Category — Sidemount

To stage or not to stage?

I was recently assisting on a stage course alongside Patrick. We were lucky enough to be teaching a repeat guest. The guest is a solid diver, visits us a few times a year and wants to progress his education as a safe cave diver every time. Perfect. He goes away educated, trained and then gets the required hours of in water time to practice his newly found skills. He completed the course SM. The stage course is a minimum of 3 days depending on knowledge and skills in the water.

Every forum, every agency, maybe even every diver has their own opinion on ‘the stage course’. I’ve heard some divers tell me “I’m not paying for someone to teach me how to dive a stage.” My current favourite quote is when people state “there is nothing to it, clip it on breathe half the gas, and clip it off to the line”. I try to explain it’s more than that but sometimes they don’t want to listen.

The stage course is one of my favourite courses to teach and it’s high on my personal preferred ways to dive in the cave. We all as cave divers remember the importance of progressive penetration and of correct gas planning, right? For those cave divers amongst us that dive a lot and are always turning the dive on gas (when we just want to see what’s around the next bend or next tunnel), well the stage course is for you.

We are all self-proclaimed diving geeks (you know you are!). We love to set up our gear, place bungee loops here and there, pull out our wet notes and plan our next dive. Well, we do all that and more on the course.

Day one

You will learn how to correctly use a stage rig and most importantly how to set up your SM harness – if it’s not set up properly, the cave will teach you a lesson. You will learn how to correctly, safely and effectively communicate as a team during dropping and retrieval procedures and most importantly location on the cave line.

We cover finning techniques, as with a 3rd tank things get a bit tricky. We also cover touch contact in zero visibility picking up procedures. Again, these skills are lifesaving, game-changing skills. Once the classroom presentations are finished, we head off to the ‘house of pain’ or Cenote Ponderosa for some confined water torture … whoops, skills!

We set up, gear up and are in the water. Today’s skills will be those that we learned in the classroom – so trying to hover motionless and doing finning techniques is ok, except it’s a little tricky in 2m of water in a dry suit with 3 full tanks…well, tricky for everyone bar Patrick!

So three hours of skills, drills and dropping/retrieving tanks with visibility and zero visibility pass by very quickly. It’s always good to go back to basics, especially if divers have not practiced these skills for a long time.


ProTec instructor: Rob Bartlett

Stage and retrieve in open water


Day two

As per normal on any ProTec course, we utilise our skill sets and past courses to continually evolve and set new bars for upcoming students from what we learnt on previous courses. So we now have free coffee to keep everyone sharp in the classroom the morning after the long day before – there’s nothing like air-con and a hot coffee to wake you up!

So we begin day two with some theory on gas/dive planning to include the extended progressive penetration grid. “What’s new?” I hear you say. This will go along side your in-depth gas planning procedures. We will mathematically show you the pros and cons of stage diving. You will cover many types of ‘gas rules’ and how to choose and apply them to stage diving. We discuss communication procedures, team, global and personal awareness. We then plan a dive to put this all into practice. So we pack up and head back to the ‘house of pain’.

All ready to go, geared up and in the water we go through our in water gear matching

We carry out a full dive briefing, descend, carry out our S Drills and begin the guests first stage cave dive…primary, secondary connection into the main line is all exactly the same. It goes well. We swim down the cavern line at Ponderosa, looking for the “jump”.   Team positioning, awareness is all exactly the same. We arrive at our “jump” – we are jumping left. The guest could not have done it better, perfect position and signals. We tie into the cave line. We swim in total for about 35mins before I signal to the leader to drop the stage.

We drop as per the classroom presentation; leader first, me second. We complete the ‘gas switch’, indicate direction of travel and move into the cave. We swim for another 45mins. The leader gives the command signal to turn the dive, I repeat. Then the fun begins…

The guest is given multiple failures and free flows with and without visibility. It goes to show, if you receive the correct training, you can overcome any failures. There was as usual a lot to discuss on the debrief, after all we did an awesome 3 hour cave dive to the chapel and back from Ponderosa. If you have not seen this part of the cave yet, I would highly recommend it.


ProTec Instructor: Rob Student: Jacek

Cave procedures


“At last day three”

This was the guest’s words over coffee that morning ha ha. So today was exactly the same as day two and we planned a dive at cenote Taj Ma Ha, followed the same procedure setting up, in water brief, S Drills and off we went. We have all dived ‘Taj’ right – but super shallow, in a dry suit with 3 tanks is a little ‘challenging’ as we all know.

We tie in, make a good secondary and off we go, down the slope. We tie into the main line in ‘pole position’. We swim along the main line until our designated jump. We reach our stage pressure and we drop. Remembering his training, the team selects the correct place to drop the stage and the team form up using the line as a reference. The gas switch procedure is followed to the letter and off we go for the rest of the dive. Needless to say it was another 3 hours of fun! Small passages, big passages, white cave and dark cave. We practised Zero visibility, free flows and 1st and 2nd stage issues. It was awesome.

What was not awesome was my mask breaking 30mins into the dive (yes I know, 1 in a million eh) – the strap broke so I referenced the line, alerted my buddy, closed my eyes and felt for my rear pocket and replaced my mask. All good you’re thinking right?……nope! I forgot to prepare my mask before the dive so every second it fogged up (that’s what it felt like) it was awful, plus all the skills and drills. I longed for the blackout mask that day ha ha.

Again, we had an in-depth brief on the surface, calculated all our information from the extended progressive penetration grid and figured out that we actually have a good gas consumption, so we survived todays dive, even with a fogged up mask.


ProTec instructor: Rob Bartlett Student: Jacek

Zero vis exits and stage retrieval

For me, to teach this course or to be a student on this course means the same thing. Going back to basics learning, really learning the skills we all learned on the cave course and then just taking it to the next level. The stage course is more than just ‘taking a 3rd tank, and clipping it to the line’. Cave diving is inherently dangerous and diving beyond ones certification is dangerous right? Receiving not just training, but good solid training is the smartest thing of all. Once stage certified, your cave diving will be taken to the next level. Overall, 3 days and a total of 9 hours in the water – can’t be bad eh!!

May 29, 2015   1 Comment

The importance of progressive cave diving experience!!!

It was in January this year that my cave diving skills were put to the test for real. As an up and coming instructor, I explain and drive home all of the skills when I teach every part of the cave course. We ensure the students are taught the very best, the very latest techniques to keep them safe. But do they really listen? Do they really understand that what we are trying to teach them could save their lives if they ever make a mistake?
One such skill is the ‘lost line’ skill.

Every time I teach it, I always ask the question at the end of the lesson – “Do you think you will ever lose the line?” “No” is always the response I get back. Then after the lesson and dive, while we are packing up the truck and have a few minutes to spare, I tell them my story. As a caveat to this, I also tell them I too told my cave instructor “I will never lose the line, I’m too scared to” – it’s not always that simple I can tell you.

So, let me take you back to January this year. I had been diving in Tulum for some time and was lucky enough to be asked to dive a new cave that was being explored by a couple of guests from ProTec I was asked to look for some possible leads so they could come back and continue the search for virgin passages.
At the dive site I found a low, dry cave filled with mud, bat droppings, water and of course the obligatory million mosquitoes that decided they wanted my English blood! Still, it was pretty cool to be asked to look for them, so in I went. It’s a fairly low cave, around 6m deep mostly. Pretty white cave, I reported back to Kim and the primary explorers that I had had a fairly uneventful dive and made a note of a few possible leads! I also said that I’d go back to have another look as a couple of them were through one or two major restrictions.

The next day, I went to see Kim from ProTec Tulum and asked to borrow an exploration reel. I must add that this was my first ever ‘real’ exploration. Fairly easy I thought… I’m an instructor, I’m a sidemount cave diver who regularly dives some pretty big dives. I will be ok. I always follow protocol; never do anything that could be deemed dangerous.

Well, there was my first mistake!

I arrived at the new cenote, met with the land owner, said my greetings, smiled and started to unpack my truck. Everything was great, the sun was shining, all my equipment was working, my suit was on and I was walking into the overhead dry cave. Even crawling on my hands and knees in the bat droppings, mud and stinky water and being bitten to death by the flesh eating mosquitoes wasn’t too bad as I was excited to be exploring.
In the water I checked and rechecked my tank pressures, lights, everything and made my plan. I knew the route to the restriction I wanted to pass to enter the chamber on the other side. I was ready, so I started off. I made my way to the first T, placed my Marker to identify my exit and off I went, min 2 into the dive. I swam to the jump I wanted, again marking my direction, attaching my spool and making the continuous guideline to the surface where I was now at min 4.

I’m now a few mins from the restriction and start to enter the low bedding plane. ‘Finger pulling’ along as it’s super low and I’m outstretched like superman at this point. I see the hole. Now I formulate my plan of attack to enter and exit the restriction safely. Now please as were all cave divers, please keep the laughing to a low roar, as I tell you my plan:

The plan was to enter the restriction, exit it and then turn around, tie into the EOL and continue into the virgin waters beyond. I can hear you all now saying, “But Rob, you don’t have a continuous guideline to the surface if you do that.” And you would be correct. But in my mind my plan was simple – crawl though and tie in from the other side as there was more room.


Yep, you guessed it. Now, this restriction is small and I mean small. It’s about 1m in length, as wide as a sidemount tank and diver and as high as me – it was scraping the hell out of the stealth wing I can tell you. I have to grab the other side and literally pull myself through it, it’s that tight. See where this is heading now…?
It is milk and I mean zero viz. I get half way through, past the committed stage and my mind, my body and every ounce of my being is screaming to me “grab the line, grab the line”. I can’t go back as the tanks are passed so I’d never get back. I have no choice but to try to exit the restriction, turn around and try to grab the line. I exited the restriction, turned and… BOOM, not found the line; in fact I found nothing but cave wall – cave wall with zero viz and no line. This is min 9 now.

I was literally shouting at myself for being so stupid. Having spent nearly two decades in or around the military, and lose the line, stupid. I scrambled to the wall desperately searching for the tiny hole I crawled through – I know it’s the only hole in the wall, so I’m searching for the needle in the haystack right about now.

With each attempt I try to find the hole or the thin white line – try to find the only things that will keep me alive. In a cloud of zero viz I thought to myself, “crap I’m going to die in this cave”. So, exactly like I ask my students every day during the practice land drills, I ask myself… “Rob, tell me what you know and don’t know about this situation”. Ok, so firstly I know I was only one body length away from the restriction. Secondly, I have only turned 180 degrees, so I know the exit is somewhere in front of me, not just anywhere.

Ok, I now know what I need to do.

Out comes my safety spool. I dump all my gas, drop to the floor and I make a primary tie off, I don’t move, I look for a secondary tie off. Ok, I tell myself now turn and start your search pattern. I move along the wall trying to poke my head into anything that I feel is the restriction but each time no luck. However, with each attack down comes more silt not making the situation any better.

As I write this, I clearly remember thinking that I was never going to be able to tell my son I love him one more time. I started to panic, my breathing rate increased so I decided to move away from the tie off points and wait to see if the viz would clear. I made myself neutral and held the cave wall for what seemed like an eternity – in reality it was less than 10 seconds, ha ha ha but no laughing matter then I can tell you.

We are now at min 20 of lost line drills for real. I bring my arm up to my mask and press my shearwater to the lenses, I can make out 6m in depth and time was starting to creep up. I kept my breathing to a rhythmic pattern; all that time in the gym is starting to pay off about now I can tell you.
I moved back to the tie off point and started to attack the cave wall again. 20mins turned into 30mins. Again my mind starts to wander and imagine I’m going to die. After everything I’ve done in my life, it’s here in Tulum that it’s going to end!

30mins turns into 40mins and by now I’m starting to worry about being OOG. Only this time there is no-one to donate, so I start to conserve my air by slowing down my breathing. It is still zero viz, I can’t see anything except percolation coming down from the ceiling, ‘milk’ in the water, creating this white zero viz mess. 45mins now and I’m really trying to suppress that morbid voice in the back of my mind and concentrate on the task at hand. I tell myself, this is it, and I WILL find that line. Min 46, I move against the wall on my knees and I starfish both arms outright trying to find the opening in the wall, no luck. I hold my breath as I’m working with the reel and as I start to rise, as I lie flat on the ceiling and I can see a glorious dark colour slowly starting to appear. It was silt settling near one side of the wall. As I move towards the darkness, I barely make out the thin white line.
I grasp this line with both hands and I let out a huge sigh of relief.

I crawl as fast as I can out of the restriction, down the lines to the jump, to the T and out into open water. I breathe fresh air, pee myself and kneel down in the open for 5mins. I look at my computer and work out that for 49 minutes I was well and truly ‘lost’.

I head to the truck, pack away my gear, sit in the driver’s seat, pull out my phone and call my son in the UK. Typically, he is playing with his friends so doesn’t want to speak to his dad. So I just tell him I love him, he gets embarrassed and we say goodbye, ha ha.

I drive home, all my gear still muddy in my truck. On arrival, I go straight upstairs, make a brew (English for cup of tea) and sit on my sofa for 3 hours not doing anything.
I then make up my mind that I have to ‘get back in the saddle’ as it were. I drive to the same cave, park in the same spot, get kitted-up and formulate my plan and go below water. I head to the restriction, tie in to the EOL and crawl through the restriction once more. I remain neutral for a few minutes, calm my nerves and start to reel in my line in the still milky clouds looming in the cave.

Once conquered, I surface, pack up all my kit and head to ProTec to unpack and drop off my gear. It is then, at a ProTec BBQ I decide to tell Kim and the rest of the guys about my stupid mistake. We all feel very strongly about sharing not only our positive but also our negative experiences with each other and our students so we can all learn from them and become better divers.

So what is the lesson learnt from this? That I can tell my students to ensure they do not make the same mistake I did. I tell them to take their time with progressive penetration, progressive cave diving and for them to adhere to the cave diving protocols. Be mentally prepared to handle stressful situations … plan for the worst and hope for the best.
This experience has humbled me and I feel has made me a much better instructor and diver.

November 6, 2014   6 Comments