|YOURE 30M DOWN AND EXPLORING THE ENGINE-ROOM of a wonderful wreck when your torch bulb fails. As you scramble for your back-up in your BC pocket, you drop a metre onto the silty bottom. The sediment rises and, as youve been using both hands to sort out the light problem, youve now lost your sense of direction, visibility and contact with the guideline to the exit.|
British divers frequently penetrate underwater structures with standard equipment and no overhead training of any sort; just grab a big reel, a light and off we go. If all is well, everyones happy, but each year someone finds out that the walls of the incident pit are that much steeper in an overhead environment.
Isnt it surprising, then, that wreck training is not up there on our list of must-do courses
Many technical organisations offer overhead training in the form of cave and cavern courses but TDI is one of only a few that boast a dedicated wreck-penetration class. We decided to take up an offer to participate in one of its Advanced Wreck Diving courses, at the Hurghada branch of Divers Lodge.
Certified to teach most TDI courses, Wessam El Sebai is one of the organisations most experienced instructors, and the centres manager.
He took us for an informal check-dive off the jetty the day before the course started. We soon learnt that shore-diving outside the Intercontinental Hotel (where we were based) was about as scenic as a UK quarry, with viz to match, even if the water was 27Ã‚C.
Who is we For overhead diving, I wanted a buddy I knew well, so Craig Nelson was forced out from behind the camera for once to take the class with me. Wessam said that two others would be joining us to bring the class to its quota of four students.
At 9am we wandered the 300m from our breakfast table down to the dive centre and into a small, air-conditioned classroom to meet our fellow-students.
German-born and Hurghada-based Morgan Meinecke had been diving since he arrived in Egypt in 1992. As TDIs Operations Manager for the Middle East and Russia, he had taken most of its technical courses to keep in touch.
Ahmed Gamal Elashwah, a local accountant, was a certified Dive Master who had trained to TDI Extended Range level with Wessam. He explained (in excellent English) that these days he could fit diving in only by committing to courses in advance.
A diver since 1998, Craig is an underwater photographer, paramedic, PADI Assistant Instructor and trimix-qualified (generally a handy bloke to have around). Despite coming from Stoke, his English was arguably as good as Ahmeds and Morgans. Craig was training to be able to take the pictures on some of the more challenging course reviews we have planned for future editions of Diver!
The first days theory training and dry-land line practice was all very informal. Wessam never referred to notes or to the new manual, even though the first copies had been rushed through especially for our visit.
He explained that the content of the course was tailored to meet the skill level of each set of participants. We would use stage cylinders to reduce the small amount of decompression time we would accrue, but this would not be the case if we were not already trained in their use.
Equally, decompression theory would be touched on only as it pertained to gas-planning.
Wessam moved on to the differences between cave- and wreck-diving. Wrecks tend to offer a far more dynamic environment than caves. Structures can be unstable, particularly shallower wrecks subject to tidal movement.
Doors and hatches may move or even close, and there are usually plenty of sharp metal edges that can cut line or puncture the suits and wings of the unwary. All this, plus the usual overhead hazards of getting lost, running out of gas and potential light failure.
How long should you spend looking for a lost line I asked Wessam at one point. For the rest of your life, he replied dramatically.
After covering these and many other subjects at length, Wessam described his preferred method for penetrating a wreck. His example was a 40-minute dive with a maximum 20 minutes inside the structure; 15 minutes going in, five minutes coming out.
We go in really easy taking our time to look around, he said, because when we come out the visibility is likely to be greatly reduced. Then we turn and go out really quickly.
I was once making an exit in really bad visibility, going very fast and reeling in at the same time. I banged my head hard on a doorway, so do you know what I did I got a helmet and valve guards! I would have allowed for a slower exit, which Wessam conceded was also a viable option.
After a few hours, we stepped outside to run through some line use. Our simulated wreck was the dive centre and our group would penetrate every room in search of the golden cylinder.
In the first room, the door slammed behind us. We hadnt checked to see how secure the structure was, and we were trapped. Youre all dead! said Wessam, a big smile on his face.
A little later, as Ahmed took his turn with the reel, Morgan was pulled off the line to simulate a lost diver.
How long should you spend looking for a lost diver asked Wessam. We pondered. Two minutes, was his advice.
We struggled with this rationale, wondering what the extra third contingency gas was actually for.
We arrived to find that Morgan had called in sick, so Ahmed would be paired with Wessam. The wind was blowing force 5, and as I always suffer a bit from motion sickness for the first day or so aboard a boat, I was wishing I had brought my friend Stugeron with me, so that I wouldnt have to get re-acquainted with Hugh.
I neednt have worried. The wreck-site was just 15 minutes away and a mere 300m from shore; a sandbank running almost the length of Hurghada Bay made our position almost impervious to the high winds.
The steel-hulled Excalibur, also known as the Susanna, sank on its moorings while on fire in 1996 and lies upright in around 22m. If you could have sunk a wreck perfect for our purposes, this would be it
As we assembled our kit, Ahmed told me that it was nearly six months since he had last dived.
I did get the impression that he was a little rusty, as he was telling me this while screwing his stage regulator into an oxygen-enriched decompression bottle, holding his cigarette in the same hand.
I quickly found something to do at the other end of the boat. Ahmed then found that he had forgotten his suit.
Dive one would be outside of the wreck and very busy. After staging our decompression bottles on the gently sloping top deck we surveyed the hull, noting the wrecks condition and possible entry/exit points.
The next few minutes were spent finning hard at a set depth and noting how long it took us to use 10 bar of gas. This would allow us to ascertain our working air consumption later.
We made our way to the foredeck to take turns laying line along the port companionway. Once the line had been placed, we had to follow it back with eyes closed to simulate lost vision. Nothing makes you think harder about line-placement or tie-offs than having followed a sloppily laid line without vision!
We would both have an out-of-air partner to deal with during this exercise, too. Wessam had warned us that this would be a little different.
We were using long hoses to facilitate air-sharing in single file through tight spaces if required. With most agencies, in an OOA situation in an overhead environment the reel would be tied down and left for later recovery, allowing the use of both hands. The team would exit the wreck with the OOA diver in front and one hand on the line, the other in front to guard against collision, and the donor following behind with one hand on the line and one on the OOA divers leg or arm.
If the regulator was inadvertently pulled from the OOA divers mouth, the line in his hand would lead him back to the following diver to re-establish their gas supply.
Wessams method was for the reel man to lead and continue reeling during the emergency (I could now see the necessity of the helmet) with the OOA diver following and hanging on.
I guessed he should be hanging on hard, because he would have no guideline contact, and if the regulator was inadvertently lost in a narrow section, he might find himself with no line and no regulator. In a thick suit, the donor might not even know it had happened.
I have to admit that Craig and I were both more than a little uncomfortable with this method.
While we were completing all these skills, poor Ahmed had gotten so cold sans suit that he had had to retreat to the boat.
The second dive was with just the three of us, as Ahmed had been unable to clear his ears (he wasnt having the best of days). It was largely a repeat of the first. Afterwards we talked about the next day, hoping Morgan would be well, that Ahmed would, well, remember his kit, and that we could get things moving again. I mentioned to Wessam how much easier it was when you knew your partner well, particularly with no visibility. Your partner can save your life, he said, or he could kill you.
Though still not 100%, Morgan met us at the dive centre to give it a go. Ahmed had already stowed all his equipment aboard our little vessel so, after some nitrox paperwork, we were back up to full strength.
After extensive surface checks that now included lights, bubble-check and potential snag hazards, we descended for our first penetration dive of the course, wearing the new helmets that Wessam had insisted we wore. Most of the exercises would be the same, but now performed inside over a very silty floor.
We had already surveyed the structure, so the only thing to do before heading inside was to stage our deco cylinders using Wessams novel method, which had taken considerable practice to master outside the dive centre on day one. The large primary reel of one diver, DSMB already attached, is secured to the wreck with a quick-release knot.
The deco cylinders of both divers are then removed and clipped onto the quick-release loop of this knot. The DSMB is then partially inflated to help locate the cylinders (if, for example, we had to exit from another point on the wreck).
Once the dive is finished, the stage cylinders are removed, which instantly releases the knot, and the DSMB shoots to the surface taking the line with it. This is a really fast method - as long as no one removes the cylinders while youre still inside the wreck on the other end of the line.
Cylinders stowed, we made our way through shoals of glassfish into the main central space, which was easily large enough to accommodate us and had been mostly stripped of hazards.
We did nothing more than lay some line in, look around and then retrace our steps before Ahmed and Morgan took their turn. We then had to repeat the exercise, adding in shut-downs and air-sharing exit, all the time keeping the tension on the line and making no contact with the bottom or ceiling.
I was familiar with these skills but the helmet was a considerable distraction. It stopped me putting my head all the way back, reduced my field of vision and made it difficult to look for potential impact points, which in turn made bumps more frequent. It also pushed on the top of my mask when I put my head back, letting water in.
Midwater kit-removal was demonstrated and practised outside the wreck, then we went inside to repeat this skill while hovering. The trick is to do it very slowly, so as to disturb as little silt as possible. Once the gear was off and held out in front, we had to swim it up a narrow companionway onto the former bridge, adjusting its buoyancy as we went, which isnt as hard as it sounds in a wetsuit, but very time-consuming.
The idea is to help you penetrate small holes but in reality it would take two divers so long that youd probably use most of your bottom time kitting and de-kitting (remember that you have to do it in both directions) as well as adding in risk.
Still, it was useful to know it could be done, and another lesson in stress management.
After another comprehensive debrief, Wessam informed us that our training was complete, and our final task was to plan a dive on this wreck to search for a golden cylinder somewhere aboard. We would have to incorporate gas-planning, deco, search patterns, routes, the lot.
The only addition to what we had done so far would be strict time constraints and gas-management.
It took a surprisingly long time to prepare the plan, but it was a really enjoyable challenge. We calculated that our gas supplies and deco obligations would allow us 40 minutes maximum inside the wreck, so rather than spend all our time in the main cabin area, we opted to exit after 20 minutes and explore other areas.
After the now-routine surface checks, we descended the anchorline to the Excalibur and staged our deco cylinders. Three minutes, so far so good.
The bridge was fairly small and it took only a few moments to confirm that our prize was not there. We proceeded down the narrow companionway to the more promising main deck area, but after a good 10 minutes were scratching our heads (figuratively, as we were wearing helmets)
We returned to the bridge and the stern - still no golden artefact. Back outside, we prepared to continue on what used to be the rear dive deck when Craig noticed a furtive-looking Wessam hovering over the prow. There were only a couple of small hatches there, so we had planned to leave this area until last, but now we moved it up the agenda.
It was a lucky call. When Craig peered inside the second of the two hatches, he could see the glint of gold! (OK, it was yellow, use your imagination). He couldnt quite reach it, but at full stretch I managed to get hold of the valve.
Mission accomplished, we retrieved our cylinders and headed for the surface, but there was one more surprise to come. As we finished our deco time at 6m, Wessam appeared with two shiny TDI Advanced Wreck Diver cert cards, complete with our names and photos! It was a nice touch and, I guess, one advantage of having the Operations Manager on the course with you.
I enjoyed being challenged, having to multi-task, and having an objective at the end of the course to practise all the skills together, said Craig, as we strolled back to the hotel.
The whole week had been great fun. The best lessons always come from no-visibility and guideline drills, he went on. Theres nothing like taking a primary sense away to show you how prepared you really are - or not. After trying such a different approach to this type of challenge, said Craig, Im a lot clearer about what I want to be doing on a dive like this.
Craigs assessment mirrored my own. Ive had a really good time and a great laugh. Wessams hospitality has been superb.
With many no-visibility exercises and multiple-failure scenarios, the course was certainly far more involved than the PADI Wreck Speciality we reviewed a year back, though with so many new things to master, I am still unsure that even three/four days is enough, particularly for less experienced divers.
The Excalibur was an almost perfect training site for a wreck-penetration course and, as we found out, diveable in just about any weather. Combining a course like this with a few dives around the very healthy Giftun reef, as we did, you have the makings of a nice activity holiday, too.
Seven nights B&B at the Intercontinental Hotel in Hurghada, with flights from Gatwick, transfers and the TDI Advanced Wreck Diver course, costs from £709 per person based on two sharing a room. Price includes gas but not gear hire, certification or manuals. Chris and Craigs trip was arranged by Longwoods Holidays, 020 8418 2570, www.longwoodholidays.co.uk
|You need to be able to remove your whole rig without floating off to the surface |
|The Divers Lodge dive centre |
|Briefing on the boat before the final days qualification dive - the hunt for the golden cylinder |
|Chris and Craig try out their standard protection |
|Stage deco cylinders are stowed outside the wreck and the DSMB lightly inflated to produce a good marker on exit. The primary line is used to tie off, so that the divers can always find their way back to their deco gas |
|Wessam shows how to get into restricted areas of access on the wreck, by pushing your kit in ahead of you |
|The golden cylinder is uncovered by the other team |