Mark ‘Crowley’ Russell shares some tips on staying calm when things go wrong
Sometimes, underwater, despite the best-laid plans of mice and divers, things go wrong.
In the majority of cases, the cause is human error. It may have been a momentary oversight, or outright failure to check and monitor gas supply; rarely, it’s faulty equipment; occasionally, Mother Nature doesn’t play nice.
With whom, or what, the blame lies is academic at the time. What matters is that the situation is handled in a way that ensures a positive outcome – and the first rule in handling emergencies is not to panic.
This is a difficult guideline to follow, however, because nobody can be certain how they will react to an emergency until they have been confronted with an emergency.
I panicked, once, when I mistimed my breathing during an air-sharing exercise and, confronted with an unexpected out-of-air (OOA) situation, reached out to pull my buddy’s regulator from his mouth. Fortunately, after that split second of blind terror, I remained level-headed enough to surface, rather than drown him.
What struck me afterwards was the sheer stupidity of my reaction. There was no out-of-air emergency. We had, between us, four functioning regulators (and another from the instructor, who was kneeling nearby); I was a divemaster trainee with more than 100 logged dives, practising skills in a two-metre-deep pool. Nevertheless, I had panicked. It was a valuable lesson; one I have never forgotten and have never shied away from admitting. Indeed, I used to teach it to others as an example of how not to react, and also how we can never be sure how we will react, until we need to.
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What I learned from that incident was that diving, like many other activities, requires a constant process of evaluating future possibilities in the broader environment in which we exist, rather than focusing solely on our immediate surroundings. Take driving a car, for example, where we are taught not to focus on what is immediately in front of us, but to look further down the road to analyse the potential for hazards. If we note that a child is playing with a ball some hundred metres in front of us, we are prepared for the possibility that the child may chase the ball into the road, and we will be able to slow down or take avoiding action as necessary.
If, on the other hand, the first time we see the child is only when they run out in front of us …
If I had been ‘looking further down the road’ during that buddy-breathing exercise, rather than focusing on the immediate task of perfecting my skill demonstration, I should have anticipated the error before it occurred, recovered my own, perfectly functioning regulator, and started the skill again. The ‘emergency’ would still have happened, but I wouldn’t have panicked, and I would have dealt with it safely.
In effect, divers should always be looking for a way out, even before we actually need one. This does not mean we have to spend every moment of an otherwise enjoyable dive expecting the worst, it just means we need to remain observant as the dive progresses and look at the potential for hazards to arise.
If, for example, you feel your buddy – and therefore your alternate air source – is drifting a little too far away, looking further down the road to anticipate potential problems will tell you that if either one of you has an OOA, the consequences of separation could be serious; so, it’s time to close the gap and, while you’re at it, remind yourself where your buddy’s alternate is located, just in case.
The ability to actually look much further ahead in a physical sense is, of course, limited by the visibilty at any given dive site. While we do not need to concern ourselves with oncoming traffic (most of it has already taken avoiding action on our approach and swum away), even in relatively poor visibility, visual clues can be important in anticipating actions you may need to take at a later point in the dive.
For example, the movement of aquatic life and particulate matter in the water may indicate that you will have to deal with a much stronger current around an upcoming corner of reef than is present in your immediate vicinity, and you may need to adjust your dive plan to take that into account.
On a long, unbroken, fringing reef plate it might mean the future holds an excellent, speedy drift where the only concern is how long the walk back to the car park might be. On an island reef or wreck in the open ocean, however, a sudden change in current may be extremely dangerous. Either way, it’s time time to tuck in close to the reef, sea floor, or wreck; make sure your buddy is nearby; and perhaps signal that you may need to turn around, head for shelter, or cut short the dive.
In areas prone to the worst underwater conditions, avoiding potential danger may be as simple as determining in advance how and where to surface safely if it becomes necessary, making sure that you do not stray too far from those points, and maintaining close contact with your buddy or dive team – good communication is as essential for the prevention of problems as proper planning.
Anticipating problems is only one component in preventing panic and keeping ourselves safe underwater. In order to provide us with the best possible outcome when something goes wrong, it is of utmost importance that we keep our dive skills up to date through training, practice, repetition of safety drills and continuously working to improve our buoyancy control.
While nobody can anticipate every emergency, nor even how they might react should one occur, by always looking one step ahead of our immediate situation, we can prepare ourselves to deal with events that, were we not paying attention, might otherwise lead us to panic.