If you have done a course or a dive with me since I returned to Dive HQ I was more than likely wearing twin tanks. Plenty of people ask why I do it and depending on my mood I’ll give them one of many different tall tales, but all circling back to me saying “basically, I’m just a badass”.
The truth is really quite simple though, familiarity. While I was working in the Philippines I began doing some technical dive training and as I result of my training it became apparent that even if I’m not doing a technical dive every other weekend it’s important that I keep my skill level high so when the time does come it’s not like my first time all over again. So I thought I would take the time in this blog to explain the type of skills that as a budding tech diver I am trying to keep fresh, why it is so important that I stay familiar with the technical style of equipment and how I think we should all be adopting similar practices in whatever type of diving you do.
For the last four years I have dived almost exclusively using a twin cylinder set up simply because I believe that familiarity reduces panic in an emergency. During my technical training (and my PADI Open Water Course) I was put through the paces; simulating all sorts of potential emergency situations. In an instructor supervised environment we all rest a little easier knowing that if something goes wrong the instructor will step in. Obviously in the real world there might not be anyone to step in and help, which brings me to my first point of why being familiar with a set up is vitally important.
While I firmly believe we should always dive with a buddy I also believe that I am an individual within a team. Basically I shouldn’t rely on my buddy to make sure that I survive the dive. So being familiar with my equipment means I should be able to handle most equipment failures underwater independently thereby reducing the potential risk to my buddy of having to step in. Think of it like this, if my regulator breaks on a dive and I have to swim to my buddy to share air with them I’m putting them in danger as now they only have half as much air as they did before to get back to the surface safely. Wearing twin cylinders eliminates this risk to my buddy and I’ll explain how shortly.
Another reason why being familiar is so important to me is that being part of a team means that my team mates or buddies can rely on me in an emergency. I know that is almost the exact opposite of what I just explained, but think about it for a second. I want to be independent so my buddies aren’t put at risk by my actions, but I also have to admit that there are something’s that I just can’t do on my own and I might need a buddies help to save my life.
If you saw my video on my trip down to the Lermontov last year (link below) you might have noticed that I said “If it wasn’t for Peter I would have ended up pretty badly snagged on a bit of line…” In this situation I had a bit of line caught around my centre valve of my tanks and for the life of me I just couldn’t reach back far enough to free it. And that’s when Peter stepped in, I had to accept I couldn’t fix this myself so I signaled Peter that I was stuck and he easily freed me from the line. So even though I tried to fix the situation myself and avoid having my buddy enter a potentially hazardous situation I knew I couldn’t do it alone. Since Peter was so familiar with his equipment it was easy for him to transfer that knowledge to my equipment and resolve the situation quickly.
So even though I try to dive independently I am always aware that I have a role to play in my team and they need me just as much as I need them.
I honestly believe that the more familiar I am with my equipment the less panicked I will be in an emergency situation and this is why I always dive in a twin set.
Knowing you equipment intimately only goes so far though, “all the gear and no idea” springs to mind if we think of familiarity will fix everything –we also need to practice these rarely used technical skills so we don’t stuff it up when the time come to do it in a real situation. For me there are four core skills I like to practice in my twin set whenever I get the opportunity: Valve Shut Downs, Air Sharing, Equipment Retrieval, and Gas Swaps.
The first skill, Valve Shut Downs I practice on 90% of my dives. This is the process of turning off and reopening different tank valves (twin sets have three valves) in order to turn off a regulator that has free flowed and eliminate the risk depleting your gas supply. Generally I do this right at the beginning of the dive. It’s easy to spot as well you might see me reach behind my head, turn of the centre valve followed by my right cylinder, swap regulators then reopen the right cylinder, close the left cylinder and swap regulators again. This is one of most frustrating exercises for technical divers as reaching these valves is not always that easy so constant repetition helps keep me flexible enough to reach the valves when I need to.
When was the last time you practiced sharing air? Your open water course? Maybe your rescue course? How well do you think you would handle that situation now? Ultimately sharing air with a diver is reasonably straight forward. But a little less straight forward if the out of air diver is panicking, worse still if you fumble or can’t find your octo so they rip the primary from your mouth. Now add in the fact that in technical diving your octo hose is 2m long, wraps around your neck and is secured under a waistband or torch. I practice sharing air in a twin set as often as I can because one panicking person is enough.
Equipment retrieval sounds flash but it’s not – not really. Now I don’t mean going and finding lost equipment or gear I stashed in the corner of a wreck. I mean finding the equipment stored on my person to complete the task at hand. For example if my mask breaks mid dive I carry a spare in my pocket that I can swap over too. Making this swap (or retrieving any piece of equipment) needs to be precise. Imagine your masks breaks in a silty narrow corridor inside a wreck.
First of all removing the mask isn’t much fun, I’m sure you all remember the stress involved in doing this from your open water course. So first off you need to manage the stress, then store the broken mask, and receive the spare mask from your pocket. That part while uncomfortable isn’t all that hard. The challenge comes in form of being so task focused in swapping masks you lose your situational awareness and buoyancy control. That means you may have completely silted up the area you are in and potentially loose the line you are following to get out of the wreck. So even simple skills need practice because of the situations that we may apply those skills in.
I know that wearing twin tanks for shallow shore dives looks like overkill, and a few years ago I agreed with you. There is however method to the madness; I think that being familiar with the layout of your equipment and being truly comfortable in it can help to save your life in an emergency. Familiarity alone isn’t enough though. If you intend to pursue technical diving as a hobby you have to practice the core skills too. For me I get to do so few technical dives each year practice is the only way to keep my skills up to scratch. Regardless of what type of dive you do it’s worth checking in on yourself every now and again, make sure you skills are where you want them to be and that you honestly know what you’re doing and how to handle yourself in a potential emergency. I guess after all that it’s fair to say I’m less a badass in twin tanks and more a worry wart with too much gear.
The last skill I try to practice in my twin set is gas swaps. Unfortunately I don’t often practice this as carrying two tanks on a shallow dive is a pain in the arse let alone adding a third or fourth to the mix! A gas swap isn’t technically challenging at all, but there are procedures we have to follow to make sure we get it right. First of all buoyancy control while being task focused adds an element of difficulty. When we swap gasses we have to maintain the correct depth for that gas for example a 50% O2 blend can only be used above 22m and a 100% O2 blend can only be used above 6m. So first we need to control our buoyancy and identify which gas cylinder we are swapping to. Then get our buddy to confirm we are swapping to the correct gas for our depth and plan and then we make the swap. For me this is more about making sure the procedure is done correctly rather than the physical swapping of regulators.