Zero-to-Hero… there are no winners in training shortcuts

If all you can think of when you read the phrase “Zero to Hero” is a British post-punk band, hats off to yer! However, chances are that as a diver, the phrase has other connotations: far less entertaining.

I really have no clue where and when the Zero-to-Hero epithet was first applied to diving. I heard it around the time that the whole concept of technical diving and especially technical diver training began to enter mainstream dive-community awareness, sometime in the early to mid 1990s. At that time, Zero-to-Hero was applied specifically divers who miraculously leapfrogged from newbie to expert seemingly overnight.

It worked like this: a small core of instructors and dive shops started to advertize “boot camps” that promised punters some form of guaranteed certification at the end of a week or so of “intense training.”

An example from that time was a seven-day “mega-course” that swept candidates – advanced open-water divers who carried no technical certifications or experience — to trimix certification by the time the circus wrapped up. (For the record, this meant guaranteed certification to conduct full decompression dives on helium mixes with exposure up to 60 metres deep.) I believe the prerequisites to sign-up for these programs included having a pulse, a checkbook, and a broad gullible streak.

Gullibility? Well, at issue was the obvious. If one looked closely at some agency standards, it was just about possible to cram into a seven-day period, the required classroom, confined water and open water dives. Possible yes, but far from desirable… and certainly could not possibly carry any guarantee that participants would have earned their certifications at the end of it.

From a training agency perspective, this type of course barely met the letter of the law, and certainly bent the spirit of it into the shape of a banana. What was missing from the equation was experience. The poor punter would find himself or herself dragged into progressively more complex dives  day after day without any time to catch their breath or reflect on the lessons to be learned. They would be taken at lightning speed with little time to ask questions – or more importantly, discover answers – as they progressed rapidly from a normal dive plan that consisted of a quick “Let’s go diving…” to something that would help protect them and give them the tools to ascend from water deep enough to cover a 20-storey high-rise.

At the end of their “intensive training” they would have completed a handful of staged decompression dives under the auspices of an instructor –and auspices is about as apt a term as possible to describe what would have been going on for seven days. Unfortunately, playing follow-the-leader on what was essentially a guided, trust-me dive does not constitute technical diver training.

The certifying instructor’s crime – if functioning without a moral compass can be classified as such – was that when all was said and done, they handed out cards which stated the holders were capable of doing the same dives at some future date without the help of a baby-sitter.

I worked on the Training Advisory Panel of a large agency at the time and, like many of my peers, felt there was something wrong with that. Apparently, we were not alone, and to my knowledge, the temptation to promote this sort of fast-track program for John and Jill Diver was pistol-whipped out of the rank and file tech instructors by many of the major, reputable tech agencies. In addition, the market, divers who were expected to buy-into the concept, quickly realized that Zero-to-Hero type training was not a sound investment. Today, this fast-track practice has fallen out of favor in the tech arena: or has it?

One of the companies for whom I do consulting work, makes rebreathers: the fully closed-circuit kind. The data suggests they are the market leader world-wide… or very close to it. Certainly their brand is well-known and highly visible in the technical market.

Rebreathers are tech, correct?

Well, the dive industry is nothing if not dynamic and that’s changing. Several manufacturers – including the one I work with – are in the middle of readying themselves for a minor market tremor that promises to open rebreather diving up to sport divers.

Given a couple of provisos, I do not believe there is any real problem with that. Diving rebreathers is fun, and with real prerequisites met and enough time for practical work, a sport-diver CCR course will probably work. It will be hard work for everyone involved, but not impossible to organize and probably a whole lot of fun to deliver!

Provisos met.

The only thing that bothers me a little is that this new market opportunity – and that’s how it’s being billed within the professional segment of the dive industry – feels like an opening for the Zero-to-Hero can of worms to open up all over again. Only this time, it’s not the punters I worry about… it’s the instructors who will be delivering their training.

Most CCR manufactures have a unique power when it comes to who teaches on their units. You might think of it as a special veto. An instructor candidate (regardless of if their agency believes them ready to teach) has to be given the OK to conduct training classes by the manufacturer of the unit he or she wishes to teach on. Part of the minimum prerequisites held to by the major rebreather companies is that the instructor candidate must have logged 100 hours on the unit.

There is nothing magical about 100 hours experience flying a CCR; except it takes a while to accumulate. Also, although it does not guarantee much, it is highly likely that during the accumulation of AT LEAST 100 logged hours in the water, the majority of divers will have learned some important lessons about their unit and themselves.

CCRs work just fine… at least the two I dive seem to… but all rebreathers are unforgiving of sloppy procedure and short-cuts. Most divers will experience one – sometimes more than one – “come to Jesus” moment during 100 hours of operation. The most essential lesson they will learn is not that their unit malfunctioned, but that they dropped a stitch and the culprit is HUMAN ERROR. They will develop a visceral understanding that they were at fault.

You can read all about human error and lack of situational awareness in a book – damn, I’ve written about it myself – but the words tend to leap out of your memory and grab you around the throat when you are at 60 metres and recall that you did not do a thorough pre-dive check: and that gurgling sound is not because the rebreather was designed incorrectly. Operator error is a great teacher, and a very fine learning tool.

So, what’s the problem? Simple, really. We can expect a lot of interest in rebreather training during the next few years as this whole Sport Diver Rebreather thing hits the market, and there is going to be a temptation for instructors to “get in on the action.” I have already heard instructors selling the concept to their students. However, few of them have any experience diving rebreathers, and more to the point, do not seem to comprehend that a rebreather is unlike any piece of open-circuit kit and no amount of time on open-circuit translates to running a CCR life-support system. My fear is that some instructors may fudge their logbooks in order to attain instructor status in the shortest time possible. There are some checks and balances in place, but there are ways to cheat them too.

I may be alarmist and all this concern may be unfounded. But please, if you or someone you care for is thinking about making the switch to a rebreather, be very, very careful that you avoid any whiff of Zero-to-Hero in your instructor: regardless of the agency they teach for or the unit they teach on.


Cardiac Stress Testing and technical diving

Around this time every year, most of us hang up a new calendar, and polish up the New Year’s Resolutions. Like me, you probably have a few left over from last January 1. If you do, chances are good that one revolves around “getting fitter,” “getting in better shape,” or “working off all that Christmas pudding.” If that is the case, and you’re a diver, I’d like to suggest adding a slightly different twist for 2012.

During a few recent and very informal discussions with other tech instructors, one of the highest-ranking concerns has been the number of divers – particularly tech and rebreather divers – who have died of heart-related problems either while diving or soon after diving.

There are all kinds of issues that may have had an influence on incidents in the past, but the collective concern was how to help make 2012 a “better year” for the dive community.

One idea floated out was to ask students* to undergo a cardiac stress test as part of the list of prerequisites that need to be met before enrolling in advanced technical programs, such as CCR, trimix and advanced wreck and cave.

A cardiac stress test stimulates the heart – either by exercise or with intravenous pharmacological stimulation – and connecting the testee to an ECG. The American Heart Association recommends this kind of testing for patients with medium risk of coronary heart disease. This includes folks with personal risk factors such as smoking, a family history of coronary artery stenosis, people with hypertension, and folks dealing with diabetes and high cholesterol.

Who knows if it would make much of a difference, but what harm would it do? I’m old and get one for free every year through my insurance (BONUS!), and there is a level of comfort knowing that there are no serious issues with the old ticker.

I believe the cost of a cardiac stress test works out to about the same as the charter fees and fill costs for an open-circuit deep wreck dive. Worth the dough? I think so and certainly worth adding to that list of resolutions… Things to do in 2012!

* Students who have risk factors, or those 45 years and older.

Omitted Decompression and In-water Recompression (IWR)… some thoughts

Occasionally, in fact with an almost predictably cyclic regularity, two questions that surface on the internet dive forums ask about missed decompression and/or in-water recompression (IWR).

My standard answer on a public forum is to suggest that when the diver shows signs or complains of DCS symptoms, notifying EMS, keep the diver on the surface, warm and hydrated, monitor for changes in their condition (a correctly conducted five-minute neurological exam is a decent protocol for this), have them breathe pure oxygen (preferably from a demand face mask), take notes that will be useful for EMS/Hyperbaric staff, and prepare for fast evac.

The suggested strategy for a diver who has omitted a “deco stop” or safety stop but is SHOWING NO SIGNS or who is NOT COMPLAINING OF ANY SYMPTOMS, is the same as above but without the call to EMS and rather than preparing for evac., collecting their kit for them and keeping them out of the water for at least 24 hours.

However, neither is a very good answer to the actual questions posed, and occasionally, I throw my hat in the ring… something like this.

The first step for anyone brave enough to attempt an answer is to define the differences between the two topics; and in particular, the circumstances that might necessitate the call for a diver to conduct an omitted decompression protocol, as opposed to those that indicate IWR as an option.

Let’s start with the easiest: Omitted Decompression.

The protocols for Omitted Deco are discussed and outlined in several technical diving student manuals – including a couple of TDI manuals – and the procedure is taught as part of TDI’s decompression and trimix courses. It is based on the protocol published in the US Navy Diving Manual and may only be attempted when the diver shows NO SIGNS and has no SYMPTOMS of DCS; and the omitted stop was no deeper than six metres.

There are a couple of other prerequisites relating to water conditions, weather conditions, thermal protection, available gases in sufficient volume, having a tender diver available to monitor the subject diver during the whole procedure, and the diver being in a position to return to the water within five minutes of surfacing.

All that as taken and confirmed: First, return to 12 metres and conduct the stop required at that depth by the original ascent schedule PLUS one quarter of the omitted three-metre stop time. If no stop was originally required, remain there for one quarter of the omitted three-metre stop time. Ascend to nine metres at a speed no greater than three metres per minute (the ascent speed for the whole procedure) and remain there for one third of the three-metre stop time. Ascend to six metres and wait there for half of the three-metre stop time. And finally ascend to three metres for one-and-a-half times the scheduled three-metre time.

Here’s the way that looks for an omitted or partially omitted deco stop at three-metres.

Depth (metres/feet) Original Stop (mins)/Gas Omitted Stop Procedure
12 metres/40 feet None/ bottom gas 3-minute stop
9 metres/30 feet 3 / bottom gas 4-minute stop
6 metres/20 feet 5 / oxygen 6-minute stop on oxygen if CNS allows
3 metres/10 feet 12 /oxygen (omitted) 18-minute stop on oxygen if CNS allows

For the record, I have tendered for divers who have missed all or part of a decompression schedule and for whom the missed deco protocol worked.

Now let’s attempt to clarify the issue of IWR. This is suggested when a diver surfaces and complains of symptoms (type one) and IWR is the ONLY option available… i.e. there is no hope of stabilizing them and getting them to a hyperbaric facility.

Important to establish first off that this is a highly risky endeavor. The risks of IWR include several minor issues relating to thermal stress and volume of gases needed, but the strong emphasis in the entire risk assessment analysis center on the subject diver getting worse far worse once in the water and becoming, for example, paralyzed and/or losing consciousness. Oh, and then dying.

Various protocols and tables for IWR have been developed over the years. The recognized tables include the Australian, the Hawaiian, the US Navy, and the Pyle tables… I believe Pyle’s modification to the Hawaiian table are the most “up-to-date.” I am reasonably sure that NONE carries sanction from the major sport agencies. The technical agency I teach for, that I do consultant work for, and on whose training advisory panel I served for several years, does not sanction IWR either. Essentially, within the context of recreational diving (tech or sport), IWR is simply NOT an option.

Just in case we wonder why, here’s a checklist of the minimum kit and personnel requirements for attempting IWR in a remote location.

  • A heavily weighted shot line secured in a sheltered spot where surface waves will not influence comfort of subject diver and/or the tender (who will be in the water) and treatment supervisor (who will be on the surface).
  • Some way to hold the subject diver in place… a climbing harness works as does a sidemount harness with some modifications
  • Stages in the shot line to hold the subject diver at a set position in the water column… prussik loops and a locking carabiner work if tied and anchored correctly.
  • Full-face masks with coms to the surface and each other
  • Surface supplied gas (oxygen et al) supplied to the subject diver via umbilical
  • An experienced tender and supervisor who have at very least certification and some background in hyperbaric treatment
  • Adequate and possibly additional thermal protection for both subject diver and tender
  • A valid IWR treatment “table”

As someone who is occasionally involved in expedition diving (the only situation I can imagine where the whole team would discuss IWR as part of the SOPs during pre-trip planning sessions), IWR is considered highly risky even when ALL the above, and a few more details, are available. It is also understood that IWR (just as recompression in a chamber on the deck of a boat or in a medical facility) may not resolve the issue. In other words, the subject diver may die.

The preferred option if a portable chamber is NOT AVAILABLE – and something many expedition leaders seem to have less hesitation using – is saline IV (intravenous) therapy, oxygen and the use of pain medication all administered by a practicing medical practitioner of some sort… NP, Paramedic, MD et al. It is therefore considered best practice to have at least one of these as part of the team on ALL expeditions to remote locations.

(For the record, I have been lucky enough to lead several expeditions to various spots where there may have been a temptation to use IWR, and I have certainly tried to make sure that at least one team member is an experienced diving MD. To date, one of my team has had to supervise an autopsy on one of our fellow team members, but we have not had to deal with IWR. Therefore, my first-hand experience in this issue has been ZERO.

You can read more at Gene Hobbs excellent online resource:


CCR Cave… special circumstances or a walk in the park?

Following on from one of the main debate streams that surfaced during the NACD conference, a few buddies and I recently discussed the “deliverables” of a CCR Cave Diving course.

One of them — and it seems a valid topic to present to “new” CCR cave divers as well as experienced OC cave divers signed up for a cave orientation course — is gas volume management for bailout scenarios.

Typically, OC cave divers have a pretty simple set of rules to govern how much gas they need to carry with them. For CCR divers, those rules are not as simple because there is an extra variable. And that variable is the diver’s gas consumption rate once he has bailed out: it will vary a lot!

To better understand that why this is, we have to consider the reasons that would drive a CCR diver to abandon “the loop” to breathe open-circuit.

One example — perhaps the worse-case scenario — is carbon dioxide poisoning. There are a bunch of possible events that could lead up to this, but for the time-being, let’s just take it as read that the diver has experienced one almighty pear-shaped CO2 breakthrough event, and has ALMOST left it until too late before bailing out. He is hyperventilating and is close to panic.

So, what consumption rate is best to use as a benchmark?

For most to the OC stuff I teach — and in lieu of real data — a SAC rate of 14 litres per minute is a good starting point. (That’s about half a cubic foot for those struggling with imperial units.) To find the actual consumption (RMV), that number would be multiplied by the depth or average depth expressed in bar and the product of that calculation by a number to represent the Dive Factor (workload, thermal stress, etc.). For most OC dives, a DF of 1.5 to 2 is OK. However, for a CCR diver battling back from the edge of CO2 oblivion, a DF of 3 is the minimum recommended stating point.

To put this into a real-world example, consider a CCR diver bailing out around a 40 minute swim from the mouth of a cave with an average depth of 25 metres.

Our 14 litre per minute consumption rate now gives us 14 X 3.5 (depth in bar) x 3 (DF) X40 (minutes to surface) which equals 5880 litres.

That is a lot of gas, and effectively requires the diver to carry more than two fully-charged 12 litre cylinders (aluminum 80s) as bailout. Is this realistic? Is it realistic to imagine that the elevated consumption rate experienced immediately following CO2 break-through would persist for the full duration of the exit swim? Also, is it wise for the diver to have no redundancy in the event of one of those two bailout regulators malfunctioning?

What do you think?

NACD Rebreather Summit

This past Sunday (November 13), I attended the National Association for Cave Divers Rebreather Summit in North Florida.  This annual get-together follows the regular NACD social and symposium held Friday and Saturday; and is a low-key affair… but the topics discussed usually speak to the heart of what concerns the technical CCR crowd in N. Fl and beyond.

The format for the summit is simple: brief presentations in the morning, a break for lunch, and a panel discussion in the afternoon. The audience submits questions for the panel to answer, and the panel — consisting of representation from rebreather manufacturers, training agencies, and related “stake-holders” — does its best to provide answers.

The vast majority of questions focused on CCR training rather than innovations in design and technology, and seemed to be looking for answers about training at both ends of the spectrum: sport and hard-edged tech.

So what were the topics raised?

Moves within the industry to make rebreathers available to sport divers through simplified machines and “abridged” training was one thing questioned. The suggestion of three-day programs for sport certs raised a major alarm with some audience members, and the panel was asked to comment.

The consensus really was “let’s wait and see,” because central to these New and Shortened programs is that the academics are completed onLine before a student steps into a class. Given that this would allow a full three days (as a minimum) for practical skills development, the panel cautiously agreed that sport rebreather certs could work. Since making rebreathers available to sport divers was the major hum at DEMA the week before, sports certs and sport-level rebreathers ARE promising to make the industry an interesting study over the coming months.

(For example, I’ve just read a post in one of the onLine diving forums wondering how come an essential piece of a recreational CCR (an ORing) mysteriously “came off” almost causing some serious grief. What is more disturbing is that the missing ORing (which in this case is designed to prevent CO2 blowby around the sorb canister and which should have been noted as missing during the initial assembly and checks) seems to have been overlooked a second time when the unit was reassembled prior to a second attempt to dive it. This seems to be a classic case of either complacency or poor training… or a mix of both.. but was absolutely operator error.)

As controversial, or at least engendering as much interests among the audience, was the question of CCR specific cave instruction.

Two issues on this topic. The first was if someone with training and experience with OC in a cave would gain anything from taking a full CCR cave class. The second asked about the need for a full curriculum of cave classes aimed at divers who have no desire to dive OC ever.

The panel seemed to agree to a person: there are techniques unique to CCR that may not be intuitive to  OC cave divers — therefore at very least a day or two Orientation Workshop seems appropriate — and a cave CCR program for “new” techdivers is a must. In fact Ben Remenants, who has developed TDI’s CCR cave program, was in the audience and offered his opinion on this score. Certainly as more divers gain their experience totally inside the world of CCR, it is totally counter-intuitive expecting them to take a cave class wearing anything but CCR gear.

View from a different vantage point

The gentle slope that stands between our sugar bush and the raised beds we use to grow veggies, is covered in white trilliums. Fact is the whole wooded area behind our house and down into the small valley that forms the southern boundary of our property is full of trilliums and trout lilies in early spring.

This indicates that our little corner of Muskoka is waking up from winter, finally, and is taking on the postcard picture beauty it is famous for at this time of year. Fittingly, white trillium is the provincial emblem of Ontario – where I live – and, just for the record, is also the state wild flower of Ohio. So my guess is that a lot of folks agree that trilliums are neat little flowers.

Usually I am not home to see them bloom. Most years I am away someplace diving, but this year is different; I am “on sick leave.” In the simplest terms this is a bummer.

On the upside of this situation, I uncharacteristically have the time to sit on the sidelines as spring arrives here in full force. And in between watching eastern bluebirds and tree swallows battle it out for nesting boxes, celebrating the early appearance of Ruby-throated hummingbirds, avoiding the attendant black fly hatching, and taking notes on the ongoing procession of wild-flower bloomings, I have had some time to reflect on what I do for a living:  teach and write about technical diving.

My forced inactivity is the result of an unfortunate early April convergence of two seemingly unrelated issues.

One is a result of back pain mentioned in an earlier blog, and the other being an unfortunate run-in with Epstein-Barr virus. Epstein-Barr is a nasty illness that goes by the common, rather insipid and nondescript, name of Mono. It is a rotten punishment for anyone, but especially so for those of us with an A-type personality.

My strategy for dealing with the first is corrective posture, yoga and physiotherapy, and to kiss goodbye to doubles and the ubiquitous North Florida Cave Diver’s Rig.

No more diving doubles for Doppler. After about 20 years of abusing my body marching around with the equivalent weight of a corps de ballet dancer strapped to my back, the spokesperson for my thoracic vertebrae has told me directly and unequivocally that it is time to concentrate on CCR and Sidemount.

The second insult to my well-being is not as easy to fix.

In fact, it promises to be a juggling act. But time and patience will win out. In the meanwhile, now that sitting at my desk and typing does not hurt, it’s time to share what’s next on my, to do list. It no secret to anyone involved in technical diving, that in the past decade or so, the limits of our sport have shifted outwards a fair bit.

New technology, gear designed specifically for extreme diving, a freely available database of ascent profiles that worked, a growing network of instructors willing and able to mentor interested divers, discussion forums et al, have all contributed in some way, minor and major, to this movement.

For example, ten years ago, there were few recreational divers who had visited 100 metres; in 2011 non-military, non-commercial, non-scientific divers around the world pull off 100 metre dives weekly if not daily.

Ten years ago, only the most experienced attempted a cave dive to the end of the gold-line in one of the “tourist caves” in North Florida, or a weekend charter to a 350 foot-plus dive site. These dives earned a mix of admiration and admonition. In 2011, we read about relatively new tech divers doing these dives and hardly anybody notices… or so it seems.

The odd thing, at least to me, is that so few dive teams employ in-water support divers to help make these deep, long dives a little more managed. Perhaps we need to do something about that situation.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks, I want to lay out some ideas I have for a new book specifically aimed at teaching and discussing roles and techniques for expedition support; because I can’t do much in the way of diving!I would appreciate your input. As much as I like looking out at the new season arrive, it is driving me nuts!

By the way, would appreciate your input on a small survey… You will find it here>>>DIVER SURVEY

Is CCR diving right for me?

I think most rebreather divers and certainly all rebreather instructors have been asked that question at one time or another; and in many cases, more than just one time. Unfortunately, it is an impossible question to answer with anything approaching accuracy or truth, because the question is so ill-defined it is meaningless. One might just as easily ask: “How long is a piece of string?”

If there is a secret to getting a definitive answer, it lies in framing the question within a few well defined parameters.

Rebreather diving is dangerously close to taking on a sort of silver bullet status as the right solution for every type of diving. However, common sense, and a quick summary glance at accident statistics, tells us that it clearly is not.

Running a Closed-Circuit Rebreather is an order of magnitude more complex than throwing a regulator on a scuba cylinder and going for a dive. Dive for dive, operating a CCR safely requires divers to pay attention and develop a skillset way beyond anything required on all but the most complex open circuit dive.

For example, a sure sign that something is wrong with open-circuit life-support is that it stops delivering gas to the diver. This is a graphic indication that some immediate action is called for. A CCR system will continue to deliver gas to the diver but that gas may be totally unsuitable for his current situation and if he is not paying attention, he will continue to breathe until he passes out and dies.

Consequently, the risk-benefit analysis for CCR diving has a very different complexion to a similar analysis for open-circuit diving, tech or otherwise. Short version, there has to be a good reason to choose CCR over OC for any dive; better yet, there should be several good reasons to choose CCR over OC for every dive.

And with this, we arrive at an important waypoint on the way to answering the “is it right for me?” question.

Anyone asking this question needs first to define for themselves what they believe are the advantages of a CCR; what sort of conditions they expect to dive in; and how often they expect to dive. I think as well, they need to look seriously at their dive budget.

Operating cost is one so-called advantage of CCR that gets mentioned time and time again. Specifically that helium costs for deep excursions on CCR are insignificant compared to doing a similar dive on open circuit. For a new CCR diver, this cost benefit can be ignored.

If cost is a person’s main reason for switching from OC to CCR, they are in for a shock and cost should not be a final tipping point in the argument to go with a CCR. Consider first that there is a compelling body of evidence pointing out that for many tens of hours following certification on their unit, regardless of model or type, a diver should revert to tyro-level dives and forego “technical” profiles altogether.

For someone diving as a weekend warrior, this will probably translate into a year or two without seeing a hint of helium in their diluent bottle. (And anyone thinking of taking up CCR diving, especially experienced “technical” divers, should ask themselves if they are honestly willing to accept that “limitation” to their diving? If their answer is no, there is a statistically compelling reason for them to either adjust their thinking or drop CCR diving from their wish list.)

Without doubt, there are dives for which the best tool is a rebreather, but often the pros and cons sort of wash each other out and the final arbiter is personal or team comfort with regards to one or two ‘gray’ issues. I dive a rebreather as a default in but am far from committing 100 percent to it because there are occasions when CCR simply does not make sense.

I guess you could say that my answer to the ubiquitous “is CCR right for me?” question is that it depends.

Douglas Adams, the English writer responsible for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wrote: “There is an art to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” I believe similar logic can be applied to rebreather diving. Sometimes flying is best but occasionally, the bus is a safer option.

Fitness and Flexibility for tech diving

This is an except from my newest book, The Six Skills and Other Discussions, due off-press in mid-February

The most sensible approach for someone considering a move into technical diving is to regard it as physically testing, and respect it as an activity that calls for above average fitness and flexibility. How much above average a technical diver has to be is a debatable point, and the rhetoric runs from the argument that technical divers should be capable of competing in triathlons to a completely hands-off approach that believes any diver is clear to go as long as he can stagger around the dive deck with sufficient control to stub out his cigarette and put down his beer before dropping into the water.

You may, like me, be looking for a set of fitness guidelines that fall somewhere in between those two extremes, and there are several suitable scales to measure personal fitness levels in a way that fits well with the general rigors of tech diving.

The first is the Cooper 12-minute run test. It is used to gauge aerobic endurance, and is perhaps the most straightforward to self-administer. I run a “diagnostic” on myself a couple of times a month and track the results on a spreadsheet. The test simply calls for the subject to warm up and then run as fast as possible for 12 minutes. Results are evaluated on distance covered within those 12 minutes.

A run of more than 2700 metres is excellent, 2300 – 2700 is good, 1900 – 2300 is average, 1500 – 1900 metres is below average and less than 1500 metres is poor. Over the years I have dropped a category but find it has been worth the effort to maintain a rating on the upper end of “good” for several reasons, including resting gas consumption rate.

(The approximate imperial conversions are respectively: more than 1.6 miles is excellent, 1.4 – 1.6 miles is good, 1.2 – 1.4 miles is average, 0.9 – 1.2 miles is below average, and less than 0.9 miles is poor.)

Running speed and endurance are good indicators for tech diving but so too is overall flexibility. There are two methods I use to test flexibility: modified sit and reach, and trunk rotation. Both are part of a whole raft of fitness tests published by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), and I would recommend a visit to their website for additional ideas. Flexibility in the hamstrings and lower back have been an issue with me since childhood and I always find the first of these tests a challenge.

Modified Sit and Reach Test
This gauges the flexibility of the lower back and hamstrings and requires a box about 30cm (12 inches) high and a metre rule:
1. Sit on the floor with your back and head against a wall. Legs should be out straight ahead and knees flat against the floor.
2. Have someone place the box flat against your feet (no shoes). Keeping your back and head against the wall stretch your arms out towards the box.
3. Have someone place the ruler on the box and move the zero end towards your fingertips. When the ruler touches you fingertips you have the zero point and the test can begin.
4. Lean forward slowly as far as possible keeping the fingertips level with each other and the legs flat. Your head and shoulders can come away from the wall now. Do NOT jerk or bounce to reach further.
5. Slowly reach along the length of the ruler three times. On the third attempt reach as far as possible and hold for 2 seconds. Have your training partner read the score. Repeat twice and compare your best score with the table below. (All measurements in cm.)

Gender Excellent Above Average Average Below Average Poor
Male >40 cm 29 – 40 cm 23 – 28 cm 15 – 22 cm <15 cm
Female >43 cm 34 – 43 cm 23 – 33 cm 17 – 22 cm <17 cm

Trunk Rotation Test
This flexibility test measures trunk and shoulder flexibility. The only equipment required is a wall and a piece of chalk or pencil.

1. Mark a vertical line on the wall. Stand with your back to the wall directly in front of the line. You should be about arms length away from the wall with your feet shoulder width apart.

2. Extend your arms out directly in front of you so they are parallel to the floor. Twist your trunk to your right and the touch the wall behind you with your fingertips. Your arms should stay extended and parallel to the floor. You can turn your shoulders, hips and knees as long as your feet don’t move.

3. Mark the position where your fingertips touched the wall. Measure the distance from the line. A point before the line is a negative score and a point after the line is a positive score.

4. Repeat for the left side and take the average of the two scores.

Rating Positive Reach (cm) Positive Reach (inches)
Excellent 20 8
Very Good 15 6
Good 10 4
Fair 5 2
Poor 0 0

Because of the nature of water and the effects of buoyancy, above average strength does not seem to be as critically important for tech divers as it may be for other sportsmen and women. However, some strength building and testing is in order since divers with arms and legs like noodles will be at a distinct disadvantage moving gear from one side of a parking lot to the other, and may find it close to impossible to get themselves and their equipment back onto the boat in a big sea.

The US Marshal Service has a well-respected and openly published set of fitness and flexibility guidelines for the men and women on its staff. These guidelines have been used by some of the tech diving community for years. Some time ago while researching another book, I modified those tables and developed a set of values that seemed to work for most able-bodied course candidates. These values are based on the figures from the US Marshal tables for above average males in each age category.

My personal goal is to stay aged 30 – 39 for the next 15 years.  Some females find regular “military” push-ups difficult and I see no reason why the modified version cannot be used.

Age % body fat Sit and Reach Push-ups Sit-ups 2.4 km run
20-29 5.3 – 9.4 >50 cm >50 >45 < 10 mins
30-39 14 – 17.5 >45 cm >38 >40 <12 mins
40-49 16 – 20 >42 cm >35 >37 <14 mins
50-59 18 – 22 >40 cm >33 >35 <15 mins
60 plus 19 – 23 >38 cm >31 >33 <17 mins

Pre-Order your copy of my new book…

The Six Skills and Other Discussions is scheduled to start shipping February 16, and if you are interested in getting a copy as soon as it comes off press, now’s the time.

You can pre-order from the link below. You do not have to pay anything until your copy is ready to ship and then you will get an electronic invoice. I use paypal and have done for years. If that does not suit, we can work out something I’m sure.

Order Your Copy of Steve’s New Book NOW!

Pre-orders get free shipping in the US and Canada, and to make things fair, UK and European addresses will get a discount on postage. Will know more in a week or so but it looks like postage to the UK will be reduced to about 5 pounds per copy.

Many have asked what the book is about and I tell them it’s full of creative solutions for the puzzles that face tech divers on every dive. But I figured the table of contents would also help. So here it is:


Table of Contents

By Jill Hienerth……………

About this book ……………

Chapter One: Technical Diving and How to Get There From Here
Definition of technical diving and what to expect from a tech diving course……………

Chapter Two: Buoyancy, the force that opposes Gravity
The first of the Six Skills including a novel use for a digital fish scale……………

Chapter Three: Trim, the streamlined approach to diving
A prescription to swim like a fish and get rid of clutter……………

Chapter Four: The Skill of Movement and Position
The last of the physical skills and the guidebook for a four-dimensional game of follow the leader……………

Chapter Five: Breathing, beyond the standard advice not to hold your breath
The first mental skill and elements of gas planning……………

Chapter Six: Situational Awareness, the Chess Master’s skill
Focus, observation, understanding and a touch of clairvoyancy ……………

Chapter Seven: Emotional Control
The sixth and final skill, which is really about a developing a cool outlook and how to maintain it ……………

Chapter Eight: Dive Execution, Equipment Configuration, Doing What Works
Plan your dive, dive your plan and Hogarth ……………

Chapter Nine: The Deco Curve
Contingency decompression made easy. Well, easier ……………

Chapter Ten: Accident Analysis, and chalking the Foul Lines
What goes wrong when people get hurt and how we can learn from those incidents ……………

Chapter Eleven: Parting Shots
Suggested reading, diet, exercise and lateral thinking ……………

Imperial tables and examples for the metrically challenged ……………

Thanks for your attention, folks.

A Simple Thought Experiment

Before I leave the whole issue of diver safety and specifically fatalities associated with closed-circuit rebreathers, I’d like to pose a question to you.

I promise to move on to something less somber after this, but please send me your thoughts via comments below or in an email.

Anyway, here’s the scoop.

When it comes to policing who gets to dive a rebreather, every CCR manufacturer seems to use similar tactics. In short, they will not sell a functional CCR unit to John Doe Diver without verification that he has successfully completed a certification program on the unit sometime recently.

If John Diver has purchased the CCR so that he can participate in a course and earn that certification, most manufacturers will either ship his unit directly to the instructor who will be running the course, or will ship the machine to John Diver but missing a vital part (like the scrubber head) rendering it non-functional. The missing part will be sent to the instructor.

This has been common practice for years, and to an extent, prevents untrained, uncertified divers taking their brand-new toy for a potentially disastrous trial run.

So the question is this: What happens if John Diver completes his CCR course and fails?

What if John is so incompetent, so out of sync with the whole concept of CCR diving, that his instructor has to wash him out of the program? In other words, John does not just need a little more coaching; he is so bad in the water on a CCR that it looks likely he may NEVER get it.

The equation is: John plus CCR equals accident.

What does the instructor do with the CCR? Send it back to the manufacturer on behalf of John asking for a refund or does she hold on to it until John tightens up his act and earns a pass sometime in the distant future?

What happens if John signs on with another instructor who teaches to less stringent standards? The original instructor HAS to release the machine at some point doesn’t she? After all, John Diver paid for it. But she believes that the second instructor may turn a blind-eye to John’s poor skills.

Put yourself in John’s place, and his instructor; let me know what you think!

Why so many deaths? What’s the real story behind 18 deaths on rebreathers worldwide so far in 2010?

At the CCR Summit, part of the National Association of Cave Diver’s Conference in Florida early this month, during a presentation on rebreather safety, Jill Heinerth made the statement: “if you own a rebreather for five years, two percent of you are going to die on it.”

Part of the fallout from Jill’s presentation was disbelief and on the various dive and rebreather forums the debate continued for days, and continues as I write this. Hopefully, by poking this issue with a pointed stick, Jill will wake a few of us up to a real and present problem… and also perhaps help to fire-up the right people to work at making a difference.

First off, let’s see if things are as bad as Jill paints them to be.

I’ve worked with statistics and their analysis for a good part of my working career and have a healthy respect and suspicion of them. The stats Jill quoted in her presentation at the CCR Summit were drawn from a paper presented by Simon Mitchell during the Peter Bennett Symposium at Durham in 2005, and then updated and published by Duke University in 2007.

Mitchell, estimated the five year mortality rate for rebreather owners at 0.5 percent based on the number of rebreather fatalities recorded by Diver’s Alert Network (DAN) around the world that year, but warned his data was inconclusive and his estimate “statistically crude”. However, it is a good starting point and to clarify it somewhat, Mitchell confirmed recently that Jill’s figure would fit into the high-end of his paradigm if there were something like 4500 active rebreather divers during a year when 18 deaths were recorded.

One issue with any statistical analysis of CCR risk vs. risk on open circuit or diving generally, is that while we have a pretty good fix on the number of fatalities in a given year, we really have no clue how many rebreathers are out there. Nor do we know how many recreational divers are using them, and we certainly do not know how many rebreather dives are conducted each year (and that would perhaps be the most useful data).

The vast majority of CCR sales are associated with certifications sanctioned by and issued through one of the existing tech agencies. Getting reliable figures from them to cover CCR certs per annum is not easy and would be skewed in any case. For the record, one of the largest tech agencies states that CCR certifications at ALL levels make up less than 2.5 percent of their total numbers. But even interpolating from this figure is difficult because some divers own more than one unit, some certify and then become inactive, some take more than one certification in a given year, and some earn certification on the same unit at the same level with an instructor who issues multiple agency specific certs.

A useful number to work with would be what percentage of total diving related deaths occur on rebreathers in a given year. (The latest number I can lay my hands on is five percent, but with a whopping 18 CCR deaths so far this year, that figure probably will need updating by the end of December.)

What are we left with then? Not much frankly. We do not know how many people dive rebreathers. We do not know how many rebreather dives are made each year. But we do know how many scuba-related deaths there are in a given year, and we know how many occur on CCR.

So we come back to Simon Mitchell’s estimate. If we compare this to the deaths among DAN members over the past few years (1:6000 or 0.016 percent) CCR diving begins to look as though it is more risky than open circuit diving, but even that statement is difficult to corroborate without clearer and more complete data.

All we can really say is that too many people are dying on rebreathers and there must be something we can do about stopping it.

One of the questions Jill was asked at the end of her presentation had to do with the risk factors surrounding fully automatic CCRs and manually operated one. The question essentially asked if it was true that many more deaths occur on automatic machine compared to the manually operated ones.

Jill let me chime in because I dive and teach on a completely manual unit, and as much as I would like to say that manual CCRs are statistically safer, there are no data to prove it one way or the other! Manual, automatic, radial scrubbers, back-mounted lungs, scrubber cartridges or loose kitty-litter, multicolored lights, statistically they’re all the same, and more importantly I believe the problems behind diver accidents, injury and deaths have a common genesis that primarily is only indirectly related to technology.

I disagree with those insiders who suggest that the answer is third-party testing and CE or ISO certification for the machines. I do not buy that HUD (heads up displays), more oxygen sensors, carbon dioxide warning systems, or any other bells and whistles represent a silver bullet that will stop people dying on rebreathers. I think these are all fine concepts and are all worth consideration, but I don’t think they will really help or get to the fundamental problem.

At issue is poor initial instruction, diver complacency and a community ethos that sanctions, or at least ignores, bad habits and sloppy procedures.

I have no idea how much weighting or seriousness to give each of these issues because each is serious and each can lead some poor punter finding himself in a situation that has a better than average chance of a piss-poor outcome.

And sadly there seems to be no easy fix. Industry insiders like Jill Heinerth have been promoting change for years. Perhaps as a community, we can promote and campaign for the good and positive things too.

Here are a couple of pointers that may be of use to you.

If you want to dive a CCR, work with an instructor who understands the value of individual prescriptive training, and who pays particular attention to explaining failure scenarios; and how to work through them. Ask if there is a confined water component to your course. “Pool work” might not be exciting but it can help to build a strong foundation for you as a CCR diver. Find out how the inwater time during your course will be spent, especially the open water dives. The total number of hours is not really an indication of a good course if they are spent sitting in a lotus position looking at fish. Mastering CCR diving takes work and practice, and failure-driven improvements to your awareness and technique.

Ask your instructor for the checklist he uses before his personal dives. If he says he does not use a checklist, run away and find another instructor; seriously. I’ve taken courses with instructors who designed and engineered (and in one case built) the units they were instructing on, and ALL of them without exception, used a checklist before a dive. A checklist can save your life. Use one, always.

Most of all, do not put yourself above your training. All your experience as an open circuit diver is only relevant to diving a CCR after you have bailed out and even then, there are things unique to CCR that you will need to learn and practice if you want to get to the surface intact and whole.

When you first dive a CCR you are a beginner and no matter how good you are on open-circuit, resist the temptation to leapfrog over a training level or two because you believe know all about decompression or trimix or overhead environments.

Finally, take responsibility for your actions. One of my early mentors was W.R. Morgan and his advice was that before you take a shortcut related to any form of high-risk endeavor, from rock climbing to mountain biking, skiing or technical diving, take a piece of paper or index card and divide it into two columns. At the top of one, write “Normal Procedures” and at the top of the other “What I’m going to do instead.“ Now fill both columes in. Take a look at it, sign and date it, now give it to your boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, husband, best mate, favorite waitress, mom or dad, and let them know that if something happens to you, to give it to the folks who will be doing the investigation.

My final thought is this. I dive a CCR because sometimes it is the right tool to do what it is I have to do or what I want to do. All indications are that CCRs present a special level of risk. My training, common sense, and a bunch of procedures and protocols will help keep me safe, and I promise to practice them always.

Now, how about you?

Thanks for your attention.