It's back to basics, Mr Bishop
SO WHY EXACTLY are you booked on a GUE Fundamentals course?” The question had been asked repeatedly, accompanied by puzzled looks and the odd frown. “What exactly am I going to teach you?” instructor Richard Walker asked when I booked onto the course.
Fair enough. I was an established diver with a lot of experience. I had been there at the onset of technical diving, been a rebreather development diver and a member of most significant deep shipwreck projects.
In the heyday of mixed-gas exploration, I had dived some 400 virgin wrecks. Some of today’s leading instructors tell me that my photography inspired them to get into technical diving.
So why do a basic-level scuba course? It was time to put my hand up and admit that my confidence for diving the deep had dwindled in recent years.
I had lost close friends; others were wheelchair-bound because of the bends. The psychology of it all was getting the better of me.
Older and wiser, I had developed a greater appreciation of everything around me. So I had two options – hang up my fins, or do something about it.
Experience is no use unless you learn from it. In my professional life as a firefighter, barely a month goes by without being dragged off on a training course to be updated on developments in something I may have been taught only the previous year. It’s called “continuous professional development”.
Mine is a different job in terms of safety than it was when I started 25 years ago. Does the same apply to diving?
I have had to comply with the changes at work, but not necessarily to developments in diving. If I went back to the drawing-board, could I learn something new in terms of concepts or techniques, perhaps. Ingenious safety protocols that might have saved a friend or two? Would it help to restore my confidence? Was there another deep project left in the old dog?
I quickly discovered just how many courses are now available from different agencies. Back in the day, the options were nitrox and trimix, taught by Kevin Gurr, Sheck Exley or the man who taught me about mixed gas, Rob Palmer – and that was about it!
The jokes took a back seat as my dive-buddies realised that I was serious. From now on I intended to enrol periodically on courses to continually improve my underwater skills.
But I didn’t want death by PowerPoint, I wanted quality – so where to start?
My last deep project had been on Mars. Not the planet, the 450-year-old warship wrecked in the Baltic. It was a Global Underwater Explorers project, but I was far from being a GUE diver.
I did however share a close friendship with Richard Lundgren and Jarrod Jablonski, two of the men who founded GUE and shaped it into what it is today.
Richard had invited me to dive with the group, but it wasn’t my finest hour. Following a lay-off I wasn’t seasoned, and my heart and mind weren’t in it. I was a mess.
On those dives, however, I observed what I considered some of the best divers I’d ever seen. I was inspired not only by their safe team approach but by their solid diver style and thinking.
If I was going back to basics, why not a GUE Fundamentals course?
I didn’t plan to become a full-on GUE diver, but I could study precision skills and configuration methods that I might integrate into my existing practices.
Once Rich Walker understood, he applauded my openness. Although as concerned as I was that I might be too set in my ways, he would make me work as hard as anyone else on the four-day course to reach the required standards.
I had no idea what I was signing up for, but would soon discover that it was no walk in the park.
GUE doesn’t train just for the sake of training. It is committed to redefining the nature of aquatic activity in three specific areas – education, conservation and exploration.
Instructors from other agencies had told me that a GUE qualification was accepted everywhere and never challenged. Those holding one are regarded as having had the highest level of training available.
I would have to complete a theory exam and six dives demonstrating propulsion techniques, buoyancy, trim, S drills (gas-sharing), shut-down drills, a no-mask swim (help!) and what GUE calls the Basic 5. We would also simulate moving an unconscious diver under water before making an ascent.
The form-filling had started before I arrived on site. The usual disclaimers had to be filed through the GUE website, and that took some time.
DAY 1, 8am
Rich introduced himself to the class, and we reciprocated. The maximum of three students for a Fundamentals class allows the instructor to focus closely on each person’s development.
Rich, a long-time GUE instructor and accomplished technical diver, succeeded in explaining the organisation and its benefits without sounding like a Ford salesman.
Our first assessment was to swim a preset distance both above and below the water. I wasn’t getting away with having forgotten my Speedos, and improvised with padded cycling shorts (I’d brought my mountain-bike, thinking to hit the local trails if there was any spare time – how naive to expect spare time to be factored into a GUE course!)
The pool session would incorporate basic body positioning – arched back and clenched buttocks to bring the knees into a nicely trimmed position. GUE has a no-smoking policy and does not welcome unhealthy people. Had I smoked and lied about this on registration, I would have been found out on this swimming test.
Back in the classroom, Rich talked kit – what to avoid and the logic behind GUE equipment of choice. GUE has a reputation for being very prescriptive about what to use and how it’s set up, and I wasn’t prepared to be beasted into what I used to think of as a pseudo-military regime, so I was all set to fight back.
No need – things have changed at GUE, it seems. At no time did Richard try to steer us towards a particular brand. Reasonable and methodical, he went through everything from wings to suit-inflators, reels to lift-bags; there was a theory for everything.
For example, a 60cm hose was considered perfect for a back-up regulator – not too short to restrict head movement, not long enough to be a snagging hazard.
Much came down to one principle – if you don’t need it, don’t take it. GUE believes in simplicity and consistency across different environments.
Qualified GUE divers can join any GUE project around the world, and hire or borrow exactly the same equipment to dive with any GUE diver anywhere, which provides familiarity as well as airline weight savings.
So I could dive the adaptable harness set-up on a deep project in Greece to 120m, and the same the following week while looking at fish in shallow Red Sea waters. And I could dive with a stranger but feel as if he or she had been my regular buddy for years.
Paired with another student, Nigel, I went through a classroom dry-run wearing the standard GUE configuration and taking on board various accident-prevention measures. The configuration has evolved from lessons learnt at the sharp end, and it made sense.
DAY 2, 8am
Day two was all about refining the basic skills of buoyancy, trim and propulsion in the water. Fine-tuning over the course of the dives would gradually bring everything into place.
As long as we could execute each skill before the end of the class we would pass, so there was no pressure to succeed immediately.
Each dive was fully briefed in the classroom before we donned our drysuits. We had been sent a basic list of kit we would need, and items we hadn’t brought were loaned, useful for someone new to the sport and unsure of what to purchase, or whether GUE was the way forward.
A pre-dive buddy check at the water’s edge was required, using the mnemonic GUE EDGE (Goal, Unified team, Equipment, Exposure, Deco, Gas, Environment).
We were shown how to drive our wings and suits in relation to each other, and where the gas should and shouldn’t be in relation to trim.
We learnt about bringing our breathing pattern back into the middle of the lungs, controlling it to our advantage.
I favour my lungs as a buoyancy compensation tool, so this skill would feed well into my rebreather diving.
Ask divers if they can stop still in the water, and most will say they haven’t done it but reckon they could. We tend to swim around looking at things, but if you can’t stop how can you look at anything properly? In decompression most divers swim around each other precisely because they can’t keep still.
Divers with no buoyancy control often reach out for something to stabilise them – not great if it’s a coral reef. Much of the course was dedicated to building on precision buoyancy-based skills.
My buoyancy was OK – but not by GUE standards. Now it had been brought to my attention, I would notice other divers around us and the trail of destruction left as they continually pushed themselves off the silt quarry bottom.
I wouldn’t be best pleased if I was spending a week on a Red Sea liveaboard with those guys.
Each dive was filmed to be used as a learning tool in the classroom. Watching the pitfalls of our existing techniques, we could take advice on improving them.
To learn correct finning techniques is to learn the art of moving through water efficiently without disturbing or damaging the environment. Rich explained the advantages of each style of fin-kick and where it could be used to best advantage.
He would demonstrate each one, then it would be over to us. He would modify a kick and again have us repeat his moves.
We began to understand why so much emphasis was placed on perfect buoyancy control. We would learn how to make precision helicopter kicks and to fin backwards keeping our trim perfect.
At first I thought this a waste of time – why would I ever need to fin backwards?
Well, perhaps when my curiosity gets the better of me and I find myself inside a constricted wreck with the exit behind me and no way of turning round.
You may be thinking: “I can fin backwards easily, what’s he on about?” Try it, keeping yourself to within the perfect horizontal 1.5m buoyancy trim range as GUE teaches. Let me know how you get on!
The afternoon dive focused on the Basic 5 and an S drill – a gas-sharing drill using the long hose. Regulator out, then back in again. Regulator exchange, one out, then your back-up in.
The long hose is primarily for donation. In an out-of-gas (OOG)?situation the diver affected will grab the regulator from which you are breathing.
The skill of donating the regulator while both divers remain calm and safe is what the S drill is all about.
Flood, clear, remove and replace the mask completes the Basic 5 skills. For an experienced diver these basic drills are no issue but the challenge comes from holding perfect buoyancy throughout the procedure.
Only that morning I had seen divers undertaking similar drills but while kneeling on a platform, perhaps overweighted, with no gas in their buoyancy devices and going nowhere.
GUE was teaching me how basic skills could be employed in the most demanding situations without damaging the environment.
For the S drill, all three students took turns to be the out-of-gas diver while another became the donator of available gas. Rich would direct the exercise step by step, and as with the dry runs we undertook each one super-slowly.
To get it right without entanglement or additional stress on the OOG diver took several runs.
Again, the drills had to be completed with super-precision buoyancy, and we were encouraged to use our new helicopter and back-kick skills to reposition ourselves into the student learning-cross formation. When our instructor was satisfied, the dive was finished with a controlled ascent, holding perfect stability at 3m.
Each day’s work ended with an intense brainstorming classroom session. As it was the bleak midwinter, this retreat was welcome, but our brain cells could not be shut down because over the four days we would undertake gas analysis, gas management, gas physics and decompression theory. All had to be absorbed to pass the final exam.
At the end of the day I was exhausted, but I was learning, and definitely improving my in-water skills.
I was also beginning to think that a GUE class was more than just a class – it was an investment.
DAY 3, 8am
Great emphasis was placed on gas-management and particularly analysis, a subject close to my heart as it cost the life of one of my closest friends.
We analysed our gas rigorously before each dive and marked the cylinders using an ingenious GUE method. An early classroom session and a detailed briefing prepared us for a dive focused on gas shut-down drills.
Using twin-cylinder configurations, we would practise the skill of isolating one from the other to survive a dive. This was another routine cleverly devised by GUE.
Rich emphasised the importance of a correctly cut and fitted drysuit, and told me that students had failed the course simply because their suits did not allow them to stretch and reach the manifold valves to limit gas loss.
Divers unable to isolate their valves in an emergency become a liability to themselves, their buddy and their team – and GUE diving is all about teamwork.
Luckily my perfectly cut Santi Elite was fit for purpose, but it did take a few attempts to get it right, as it did for the other students.
Never in all my years of diving have I lost my mask and swum around without it! I hadn’t been looking forward to the afternoon dive, on which I would do just that. I passed, but the exercise didn’t sit well with me at first.
Finding a suitable depth in the quarry, I removed my mask. While controlling my nose- and mouth-breathing, I felt Rich remove the mask from my hand.
Everything was a blur and my brain was working overtime to convince me that I wouldn’t drown.
Using his newly learnt communication techniques, Nigel guided me across the bottom of the lake to a designated place of safety. The water was extremely cold on my face but it was a case of mind over matter.
I did it – we all did it – several times. I was in the class to rebuild my underwater confidence and that’s what I was doing.
Now if I should accidentally lose my mask on a dive, no matter how tough the environment I know I could control the situation, reach for my spare in my cargo pocket and continue to safety.
We completed the dive with another S drill, but this time with a controlled ascent to the surface, then a hot drink, debrief and another classroom session.
Our theory input was complete, and it was time to sit a 40-question exam paper.
DAY 4, 8.30am
The day began filling out sets, analysing the gas and marking up our cylinders with the correct nitrox contents.
The final dives would incorporate some new skills while fine-tuning others we had learned. The first would incorporate more S drills, another shut-down drill and the deployment of an SMB.
That’s something I’ve done on just about every dive of my life, but GUE’s method is a little different and, after thinking about it, one that might have kept one or two friends out of the incident pit over the years.
We would also learn how to manage an unconscious diver from one point to another. Most rescue drills are about grabbing the diver, controlling buoyancy and heading straight for the surface.
If you’re in a cave or wreck environment, however, you can’t do that. GUE’s technique is to swim that diver to a safe place from which to ascend.
The final dive was what Rich called his “flexible dustbin” dive – no drills that we hadn’t done before, so all about getting particular skills spot on.
Finally, after six dives we had each demonstrated our capabilities in every skill and based on that the instructor would determine at which level to certify us. A Recreational pass allows you to sign up for any GUE recreational classes.
If the instructor deems you sufficiently competent to progress into cave or technical diving you will be awarded a Technical pass.
GUE Fundamentals is not cheap. I relate it to my computer theory, that people avoid Macs because they’re more expensive than a PC but that they last three times longer.
You pay for quality, and I can honestly say that’s what I got from my GUE Fundamentals class.
Did I pass? Of course I did. What award did I receive? Let’s just say that I can now start thinking about becoming a technical diver!
|GUE EQUIPMENT REQUIREMENTS|
Backplate & single-piece webbing harness
SINGLE CYLINDER OPTION
Regulator with two second stages
One 2.1m hose
One backup regulator on necklace
TWIN CYLINDER OPTION
(required for Technical pass)
Twin-set with isolation manifold
Two first-stage regulators
One second stage fed from 2.1m hose
Back-up regulator on necklace
A primary light (optional but required for Technical pass) should consist of a hand-held light-head on a Goodman handle with battery-pack attached to harness waistband.
Other small items such as SMBs and performance requirements can be found at www.gue.com/content/gue-fundamentals.
Instructors can advise on specific configurations, and may be able to loan or rent equipment not already owned.