home a visiting instructor died this summer. He began a dive with a group, had been no deeper than 6 or 7m meters, indicated he had difficulties, was escorted back to 3m by a guide where he waved him away and signaling he would surface, alone. His body was recovered three hours later on the bottom, weight belt off, air in tank. What happened? Good question. Nobody will ever know. If he was having physiological difficulties on the surface even the worst of buddies should have made a difference. Start searching the net for accident reports and make a list of those that were solo at the start, or became solo during the dive and were never seen alive. How many times do the reports have comments like "he jumped in the water and descended ahead of everyone else and we lost track of him" or " we got separated at the start of the ascent but I didn’t worry because that happens a lot with us". Although others were present, these people were effectively alone when things went wrong, and nobody knows what happened. What are people really thinking when they dive that way? The answers escape me.

Now try and find an accident report where a cohesive, attentive buddy pair or team, got into difficulties and someone developed a problem which despite the best efforts of the others, there was nothing that could be done to save them. This is a very, very rare case. One could possibly site the loss of Dennis Harding, who was diving rebreather with open circuit buddies, one of whom got low on air and the gas share was mis-managed resulting in a fatal blow up to the surface. However we touch on another important concept for successful team diving. That of standardizing equipment and its relationship to handling problems, or non-standardizing and its ability to, at worst, create them, and at least, hinder the success of the dive.

I think back to the early days of my own technical diving, years ago to an era of ‘anything goes’, if it works for you its ok. Nowadays I tend to feel differently. I think back to the times of wandering around pre-dive looking at everyone’s hoses, this long hose on the left, this one stuffed, this inflator on such and such, this guy dives his isolator half shut, oh, and here comes so and so with a modified rebreather, and this for bailout. These were generally divers who were skilled, vigilant and aware, not beginners by any stretch, but how I ever convinced myself that handling an emergency would be anything other than a disaster I fail to see. It was all so unnecessarily complicated, which brings us back to the ‘being able to concentrate on the dive’ issue. All of us involved in this Flying Circus are still diving together, but things have naturally progressed to all diving the same, simple, Hogarthian rig. Now we know exactly how to get help from each other, and don’t waste valuable time kidding ourselves that we’ve figured out how to solve this and that peculiar problem, which probably would never work under stress any way. We gear up, its quick and easy, we can relax on the dives as we know where everything is, and we’re doing dives effectively now which I honestly believe would have been desperately unsafe, or from a practical standpoint, completely unachievable five years ago. We all had our water skills back then, but sensible standardized gear wasn’t there to compliment the package and support the team’s abilities.

A related area which also has great bearing on team success and safety is using like gases and willingness to run the same schedules. Bottom gas is obvious. Never let a team member dive air while you have trimix for example. Get yourself in current, a swim back to an upline, an air diver in deep water will have no tolerance to that, they’ll be disabled by CO2 narcosis and an absolute liability to themselves and everyone around. Dive the same gas, and given modicum of fitness, you’ll all have the same exercise tolerance and know when to call it quits. Together. Switch things around, you are on trimix, you need to share gas, and someone donates a long hose with air or a weak mix. If you’re in trouble, you do not need this complication.

Decompression gases are equally as important. Use the same ones all the time and a familiar pattern of stops should sooner or later emerge. You won’t really need a slate with nine different run times on it. The ascents will start to feel easy, adjustments for loss of gas or overstay become intuitive. Use the same ascent gases as your partners too. Obviously gas switches are a critical event in any decompression and you must watch each other like hawks for error, or unforeseen hitches. Firstly it should be clear that you check each other for correct switch, which means you must be in the same place in the water column. Imagine a buddy going to oxygen at depth by mistake, and you don’t spot it. The situation you are now in when your buddy seizes is 1) avoidable in the first place by caring enough about the team to be in the same place and check things, and 2) extremely serious for you who must now effect a rescue in the middle of your deco. Less dramatic problems also can happen on switch points, where someone with you is of great comfort. Did you ever not notice the jellyfish tentacle around the mouthpiece you were switching too? Or simply have a clogged or dislodged diaphragm and get little but water? Surely, one should be able to manage their own airway through the coughing fit, but?? there is nothing like a partner appearing right in front of you with a functioning regulator to donate just in case. Good teams notice and fix these things — in fact not just notice, they are ready for them. On a less alarming but more practical note, if a team all carries same gases, everyone is in a position to hand off gases to a diver who has, for example, had a regulator fail, and everyone knows how to use that gas within the team schedule. That level of confidence in your ability to support each other in water, again brings us back to allowing you to feel good about safely taking on bigger dives. Making progress and having a good time.

One could fill a book with the Do’s and Don’ts of Team Technical Diving. Here I’ve simply tried to paint a picture of the basics as they’ve revealed themselves to me, both through my own activities, and many times by pointers delivered by more seasoned divers. In diving I’m primarily interested in enjoying myself, and in staying alive. The concepts above have kept me safe, and far from becoming limited by the standardization of procedures, gases and equipment, they have allowed me to participate in dives that would have been impossible any other way. If you don’t feel you have a fully sympathetic buddy or team in your regular diving, it can be a long road to get things changed around. Start with the simple question of whether you really are aware of each other and watching each other as much as you should. And be honest in your appraisals. If you think you could do better, fix that first. Its really question of convincing yourself that it is important to stay together. That’s an easy goal.?? If buddy isn’t convinced…find a new buddy. Anything can happen to you in the water, alone or otherwise, but if someone sees it happen, you’ll get saved.?? Following that step, you should naturally start to see things in the same light and automatically work towards common goals. Then, as many of us have, you may start to find a new level of satisfaction in your diving.

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