Stage-bottle logic

OTHREE THERMAL PROTECTION

There are different schools of thought about the “best” way to manage gas volume when cave diving with stage bottles.

The so-called traditional method is to treat the gas carried in stages, exactly as the primary gas supply: breathe one-third on the way in; one-third on the way out; and leave one-third for contingencies. If nothing hits the fan on a dive following this method, divers surface with stages, and primary cylinders each about one-third full.

Yet another option is “half + 15.” With this method, contingency gas for the stage is carried in the primary cylinders. This method requires a little more thought and arithmetic; but is considered by some to be the most conservative and best method when multi-staging. If everything goes smoothly when employing this method, divers surface with stages close to empty, but with all the contingency gas in their primary cylinders, which — with a single stage — translates into the primaries (twins or sidemount) being around half-full or more.

And finally there’s the seat-of-your-pants method which like half + 15, allows around half the volume of the stage bottle to be breathed, but critically, unlike half + 15, does NOT preserve any additional contingency gas in one’s primary cylinders. Provided nothing goes awry, divers using this “technique” surface with empty stages and primary cylinders with about one-third remaining. You don’t have to have a phD. in risk assessment to realize this is the most “liberal” way to dive stages; if anything dramatic happens, it can mean that divers do not surface at all.

But let’s leave discussion on the pros and cons of each method as the topic for a later blog post. Let’s focus instead on an error we should avoid when diving with stages in a cave regardless of which gas management rule we follow. That error is dropping a stage immediately its turn pressure has been reached.

It seems to be a more logical, more conservative, and therefore better practice to carry the stage and it’s extra gas a little further into the penetration.

Let’s look at a couple of disaster scenarios, and see why the habit of carry stage bottles a little deeper tends to be the better option.

Two divers (the ubiquitous Diver A and Diver B) have planned a stage cave dive. For the sake of simplicity, each is using the same size primary cylinders and each has the same sized aluminum stage bottle. Each has identical consumption, and fill pressures in all cylinders are identical. (An unlikely situation, but convenient for our purposes!)

Also, to forego any confusion over bar/litres or PSI/cubic feet, let’s consider the starting pressure in the primary bottles as 3P; and in the single stages as 3S. Our divers, A and B opt to dive following the Rule of Thirds in both primary and stage bottles.

OK, scenario one: Our divers begin their dive and, conventionally, breathe from their identical stages to start their dive. After a pressure drop of 1S, they drop their stages… each has 2S of gas remaining .

They swim on breathing primary gas. They each consume 1P of primary gas and signal “turn the dive.” At precisely this moment, Murphy joins their dive, and Diver A has a massive problem with his primary gas supply. He signals his buddy, and they share gas. Now Diver A and Diver B are breathing from Diver B’s 2P volume of gas.

If things go well — no entanglement, no slowing down because of restrictions, no elevated breathing rates, no taking a wrong turn in the confusion, and no arguments over navigation — they make it back to their stages with zero pressure in Diver B’s primary cylinders.

They grab their stages, and spend the rest of their exit thinking about how close a call they just had. They each surface with 1S pressure of gas in their stages, but zero in their primaries.

OK, scenario two is similar: But in this case Diver A and B when they have consumed 1S of the gas in their stages, switch to their primary gas, and opt to carry their stages a five or six minutes, or more, further into the cave before dropping them.

At the same point in the dive — just after the turn — Diver A suffers the same disaster, and has nothing to breathe. So, both exit breathing from Diver B’s 2P volume of gas; however, in this case, they reach their stages a few minutes earlier than in scenario one. There is gas in Diver B’s primary cylinders when they pick up their stages and continue their exit, during which they give thanks that they carried their stages further into the cave.

They surface with less than 1S of gas in each stage having perfectly justifiably used some of the reserve contingency gas in those stages to exit calmly. Diver B has some gas in her primaries; and, as in scenario one, Diver A’s cylinders are still empty.

Now we might argue the likelihood of the type of complete gas loss Diver A suffered in both scenarios one and two as remote… highly rare, probably impossible. But what cannot be disputed is that in scenario two, by carrying their stages for just a few extra minutes during their swim in, they had contingency gas placed in a better place than in scenario one.

We can debate how best to manage contingency gas volumes in stages (there may be benefits to each method), but in most cases it seems a better, more logical option to think before you drop; and wait.

Dive Safe!

A thought experiment concerning “team bailout” when diving CCR in a cave…

LongO'THREE

First off: Can anyone explain the rationale behind “Team Bailout?”

Hang on… that needs to be rephrased.

Let’s start with this: Is it just me or is the concept of “Team Bailout” for CCR Cave Diving just bat-shit crazy?

Yea, that’s way closer to what I was thinking…

Ok, for those of you who may not be familiar with the team bailout concept, it suggests that a buddy team diving CCRs in a cave environment – you know, wet rocks, hard limestone overhead, perhaps an hour or more from the surface – that they carry sufficient bailout gas “…to get one team member back to fresh air from the point of furthest penetration.”

In certain circumstances, this approach may sufficiently protect team members from harm, but those circumstances should not include the category of diving the vast majority of us engage in.  I believe, a better, more satisfactory practice is for EACH diver to carry MORE gas than is required to get themselves back to fresh air from the point of furthest penetration.

The arguments I’ve heard against using this more conservative tactic is: 1) carrying multiple bailout cylinders is a pain; 2) the likelihood of more than one CCR failure among a team is too slight to consider; 3) calculations for the volume of gas required in a high-stress situation adhere to a well-defined formula corrected for all variables, and therefore it is possible to calculate with a degree of accuracy sufficient to be safe.

Experience is a better guide to best practice behavior than deductive logic, and I have limited experience in this area. So, perhaps my paranoia is unjustified; but here’s a scenario we might all give some thought to before our next cave dive.

Here goes:
Three CCR divers were in the back of a low-flow cave. Each carried an aluminum 40 filled to capacity, which lumped together was enough gas to get any one of them out of the cave and back to dry land. Even at double their normal consumption rate, this was the case. Their dive was well within the parameters of team bailout therefore.

At the worst possible time, Diver A’s CCR went belly up. He could not revive it in any way, and has to bailout. The team began its swim out. A little sooner than expected, but still more than one-third of the way out, Diver A’s bailout cylinder was empty, and he asked Diver B for her cylinder. She suddenly realized that by giving it up, she will have no contingency gas herself. The surface was still a good swim away. Very reluctantly, she handed over her bottle. Momentarily distracted by her thoughts, she floated to the cave’s ceiling and took a minute to recover, which held the team’s progress to the surface still further. Stress levels in all three team members was now peaking. None of them was comfortable.

They were in fact, more small failure, one additional glitch away from a total melt-down. A surprisingly short while later, Diver A – who had been thinking for the past several minutes, what would happen if he got a bottle with a dodgy regulator or had a free-flow, and whose respiration rate had understandably elevated – once again was down to seeds and stems. This time in his second bailout. He turned to Diver C. Diver C had been thinking about this hand-off for a while. He was VERY uncomfortable donating his gas… however, he did so. Several minutes later, the team arrived in the cavern area. Diver A had barely sufficient gas to conduct a safety stop, but did so. Just as the team left the overhead, his regulator began to breath very, very hard.

On shore, while shucking their gear, the group was uncharacteristically silent, each with their own thoughts. What do you think the outcome of this incident was:

  1. This group did not cave dive together ever again
  2. This group rethought their bailout strategy
  3. This group  continued to dive team bailout

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Don’t even think about asking for an overfill in your aluminum cylinder…

LongO'THREE

I don’t trust the integrity of aluminum scuba cylinders… at least, not enough to:

  • overfill any aluminum cylinder (in fact I often under-fill aluminum stages and decompression bottles keeping below the manufacturer’s suggestions for working pressure);
  • keep them in service more than a year or two after their first hydrostatic test cycle (which is every five years where I live);
  • wander very far from a very conservative approach to the frequency of formal visual inspections, choosing instead to follow the manufacturer’s suggestions for cylinders in Heavy Service;
  • miss Eddy Current testing as part of the VIP procedure (EVEN WITH BRAND NEW CYLINDERS!);
  • be trusting of loners and rentals, especially those with the look of being in service since, and taking direct hits during, the Gulf War.

My reasons for being a “mother hen” are based on a professional ‘cover everybody’s arse’ strategy to risk management. And a certain knowledge that high-pressure vessels have an enormous potential to harm. I’ve witnessed the aftermath of two separate aluminum tank failures and have a very strong mental image of the chaos each caused. I read somewhere that the amount of energy stored in a “recreational scuba cylinder,” which one can take to mean an aluminum 80, is about the same as two WWII British military hand grenades. A sobering thought.

Of course, one should be equally cautious with steel cylinders, which have a similarly dangerous potential. However, aluminum cylinders more easily carry the scars of mild to moderate abuse in typical everyday service. Couple this with their inherently different reaction to repeated filling and emptying – aluminum’s fatigue limit – and the dramatic reduction of an aluminum cylinder’s endurance limit from several hundred thousand fills to perhaps hundreds when it is over-filled – and its potential for failure is increased.

Of course, an easy out would be to avoid using aluminum cylinders altogether, but the buoyancy characteristics of aluminum makes 80s and 40s excellent stages, bailout, and decompression bottles. Besides, avoiding their use would be a dramatic over-reaction.

Working within manufacturer’s limits and the handling guidelines they supply us, aluminum is safe for many, many more fills than any of us is likely to ask it to endure.

But we do need to be mindful of those limits and guidelines.

Luxfer, the manufacturer of a popular brand of aluminum scuba cylinders of all sizes including the ubiquitous aluminum 80 writes the following about safety and its products… all great advice!

“If the cylinder is used in heavy service then it should be inspected every four months.

“Heavy service” means any one or more of the following:

  • Cylinders being filled or “topped off” five or more times per week;
  • Rental cylinders in use during the ‘season’ and ‘off-season’ times;
  • Cylinders used wherever damage is more likely than in normal use or where the
  • care and/or maintenance is slightly below recommended care.

If the cylinder is known to have had any unusual treatment or condition, it should be immediately visually inspected, prior to its next use.

“Unusual treatment or condition” means if the cylinder:

  • Dropped, fell, was struck, was in an accident, or when the care and maintenance of the cylinder is obviously poor;
  • Was stored improperly, and shows signs of damage;
  • Has obvious corrosion since the last visual inspection;
  • Has a gouge, dent, scrape, cut, dig or, in any way, has been damaged since the last
  • visual inspection;
  • Was stored with water, material or matter inside the cylinder;
  • Shows signs of exposure to fire or high heat, including any one or more of the
  • following:
    • Charring or blistering of the paint or other protective coating;
    • Melting or charring of the metal;
    • Distortion of the cylinder and/or any cylinder accessory;
    • Melting of fuse plugs, valve handwheel, valve protector, and/or any other
  • valve component or cylinder accessory;
  • Has been partially or fully repainted or treated to hide damage and/or
  • fire damage;
  • Is known or suspected to be leaking; or,
  • Is known or suspected of having a crack.”

 

Dive Safe… be careful out there.

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Fixing a lack of skill with complex gear… Nah, try a swimming pool!

Nick Hollis in SMS75 Hollis SM harness

Nick Hollis of Hollis Gear showing some skills in swimming pool like conditions…

Few of us learned to dive without the help of a buoyancy device of some sort. Not to say that wearing a jacket-style BCD, sidemount harness, or backplate and wing automatically gave any of us pin-point control over our position in the water column: it certainly did not!

The vast majority of the divers — sport, technical, rebreather, open-circuit, whatever — earned that particular skill with patience, perhaps a little help from a buddy or mentor of some description, and a bunch of practice.

Swimming pools or ‘swimming pool-like conditions’ (warmish, reasonably calm, clear-ish, current-free shallow water), are awesome for gaining something approaching buoyancy control right from the first open-water class: and then fine-tuning that skill by return visits as often as practical. I will still take time, whenever I can, to simply “hang about” in the water. A visit to the pool is a great place to test new gear, adjust weighting, check that old favorites still work the way you want them to.

In fact, if you are an instructor looking for ways to increase student comfort, add to general diver safety, and build on the basic skills your students learn on your courses, you’d do well to offer a few extra hours of pool time regularly. I have a buddy whose open-water students leave her classes with demo-quality buoyancy control and near-perfect ‘cave trim.’ Her secret is additional pool time, which her students gladly pay a little extra for because she’s taken the trouble to explain the benefits of buoyancy control to them. They get it: they know it takes a bit of work: and they are not looking for a fast fix.

So, imagine my disappointment to see an ad for a piece of kit that is such a convoluted bunch of “Heath Robinson” engineering that at first I thought it a joke. The product, and it is real apparently, is pitched as: “An industry standard premium diving jacket, dive computer with connecting links to allow the computer and jacket to manage diving processes according to the selected settings just like an aircraft autopilot.”

What have we come to when the simplest of devices, and a little practice to master its use, has to be replaced by something with Catastrophic Failure (or something else with the initials C-F) written all over it.

Please, if you want to get your buoyancy squared away because it wasn’t taught to you as a beginner, take a cavern or intro-to-tech class from a good instructor. Contraptions that offer instant mastery through technology are like magic pills that promise to shed pounds of belly fat without diets or exercise. The word to describe this type of promise is bullshit.

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Want to ignore the rules? Then do this…

There really are no scuba police, and here in most of North America at least, government bodies give the diving community the closest thing to a free-rein. We can, in essence, do exactly as we please. We can dive without training, ignore warning signs, flaunt best practice, exceed both whatever certification we have and the experience earned on previous outings. We are free agents. Great stuff.

But the downside is awful. A couple of days ago, I read of another stupid death — highly preventable and caused by several breakdowns in the system… that tragic alignment of holes in the safety net that which is in place to help diving “accidents” NOT happen.

What’s frustrating about many of the deaths we read about online, in diving magazines, and in diving forums, is that the people involved had been warned. At some point, either in their training or general involvement with the diving community at large, they had been told what they had planned, was foolhardy or against best practice.

But they went ahead anyway.

Just as sad is that their behavior does have the potential to change the status quo. Their silliness may create a situation where some agency or quasi-government entity starts to pay attention to our activities… and arbitrarily start to shut things down.

I am reminded of something my mate, Wayland Rhys Morgen suggested for anyone who is about to — either figuratively or actually — hand their beer to someone and say: “Here, watch this…”

The next time you intend to deviate from best practice, take a piece of note paper and divide it into two columns. Write in block letters at the top of the left-hand column: “What people usually do.” On the right, also in block letters, write: “What I am going to do instead.” Then in the appropriate column write clear, concise language an explanation of each behavior associated with your planned dive. So, these ‘behaviors’ would cover things like analyzing and labeling gas cylinders, limiting depth and duration according to your training, recent experience, and the vagaries of the environment… stuff like that. Read it back to yourself — both columns — then sign and date it. Then give it for safekeeping to someone you trust: lover, spouse, son, daughter, best buddy, favorite cowgirl. It really does not matter much to whom, just hand it over. Tell them to give it to the people or agency that leads the inquiry should something bad happen to you on your adventure.

Building the odds in favor of a good outcome…

LongO'THREE

A simple tip from the closest thing you’ll find to an expert

I have one of the best jobs imaginable… I get to dive for a living. It has drawbacks just like any job… I spend a lot of time away from home and the people I love; sometimes I am compelled to jump into the water when all I really want to do is sit on my arse and veg out; and there are few constants in a very fluid and organic field of research about diving, which means lots of reading, lots of lectures, lots of changes in what we teach and what we reject.

However, there are also a bunch of positives… including the list of things on the drawback list: I travel, I dive a lot, I get to feed my brain new stuff all the time.

One of the best things though is the people I meet. The so-called technical diving community is packed with cool folks. These are the men and women with open minds, boundless curiosity, and a willingness to share what they’ve discovered. They are stellar human beings and it’s a gas to hang out with them, and learn from them.

One guy who always has something interesting to say is Dr. Neal Pollock. Neal is ex-pat Canadian scientist. He’s a research physiologist working in the States, and has a background in zoology, exercise physiology and environmental physiology. He is also a diver and part of his research relates to decompression stress.

He also has a very “English” sense of understated humor in his writing and presentation style which appeals to me. I particularly appreciate lines such as: “The approximation of decompression status predicted by current deterministic algorithms should not be confused with ‘truth.'” Honest, insightful, and funny.

Anyhow, his latest blog is a hugely interesting read. It’s entitled “Flexible Control of Decompression Stress” and you’ll find it here: https://www.shearwater.com/news/flexible-control-of-decompression-stress/

Take the time to visit and read. You’ll learn something.

Surviving the Rottweilers

LongO'THREESeven tips to help protect you when things go wonky underwater

You may have read somewhere that underwater emergencies are rare. I’m not so sure that rare is the best way to describe them.

While underwater incidents causing bodily harm or death may be infrequent, close encounters with potential disaster are frightenly common. Spend a week or so at a dive resort or on a live-aboard, and you’re guaranteed to hear stories that support this view. “I ran out of air,” “we got separated from the guide and had no idea where the boat was,” “We ended up way deeper than expected,” “My computer went into deco and I had no idea what to do,” “My regulator started to spew bubbles and I panicked… I did not know what to do,” “We skipped our safety stop,” “I felt odd and confused, but managed to hit the inflate button and shot to the surface,” “I signalled the divemaster but he misunderstood me and continued with the dive.”

‘Victims’ of these little brushes with catastrophe fall into three categories. Some give up diving altogether. They get the crap scared out of them and opt for golf, fishing, stamp-collecting. No foul.
Some learn from the experience and avoid the traps that painted them in a corner in the first place, and they become more informed and safer divers.

And some learn nothing. They carry with them the potential to make similar mistakes again and again… sometimes with ruinous consequences.

Here are seven strategies that may help divers enjoy their diving, and avoid becoming a statistic.

      1) Learn to say no! Too many new divers are fooled into believing that it’s OK to do trust-me dives with a dive guide or divemaster. They may have a good sense that diving once or twice a year does not prepare them for a 40 metre-plus dive (that’s 130 feet or more), in current, with rented gear, but a divemaster, instructor, sales-person talks them into doing it. This is dangerous bullshit. No agency condones this type of practice, but it is common in many dive resorts, and needs to be stamped out.

 

      2) Learn your limits and stick to them. There is nothing wrong with pushing yourself to learn and grow your diving experience and comfort zone, but be realistic about your starting point. Being an occasional diver means you start from zero at the beginning of every dive trip. Scuba skills are perishable. Even experienced cave instructors take the time to “brush up their skills” if they have been out of the water for a while.

 

      Even if you are lucky enough to dive every week, understand that your experience, training and gear limits the types of dives that you can safely undertake. Listen to your inner wimp.

 

      3) Learn self-reliance. Too many “rescues” end up in disaster or near disaster for all participants. Get training, learn what kit to wear to help deal with gas emergencies, PRACTICE. Most of all, STOP, THINK, ACT, REASSESS.

 

      4) Maintain your kit, and use a checklist when you assemble it and when you inspect it prior to EVERY dive. Equipment problems are the easiest underwater emergencies to avoid. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that something is good enough… if it “ain’t perfect” don’t dive with it.

 

      5) Plan your dive… Dive your plan. Understand the risks, make sure everyone is capable of doing the dive, and ensure everyone have the skill and kit to deal with contingencies should they arise.

 

      6) Be aware! The best way to deal with a diving emergency is to stop it before it gets out of hand. The vast majority of diving emergencies begin as small inconveniences that cascade rather like dominos falling over. Keep an eye on your buddy(ies), be aware of changes in the conditions, monitor yourself. The best blanket advice is to take things slowly.

 

        7) Have an escape strategy. When something goes pear-shaped, the top priority is to make sure everyone has something to breathe… next is to get yourself and your mates as far away from the spinning fans as possible. Cave divers talk about always having a continuous guideline to the surface. Sport divers can take a lesson from that: Always know the location of a safe, protected exit… in other words, someplace where you can surface and be found or find your way to your entry point.

Steve Lewis is an explorer and experienced cave diver, who has been teaching technical diving programs for more than 20 years. He writes and lectures on topics related to diver safety in North America, Europe and Asia.

The final word from my new book…

This has been a poor year for diver deaths. I have just wrapped up a book called Staying Alive and it’s about risk management for divers… I started it because of a couple of regrettable incidents and as I finished it three months later, more deaths. The book is scheduled for launch next month from Amazon and CreateSpace. Here are my closing remarks.
_____________________________________________________

IN CLOSING
Perception of risk changes over time. The more successful we are at beating the odds, the less risky we take our behavior to be; and of course, the opposite may be true. Too often, luck reinforces bad decisions and dilutes fear, and fear is surely part of the apparatus, our personal filter, for risk management. We each must understand that because someone surfaces from a dive with a smile on their face, it does not mean they follow a good risk management process or that their behavior is not risky. It is impossible to measure a negative. Vigilance is required.

I am sitting in my office wrapping up this project. There is snow on the ground outside and I will soon have to pack and get ready to fly to Europe and go to yet another interesting and very big dive show. Perhaps I should feel happy, but I do not: I am sad.

Yesterday evening I got news that a father and son (a boy of 15 who had earned no level of scuba certification at all) had both drowned in the Eagles Nest Cave, an advanced-level North Florida system considered a challenge to certified and experienced trimix cave divers. They were, according to family, testing out new gear the kid had been given for Christmas. What on earth were they thinking: what was the father thinking as he died? Last week, two more technical divers perished. One in the Red Sea and one in the caves of Mexico. I knew them both. One much better than the other but both were nice guys; both were experienced, and unlike the father/son combination who died in a spot where neither belonged, both of last week’s victims were what one would call careful divers.

Fatal dive accidents frequently have multiple and complex, often interconnected, root causes. While each accident has unique qualities about it – in part because of the individuals involved – most accidents can be characterized as a chain of small events that lead to disaster.
This chain of events very often starts with a minor challenge – a failure in communications, a broken strap – and one event meshes with a deficiency or mistake elsewhere and triggers something even more serious, and this in turn results in escalating calamities until the house of cards has fallen down completely. To stay on top of things, technical divers need to become pretty slick at recognizing problems early, preventing a chain reaction, and thereby avoiding a one-way ride to calamity. Often something as simple as calling a dive early, before anyone gets close to the edge, can change the outcome radically and turn a potentially nasty epiphany into a positive learning experience.

Gareth Lock, who was kind enough to write the foreword for this book, is a Royal Air Force officer with a background in risk analysis and management. In his writings and presentations, he shares with us a refreshingly analytical view of dive accidents.

He and I arrive at a similar destination via quite different analytical pathways. Based on his background in the military, he uses what he calls the HFACS Dive model (pronounced H – FACS-D). His analysis and methods are based on the Human Factors Analysis and Classification System framework developed by Dr. Douglas Wiegmann and Dr. Scott Shappell of the United States Navy to identify why accidents happen and how to reduce their impact and frequency. Gareth suggests that for a dive accident to occur, several contributing factors have to align. These factors may include organizational influence, unsafe supervision, a pre-condition for unsafe acts, and unsafe acts themselves.

I believe the factors, the triggers, that lead to deaths like the recent ones in a Florida cave, the Red Sea, and Mexico are more personal, more within our grasp. The eight triggers identified back in the 1990s: Attitude, Knowledge, Training, Gas Supply, Gas Toxicity, Exposure, Equipment and Operations, provide divers with a laundry list of potential dangers.

Gareth points out with some clarity, that people ‘get away’ with diving ‘successfully’ when there are errors at every level in his HFACS model: they simply did not align that day. “And that,” he tells us. “Reinforces bad decisions and creates diver complacency.”

One has to agree with him regardless of how or why you feel divers are dying so frequently. It seems that ignoring just one of the eight risk triggers may be enough to begin a series of events that end in death: it may take two or three, and a lucky diver may get away with ignoring four or five without an incident. Life is not fair that way.

Finally, Gareth reminds us: “It is easy to blame a person, when the system is actually at fault.”
I believe too that we are sometimes too quick to blame the individual and often do not trace the mistakes made back to their “systemic” roots, but sometimes all the fault does rest with one person. The system did its best and the best is all we can expect of anything outside of a nanny state. In some instances, the buck comes to a full stop up against the victim’s attitude, their ignorance, their lack of training, their history of flaunting the rules, their willingness to gamble with the odds.

Every day you and I, indeed the whole diving community, are faced with a dilemma: error of omission or error of commission. In cases where we know someone is pushing their luck, do we mind our own business, remain quiet and watch as they hurt themselves or their dive buddies; or do we speak out? If we are part of a system that Gareth and others say needs fixing, do we have the tools to carry out the repairs? Do we even know what to fix and where to start? Can we make a difference?

There’s a kid throwing starfish back into the sea as the tide recedes. A guy walks up and asks him what he’s up to. “Saving lives,” he explains. “The tide is going out and these starfish will die on the beach, so I’m throwing them back in.” The man laughs and tells the kid that the beach is miles long and that there are hundreds, probably thousands of stranded starfish. He tells the kid he can’t save them all. The kid stops what he’s doing, looks at the guy, looks up at the sky, and back out at the ocean. He bends down, picks up another starfish and throws it as far out to sea as he can. “Saved that one!”

My hope is that through all this effort, I may just get one person to think twice before starting a dive with a faulty oxygen cell, or breathing a gas that hasn’t been analyzed, or dismissing a buddy’s suggestion that today is not a good day to go diving or taking an unqualified diver to a trimix depth cave to test new gear. Help me save a starfish.

USING ADDITIONAL REDUNDANCY: the maligned and misunderstood pony bottle

This is a short extract from a book on risk management that we hope to have finished next month.

 

I would guess that most dive instructors, especially those who teach technical programs, get regular requests from divers to explain how to “use” a pony bottle, how to configure it so it’s not in the way, and which size pony bottle is “right” for them.
These are great questions because any diver who intends to dive deeper than 30 metres /100 feet should carry a redundant source of gas. A dive buddy is supposed to represent the first line of backup, and a well-trained and well-practiced buddy is a great resource in the event of some major gas emergency. However, the best strategy is that whenever practical strive to have a backup for your backup. In this regard, redundant air via a redundant delivery system offers a huge cushion.
The question of size is perhaps the first question to answer because how to rig and use a pony bottle depends to a large extent on its size.
When we consider using a pony bottle as a bailout or as a backup in the event of a massive gas failure with our “primary system” (the normal tank and regulator), we factor in a full minute at maximum depth to get things sorted and to gather our wits before starting the ascent. With this in mind, let’s revisit the table for SAC adjusted for depth. Since we are still talking about recreational sport diving, the limit for maximum depth is around 40 metres or 132 feet. The ambient pressure at this depth is five bar or ata and therefore the average per minute consumption will be 70 litres or 2.5 cubic feet.

Let’s also apply a realistic dive factor. Since a pony bottle is only deployed in times of stress, we need to use a DF for that first minute that reflects high-stress. The norm for this application is a DF of 2.5, which translates into 175 litres or 6.25 cubic feet for that critical first minute!
(If at this point you are beginning to question the veracity of ads extoling the virtues of those tiny emergency cylinders of “spare” compressed air, please read on.)
After the first minute, we calculate a normal ascent rate (9 metres or 30 feet per minute) up to a safety stop. That journey – about 35 metres/ 117 feet – will take about four minutes. Once again, to help simplify the calculations, we use the ambient pressure at the midpoint between maximum depth and the safety stop, which in this case will be 3.22 bar or ata. We also drop the DF to 2.0. So we have ascent time X SAC X ambient pressure X DF, which equals 360 litres or about 13 cubic feet of gas.
Now for the safety stop. Even when a dive is within the no decompression limits, there is a strong suggestion from most experts that a five-minute stop is indicated after a dive to maximum depth. So the consumption for a five-minute stop at 4.5 metres or 15 feet with a mild DF of 1.2 adds up to a total of 122 litres or 4.35 cubic feet. Finally we have to factor in a little gas for the last part of the ascent to the surface. Therefore, the best estimate is that a controlled ascent following an emergency at depth will require at least 680 litres or close to 25 cubic feet of breathable gas!
It’s the considered opinion of most divers who have experienced a real gas emergency at depth in real-world dive conditions that these numbers are neither exaggerated nor inflated. When something bad happens at great depth, there is no such thing as a plan that is too conservative or too careful. The risks of drowning, embolism, decompression sickness and various other ailments that can result from stark panic and ballistic ascents are very real and totally unforgiving. The alternative to a controlled normal ascent are simply not worth considering.
Clearly then, the “right” pony is one that holds at least 680 litres or 25 cubic feet. Because of its general usefulness, buoyancy characteristics, ease of deployment, and attractive cost compared to smaller tanks, many divers invest in an aluminum 40 (nominal capacity 40 cubic feet / 1200 litres) as the best “emergency” pony bottle.
Two final words on the topic of pony bottles before we move on to gas volume management for more advanced diving. The gas carried in a pony bottle is contingency gas. It should never be factored into the gas volume requirements for a dive. It is there for emergency use only. If the dive plan calls for more gas than can be carried in a regular primary scuba cylinder – an aluminum 80 for example – then the total kit configuration for the dive needs to be reconsidered and calls for an additional primary cylinder or a high-volume primary cylinder such as a steel 15 litre / 120 cubic-foot tank.
A bailout/pony bottle is useless if it does not deliver breathable gas faultlessly. The valve, regulator and SPG must be tested before every dive. Do not take for granted that it is filled and in working order. Analyze and label its contents, check the pressure and wet-breathe the regulator at the start of each dive.
Let’s leave this topic with one last thought. As we were editing this chapter, I read about yet another incident where a diver “ran out of air.” This time a pair of brothers and a friend were hunting crayfish in about 30 metres / 100 feet of water off the coast of New Zealand. Calm conditions at a site familiar to all three divers. Describing the victim, his brother said: He was a competent diver with several years’ experience.

I would suggest an edit… a small change but something that I hope will speak volumes to you. He was USUALLY a competent diver, but not this time. Even several years’ experience cannot compensate for serious oversight.
Plan your dive, dive your plan.

Self-Assessment: an antidote to complacency?

Cleaning out old files and finding a copy of my original dive-plan template – something my buddies and I used for several years when we first started to do deep mix dives – I remember why we scrapped it and drew up a new one: It’s missing an important element.

If memory serves, the error was pointed out by Bret Gilliam. At that time – around 1996/97 – Bret was president of Technical Diving International (TDI) and he was gathering information for student manuals and asking members to contribute things like teaching notes, learning goals, and so on. Among the various bits and pieces I contributed was a spreadsheet template of the dive plan my buddies and I were using, and that I was also teaching students to use.

“It’s good but you’re missing something…” he told me after looking it over for a few minutes. “Something critical.”

I checked it a couple more times and to my eyes the plan looked pretty comprehensive and exhaustive. I told him I could not see what was wrong with it.

“There’s nothing in it about conducting any level of self-assessment before you jump into the water,” he said. “Don’t you think that’s worthy of a line or two?”

There is a well-established maxim that tells anyone who’s listening that complacency kills experienced divers. Checklists and Dive Plans are intended as a good first-line of defence against that sort of complacency. They are intended to counter human nature and swing attention back to things that it’s easy for divers, even very experienced ones, to take for granted and overlook. For instance, I’ve seen divers forget or simply not bother to conduct a positive/negative check after refilling a diluent bottle on their rebreather. A checklist can serve to remind someone with this level of complacency not to be a Muppet.  But, as Gilliam pointed out to me, the most complete, comprehensive and meticulous dive plan cannot prevent things going horribly wrong if the folks executing it aren’t as present-and-correct and as ready as their equipment to do the dive.

Self-assessment is now included in the pre-dive checks for all TDI and PSAI courses, but like the requirement to analyze and mark EVERY bottle of gas, or pre-breathe EVERY regulator – or any of the other listed items on a checklist or dive plan – it is entirely self-policed, and quickly becomes worthless if any one member of a dive team shortcuts that “policing operation.”

The process is simple enough. You ask yourself a couple of easy-to-answer questions and you answer them honestly. Better yet, when the dive leader has completed her self-assessment, she should check with everyone on the team to make sure they all “passed” the self-assessment check.

When we dive – even on those dives that seem like a simple bimble around in shallow water – we must ask ourselves if our plans account for any and all hazards. For the purposes of providing a realistic answer, a hazard in the case of diving is any agent or situation posing a credible level of threat to our life, health and property, those of any team member, or the environment in which we intend to dive.

When we make a self-assessment, that assessed risk includes things that are not visible or readily apparent to our buddies. One is our personal level of comfort.

To check this is the case and that our planned dive is within our comfort-zone, ask: Considering ALL the risks associated with the dive as planned, do I find them acceptable? Does the plan cope with things, events, which have some significant probability of occurrence during that dive? Rottweilers hit the fan and precisely when and how depends on circumstances that may not be predicable. Does the plan make allowance for this and am I comfortable if it does not?

Recreational divers, even those engaged in kick-ass technical dives, are under no contract and are not protected by legislation. Each of us is responsible for our safety and well-being, and – to some extent through enlightened self-interest and the tenets of friendship – with that of our buddies. Honest answers to these questions will help keep us safe and should be asked before every dive; no matter how simple and inconsequential the dive seems.

In addition, there are several other questions we might ask ourselves as part of the “self-assessment” process that should be carried out long before we pull on a drysuit. They concern personal health. We need to ask if we are comfortable with: our personal heart health; are we free from angina, epilepsy, diabetes, asthma, dehydration, and fatigue? Is our cardio and physical fitness up to the stress of the dive as planned? Do we have adequate strength to do the dive as planned? Have we learned and practiced the critical safety skills required on this dive as planned? Are we diving drunk, with a hangover or stoned? Are we physically and mentally ready to do the dive as planned and if something hits a fan while we are down there, are we ready to deal with it appropriately?

It may seem a little odd, but self-assessment should also ask: Do we believe in our buddy’s abilities and do we feel they have the skills and experience required to do the dive as planned? Are we being over-confident expecting ourselves and each member of the team to do the dive as planned? Does that hold up if we become separated? Do I feel the same should it become necessary to rescue a buddy on this dive… can I rescue them and can they rescue me?

Self-assessment does not always return a positive answer. But self-assessment is a positive habit to fall into and it needs to become part of the pre-dive preparations for EVERY dive… especially any dive that requires the use of decompression gases to manage a decompression obligation, or that takes place in a hard overhead environment.

The Rules Apply to All of Us

If you are a technical diver — a cave diver, a trimix diver, a rebreather diver, something of that sort – you have read someplace that complacency kills experienced divers. Fact is, you may have read it several times and heard it said repeatedly because that phrase is contained in most if not all technical diving textbooks. It is so commonly bandied about that for some of us, it may have become a little trite… a cliché… something to become complacent about.

Time to smarten up.

Recently, there was yet another senseless death, which might serve to illustrate the point. This one happened at Ginnie Springs in north Florida.

A young guy named Carlos Fonseca had an oxygen toxicity episode a couple of hundred metres inside the cave and died. He was breathing from a stage bottle clearly marked oxygen and later analysed to be just about pure O2. According to statements from the folks diving with him, Carlos thought he was breathing air.

Before the dive started, he was questioned about the bottle, challenged about analysing it, but insisted that he had filled it with air, even though it was labeled for dedicated oxygen service. Now he is dead.

This incident is sad and terribly tragic… a family without a dad/husband/son/brother et al… But unfortunately it is not surprising that a certified cave and trimix diver died doing a simple, run of the mill dive that was WELL within the scope of his training and experience. As slight as his experience may have been, and as rapidly as he had progressed from open-water diver to cave diver, the dive was a simple one for which he had adequate training.

Diving is an activity that requires some restraint because it is so easy to push beyond one’s capabilities… as Steve Berman once said — and I paraphrase — any twerp can get to the back of a cave. But not everyone can manage the journey back out.

I did not know Carlos… never even met him… but I do know the fella who taught him to cave dive and a couple of buddies had dived with him during the past couple of years. He had progressed from open-water punter to trimix and cave in a couple of years. He had the money, time and desire to do so.

The over-arching assessment from the people I know who knew Carlos was that he was very confident… perhaps to the point of arrogance… but so what. He was certainly enthusiastic. He had completed 100 cave dives in a couple of years, and when you live a 16-20 hour drive from the caves, 100 dives is enthusiasm in bold letters. But, in truth, he really had not been diving long, and he certainly did not have vast experience regardless of his many postings on onLine forums and Facebook, and even though he had ticked off several “big” dives in his logbook. However, I do not believe any of that had anything to do with him being dead right now.

Experience whispers strange things in our ear. I have lost many, many friends to diving, and have seen many people who I did not know personally… like Carlos Fonseca… die in the water. Part of the work I choose to do involves picking through the debris folks like Carlos leave behind. The task is to identify what went wrong and make sure others understand the circumstances surrounding the incident, the events that triggered an incorrect reaction perhaps, so that nobody makes the same bloody error. Sometimes this is difficult, but not in this case. There is no doubt about what happened; no question what triggered the victim’s death or whose actions contributed to that death. Of course, the resulting analysis may be difficult for some to accept.

A buddy of mine is a lawyer who specializes in cases where some poor bastard has died, and he tells me his staff have a kind of open pool going to see how long it is before a friend or relative says, writes or posts on the internet something along the lines: “He was the best diver in the world… I simply do not understand how a thing like this could happen…”

Someone always says that, even when the diver is a total novice… just like that kid who died in California a couple of years back trying to do an air dive to 80 metres. He was a divemaster… maybe, I forget. Anyhow, he had ZERO training to do that sort of dive but the boy’s father insisted his son was a “professional” and would not accept evidence to the contrary… or that his son had probably been lulled into complacency and hubris by his slightly more experienced and certainly older dive buddies.

In the case of Carlos, we know what went wrong and we have evidence that the victim ignored warnings from his fellow divers. He certainly ignored best practice. He is not the first diver to make such a rookie mistake, and the fact that a few years ago he knew nothing at all about diving is truly irrelevant. He DID know what SHOULD have been done. He had sat through training and certainly had correctly answered exam questions on gas management. HE CHOSE TO IGNORE WHAT HE KNEW. This is not because of lack of experience or because he progressed rapidly. He simply ignored what he knew to be the right thing to do… that’s a function of character, poor judgement, pressure or stress: take your pick.

In the final assessment, Carlos Fonseca believed the rules did not apply to him. He certainly knew that the established practice is to ANALYSE and LABEL every cylinder that goes into the water.

Is there something to learn from this incident? Of course there is. It’s the title of this piece. But there is also something else I would like to remind you of just in case someone reading this has ANY doubt. YOUR BUDDY IS CARRYING YOUR CONTINGENCY GAS… IF YOU DO NOT KNOW WHAT IT IS (first-hand, having checked for yourself) THEN YOU SHOULD. YOU may need to breathe it at some point. There can be NO credible argument against this, in my opinion.

The Best Rescue Divers Don’t Have to Rescue

It may sound strange but it’s generally accepted that the best, most successful rescue divers don’t have to actually rescue anyone because they are able to recognize signs of impending panic and are savvy enough to intervene before true panic happens.

Of course, the question most aspiring rescue divers ask at this point goes something like: “Is that a learned skill, and if so, is it difficult to learn?”

The short answer is: yes it is, and no it isn’t!

When we imagine a rescue diver in action, what flashes before our eyes – initially at least – is an image of a neoprene-clad hero(ine) pulling an unconscious diver from the raging surf… Think GQ cover meets Surfer Magazine and you’re halfway there. Then after a few nanoseconds, the real image kicks in and it’s not so pretty; not as organized; and certainly not as heroic. The truth is that a full-blown rescue, as welcome as it may be in a disastrous situation, is simply something we should strive to avoid at all costs. In essence, a good rescue is one that may consists of a quiet word before the dive and either a change in the dive plan or a retreat to the nearest café for a coffee, a Danish pastry and a chat about tomorrow’s dive rather than today’s.

One of the pre-dive skills required in every technical diving program is something labelled stress assessment. This step in the pre-dive ritual is a vital “rescue” technique, and it applies to both self-assessment as well as buddy or team assessment.

Given that you and your buddy or buddies are certified, equipped and have the experience to enjoy your planned dive without undue risk, the day-by-day stock questions you should ask yourself are: Am I up for this dive? Do I feel good about the dive conditions today? Do I feel ready to do this dive? Am I comfortable with the things that need to be done to make sure this dive is fun? And finally, how does my buddy (or buddies) feel about the dive?

This step alone – coupled with honest answers and a real understanding that there is no shame in calling a dive at any time… even before you pull on your gear – goes a long way toward making you a “successful” rescue diver.

Speaking with divers following an aborted dive — a dive where things went absolutely pear-shaped — a sobering but not surprising statistic is the large percentage of them who say: “I just knew something was going to go wrong,” or “I had a funny feeling about the dive before we suited up.”

If a rescue diver has one simple but truly important task to do at the dock, on the beach, at the dive site before the actual in-water part of the dive starts, it’s to conduct a quick survey of every diver – including herself – to check if everyone really is happy with the dive plan and feels no pressure to do the dive.

During the dive itself, even without the use of diver to diver voice communications, there are ways to keep checking that everyone is happy. What are they? Let’s review the opening statement that was used to kick this article off… “Recognize signs of impending panic, and are savvy enough to intervene before it happens.”

This form of clairvoyance – being able to tell when something is about to fall off the rails and do something about it BEFORE it happens – is not telepathy or some other psychic power, but a perfectly attainable skill called Situational Awareness, and a good rescue diver needs it.

In the most general terms, situational awareness is perhaps the most under-rated, unsung components of safe and successful diving operations.

In advanced diving discussions, we have adopted the term Situational Awareness (SA) as a sort of catch-all phrase to describe what we mean when we say: “keenly aware”; and probably for good reasons. SA has been a core concept in high-stress operating environments, such as the military and aviation, for many years.

In these milieu, SA skills support the ability of individuals to handle complex and rapidly changing situations in which informed decisions – directly relating to personal and team well-being – need to be made under tight time constraints. In these high-stress settings, lack of SA is one of the primary factors in accidents attributed to Human Error.

For the purposes of rescue divers, SA is best described as being aware of what is happening around you and your team, and understanding how the flow of events, and the actions of team members will impact your dive’s goals and objectives; both now and in the near future.

It also encompasses the skill of selecting which bits of information are relevant and which are not and can be discarded.

Put briefly, SA is the chess-player’s skill but applied in an environment where checkmate can result in real physical harm, and not just a wooden game-piece being knocked sideways.

One key sign of a buddy’s comfort level while underwater is his or her respiration rate (at least on open circuit gear). A nice relaxed breathing rhythm generally means a nice relaxed diver. Faster breath cycles may be a sign of tension, carbon dioxide build-up, overwork, and are often the first outward sign that forewarns of events that can domino into bedlam if left unattended.

I have a good idea of my normal breathing rate during a moderate dive – it’s around eight per minute and therefore somewhere south of the adult resting average of 12 to 16 breaths per minute. I self-monitor during a dive, but I also pay attention to the bubble “signatures” of the divers around me, trying to pay particular attention to changes in the frequency of each diver’s exhalation. It’s certainly not a definitive marker of approaching problems, but a rapid increase in breathing is something a good rescue diver might want to pay attention to.

If your buddy starts to work hard and breath more heavily than usual, get their attention, slow them down, give them some reassurance — such as an OK sign and a squeeze on the arm — will show them that you are watching out for them. Something as simple as getting a diver to pause and wait for a few beats before carrying on can easily avert an unpleasant episode further along.

If you dive with the same crew on a pretty regular basis, you also learn other more subtle signs and body language that will indicate that they are less than comfortable.

As a rescue diver, it is always in YOUR best interest to pay attention to these little markers during a dive. Sure you may be capable of executing a perfect tired diver tow and safe ascent with a semi-conscious buddy, but why take the chance when that whole scenario can be avoided by stepping in a few minutes early?

A slightly different version of this article was first published in Technical Diving International’s eNewsletter in June 2013.

What it takes to lead a technical diving team: A suggested plan for staying real and managing risk

One of the most interesting dynamics of technical diving… both during its planning and execution… revolves around the issue of leadership. It’s not simply a question of who leads and who follows but a much more complex balancing act between responsibilities, experience, team composition and dive goals. And since technical diving is recognized as a high-risk, team-oriented activity, coming up with the correct answers can mean the difference between a great dive and a bad experience.

I guess the most important first step is to understand what we mean by leadership and the factors that inform that definition.

We should start by pointing out that one of the fundamental guidelines recommended is: “The weakest diver leads the dive.”

Now weakest in this context is not an assessment of physical strength or mental fortitude – although these may be factors in some cases. More usually a diver may be “weak” because he or she has less experience with the particular sort of dive being planned and how best to achieve the dive’s specific goals; or they may start the dive with another more subtle disadvantage. On some ocean dives, weakest may be the diver most prone to seasickness and who has taken meds to help deal with that particular stress. It may also be the diver who among his or her peers on the particular day in question wakes up the least rested or most stressed… as in “I’ll lead the dive today because I had a restless night.”

Whatever the actual reason for “weakness” the logic behind this guideline is that it helps eliminate “trust me dives.” In cases where the least experienced diver is the leader, it also offers the best opportunity for that diver to expand his or her comfort zone. Let’s take the example of a cave dive with a three-person team. For this example, let’s say that two of the team have explored the cave on several occasions but for one, this is her first time in. All three may be experienced cave divers, but one is certainly at a slight disadvantage. By having her LEAD the dive, two things are assured. Firstly, she will not be lead into a situation which she finds uncomfortable. Her level of comfort on the dive will most likely be increased since it will go at her pace, and with two companions to “guide” her when the time comes to make a decision – for example “is this the right side-passage to take…” – her comfort zone may be expanded but not breached.

The result will most likely be a much more enjoyable dive for everyone involved since stress levels can be better managed.

This example of leadership during the actual execution of a cave dive may not relate directly to the type of diving you do, but the logic is transferable to all varieties of technical or complex advanced diving whether in a hard overhead environment or not.

It also introduces us to part of the complexity that surrounds the whole question of Leadership in Technical diving, and its definition relative to the importance of coaching and mentorship in the process.

Let’s recap and redefine a little. The weakest diver leads during the EXECUTION of a dive, but this diver would most likely take a backseat role during the actual PLANNING of that same dive.

If we go back to our example, let’s travel by time-machine to a day or two before the execution of the dive to the time our three dive buddies sat down together to plan the dive. We know that all three are experienced cave dives and during their initial assessment of the dive’s parameters they agreed that each had the appropriate training, familiarity with the required equipment, and general experience in the type of environment. What was apparent was that one needed a detailed briefing on the specifics on the dive since she had never been to the site before. This is where the dynamics that influence leadership in technical diving comes into play.

In old-school terms, leadership might be interpreted as the behavior of a tartar or martinet. A person who demands strict adherence to his or her rules and any deviation from those rules will result in some sort of punitive reaction: verbal or otherwise. I am reasonably sure that many of you have first-hand experience of this form of bullying and “management” by intimidation. There is no place for this style of leadership in technical diving… or anywhere else actually. It may have worked to send hapless souls over the trenches during WWI but is about as useful in diving as ashtrays on a motorcycle. There is simply no room for this attitude anywhere close to technical divers planning their dive.

The leader during this stage needs to be empathetic, supportive and their role is more akin to a coach or mentor: someone who encourages others to contribute ideas and suggestions. A real leader shares knowledge, has real information, suggests better alternatives when asked, and gets satisfaction from helping others grow. Essentially, a good leader produces good leaders.
In the example of the planning for the cave dive, the leader might respond to questions about distances and times with something like: “what do you feel comfortable doing?” rather than pushing his or her agenda. In fact, an important part of the mentoring process is to promote the goals of others even when it makes their own subordinate.

For most of our dives, up-front considerations of leadership are a little over-the-top. The vast majority of dives – even technical ones – follow a pattern that is established within the team and roles and responsibilities are simple, understood and virtually unspoken. Often on this type of dive, leadership amounts to little more than: “Hey Jill, how about you run the reel today?” But when game-day brings those special dives… the apex dives for your team… give special consideration to the dynamics of team leadership. Oh, and remember that changing circumstances at depth, may alter who is “weakest” and may require change of “leadership!” But of course, that’s something best learned under the mentorship and coaching of an experienced technical instructor!

A slightly different version of this article appeared in TDI’s eNewsletter in May 2013

How much of a conservative are you?

When it comes to storage and use of the ‘kitty litter’ used in rebreathers to scrub carbon dioxide from the breathing gas, I had until very recently thought of myself as ultra conservative. Turns out this was not necessarily the case.

I was careful with the storage part and careful when packing or loading the scrubber canister of any unit I dived with, but it turns out I misunderstood the actual working life of the absorbent once it was partially used.

Now I should make it clear that the only absorbent I have much experience with is Sofnolime® 797. This is a product made by Molecular Products in the UK and – in my circles at least – is the gold standard for use in closed-circuit rebreather diving. For the record, I use what’s called the non-indicating variety, which means it does not change color when suffused with Carbon Dioxide.

Sofnalime® itself looks a little like a white version of the material used in a cat box (hence its street name), and is actually a triangular cross-sectioned extruded pellet made in part from calcium hydroxide with a little sodium hydroxide mixed in, and is between 1.0 mm and 2.5 mm in size. It is alkaline (a pH between 12-14), slightly water soluble, and non-corrosive – but the dust will irritate the eyes and perhaps the skin, and inhaling it is a definite no-no.

In simplest terms possible, the chemical reaction that takes place inside a rebreather’s scrubber removes carbon dioxide and produces heat and water, and turns the soda lime into chalk (calcium carbonate). Also, for the record, in addition to proper storage and handling of unused scrubber material, used soda lime should be disposed of responsibly. Whenever possible, I take it home and then spread spent scrubber material on the garden where horticultural lime might be indicated, and put the rest in our horseshoe pit.
Ok, now with that clear, let’s focus on my misunderstanding.

Rebreather manufacturers tend to rate the working life of the scrubber material in their units based on the size of the scrubber canister. Literally on the amount of kitty litter their machine holds. In a perfect world, we might ask for a slightly more scientific method to gauge this, but referring to an X-hour scrubber is the norm. Certainly, this is what I was taught… but it is not what I teach; and here’s why.

After speaking with one of the chemists at Molecular, I learned that the method commonly used to indicate the effective life of scrubber material (i.e. Sofnalime®) is incorrect. While a freshly charged scrubber may have X or Y or N hours of potential effectiveness ahead of it, that number of hours is an estimate based on continuous use.

Let’s say for example that a rebreather manufacturer designates its scrubber duration as four hours. This means up to four hours on one dive and NOT two two-hour dives back-to-back on the same scrubber. This, according to Molecular’s chemist, would be “pushing it.” There are several other considerations that should be taken into account when estimating how much ‘life’ is left in one’s scrubber but on straight, no frills, moderate depth dives (such as shallow cave dives in North Florida which would normally be to depths less than 30 metres/100 feet) after one two-hour dive on a ‘four-hour scrubber’ perhaps only an hour and a half is left, and NOT two more hours. After a couple of one-hour dives, a third dive to 45 minutes or so, will all but exhaust the remaining Sofalime® so that in actual use, the effective life – and safest interpretation – of a four-hour scrubber would be less than three hours.

Now, it should be said that estimates of scrubber duration from manufacturers tend to be conservative and are usually based on the worst type of conditions; however, I found it interesting that the guy who oversees the manufacture and testing of the active component in the little chemistry set I lug around on my back to go diving, is more conservative yet.

And I for one will follow his example from here on in.

“What could possibly go wrong?”

For a quick and dirty definition, you might say that planning for a technical dive is mostly about working out how to deal with contingencies when something hits the fan.

Of course that definition does beg a few questions: for example, exactly which contingencies does one have to deal with during a technical dive, and how fast is the fan likely to be spinning? But as a starting point, and in particular when trying to explain what the sport is all about to someone who is neither trained in nor familiar with technical diving, it works as well as anything else.

One of the first instructor-trainers I worked with was extremely fond of charts and graphs. His students left his workshops and classes with the impression that he had pie charts, bar graphs and spread-sheets of stats for almost everything related to diving. He could tell you what percentage of aluminum 80 cylinders made in a particular year by one or two manufacturers were painted red; or the total number of snorkel keepers that sat unused in the bottom of save-a-dive kits world-wide; or how many open-water divers out of a graduating class of, say, 100 would go on to become dive masters. Totally worthless information in most instances, but what it lacked in usefulness was compensated for in a perverse way by him having lots and lots of it.

Naturally and in accordance with the laws of nature, hidden away among the chaff were a few kernels of useful data too. For example, he had a chart showing the average number of catastrophic gas emergencies year by year per 1,000 dives by certified cave divers.

Much to my disappointment, I am unable to remember any of those figures – useful or otherwise – and in any event I was reasonably sure at the time of first hearing that a good percentage of his data were suspect and most probably thrown together the evening before he was due to share them with us – his eager new instructor candidates. I believe a good number of them were creative artifacts crafted in-situ, so to speak, to add an atmosphere of scientific sincerity to his otherwise wildly entertaining, right-brain presentations.

However, what I can remember was a favorite phrase he used when outlining for us what was involved in his version of contingency planning – “covering your arse” – whether diving on our own, with buddies or with students.

“You can, without much real effort,” he would say. “Contingency yourself right out of the water, and quickly arrive at a point where any and every dive looks too risky to undertake…”

During one presentation, he said: “Let’s take as a given that poor safety engineering in life-critical systems such as low-cost scuba regulators is reasonably commonplace.” He explained that based on the average diver’s yen to save a buck on kit, you could easily create a hugely pessimistic risk assessment for that average diver: especially if you wanted to factor in bad habits like not doing proper pre-dive checks.

Following that logic, and considering the magnitude of loss associated with diving accidents (the threats of death by drowning, embolism, oxygen toxicity, severe decompression sickness, et al) any argument that the probability of said failure is unlikely was smothered.

“Quantitative arguments about kit being unlikely to give up the ghost and go pear-shaped,” he told us; “Are moot if we were to agree that the common human reaction to component failure is panic: and since we cannot reduce instances of component gear failure to zero, and panic usually results in death or injury, diving is unsafe and should never be attempted.

“Clearly this is, to a great extent, bullshit,” he said, “Otherwise we would have to wade through a slurry of dead people at every dive site we visit. But it’s worth noting that people die sometimes for no better reason than they were surprised and unprepared.” He wrapped up the lecture by explaining that the secret is to know what has the shortest odds of actually going wrong on a dive and focusing one’s primary efforts on that, but also being prepared for the unexpected.

A rational and reasonably careful look at the situation makes it obvious that all the threats presented by diving can never be eliminated. So if we want to dive, we have to learn to be happy with an action-plan that deals primarily with threats that are real and that might actually happen. And when we have that sorted out, and before venturing deeper and longer than a sport dive, we should include cover your arse strategies for the unusual… because Murphy is a devious bastard.

I should admit that I am lazy. If there is an easier way to be effective, I’ll find it; and if it’s possible to reuse something again and again until it’s frayed and worn thin, I do so without much hesitation. There are some provisos but those are my guidelines… especially for contingency dive plans.

I am a huge fan of using and reusing the Apex Dive concept. The definition of apex dive that I use and teach is that we can separate various dives into categories by considering the equipment and training required to do the dive. To some extent, the depth and gear limits outlined in most of the technical dive programs I teach, help to draw hard lines around the otherwise ill-defined concept of a “Technical Dive.”

For example, one category of apex dive is for an open-circuit staged decompression dive in open water from a “starting” depth of 30 metres (100 feet) to a maximum depth of about 45 metres (that’s around 150 feet to my non-metric American and Canadian friends). If we add to this the limits we accept is we will use one decompression gas and work within the gas volume rules for only two cylinders of bottom-mix, we have defined the apex dive for graduate from a TDI Helitrox Decompression Program.

I have written down and available in my kit a “simple” action plan for this level of dive, and it includes set waypoints, maximum duration (given a specific minimum starting gas volume), ascent schedules, bailout schedule, lost gas plans, bailout scenarios, what to do if various pieces of kit fail, how to and how long to conduct a search for a lost buddy, how to bring an injured or unconscious buddy to the surface, and so on and so forth.

This apex dive plan is designed to be used with ANY O/C dive at this level or shallower and shorter. I use a similar approach to other categories of dives to greater depths (60, 75, 85 metres for example), and shallower (to depths of only 30 metres specifically), and for dives in different environments such as caves. I also have a similar array of plans for similar dives on a closed-circuit rebreather.

Much of a plan laid out at one level, is almost exactly the same as the plans for dives at the level below or above. The gas management plans, ascent and bailout schedules change of course, but a lot of the scaffold keeping the plan upright, is common across the board. Also for each of these dive plans there is a segment you could call the “it’s been a really bad day” scenario. The situations covered in this are the ones that are unlikely to occur, but which carry with them, a really serious magnitude of loss.

Some of these situations are the “contingency yourself out of the water” scenarios that my old IT told his classes about. Notwithstanding his advice to “ignore the unlikely,” it seems prudent to me to have something in place to deal with several of the unlikely possibilities when diving deep and long.

For example, I have nothing that will help me deal with a lightning strike while hanging on a decompression line, but I do have a plan to help get me back to the surface with a broken buoyancy device. As unlikely as it is that a wing would spring a catastrophic leak underwater, most wings used in technical diving do have a ludicrously venerable weak point: the 15-cent plastic elbow that connects its inflation hose to the body of the wing itself.

While judicious handling during transportation, a good assembly and pre-dive inspection, and a bubble-check before descending can all help prevent this particular failure, losing a wing at depth would be serious, and in most cases could really ruin your day.

At some point in the past, you have probably heard the advice to dive a balanced rig. A balanced rig is, according to a definition just read on Wikipedia and a couple of diving websites, a rig that a diver can swim to the surface from depth without the help of a wing/buoyancy device when the cylinders are empty because it will then be “neutrally buoyant.” Someone with a rudimentary understanding of dive kit and basic physics might read the previous sentence and tell themselves: “yea, sounds legit.” The rest of us may be left with some nagging doubts.

For example, what’s with that “neutral with empty cylinders” nonsense? I am a fan of divers NOT getting into the water with too much ballast but cylinders are never empty and since whatever gas is in them has mass, surely in a balanced rig/broken wing scenario, gravity is going to win.

In my opinion, we need some alternative to swimming our kit and ourselves up from depth without ANY assistance. As luck would have it, we do not have to look far for some solutions.

Unlike most sport divers, few open-circuit technical divers have truly ditchable weights. Their ballast is supplied by integral items of kit such as steel primary cylinders and a stainless-steel backplate. Sidemount divers may have the option of dropping one primary cylinder if needed, but divers wearing back-mounted doubles do not. Therefore, in the event of a wing failure – however unlikely – a good plan is to have some back-up buoyancy or a structure plan that includes some potentially helpful suggestions.

Here are a couple of tactics that may help you if the inflation hose and your wing become separate entities while you are faced with a long ascent between you and a cup of hot chocolate back on the surface.

My council would be to forget trying the “swim up balanced kit” technique. By all means work on the principal of wearing a “balanced kit,” but understand that a long staged-decompression ascent is not something you want to undertake as a continuous swim.

If there is structure nearby – a wall, shelf, wreck whatever — use it to stabilize yourself. Grab it, get yourself sorted out, “talk” the situation through with your buddy and try to relax. Unless your wing failure was accompanied by a huge loss of gas from your cylinder, you have something to breathe while you think. Relax and work out your options. If there is no structure, grab your buddy and use them as a stabilizer. It’s surprisingly simple to hang onto a buddy’s harness and let them add a little additional gas to their wing to support the two of you. But it does require a little practice!

Let’s assume you are wearing a drysuit. Add a little gas to it to offset gravity a little. You may be lucky and your suit may be all the help you need. Keep your buddy or buddies close, and start your ascent. Good luck and let’s meet up for a coffee sometime… but chances are that your suit may not overcome gravity’s pull completely.

If there is an upline, make for it and use it. At this point it may be worth noting that a prussic loop can be useful place to hang from while you work on options. A prussic is simple to tie to an upline and can be used just as effectively as an ascender is used in rock climbing (their original application). I carry a length of 3mm equipment line tied in a long loop in my wetnotes for this reason.

Things should be golden with the combination of a solid upline, a drysuit and a prussic loop, plus the administrations of your buddy to help with stage deployment etc. as needed. But what if there is no upline.

This would be a good time to send a DSMB aloft. Actually, it may be prudent to deploy a DSMB even if there is an upline, depending on how your surface support has been briefed. With the exception of the very smallest, silliest “safety sausage,” a DSMB (a Delayed Surface Marker Buoy) should provide sufficient lift to support a diver in place of a wing. If you have the choice, you may prefer to hang from a line attached to a small cave or wreck reel rather than a spool in this situation, but either works just fine… and spools rarely jam or bird’s nest.

In several thousand dives, I have had one wing failure and one buddy have a complete failure. I have conducted a couple of test dives with the dump valve removed from my wing – just for the fun of it – but only one real-world failure. Therefore, the weight of logic and statistical evidence is on their side of the argument that states that this type of gear failure is highly unlikely. It really is, and chances are it will never happen to you at any time. However, next time you have a dive planned with your usual buddies at a site with a hard bottom within sensible distance of the surface, and you have nothing better to do, try this. Empty your wing completely and get yourself back to the surface using an alternative method. You will certainly learn something about yourself and possibly your buddy, and most likely you’ll have fun too.

Remember as well, it does not take much to contingency yourself out of the water, but with a little forward thinking, planning and practice, there is no need to.

Inspection of a CCR after an accident…

One of the findings at Rebreather Forum 3.0 was for CCR manufacturers and other community members to publish a worksheet to help accident investigators collect meaningful data from rebreathers involved in diver deaths. A sombre topic for sure but the need to have some “standards” and some sort of unit-specific checklists is apparent given the wide gaps in information gathering to date.

Martin Parker — the managing director of Ambient Pressure Diving, the manufacturer of Vision Rebreathers (the Inspiration, Evolution and Evolution+) — recently posted a worksheet. It is available in PDF form from the link below.

Click Here

The description of some procedures are graphic and not suitable reading perhaps for the squeamish; however, I believe this is a good start… Kudos to Martin.