Category — Training

The learning curve vs the accident slope

‘The learning curve vs the accident slope’

I am lucky enough to be working for a company which has trained most of the competition in Mexico (and around the world), receiving the latest teaching methods and styles and having the knowledge of over two decades within the team are worth their weight in gold.
As with all instructors we watch each other, listen to each other’s debriefs and sometimes think to ourselves “wow, I’m going to use that” or “hmm, maybe I won’t use that”. With each course we teach, each cave we dive, we all learn something good or bad. Funny enough it’s the dives where things go wrong which teach us the most.

I have some of the best ITs in the business as my mentors and employers. This allows for us to get together and ensure we are all teaching at the highest level we can. Not in order to raise the price of the course, but to ensure that our clients receive the very best tuition possible.

At ProTec we have ‘trimmed the fat’ from the course; not to make it easier but to ensure you learn, and more importantly understand, the core skills we are teaching. We have streamlined these skills and drills not only to save your life (or your buddies’ life) but to keep the cave as pristine as it can be.
One such set of skills is Buoyancy, Trim and Propulsion (B,T,P). If you do not possess any of these core skills then you cannot do anything inside the overhead environment safely. On our cave course, from the very first to the very last time you enter the water, these three skills all working together, will play an integral part of any task that is thrown at you! We practice, practice and practice some more of what we call the ‘Holy Trinity’ or B,T,P.

Agency and instructors set aside, we all want the same things; to be the best cave diver we can and to receive the best instruction we can, right? Here at ProTec, it’s mandatory for their instructors to complete advanced courses and to continue their cave diving education – it’s a good rule and I love to learn!
We have all had a free-flow of some kind during our diving career and have heard of or seen first-hand where a diver does not react quickly enough or understand the immediate action required to conserve the gas; and they look like a deer caught in the headlights and then flail around rising or sinking in the water column.

The cave course is jam-packed full of skills and drills all equally as important as each other. And from day one when we introduce the students to the ‘Holy Trinity’, we also introduce them to the ‘accident slope’ and how these three simple things, go hand in hand with the accident slope.

The ‘accident slope’ is used as a metaphor whereby if a diver carries out an incorrect action to a certain scenario he moves down the slope towards becoming a statistic. For example: a diver has a right post free flow from the 1st stage. They rush into the drill and switch off their left post 1st stage and then panic as he/she can still hear gas escaping so then switches off their right post. Boom!!…this diver has now moved onto the accident slope and is heading towards a fatal accident. Now combine this with poor buoyancy, poor trim and bad positioning; we’re not just on the slope, we’re half way down where the slope becomes steeper and a recovery less likely.

On day one when the learning curve starts and we break down the propulsion techniques, the positioning and the action of the fins themselves, we also give them the ‘why not’s instead of just the ‘how toos’. We instil in the student that we need to rely on our B,T,P in everything we do. So we ensure we know ‘what to do and what not to do’ and the ramifications of the ‘what not to dos’, if done!
As each day passes and each section of the course comes and goes, the ‘Holy Trinity’ is honed and becomes second nature. The student not only gets to see how it is done correctly, but also why it needs to be done correctly. Each student is taught using the E.D.I.P methodology (something I learnt from my Army days as an instructor) Explanation, Demonstration, Imitation and Practice.
At the end of every dive, every day and every phase of the course we carry out a full and in-depth debrief, whereupon we discuss the correct and incorrect actions and how these can affect us as divers on the ‘accident slope’ combined with good or bad B,T,P.
Finally day eight arrives…course ’Graduation Day’. At this point the student has had seven full days of touch contact, navigation, restrictions, zero viz and OOG drills thrown at them. They have had gas haemorrhage drills, valve drills, deco stops and academics until they cannot take another lesson in or out of the classroom!

At the end of the course, when the student receives their cave certification, they truly know that by simply having the ability to understand that being able to safely and effectively stay neutrally buoyant while shutting down a free flowing 1st stage or deploying the long hose with an OOG partner, they can stay at the top of the accident slope instead of slipping further and further down and becoming a statistic.

Then and only then will the student understand that every core skill, is intertwined like a spiders web, all interconnecting, all linked together by one common set of core skills.
Enjoy the learning curve, stay away from the slippery slope and practice the ‘Holy Trinity’.

December 13, 2014   2 Comments

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