Solo Diving and Risk Management
The fact is that the traditional buddy system is not the magic solution it has been sold as. In many cases it simply encourages dominant and passive role alignment to the point that one diver's ability to help the other is negated by separation anxiety or other
Effective dive planning - starts with a structured examination of the risks associated with diving
forms of stress induced inattention. Statistics point to the breakdown of the system because few buddies have the experience or skills to actually offer help to another diver in the sudden onset of equipment failure, panic or an out-of-air situation without compromising their own safety. This is yet another reason to undertake solo diver training because solo training under the guidance of an SDI Solo Diving Instructor teaches self-reliance and in a dominant/passive buddy pair, the dominant diver with solo skills does not have to rely on the less skilled buddy for assistance, yet the passive buddy is operating within the more or less traditional buddy system.
Effective dive planning - independent or team-based - starts with a structured examination of the risks associated with diving. Solo divers take that analysis and factor in the additional risks associated with solo diving specifically.
Let's look at general risks and think about how they relate to solo divers. Let's start with the biggest risk of them all: Risk # 1... running out of air (or more likely nitrox these days). Since there's no way we can breathe water and water is where most diving takes place, this risk is very real and very present on every dive. We need to modify our thinking to account for it. With traditional buddy diving, our buddy carries spare gas to help us, at least in theory, in an Out Of Air (OOA) situation. With no buddy to fall back on, we have to come up with an alternative plan. The risk remains the same - compelling - but the solution has to be different.
Risk #2 is equipment failure. This covers everything from a broken mask strap to a ruptured low-pressure hose. There is a favorite saying among experienced divers that goes something like: "When divers get hurt by equipment failure, it's not the equipment failure that hurts them... it's their reaction to it." The same is true in recreational diving: equipment failure should not present such a huge challenge that we can't work a way around it. As solo divers, we deal with this sort of risk in two ways: we carry back-up equipment and we practice and practice and practice some more how best to react to common - and less common - sorts of failure. We are striving to build appropriate automatic reactions and muscle memory so that equipment failure is met with an immediate and correct remedy.
Associated with Risk # 1 and # 2 is Risk #3: rapid or run-away ascents. The default reaction to an in water emergency for many divers, is instant flight to the surface, buddy at hand or otherwise.
This type of ascent is much faster than the recommended 10 metres / 30 feet a minute ascent and does not include a three to five-minute safety stop at 5 metres (about 15 feet). The unfortunate results of a rapid or runaway ascent can be Decompression Illness of one sort or another. Decompression Illness or DCI is an umbrella term for both decompression sickness (DCS) and Lung Over-expansion Injury including Cerebral Arterial Gas Embolism (CAGE).
Since both forms of DCI can have serious long-term effects - in fact both may be fatal - we need to work at overcoming the natural urge to flee when something goes pear-shaped during a dive. As a solo diver, this modification of our natural behavior becomes extremely important. We have to learn how to deal with "challenges" at depth, on our own, without panic.
One of the important gear and behavioral modifications we are going to discuss as part of this course is how to avoid an emergency OOA situation.
Risk #4 is inattention or unawareness of time and depth. These are the collection of challenges that should fall into the life threatening category - going too deep, staying too long! We categorize this as emergency decompression tactics.
Risk #5 is getting lost; either at depth - losing the ascent line for example - or on the surface - expecting to see a dive boat and finding a small spec on the horizon. And getting trapped or tangled. Of course this type of risk about is equally likely with or without a buddy, but being alone and lost is much more stressful and extricating oneself from a mess of fishing line is a challenge. Therefore navigation skills, effective cutting and signalling tools and the skills to use them correctly are part of an independent diver's gear arsenal.
Without a buddy to help us get dressed and without that extra pair of eyes to give us a final pre-splash check, we have to be especially meticulous in our gear assembly, checks for wear and tear, air tests, and donning our kit correctly.
And without a buddy to wake us up from our daydreams or to remind us that it's time to head back to the surface, we have to be particularly careful to stay focused if we want to dive alone.
Risk #6 is overestimating our abilities to successfully complete a dive... essentially, going beyond our comfort zone and beyond the scope of our training - overstaying our NDL (No Decompression Limits) welcome and earning a required decompression for example. When we plan a dive with a good buddy - one who is on a par with us with regards to skill and experience, and one who shares our regard for safe procedures - we have a second pair of eyes and second serving of common sense to check the plan over. During a dive with an attentive buddy, also have someone close at hand to make sure we stick to the plan and don't wander outside our comfort zone by venturing deeper or by pushing the operational limits of our gear and gas. Responsible and safe independent divers have a very clear appreciation of their abilities, understand the limits of their gear, function within firm gas management guidelines, and operate within the walls of their comfort zone. ALWAYS.
S©0© Divers Make Better Buddies
Because of the way a solo diver has to prepare for a dive, it's simply not an aspect of diving that's suitable for everyone. If you are a careless diver who leaves things to chance, this type of diving isn't for you. Pull out now. During the following chapters, we will discuss in more detail how a solo diver manages the risks outlined above; and we will see that if properly practiced, solo diving is a disciplined form of scuba rooted in careful planning and self-suf-ficiency. Solo diving does not require antisocial tendencies and a death wish. It requires the proper gear, training and a balanced honest attitude. And practicing independent diving helps to create people who are skilled divers, attentive partners and divers capable of self and buddy rescue.
Solo diving is an alternative for the advanced recreational diver and in that sense is scarcely different from any other form of specialty dive training because its goal is to allow experienced divers the freedom to exploring their sport to its fullest. Many graduates from SDI solo training have no intentions of diving alone, but what to use the techniques and skills learned in the course to be better buddies. Even more importantly, when these divers are accidentally separated from their buddies, solo training makes them less likely to become statistics in support of the buddy system.
Practicing independent diving helps to create people who are skilled divers, attentive partners and divers capable of self and buddy rescue
The first order of business for planning any sort of solo episode is to set outside limits for our adventure. We can do this by first listing the types of dives that are NOT recommended for solo practitioners. These are: Staged decompression dives; Wreck Penetration Dives and Cavern and Cave Dives; Pinnacle Dives; Any form of "Technical" Diving.
No deco dives. Staged decompression dives - sometimes referred to as soft overhead dives because participants do not have the option of going directly to the surface in the event of an emergency - are outside the purview of this course to begin with but also are not on the recommended list for solo divers even for those trained and experienced in full decompression diving excursions. Staged decompression dives simply require more complex planning and execution than is practical for solo divers.
No penetration dives. Hard overhead diving - wreck penetration, cavern and cave diving - is also beyond the scope of this course and requires a level of planning and execution that makes it impractical for solo divers. The nature of a wreck's interior - in all but the most sanitized artificial reef - and the length and complexity of cave passages is such that entanglement, entrapment and becoming lost are real risks. Contingency actions for these events are best managed in the company of a well-organized and prepared team.
No pinnacle dives. A Pinnacle dive is the term used to describe a dive that's a peak dive for its participants... perhaps the deepest, most complex, longest, and toughest in their logbook. As a solo diver you do not plan dives that are deeper, tougher, longer or more complex than any previous dives you have done. This helps keep your solo dives within the walls of your comfort zone.
• Solo dives should be within NDLs.
• Solo dives should be in open water not overhead environments.
• Solo dives should be conducted within limits of personal experience.
This leaves us with a host of possibilities. In the following chapters we will look at how to plan our solo explorations of them.
1. What are the six risks associated with solo diving?
2. What solo diving skills are particularly applicable in all sport diving situations?
3. What is a major cause of runaway ascents?
4. What are the possible resulting injuries one may suffer from a runaway ascent?
5. What types of dives are NOT recommended for solo divers?
Beyond Basic Gas Management
In this chapter, you'll learn about:
• Gas Management 101
• Calculating Surface Air Consumption
• "Gauging" Required Gas Volume
• Planning Appropriate Reserve Volume
• Carrying a Redundant Gas Source for Security
I am sure you'll agree that running out of something appropriate to breathe, is the worst thing that can happen underwater. I am also sure that at some point in your diving experience, you have witnessed a diver surfacing with nothing more than a few breaths of air left in their cylinder. You may even have been that diver! Running dangerously low on air or nitrox is simply unacceptable behavior in a buddy team environment - after all, some of the gas on your back belongs to your buddy - but as a solo diver, running out of gas will end in complete disaster.
So it follows that the first question any well-prepared solo diver needs to ask themselves is: "Do I have enough gas on my back to complete the planned dive and to come back with a sensible reserve?"
A solo diver - or a self-sufficient diver - must carry a completely redundant source of gas with them on every dive
Following that question is an important second one: "What's the safest, most efficient and least stressful way for me to manage a sudden loss of air emergency if something happens to my primary gas supply?" For the solo or self-sufficient diver, this question has a slightly different answer to the more usual: "Go for my buddy's octo!" One might argue in fact that every diver should have a back-up plan for this type of emergency that does not require the assistance of a buddy, but obviously a solo diver - or a self-sufficient diver diving with a less experienced buddy - must carry a completely redundant source of gas with them on every dive and practice the skills to deploy that gas in the shortest time possible.
In this chapter, we will investigate how to plan our dive around the volume of gas we have in our main cylinder(s) and how to be prepared if something goes terribly wrong with the equipment supplying that gas, such as a massive free flow or a first-stage regulator failure.
Gas Management 101:
At this level of diving - perhaps at any level beyond one's first half-dozen training dives - it is unacceptable to leave gas management to an occasional glance at an SPG. Certainly an occasional glance at an SPG is a fine habit to cultivate but conducting gas management that way is a bit like planning a family vacation by filling your car with gas, driving in the general direction of "vacationland" and seeing where you and the family end up when the fuel gauge hits "empty." Rather than a haphazard "whatever happens, happens attitude" we need instead to do some elementary calculations to work out, long before we hit the water, what volume of gas we will actually consume during the execution of our planned dive.
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