LAST YEAR, I WAS PLANNING TO DIVE WITH MY CLUB, BSAC Branch 5, on the wreck of the Liverpool in the bay of the same name. Maltaqua, 00356 21571873, www.maltaqua.com
It was a spring dive and high water; the bay is strongly tidal and currents can touch 6 knots, so for safety the club imposed a unilateral depth restriction of 30m for Sport Divers in the bay area, making this dive strictly for Dive Leaders and above.
I have never bothered to take my BSAC training further than Sports Diver, simply because my educational needs have been taken care of through writing these articles. My lowly BSAC status seemed to make a couple of people in the club feel uncomfortable, however, so I decided to phone BSAC headquarters and find out how all my credentials crossed over.
Ah, said the BSAC representative, if you had completed them before joining BSAC, you would have crossed over to the equivalent grade, but since you did them after joining a BSAC branch, they dont count for anything!
So, although I am a certified Trimix, CC Rebreather, SCC Rebreather and Extended Range diver, and have dives logged to more than 100m, the BSAC wont recognise any of these qualifications I asked, confused.
Er, thats right, said the representative.
How can an organisation justify accepting qualifications recognised the world over one minute and then refuse to acknowledge them the next Politics aside (I can hear the letters coming in now), it provided as good a reason as any to review a BSAC course for the first time.
The small Mediterranean island of Malta remains a popular destination for British divers. The water temperature in spring is a brisk 14-15Ã‚C, requiring the same equipment as UK waters. This, combined with it being the home of Maltaqua, a BSAC Premier school with a long track record, made this a perfect destination at which to review BSACs recently revamped Dive Leader course.
At the dive centre in St Pauls Bay - which has a surprisingly small frontage for a business of its size and, curiously, is nowhere near the water - we were welcomed by Agnes Upton, the owner and, with husband Mike, founder of Maltaqua. Established in 1978, this was the first BSAC overseas school. Unsurprisingly it has capitalised on its designation as Branch 007 - it is licensed to teach.
Agnes Upton is Maltese-born, has been diving forever and is well-known in the BSAC community for her no-BS policy. She is one of a sadly diminishing breed of individuals who still stubbornly practise the outdated art of common sense.
A former university lecturer on the island, Mike Upton has, despite being Malta-based for many years, retained a strong Highland accent and accompanying dry sense of humour.
Chris, called Agnes, in that wonderful accent that lies somewhere between French and Italian, why do you want to do this course
She was reviewing my qualification book. It is not necessary. I will sign you up for at least Dive Leader with these qualifications. See Common sense.
I explained about BSACs stance and that we wanted to write an article anyway. I wont repeat her opinion on the subject!
Form-filling out of the way, Agnes introduced me to our instructor, 42-year-old Chris Tricky (hes heard all the jokes) who would be guiding me through the 12 (!) lectures, seven training dives and two dry practicals that make up the Dive Leader course (along with 20 experience dives that I had chosen to complete at home.)
Chris T is a fit-looking character qualified to teach both PADI and BSAC courses. Retaining a hint of a Somerset accent, he has spent years diving around the world but some two years ago, craving a bit of British culture and language without the weather, he decided to settle in Malta.
Naive about the age-old BSAC practice of volunteering people, he divulged that he had a degree in engineering and experience of the building trade, so he now gets to spend many hours practising his former trade for Agnes!
With so much to get through, we retired to the classroom for the first three theory lessons.
BSAC has re-packaged all its materials, from diver qualification records and student workbooks to instructor manuals. All now employ File-o-fax-style binding and colour-coded sections.
Of all the courses, the Dive Leader training has purportedly undergone the biggest overhaul. Some say it is now almost as comprehensive as the old Advanced Diver qualification.
Surprisingly, I found that the content had not changed so much as been reshuffled. It now includes elements of some of the other qualifications, making it far the most sizeable BSAC grade.
Theory lesson one is entitled The Role of the Dive Leader. I assumed that it would concentrate on telling me what that role would entail, but this wasnt strictly the case. The notes and lecture told us about different types of diving: wall, wreck, drift and night, before getting onto the subject of leading dives.
There was nothing wrong with the information, but it seemed out of place under this heading. Chris did his best to inject some life into the lesson by adding in real-life examples of his own, always a good teaching technique, but the sheer volume of words made it difficult to pin down the message.
After a quick coffee, we ploughed into lessons two and three: Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) and Oxygen and Diving Incidents. Having already been introduced to this topic at Sports Diver level, this lesson was supposed to serve as a refresher.
I thought this was a good idea, as it is not something we practise often unless teaching it. We used the obligatory dummy and I was surprised at how much I remembered.
Having with me a photographer whose day-job is as a paramedic was both a plus and a minus. Craig Nelson was able to add much to proceedings with his gory stories (best methods for clearing vomit etc) but it also meant that the lectures took twice as long!
It was apparent that the BSAC is not afraid to tackle the less-palatable aspects of diving head-on, a practical stance with which I fully agree.
Now brain-dead from four hours in the classroom, it was time for our first dip of the trip. Our first two training dives were to be on the wreck of the destroyer HMS Maori, sunk in February 1942. The broken remains lie upright in just 17m and, like most of Maltas dive sites, it is easily reachable from the shore.
Dive one was about exploration, the only defined skills being to deploy a delayed surface marker buoy from midwater without any visual reference, followed by holding a simulated stop at 6m. Many other agencies, including PADI, do not teach DSMB use.
They generally leave it up to instructors to include under skills suitable for the local environment, but BSAC covers it from Sport Diver up. The DSMB is a very basic piece of kit and I am amazed that this skill is given such low priority by diving educators
A couple of hours later, on dive two, I was required to brief and lead a novice diver to a maximum 20m, making sure to monitor air, time and depth carefully.
I had brought my eldest son Edward along on this trip for his first sea dive. What I hadnt told him was that, as a newly qualified PADI Open Water diver, he would be used as a prop for some of my exercises. He was under strict instructions not to drown while under my supervision, as this would mean my failing the course (for which I would have to kill him anyway). He kept his promise - which, for a 14-year-old, is nothing short of a small miracle.
The long day ended at 6pm - five dives and nine lectures to go!
We were back in Maltaquas spacious classroom for another big theory stint, continuing first the death and rescue theme with Casualty Assessment. This introduced me to the Incident Procedure form, a prompt sheet for incident management. People dont always think straight under pressure, so having one of these stashed in your kit, perhaps laminated or printed on waterproof paper, is a good idea.
Lesson 5 - yes, youve guessed it, Oxygen Administration Equipment. Like Cuprinol wood preserver, this chapter did pretty much what it said in the title. The next two lectures, with which we decided to push on, continued to hammer the theme: Oxygen Admin in Practice and The Use of Oxygen Admin Equipment.
Some important points were covered, including positive-pressure ventilation (pushing the oxygen into the non-breathing casualtys lungs via a purge-type button). This is a surprisingly advanced technique to advocate to a sport diver and, as Craig pointed out, not without significant hazards.
Making sure that the attending paramedics dont administer Entonox (a nitrogen-rich, painkilling gas mix) to a diver in pain was another new point, as this can cause massive problems for casualties already laden with nitrogen, even potentially death if the casualty has a bend. According to Craig, ambulance crews are not well informed about diving-related incidents.
I was glad it was time to go diving again. We bounced across the island in Maltaquas faithful old Land Rover to Cirkewwa and the spit of land where the ferries leave for the island of Gozo.
The normally barren landscape was covered in wild flowers and the scent was amazing. Chris said that this spectacular event was unique to the spring and I could see that this would be a good time for non-divers as well as divers to visit.
Cirkewwa was to be used for dives three and seven in the manual. Viz was a respectable 15m-plus; the temperature a British-summer-like 14Ã‚C. The rocky headland offered some pleasant underwater topography with a couple of tight little swim- throughs to spice it up. Fish life wasnt prolific, but I didnt care. It was just great to get in the water.
Dive three was a repeat of the dive-leading exercise, with no particular skill to perform. I left Edward to enjoy the dive unhassled while I used Chris as my novice so that he could directly assess my methods. Surprisingly, when compared with dive-leading courses from other agencies, there is little guidance on how to control, lead or manage the dive (especially with potential novices).
The next dive wasnt so much a dive as surface skills, albeit starting from 15m. We swam around until Chris became unconscious, allowing me to perform a controlled buoyant lift on him.
This exercise requires three arms: to hold the casualty, to keep the regulator in his mouth and to dump air from both BCs while ascending. The only way I have found that works is to pass the right arm under the casualtys right arm from behind, making it possible to hold him and keep the regulator in with a single hand, leaving the left arm free to dump both the casualtys and your own gas as required. Oddly, holding the casualtys reg in is not mentioned in the manual.
Back at the surface, I had to perform a 50m tow while giving AV, summoning help and removing kit; quite heavy task-loading. I was allowed to use any available personnel, so suggested handing the whole thing over to our paramedic while keeping out of his way. Unfortunately, the inert body said I couldnt do this and proceeded to change places with the now-camera-free Craig.
I shouted to Edward to phone the emergency services while Craigs wife Sharon was dispatched to assemble the O2 kit (I knew she was trained for this). Chris was enlisted to help me remove the unconscious diver from the water.
After we had bounced the casualtys head on the rocks a few times (I think this is why Chris no longer wanted to be the body) I checked for signs of circulation. There were none, so I started one-person CPR until Chris was ready to help out. It was useful practice, and we should all probably do this at least once a year.
Having made a serious dent in the theory, we decided to break up the course with a full diving day on Gozo.
We kicked off our excursion with a dip in the Inland Sea, a small lagoon walled in by high cliffs. Access to the sea is gained through a spectacular 100m-long fissure in the rock. This is open to the air and used by boat traffic all the time, so surfacing midway through is seriously inadvisable.
It was one of the better dives of our trip. Fish were still fairly scarce but the scenery was unusual, verging on spectacular.
After lunch in a charming and inexpensive alfresco cafÃ… near the Inland Sea, we drove 150m round the corner to access the Blue Hole, carved in the heavily fossilised rock by years of storm and wave action. Its quite a trek when kitted up but offers more interesting topography, including the Chimney, a narrow crack that leads back into the Blue Hole.
After spending a few moments admiring a labridae (a member of the cuckoo wrasse family new to me), Chris and I got down to the six skills we had agreed to include from dive number six, while the rest of our party headed for the surface. Skills included basic mask-clearing, AAS ascents as donor and receiver, a weight check with now nearly empty cylinders, and jettisoning weights in chest-deep water. No rocket science was involved.
The pleasant day on Gozo helped to break up the heavy academic sessions, which resumed with the mammoth lecture eight on Dive Planning, followed by Rescue Management Part I and Helicopter Operations. The session also included chartwork and tides.
We worked solidly from 8.30 until lunchtime. Long-standing RYA instructor Mike Upton stepped in as guest lecturer to cover chartwork, which I hate and hadnt revisited since taking my Powerboat Level One course for these pages. I had simply relied on others to get me to the dive site and tell me when to jump! Mike produced various charts of Maltese waters to illustrate his points.
In the afternoon we headed back towards Cirkewwa to meet Father Joseph and the Floria for our only boat dive of the trip. The Father, who looks like Mr Kipling in an old jumper, is a multi-tasking individual whose other (more lucrative) activities include ferrying coffins between Malta and Gozo and presiding over underwater weddings. Malta seems to be a magnet for eccentrics.
Another Maltaqua instructor and BSAC Advanced diver, Carlton Coates, joined us to help with the rescue scenarios. We headed for Gozo and a little-used site called Flat Rock (it is next to one).
We deployed the shot in around 10m (our first exercise - you drop a big weight overboard when someone says now) and went for a short dive before returning to the shotline for the final underwater exercise, shot-moving and recovery using a lift-bag.
This is quite good fun, the trick being to add air slowly to the lift-bag and leave it a tad negative so that it is always under control. Having moved it the required 10m, I sent the shot, a heavy weightbelt, to the surface to be recovered, before deploying a DSMB and heading the same way.
Climbing back up the steep ladders and contemplating the unknown rescue scenario to come, I was startled by a cry of help! from behind me. Chris and Carlton had conspired to take me by surprise - with complete success.
My task was to assess and manage the available resources, not necessarily to perform the rescue myself. Unfortunately, with the resources available (Ed was seasick and Craig taking pictures), I had to get back into the water. The Father was asked to contact the Coastguard and pray, while Sharon got the O2 set ready.
I jumped in and swam over to Carlton, who told me Chris had become unconscious at 8am but had retained his regulator. He was now unconscious and not breathing. We started AV while towing him to the boat, removing his kit as we went.
Figuring out how to get him up the steep steps of the boat was a bit of a brainteaser. In the end it took Carlton hauling on a rope placed under Chriss arms while I carried Chris on my right knee, slumped onto my shoulder. This took a good two minutes, during which AV was impossible. I doubt whether getting an unconscious casualty back onto this boat would have been possible alone.
After two minutes of AV, our casualty regained consciousness. He was left breathing oxygen while I conducted a neurological exam.
I learned three valuable lessons from this scenario. Rescuing someone who is unconscious is a messy process and generally calls for compromises. The BSACs rigorous rescue training provided me with a varied toolbox of skills, which enabled me to select the best compromises for the situation. Finally, these skills need at least annual practice or they will degrade.
Over the next couple of days we worked through the remaining lectures and exercises and a huge amount of additional material. Then we sat the final exam, which was surprising in that it consisted of only 35 multiple-choice questions, meaning that some of the topics covered barely got a single question.
It was a far cry from Martyn Farrs Cavern course exam, which took two days of independent research to complete!
I felt that important and useful information was often swamped by too much background noise on the Dive Leader course. For example, in Lecture 11, Rescue Management, 11 slides covered the role of the coroner, the legal process and dealing with the press!
All any diver really needs to know is to preserve the deceaseds kit untouched and generally do what the emergency services tell you to do. This was covered in one paragraph entitled: What can we do
Chris Tricky did his best to enliven things with anecdotes and examples, but I often struggled to sift out the key facts relevant to me. The course content was so heavily weighted towards rescue techniques, with nine out of the 12 lectures covering emergency topics, that perhaps Rescue Diver and Emergency Specialist would be a more appropriate title for the syllabus. In contrast, assessment of diving skills was sparse.
These reservations aside, there was a lot of good content often given little or no attention by other agencies, or covered by the bland get-out clause teach additional skills applicable to the local area.
These included DSMB use, chart-work, tides and boat skills, details such as use of Entonox and the comprehensive review of both rescue techniques and O2 use.
Maltaqua was a good choice of venue and its weight of experience shone through. The team are a friendly, family-like bunch and if its BSAC training (or PADI for that matter) that you want, you will be hard-pushed to find anywhere with more experience.
The joys of Maltese diving are described elsewhere in this issue. Meanwhile, Im now a fully-fledged Dive Leader, so Im off to dive in Liverpool Bay!