Three degrees and dropping
NO MATTER HOW FOND YOU ARE of diving, a drysuit course is hardly the most romantic way of spending Valentine’s Day. That didn’t stop my buddy (aka boyfriend) and I from heading down to the London School of Diving (LSD) on 14 February for an evening in its classroom and training pool.
Having dived in various wonderful locations around the world but never in the UK, we were keen to redress the balance and see what sites closer to home had to offer.
But the first step, of course, was to learn the skills necessary for diving in cooler waters.
The theory section of the course was short and sweet and will hold no surprises for those who have read the PADI Drysuit Diver manual (which LSD sends out when you book).
Of the five people in the classroom that evening, my buddy and I were the only ones doing the drysuit course; the other three were training to become PADI Open Water divers, and simply needed to learn to use a drysuit to complete their open-water dives.
The atmosphere, at this stage and for the duration of the course, was just the right mix
of friendly and professional – we were there to learn, but no one was taking themselves too seriously.
INTRODUCTORY SECTION COMPLETED, we moved to the poolside, where instructor Oli Goodman took us through drysuit storage and maintenance before explaining how to get
into and out of a drysuit.
LSD uses trilaminate Typhoon suits (which appeared to be in excellent condition), but we were also told about the different styles and materials of suits available, and how to look after them.
We checked the latex neck- and wrist-seals for tears and stresses, dusted them with talcum powder for lubrication and away we went, legs first, then arms, then head.
For the open water dives at Wraysbury Lake the following weekend, we would be wearing undersuits, but for the balmy 38°C training pool at LSD, Oli assured us, T-shirts and shorts would more than suffice.
Once in the water, buoyancy control was the main focus of the evening’s exercises, along with various drills relating to the suits’ inflator and exhaust valves.
Inflating and venting air from the suit rather than the BC takes some getting used to, as does the peculiar sensation of “suit squeeze”, the tightening of the suit around your body as you descend.
As well as fin pivots and hovering, Oli had us practise dealing with a situation in which we were head-down in the water with boots full of air. As the exhaust valve on this model of drysuit is at the shoulder, righting yourself is imperative if you’re to avoid a potentially dangerous feet-first ascent.
We learned to kick downwards, tuck into a ball and roll until we were head up in the water, while venting air. There’s a knack to it, and a couple of members of the group needed a second go, but everyone managed in the end.
By the time we were doing weightbelt and BC removal and replacement at the surface at the end of the dive, I was pretty sore as a result of the suit chafing my skin (a problem only because I wasn’t wearing an undersuit, Oli explained). I did however feel confident of my abilities in the water, and excited about
the open-water part of the course.
Arriving at Wraysbury Dive Centre a few days later, however, my excitement turned to trepidation. Following a recent cold snap, the water temperature at the lake was just 3°C, the coldest it had been all winter.
Oli took us through the dive briefing over bacon sandwiches from the cafe.
I was relieved to hear that, because of the cold, our bottom time for each of the two shore-entry dives would be not much more than 20 minutes.
We would be descending to around 7m, completing the necessary skills, drills and checks, getting out, warming up as fast as possible, doing it all again, then heading home.
LSD PROVIDED ALL THE GEAR except for gloves, which we bought in advance (there were also various brands for sale at the dive shop at the lake).
I tend to get cold whatever the conditions (on a recent trip to the Great Barrier Reef, during which most people wore skin suits, I stayed snug in 5mm neoprene).
So in addition to the essential quilted drysuit undergarment and thermal underwear, I wore leggings and a lightweight fleece top.
Included in our gear was a stand-by undergarment to change into in the event of a leak or suit flood, but fortunately no one in the group needed to make use of their spares.
We put together our gear and donned our drysuits under the watchful eyes of Oli and Evan Stewart, another LSD instructor. It was time for the first dive.
On dry land and at the surface, the bulkiness of the suit restricts movement in a way that neoprene does not, but I was surprised to find that, once under water, there was little to distinguish between dry- and wetsuit diving.
The only real difference was when it came to descending, because instead of a fully vertical head-up descent, my buddy and I found our feet rising up so that we were almost horizontal in the water.
My air consumption was also worse than usual, partly a result of the unfamiliar kit but also, presumably, because of the cold.
Between dives we refuelled at the cafe while going through our knowledge reviews.
This painless process complete, it was back in the water for the second and final dive of the day.
Our instructors were patient, helpful and good-humoured throughout. By the end of the second dive, cold and exhaustion meant that I was struggling with weight-belt and BC removal and replacement at the surface (unclipping a chest strap with freezing hands encased in 5mm neoprene gloves is no easy task), but Oli’s encouragement and handy tips helped me through.
Back at the school later that afternoon, the paperwork all taken care of, the warm glow I felt wasn’t merely the result of not being immersed in a near-freezing lake.
A drysuit course is a means to an end, but LSD made it an enjoyable and hassle-free experience. UK diving, here I come!
The PADI Drysuit Diver speciality course at the London School of Diving costs £149. This includes manual, tuition, equipment and certification, but not transport or entry to the dive site, www.londonschoolofdiving.co.uk
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