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Not a PADI Dry Suit Course October 31, 2008

Posted by Chris Sullivan in Training.
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As mentioned in my Rescue Diver experience, I started my reintroduction to diving and dive training in Canada with Scuba 2000 in Richmond Hill, Ontario, about half an hour’s drive away from my house, but eventually I gave up on them. My experience with the Dry Suit course was the reason. After the frigid waters I encountered during the open water training for Rescue Diver, I decided that I wasn’t going to last long diving in Canada in wet suits. Call me a softie but I like my comforts. A dry suit will extend the range of weather conditions that can be realistically dived in, and getting too cold on a dive not only reduces enjoyment, but impairs one’s performance.

So having had a reasonable experience with them on Rescue Diver, I signed up for dry suit training. I didn’t have a dry suit but was in the process of arranging a loan from a friend. So when I signed up, I asked whether I needed a dry suit to take the course, and they told me that I wouldn’t. So when I showed up they asked me if I’d brought my dry suit, and I said “no – I was told I wouldn’t need it”. So we did the classroom session but the pool training was delayed until I could bring one.

Several days before the course was to start I received a phone call telling me to come in and get the course book. So once I got home from work on the train, I got in my car and drove the half hour to the shop to pick up the book. When I got there, the shop owner, Alec Pierce, was behind the counter. I told him I’d come to pick up the book and he said they were all out. I then said I’d received a call from them to come get it, had told them I would, driven half an hour to get there, and was surprised that they didn’t have the very thing they’d asked me to come and get. He replied by saying that people come from all over Ontario to his shop, so half an hour was no big deal. Obviously his ego far outweighs his customer service skills. Simply saying “Sorry” and a commitment to hold the next available book for me would have been fine.

The next course was held on a weeknight. Once we were through the classroom (my second time), the instructor wanted to call it a night, instead of going through the promised pool session. The students more or less insisted we continue on, so we got ourselves ready for the pool. My friend’s dry suit was an older 7mm Neoprene suit. You don’t see these any more because they are incredibly buoyant. It also had a leak just below the right knee, and was a bit tight, as he is a little shorter than I am. Nevertheless, I fit in reasonably well.

The first thing I noticed upon entering the water was the crushing force of the water on my toes, even at a depth of four feet. This remained uncomfortable throughout the dive. I also needed a huge amount of weight to be able to complete the training. The instructor put second weight belt on my which was lopsided and uncomfortable. I’d never done a fin pivot before (it wasn’t part of my open water, advanced or rescue courses) and trying to learn it in a hot pool inside a thick dry suit, crushed toes, and unbalanced weights was extremely challenging. Somehow we got through it though.

I never went back to Scuba 2000. They think they’re professionally run but they seem to have forgotten about the customer, or maybe are used to having people so young that they can get away with pushing them around. Once you’re my age your tolerance for BS goes way, way, down. I completed my dry suit course the following year at my current establishment, and also bought my dry suit there, along with all my other dive equipment and training. Just to be clear I had no issue with the instructors I met, they were fine. It was the indifference of the shop staff to my needs that caused my problems.

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PADI Assistant Instructor Course October 30, 2008

Posted by Chris Sullivan in Training.
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So I’ve told my local dive shop that pending approval from my wife, I’m signing on for the Assistant Instructor Course starting on Nov 7th. Some of the training is in the open water, which is now at 49 degrees Fahrenheit (9C). Wearing a dry suit will make for harder work, with more drag and attention to buoyancy, but it will be worth it.

The course will be taught jointly by Brad, our local dive shop owner, and Ed, who is planning to do his Course Director training in Malaysia this winter. Brad is contemplating doing that program next year. I think he’d like the shop to become a PADI Career Development Centre, which is what you get to be when you have a Course Director on Staff. It costs about $10,000 for the 2 week course, so it’s quite an investment for our little shop and Brad’s part-time diving career.

They’re both good instructors. I’ve taken Brad’s Tec Deep, Divemaster, Dry Suit, Wreck, Drift and Night Diving courses and they’ve all been practical and informative. Ed will want to put on his first IDC Class in the Spring and I expect I’ll be in it. It doesn’t look like I’ll have a chance to do Trimix this winter so this is a good option for me.

I’m not sure what I’ll do once I’m an instructor. I can probably find the time to do a little teaching during the summer, as I don’t want to lose what I will have learned. At least it will give me something to write about in this blog.

PADI Rescue Diver – Part Two October 29, 2008

Posted by Chris Sullivan in Dive Log, Training.
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In part one I described the academic and pool components of the course. The Open Water portion of the PADI Rescue Diver coursetook place at Centennial Park in Barrie Ontario, in the frigid waters of Lake Simcoe on May 7, 2005. I recall that the air temperature was pleasant enough, although not warm – I’d guess around 15C. The water temperature was another thing altogether at about 4C on the bottom and 5C on the surface.

This was my first cold water dive in 19 years. I still had my wet suit, gloves and booties from that dive in 1986, and struggled to put them on. Months later I saw in my log book that I weighed 160 pounds back then, compared to the 175 or so I was carrying at the time. It was tight – even the gloves. It kept me reasonably warm, though, although my toes were numb for half an hour after we finished.

The first dive was two simulations – a diver with a cut, and an out-of-air emergency. It took about 10 minutes altogether. We went straight into a tired, then panicked, diver on the surface. Now the point of this exercise is to avoid letting the panicked diver try to climb on top of you. If he does, you submerge and he is supposed to let you go because he doesn’t want to sink. However, in the simulation, the diver has a BC full of air. The guy who was supposed to be panicking went for me, so I dutifully submerged. He then grabbed my leg and held on, so I was hanging upside down. This is where the appropriate simulation ended, as this wouldn’t happen in real life. I pried my foot away with the other one, came up behind him, and further inflated his already well-filled BC.

However I didn’t inflate my own early enough, and thoroughly exhausted myself keeping on the surface. I suppose it was the stress of getting away from him that made me forget. My weight belt was also too heavy by about 5 pounds. Once I had him secured I inflated my own vest and relaxed trying to catch my breath. I let him tow me back to shore, and at lunch he disingenuously claimed he rescued me. You can tell I’m still pissed off. That’s why the rescue diver course advises not to make a big thing of someone’s mistake, but to have a quiet talk with them about it. It’s so they don’t write about you in their blog years later, that’s why.

Dive 3 was a very long search for a weight belt, which was standing in for a lost diver. The visibility was horrible and worse still with divers kicking up mud on the bottom. I’ve got to say that my buoyancy skills in a full wet suit and freezing cold water weren’t up to snuff at the time. We tried lining up along a rope but couldn’t see one another, and eventually found it with a circular pattern search. It was more of a recovery dive than a rescue by that time.

The last dive was a non-breathing no-pulse diver on the surface. I think we did OK on that on, simulating CPR and so forth.  The whole thing lasted 1 hour and 50 minutes and we were very glad to exit the water. The biggest thing I learned from the experience was to get myself in better aerobic shape. I didn’t like being totally out of breath. The other thing I learned was to check rental equipment properly. The shop had rented me a reg with a damaged mouthpiece. It had been bitten through, and was hard to hold in my mouth. I dove most of the course using the backup second stage.

It would be 5 months before I dove again. I missed the entire summer of diving in Ontario, but that was the last time  I’d do that.

Scuba Tanks: My Faber 95 Doubles October 28, 2008

Posted by Chris Sullivan in Equipment.
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I bought a pair of tanks with bands and manifolds last year for technical diving. These tanks are heavy. When wearing both of them I need about 16 pounds less weight, which means with a wet suit on I need no additional weight at all, and need to add lots of air to my BC to become neutrally buoyant at depth. With my dry suit I’ll wear around 6 pounds of additional weight to be able to do a deco or safety stop comfortably at 10 or 15 feet (vs. 24-27 with a single AL80). These weights are all in fresh water.

Faber 95 Doubles mounted on Backplate and Wing

Faber 95 Doubles mounted on Backplate and Wing

The 95 cubic foot nominal capacity per tank is an exaggeration. This caused me to miscalculate my RMV last year as we all thought the rating was at the rated working pressure. The working pressure of these (Low Pressure Steel) tanks is 2400 PSI, but to fill them to 95 cubic feet you have to use the 10% overpressure allowance by filling them to 2640 PSI. At 2400, it will only contain 86.4 cubic feet. However, the tanks are quite robust and are rated below their actual capability. So I regularly fill them to 3000 PSI which is 118¾ 108 cubic feet, and have seen them filled to 3500 PSI or 138.5 126 cubic feet (although beware of the overpressure relief valve that may have a relatively low relief pressure). There was still lots of air in the doubles at the end of the dive. I like to balance the amount I use to keep my options open.

So my doubles are good to 236.5 216 or even 277 252 cubic feet which can make for a nice long dive. One dive this summer, though, required my doubles plus a staged 80 cubic foot tank at depth, then half of another 80 cubic foot tank for decompression. Bottom time was 2 hours, total dive time 3 hours, mix EAN35, depth about 85 feet. Just the air weighs 18-20 pounds, and the tanks weigh 37.2 pounds apiece (from the chart), so with the valves the whole package weighs about 100 pounds when full. Add to this the backplate and other gear we have a heavy load.

One learns over time to minimize the amount of effort required to lug these things around. If at all possible, I try to transport them in the pickup truck that the owner of our dive shop owns. If they must go in the trunk of my Toyota Camry Sedan, I haul them up on the lip of the trunk (boot for those in the land of 240 volt electricity) , pivot them around so they’re facing the right way, put them on my back, and walk to the boat (or shore or dock). Consequently the plastic cover on the lip of my trunk is pretty banged up. I prefer this, at least for walks under 100 yards, to carrying them on a dolly because I don’t have to lift them. Even if I have stage bottles I can make it with all my gear in 1 trip sometimes. My next vehicle is going to have a tailgate, I think. One of the reasons I do a little weightlifting is to be able to manage this load without hurting myself.

I find it strange that we import something as pedestrian (and heavy) as a tank all the way from Italy. Faber makes good tanks though, and they have a reputation for being able to withstand much more than their rated pressures.

10 Stupid Things I’ve Done When Scuba Diving October 27, 2008

Posted by Chris Sullivan in Miscellany.
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In no particular order. There’s plenty more things, I’m sure, but this is enough confessing for one post.

  1. I’ve jumped in the water without my fins – twice, because I was preoccupied with other things. No injury other than to my ego. Taught me to be more methodical and check myself from feet to head before jumping in. I’ve contemplated painting the toes of my booties international orange, maybe with white letters spelling FINS.
  2. In Mexico, I let an unqualified mate from the boat turn my air on. I found out at 60 feet, 10 minutes or so into the dive, that he’d only given the valve a half-turn. Once down to about 2500 PSI, the last second or two of each inhalation was difficult. I tried my octo, and it was the same. I got close to my buddy and started to prepare to surface. I glanced at my pressure gauge while I was inhaling, and saw it drop to zero, then pop back up again as I exhaled – and then realized what the problem was. I swam over to the divemaster and signalled that he should open my valve the rest of the way, continuing the rest of the dive without incident. Always check it yourself.
  3. Also in Mexico, I let the instructor on the boat insert my weight pockets into my BC. One fell out during the dive, although it was only 5 pounds and I managed to get it reinserted. Note to self – always check my own gear – better yet, prepare it myself too.
  4. I’ve jumped in the water with the zipper open on my dry suit. Fortunately I was near a handhold and had a lot of lift in my BC. Almost did it another couple of times but my buddies caught it. I think one of the advantages of a suit with the zipper in front is that it’s much more obvious. The reason I forgot is because I was distracted by something else.
  5. Diving in a local lake and at 95 feet, I got lost while using a 25 year old compass (a Scubapro LS-1) that wasn’t in good shape, and the card got stuck under water. I surfaced and swam back to the entry point. While decompressing (I stayed down a long time trying to find my way back) I let the compass boot slip of the wrist strap. The compass wasn’t worth anything but the strap and boot might have been useful to me or someone else. In fact just a couple of weeks ago I saw on a scuba forum that someone was looking for one.
  6. I was practicing filling my signal tube/lift bag and got the strap caught around my regulator, pulling it out of my mouth and dragging me toward the surface. I got it all sorted out after ascending from 35 to 18 feet. I thought I was doing everything right but it is something more to look out for.
  7. I was swimming along with another guy after recovering a lost weight pocket with about 16 pounds of weight in it. I was carrying it in my right hand, and he was holding it with left. We were swimming up the slope and I couldn’t reach the dump valve of my BC or Dry Suit with my left hand, so I had to let go of the weight at a depth 60 feet to reach the valve. This put me in a runaway ascent (and dropped him to the bottom) as I couldn’t dump air fast enough (although I should have let it out from my neck seal). I flared for the last 20 feet or so to slow myself down and concentrated on breathing regularly.
  8. I entered the water with about 1200 PSI to help out a Open Water class. The instruction took longer than anticipated and once down to 300PSI I had to signal the instructor that I was low on air and return to the surface. It wasn’t a big deal for him but I should have planned ahead better and got a fresh tank before going in. One of the students might have needed air.
  9. I wrote out deco tables on a wrist slate so poorly I couldn’t read them underwater. I had another copy on my fin, but in the heavy current had great difficulty actually getting my foot in the right position to read them.
  10. I wore a pair of worn-out gloves on a dive on the Jodrey. The tips of the fingers were worn right through. Having to hang on to the rocks covered in Zebra Mussels, I cut the tips of my fingers up. No stitches needed but they hurt for a week.

Through experience and mindfulness I hope to do less stupid things in future.

The PADI Rescue Diver Course October 27, 2008

Posted by Chris Sullivan in Training.
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The winter was barely over when I starting looking for a shop in my area where I could take the course. I walked into the shop I’m with now, Colt Creek Diving, and was scared off by one of the staff. I went to the other shop in Newmarket (one town away), called the Dive Shop, and didn’t get a great feeling about them either, so I ended up with an outfit called Scuba 2000 in Richmond Hill Ontario. It was a bit further away (still is, actually) but it seemed well equipped and competent.

My instructor, Greg Vaysman, did a decent job in the classroom. There were about 8 in the class – all from different walks of life. The Canadian military involvement in Afghanistan was a hot topic in the upcoming election in Canada. One young woman, who was in the Canadian Army and looking forward to going to Afghanistan shortly, summed up her opinion on politics as follows: “I don’t have an opinion because the army didn’t issue me one”. One guy had more than a thousand dives under his belt, but I had just over 80.

One of the nice things about Scuba 2000 was that they had their own pool (I’ll mention the not-so-nice things about them in a later post). It wasn’t very big which made the scenarios more difficult but we did the best with what we had. The panicked diver on the surface exercise was fun. We were taught that a panicked diver is a grave danger to himself and the others around him, and will climb on top of you if given the chance. We took turns being the victim and the rescuer, and my counterpart was a fairly petite woman.  When my turn came to panic, I flailed my arms around and when she got close, climbed up on her shoulders, pushing her underwater. She descended, coming up behind me as she was trained to do, but my flailing arms caught her regulator hose and pulled it out of her mouth, and she didn’t manage to get it back. After a while I decided to “calm down” but I think it was a lot harder than she thought it would be.

Another scenario was the unconscious diver underwater, the scenario had us on shore (i.e. the edge of the pool) when a student walked up and said her brother wasn’t back from his dive, then started to get irrational. There were two of us handling the scenario, and we decided to go in. My new buddy (the 1000+ dives guy) entered the water as fast as he could (an error in my mind,  I was trying to do at least an abbreviated buddy check – you don’t want the rescuers to become victims themselves). In the water about 30 seconds before me, he found a tired diver on the surface and brought him back. Meanwhile I “located” the unconscious diver on the bottom and brought him back to the surface. So my buddy in his haste forgot to rescue the diver who needed help the most.

Part of the sales pitch of the Rescue Diver course is about growth as a human being when you take responsibility for others. I didn’t find it that way. I think the problem is that while you train in rescue techniques, everything is simulated. I found the Divemaster internship (which is optional, you can do a Divemaster course without it) the most satisfying in that regard, as you work with real student who have real problems, and are expected to handle it properly.

Thunderball out on Blu-Ray October 26, 2008

Posted by Chris Sullivan in Miscellany.
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I was just reading Nathaniel’s post about this movie which I saw last winter in a Bond extravaganza on my satellite channels in HD. The underwater scenes are indeed great, all the more so when you consider the primitive scuba equipment that existed at the time. There were no buoyancy compensators, backup second stage regulators, depth gauges or submersible pressure gauges anywhere to be found.

The write-up in Wikipedia about the plot is pretty funny. While it’s easy to suspend disbelief when you watch the movie, the plot is really laughable when you read it.

Back then, you really had to be in shape to be allowed to learn to dive, so it was much less common. Now, in a couple of weekends and for a few hundred bucks, almost anyone can do it – and just about anywhere you go with a quarry, lake or ocean nearby will have a dive shop and somewhere to go underwater.

Automating the Buoyancy Compensator? October 26, 2008

Posted by Chris Sullivan in Equipment.
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Is it an idea whose time has come? I’ve seen a couple of articles lately about this development. The University of Auckland‘s mechanical engineering department, quotes a spokesperson as saying “to rise in the water, the diver adds air to the buoyancy control device. To sink, air is let out”. Really? I don’t think so!

Unfortunately this is the misconception that causes runaway ascents with new divers. They add air to rise, then the air expands and they rise faster, etc. etc. This is managed by releasing air on the ascent, and going the other way, adding air as buoyancy is lost while descending.

Call me a luddite, but I’m not sure I’m entirely happy with this concept. To be useful, it would have to meaningfully reduce a diver’s task loading, and be very reliable. It couldn’t substitute for buoyancy training, as you’d have to be trained to dive without it and manage any abnormal behaviour if it failed to work properly, so it would require a better trained diver than a standard BC. This is very similar to pilots needing to be able to fly an airplane when the autopilot is broken, and also to be able to recognize an autopilot malfunction and override it if required.

So what purpose would it serve for recreational diving? Can it be argued that there is some threshold of reliability below which it exceeds the average diver’s skill level, resulting in less overall diving acccidents even without special training? Could such a device handle every situation thrown at it – like vertical currents or a diver who actually wants to be negative or positively buoyant? So far it’s only been tested in a swimming pool.

The inventors are looking for development funds. I won’t be first in line to buy one, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some day this invention might be as well accepted as the BC itself.

Advanced Open Water Diver Training – Part 2 October 25, 2008

Posted by Chris Sullivan in Dive Log, Training.
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After my deep dive on February 10th, 2005, I went straight to underwater navigation dive in a place called “Dickie’s Reef” later that morning. It was a pretty simple affair, swimming various patterns underwater, counting my kicks. After going through training in the late eighties for instrument flying, I was quite used to the mental arithmetic of computing angles on compasses at high speed, so at the leisurely pace of scuba diving is was no problem. In airplanes you’re also dividing up your time between a bunch of instruments, a chart, maybe looking outside and monitoring engine instruments which gives you plenty to do.

The following morning we were off to “Coral Garden” for the search and recovery dive. This involved swimming a square pattern using the compass, to locate a weight belt that was sitting on the bottom nearby. The visibility was so good there that I caught the weight belt in the corner of my eye well before I was near it, but I kept swimming the patter to keep the instructor happy, “found” the belt, and attached my “lift bag” to it to bring it to the surface. My lift bag was actually a spare BC, because the resort didn’t have any real bags, so I swapped over the inflator hose from my own BC to add the air.

In the early afternoon, still on February 11th, we visited the wreck “Katherine” (or “Katryn”) for my wreck dive. I wrote a description of the wreck and its position, and measured the length in kicks (40 double). This wasn’t my first visit to the wreck. It was almost exactly 10 years before that we’d visited the same resort when it was called Ciboney’s. Sandals had expanded the property somewhat, and we were staying in the expanded portion, so it took a while to recognize it.

The last dive of the course was my favourite – a night dive under moonlight on the evening of February 13th. We were each issued a light, which was left off at the beginning of the dive to avoid attracting jellyfish near the surface. Once we were on the bottom, at about 40 feet, we killed the lights and swam for a couple of minutes in the near darkness. That was really cool. On the rest of the dive we noticed a very different atmosphere on the reef. The coral had a softer look as the polyp tentacles were out of the their hard cases, and animals like lobsters were walking around on the bottom instead of hiding in their lairs. I also saw my first puffer fish since I arrived – on the 9th dive of the trip. This just shows how little fish life is left in the area. I also had to navigate a reciprocal course which was no problem.

One other notable thing about the night dive was a third diver. The instructor, undoubtedly with the participation of the boat captain, was making a little money on the side, and asked me to keep the knowledge of the extra passenger to myself. I’ve done so to this day and hope enough time has passed so this revelation will be harmless.

On the trip I managed to squeeze in 12 dives, which was a record for me. 7 of them were just for fun. On one of those, one of the divers was a guy I’d seen earlier with all his own gear in a roller bag. He’d joined us for the morning dive on the 13th (the day of my night dive), to a place called “Ocho Rios Reef” and a depth of 60 feet. Every time I looked at him I saw masses of bubbles coming from his regulator, and sure enough, in less than 15 minutes, he was running low on air. At a resort like Sandals, once someone is low on air, everyone has to come up, so my total dive time was 18 minutes, using only 800 PSI of my own. The instructor was not pleased, and I didn’t see the guy again. I suspect he was only allowed to do the shallower afternoon dives, while I only dived in the morning, so I could spend lunchtime and the afternoon with my wife.

I saw PADI’s course progression in the “Adventures in Diving” book, and started thinking about what to do next. That turned out to the PADI Rescue Diver Course in the cold waters of Lake Simcoe, north of Toronto and not far from where I live.

Being a Good Divemaster October 24, 2008

Posted by Chris Sullivan in Emergencies, Training.
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I’m down in the Boston area on business Thursday and Friday for an annual visit to head office. One of my colleagues down here has been helping me out so I took him out for some wine & dinner Thursday evening. Joe used to be a Marine, and served in Desert Storm. We talked about diving, and to my surprise he expressed some fear in taking the plunge, so to speak. We talked about the panic-inducing mask removal and replace exercise that we have to be careful with, in case the students try to bolt for the surface, which he thought sounded pretty scary. Then he told me about a chemical warfare exercise he’d done where noxious gas was introduced into a room in which the soldiers had to remove their gas masks, count to 10, replace and clear.

I said he’d have no trouble with the mask exercise.

To my mind, the main responsibility of the Divemaster is the safety of other divers. With students in 30 feet of water, with sufficient support, it isn’t all that difficult to do. Make sure they have enough air (as well as yourself), take things slowly, don’t let them bolt, make sure a regulator is in their mouth, their buoyancy is under control, etc., make it look like fun to keep anxiety from creeping in, etc.

This summer, acting as a safety diver on a wreck course with all students certified at least advanced and nitrox, I was at a 90′ deep wreck keeping an eye on students as they entered and exited, swimming just above the deck which had enough gaps to see them swimming with the instructor below, and be able to enter if needed. I had my full tech gear on with double tanks on my back, manifolded and each with it’s own regulator, as well as a stage bottle clipped to my BC.

One student only had 800 PSI air remaining when entering the wreck but his buddy, who had a 125 cu foot tank and was an Assistant Instructor (one rung above me the Divemaster, although without any tech training) beckoned him inside. He was also with an instructor who also had tech gear so I let it go. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but that’s water under the bridge. The relatively short swim-through and the numerous exit point were factors, I suppose.

When the student emerged – alone (the air-bearing buddy being delayed during his exercise) he had only 400 PSI left. When I got to him he was down to 300 PSI, and I could tell he was concerned although not about to panic. After a minute of waiting for his buddy I took him over to the ascent line, gave him my primary reg, went to my backup and escorted him to the 15′ safety stop. Why did I share before he was completely out? Because with no air he was dependent on me, with 300PSI left he had an option if for some reason I was no longer available to him. More options are good. Two air sources are better than one. Once he was finished with his stop, I sent him up on his own air.

Did I save his life? Of course not – I can’t claim credit for that. What my intervention did, I think, was break the chain of events that might have led to a life-threatening emergency. There were other options available to the student. His buddy showed up not long afterwards with lots of air remaining. There were other tanks lying on the deck (valves off but full of air), or by skipping the safety stop 300 PSI is enough to make it to the surface without running out of air at an ascent rate of 60 feet per minute. But any of those options could have increased stress and reduced the margin for error. So that’s what the being there is about. When supervising, if you have to save someone’s life you may well have failed to manage the situation so to avoid a life threatening situation – and while your actions may be life saving, you’ve fixed what should never have been broken.

The greatest thing about being a Divemaster is taking responsibility for others. The hardest thing is that you’ll never be perfect. The important thing is to always try to be.

I enjoyed swapping stories with Joe and it furthered my appreciation for the incredible things that human beings are capable of. By the time we’d finished I think he’d come around to thinking that he could become a diver. I hope he does.

As for me, I still have much to learn.