In any kind of diving, the ability to react to problems with the right skills is paramount. Of course, a diver’s main focus should be on anticipating and avoiding problems in a first place, but when problems do occur, the diver should focus on diving basics (such as buoyancy) first.
Doing so will lead to a safer and more controlled solution.
What are the steps leading to a correct and controlled response?
The following protocol will help you achieve a deliberate, controlled, and safe reaction in a difficult situation.
- Check Your Breathing Rate
Breathing on land feels natural, and most of the time, we don’t think about it. However, underwater, the surrounding pressure and breathing resistance from the equipment will cause a diver to think again about something that is usually automatic.
When a diver is stressed or task loaded, the first thing that usually happens is that he either increases his breathing rate or holds his breath – and he usually does not notice that he is doing it! Not only does this affect his buoyancy, but it creates stress as his body builds up carbon dioxide. In the event of any task or problem management, first check your breathing and focus on long, slow exhalations. This will allow your body to get rid off carbon dioxide, allowing better mental focus, lower gas consumption, and reduced anxiety.
- Confirm That You Are Neutrally Buoyant
Before a diver takes any action, he should confirm that he is neutrally buoyant.
Neutral buoyancy requires the use of your BCD or wing and your breathing. As stated above, a diver who is hyperventilating or holding his breath will find himself ascending even with the proper amount of air in his BCD.
To check your buoyancy, the first thing you should do is nothing at all . . . just wait! There is always a delay between exhalation and sinking, and between inhalation and rising. Playing with this delay will allow you to find the buoyancy sweet spot – the pattern of breathing at which you rise and fall approximately the same amount with each breath, and return to the same depth with each breathing cycle.
The goal is to have the correct amount of air in your BCD so that you can breathe in a relaxed and consistent pattern while maintaining your depth. If you are exaggerating your exhalations or inhalations, adjust your BCD so that you may breathe normally. The incorrect amount of air in your BCD may affect your breathing rate, leading to stress! The worst part is that experienced divers often make these type of compensations unconsciously, so it is worth the small amount of time it takes to check your buoyancy and breathing rate before taking any action.
- Assess Your Trim
Trim refers to a diver’s body position. Many times, proper trim is horizontal but not always; it depends upon the environment. A diver’s body should be parallel to the bottom or the floor. This is very important in cave diving and wreck diving, where a silty bottom may not be horizontal!
Proper trim will help to reduce drag and the work of propulsion, as well as limit silt outs and damage to the environment.
Proper trim also gives a diver better control by offering greater contact with the surrounding fluid.
A diver in good trim will feel controlled and stable in the water – a diver out of trim will feel sloppy.
Achieving proper trim requires a bit of practice and equipment adjustments at first, as well as an awareness of the environment. Before taking any action underwater, check your trim to be sure that you are not struggling with an inappropriate body position. Doing so will allow you to focus on the task at hand, instead of struggling to maintain position.
- If Necessary, Consciously Choose Your Propulsion Technique
If the task at hand requires swimming, such as reaching a wreck or exiting a cave, choosing the most appropriate propulsion technique will help you to get to where you are going in an efficient manner.
Some good options include:
The Frog Kick
The frog kick propels water behind the diver (as opposed to downwards or upwards) creating a almost purely forward movement that prevents silting and damage to the environment. This kick is easy to match with your breathing, and it is the best technique for long swims and diving with bulky rigs.
The Reverse Kick
Trying to position yourself without a good reverse kick is like trying to parallel park a car without a reverse gear – it’s not possible. The reverse kick is used to manoeuvre in small places, reposition yourself without losing sight of your surroundings, or just to stop on a dime.
Also known as helicopter turns, a flat turn in useful in positioning, allowing the diver to rotate around his center of gravity while keeping proper trim. Mastering flat turns will help to prevent dropping your feet (and all the problems associated with it) and allows you to manoeuvre in very tight spots.
- Consider Your Position
The next step to consider before taking action to solve a problem or complete a task is to choose your position relative to your dive team and the environment.
Be sure that you are not your partner(s)’ blind spot: your entire team should be aware of your presence thanks to your positioning.
In cave, wreck, and deep diving, this can also be achieved with your light beam position.
Choosing the proper position may involve more than just your placement relative to your team.
Considerations may include your position relative to a guideline or the current. Positioning is an art anticipating others’ movements and vice versa. Diving in a properly positioned dive team feels like being part of a team of jet fighters, and can be pure bliss once you master it.
- Finally, Take Action!
Once everything else is under control, analyze the situation and take deliberate action.
Consider what needs to be done, and plan your movements step-by-step before executing a task.
You have time (you are already in control) and thinking through a task step-by-step will help to avoid mistakes and the need to fix them or to start over.
The Command Chain in Practice
Putting these six steps together will lead to more controlled, less stressful diving.
For example, if a moment of stress leads to hyperventilation or over-breathing, your buoyancy, trim, and all that follows will be negatively affected.
Stop, and go back to the basics starting at the beginning of the list.
Calm your breathing, check your buoyancy, check your trim, etc.
Whatever action you wish to accomplish, be it swimming, laying a line, or inflating a surface marker buoy, will become easier and smoother.
Putting the command chain into practice helps to avoid additional problems, and increases your overall control and enjoyment of a dive.
One Final Tip – This Works for All Divers, Regardless of Level!
The command chain works equally well for recreational and technical divers. Divers who use the command chain will become more confident, relaxed and controlled. They are able to manage complex tasks, and generally proceed much more quickly through training.
Train yourself from now on that THE mantra to repeat to yourself in any circumstance is:
Breathing, buoyancy, trim, propulsion, position, action!
You will be a better diver for it!
Vincent Rouquette-Cathala is a technical diving instructor at Phocea Dive Center, Mexico