Old Dogs & New Tricks

This fall I was given the opportunity to try my hand as a student in the Global Underwater Explorers Fundamentals class. Like many in the dive industry, I had heard a bit about GUE. Like many groups whose practices stand out from the normal way of doing things, they have been labeled extremists by some, elitists by others and cliquish by still more.

So here’s what I knew:

  1. They had their roots in cave diving.
  2. They were extremely safety oriented.
  3. Everyone had to use the same equipment configuration.

And here’s what I thought about those things:

  1. Cave diving sounds cool and I know it is very dangerous.
  2. There is a difference in the safety parameters of a 300 foot cave dive then of a 40 foot reef dive.
  3. So if I don’t have the right gear, I can’t be in the club? Boo-hoo!

If you hadn’t guessed, this was not something I was very interested in. I’ve thought about cave diving but knew my wife would not think too kindly of me getting killed. The rest sounded like trying to make mountains out of molehills. I also call them “solutions in search of problems”. Recreational diving is safe enough, let’s not make it any harder than it has to be. I was talked into it by Bob Christensen at our Ogden shop. One of their instructors was a GUE guy and wanted someone at the Holladay location to be able to talk the talk and know a bit about the class. Now one of the benefits to a dive shop of a GUI class is that it requires specific equipment and most students can spend quite a bit getting outfitted. In all honest, I liked the idea of hitching my wagon to that gravy train so I said ok, let’s give it a try.

To tell the truth, one of the reasons I was bit hesitant was because of the instructor. Garth McMurdie is an intimidating person. He stands about 6’5”, 210 lbs, well built, long hair, bushy mustache and has a very deep voice. Garth is a biker and looks the part. Jeans, Harley t-shirt and leather vest are his usual attire. He scares the hell out of me. Plus his skills, knowledge and experience leave me in the dust. As an avid cave diver and instructor, he has been to places deeper and longer then I can only dream of. I have been doing this a little while and know a few things about a few things and the idea of having Garth critiquing my diving skills was not something my ego really wanted to endure.

The class started with a small seminar at the Holladay shop to give an intro to GUE and what you learn about in the class. We started with a video from the Woodville Karst Plains Project and the cave diving at Wakulla Springs. This really shows what GUE is about. To date, they have explored over 5 miles back into this cave system at an average depth of 270’. Pretty incredible stuff. Over the last 10 years as they have pushed further and further into the cave, two things became clear. First, the equipment out there for recreational diving wasn’t good enough for the rigors of technical cave diving. Second, the basic skills of entry level technical divers were sorely lacking. Out of this type of diving, a new philosophy arose, Do It Right (DIR). DIR means that there is 1 style of BCD, 1 type of regulator, 1 style of fins and even 1 style of mask to use for your diving. They have ideas on weighting, kicking, buddy systems, even their own dive table. There is a simple and logical reason for each decision. The funny thing was, the more I learned, the more I couldn’t argue with any of it. As equipment needs became more formalized, a manufacturer was needed to build the equipment as ordered. Halcyon became that company, with the owners sharing the same philosophy. So here we have the concept and the equipment. All that was needed was the training agency. GUE was formed to teach the DIR principles. Fundamentals is their entry level class that is required before going on to Cave or Tech Training.

After the intro video, Garth went on to explain some of the basics of the class-about trim and weighting, about proper position and propulsion and about air consumption and proper dive planning. He talked about how mainstream training and equipment leaves some gaps in our diving ability and about how the right equipment and training can help in all of these. The final part included jumping into the pool and watching Garth as he demonstrated some of these principles and we got to try them out ourselves in our regular equipment. I forgot to mention that all water skills are videotaped and we get to watch ourselves afterwards. Austin V. is another of our instructors from Ogden and does all of Garth’s video work. Needless to say, it was amusing to watch ourselves flail around trying to imitate Garth without training or the right equipment. Basically the idea of the whole evening was to first tell you some of the benefits of DIR, then show you it. When you realize it makes sense but you need the gear and training to walk the walk you are sold on the class.

My interest was piqued. I was getting ready for our annual California live-aboard trip on the Horizon and I decided in for a dime, in for a dollar. I picked up a Halcyon back-plate style BCD, added a 7’ long primary hose, started wearing my alternate around my neck and traded in my split fins for a pair of good old Scubapro black, rubber Jet Fins with spring straps. That style of BCD allows for the weight to be distributed evenly on your back and shoulders instead of around your waist which drags the lower half of yoru body down. The harness and crotch strap add a stability to the unit that is sorely lacking in a traditional style BCD. The 7’ long primary hose allows deployment to an out of air diver and actually gives you some room to maneuver. Your alternate is around your neck to allow quick and easy retrieval. The Jet Fins give you the ability to kick in a variety of different ways including backwards. Split fins can only kick so much before you over-kick them. Not so with the Jet Fins. I was on my way.

In a nutshell, the class takes place over 3 long days. There was myself and another instructor in the class. 2-4 students are the most in the class at a time. We started at 6 am on a Friday and worked all day. We had a pool session with more video taping. The key skill in the pool is working on body stability and positioning. Basically staying still. Stomach and chest flat, head up, knees bent slightly with the legs and fins up behind your tank. This is a true, streamlined position. From there, you are able to swim up, down or backwards. You also work on a few different kicks. My favorite, still used today, is the frog kick that gives you a good, long glide. This allows you to use the stiffer Jet Fins but without the leg cramps or fatigue. One of the coolest things is the helicopter turn. By engaging one fin in one direction and the other in the opposite direction, you can basically spin in place. We also practiced some air sharing drills. Keeping a 7’ long hose where you want it is not as easy as it looks. The rest of the afternoon and into the evening was spent on different diving and planning techniques.

Here is one of the most important concepts I learned. Using your Surface Air Consumption Rate, you can figure out how long air will last at a given depth. With that in mind, the numbers say that after about 5 minutes at a depth of 100’ with a standard 80 cubic foot tank, you’d better be heading to shallower water. Why you ask? Because if you are involved in an air-sharing situation with another diver at that depth, you will not have enough air to get to the surface unless you break one of your safety rules. Either you will have to ascend faster then 60’/minute, you will have to cut sort your 3 minute safety stop or you will have less then 500 psi reserve in your tanks. Correct me if I’m wrong but shouldn’t a safety plan be conservative? We worked through the numbers, the air is just not there. And yet how many dives have you been on when the plan is to stay at depth until our computers say we are running low on time or our air gets below 1000 psi? All it takes is for one blown tank o-ring or high pressure hose to make you realize just how cavalier we have become on deep diving safety. These were some of the principles that I needed a review of. Apparently cave diving safety can be applied to recreational diving after all.

Our Open Water session involved 4 dives over 2 days at beautiful Blue Lake. The lake was pretty crappy. Vis was only about 8 or so feet. Now there are a few options to the out come of the class. You can pass it at a Technical Level, pass it at a Recreational Level or not pass at all. Apparently the normal is not a pass. It is simply too much information and technique to digest in a few dives without more practice. Plus to pass it at a Technical Level, you need doubles, a drysuit and a hand-mounted canister light. That means your buoyancy is trickier and all drills are done with a light in your hand and a cord that can’t be tangled up in your hoses. When Garth said he had yet to pass someone at the Technical Level on the first time out, the challenge was on. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to try since the drysuit I was going to use leaked like a sieve and the old canister light I had was broken. As it was I doubt I would have passed at the Tech level.

My first problem was still positioning. When you are in the water, if you relax, the natural position you fall into is straight up and down. In GUE, you never go vertical, you must stay horizontal all the time. My problem was every time I went horizontal, I would be pushed forward and have to back kick the whole time to stay in place. I think the drysuit would have helped. Garth said if you keep a little extra air in your shoulders, it would counteract that force and help keep you straight.

My second problem was on our ascent training. Specifically our out of air ascent training. More specifically, our out of air ascent with a 7 minute ascent from 20 feet training. That’s right 7 minutes from 20 feet! You move up 3 feet and hold that depth for a minute before sliding up another 3 feet. From 20 feet, that’s 7 minutes. That is while you are sharing air, staying in position and holding the depth without an ascent line. Remember my first problem? So there I was trying to do this and the whole time I am trying to keep from sliding forward into my buddy so I am back kicking which is making me breathe harder which is affecting my buoyancy which makes it even harder to hold depth especially when we are trying to hold at 6 and then 3 feet.

My third problem was that I ran out of air. Specifically I turned my air off. More specifically, I turned my air off and forgot to turn it back on. With my double tanks, they have a manifold on them with 2 valves and an isolator valve. That means I can hook up 2 independent first stages with my primary off one and my back up off the other. This allows you to shut down either one of the first stages but still have a redundant air source. One of our drills is a valve drill where you simulate a problem with your primary valve. You turn off the air on that side then turn off the isolator so no more air is going to that valve. Your backup is already turned on so you switch to that. The only problem is that I forgot to turn my primary back on. I switched back to my primary, purging the reg first since you want to make certain that you are not switching back to a dead reg. Except by purging I got rid of the very last of the air in the hose. So I switch back to my primary and there is nothing there. I had no idea why!! Now one of 3 things could happen at this point.

Option #1 – I can freak out and panic and claw my way to the surface and die from either running out of air or holding my breath.

Option # 2- I can keep my cool and run through my valves and figure out why I am not getting any air when I know I have air in my tanks.

I’m glad to say I did not choose # 1. I wish I can say I kept it together and choose #2. That leaves us with #3.

Option #3 – I turn to Garth and with a deer in the headlights look, signal out of air and he responds with his reg and as I catch my breath I’m figuring out my valves and cursing myself as a rookie diver.

This illustrated one of the most important points in Technical Diving, familiarity with your equipment. I didn’t choose Option #2 because when it mattered most, I didn’t know where to start and I knew I had someone next to me who could help. Once I was breathing again, I was able to run through everything and see what I forgot to turn on but in a pinch, when it all came crashing down I didn’t know my gear well enough. I guess that’s why I’m student, not the instructor.

Afterwards I started analyzing what happened. One question that came up was where was Garth? Didn’t he see that I had screwed up and was about to run out of air? Alas, the whole incident was caught on video. Austin had a front row seat. As we watched the video, Austin has zoomed in to my valves and you saw my hands go from one valve to another. As soon as my hand leaves my main valve (without turning it back on) you see Garth’s hand come into the frame and then pause…..and then leave the frame. Yep, he saw it all. I can just imagine what he was thinking, “OK, Mr. Bigshot Instructor, let’s see how you’re going to get out of this.” Later Garth said he was cool with my response. I screwed up but did what I was supposed to do after screwing up. Of course, the valve drill was supposed to be done in the horizontal position like everything else and as soon as I realized I was out of air, I dropped down on to my knees on the platform. Dropping to your knees is what Garth likes to call the prayer position. I guess I was praying to Garth to save my a**!

In the end I passed at the Recreational Level. My ego was soothed somewhat knowing that only 2-3 people have passed Garth’s class on the first time out. I came away a better diver. I am more aware of air consumption. I am more aware of depth. I am still using the gear and techniques I learned from Garth and still learning how to apply them on a day to day/dive to dive basis.

As I mentioned earlier, GUE is not without their critics. There are those who feel that if you are not Doing It Right, then that leaves only 1 other option, Doing It Wrong and naturally this has ruffled some feathers in the diving community. Being a newbie to this, I don’t feel comfortable criticizing other methods but I will say this. Every diver can learn something from taking the Fundamentals class and maybe there isn’t such a difference between a 300’cave dive and 40’ reef dive. If you are a safer, more efficient diver it makes sense to dive that way all the time.

Let’s go diving!
Fall 2006