Day 2 – OW and Cave
“This is a sidemount course, not a cave diving course.”
In the morning, we met at Cuzel and loaded Steve’s truck. I took great pleasure in just loading single AL80s versus manifolded doubles. Not only was transport less straining on the body, but manipulating the single tanks on the truck was easier as well. Only thing we took care of was keeping the left and right tanks matched.
After a detour to Pemex for coffee and Gatorade, we arrived at Ponderosa. Danny was there with a Cave 1 course, and everyone exchanged morning greetings. While setting up our sidemount gear, I caught a few of his students curiously looking over.
Don’t blame them, I look over at different gear all the time. Last year, at Ponderosa as well, there was a dive team from Korea that had the 94# OMS wings. They fully inflated on the surface and I could not stop staring. (Side note: Elissa read this and called me a DIR snob. But that’s like the pot calling the kettle…)
Before today’s briefing, we first needed to make final adjustments on weights and harnesses. One of my classmates added a couple of pounds. I decided to try it with my existing weighting (6#s) and then check at the end of the dive. Since this was my first dive using only my drysuit for buoyancy, I was reluctant to add any additional weight unless absolutely necessary. Floaty feet is tiring.
Once our gear was set-up, Steve briefed us on the day’s activities. Steve emphasized this was a sidemount course, and not a cave diving course. As the result, we’ll be spending a significant amount of time in the open water. First with kicks and positioning, next will be S-drills and sidemount skills, and last we’ll be put on a circuit for individual and team work. If our OW work is satisfactory, we’ll conduct a cave dive and practice many of the skills again.
Steve then proceeded to set up a line course above land. My classmates and I looked at each other and nodded – lights out, air-share egress. But before we began, Steve reviewed touch contact signals. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, we had some different signals. For example, I used one firm squeeze for Hold but no signal for OK. The cave instructor was taught one firm squeeze for Hold and two squeezes for OK.
After agreement on signals, Steve taught us “bump and go” no viz exit. Instead of touch contact, each diver was independently on the line. The last diver on the team initiated movement by bumping/pushing the next person in front. This person moved (or bumped the person in front). The team waited to be reunited after a tie or a long period of time. Then bump and go repeated until viz returns.
We then practiced on the line. Each us took turns being 1, 2, and 3 and different “issues” were encountered on the land drills. We repeated everything in cave class for no viz movement.
I still made a bad call though. When my teammate #3 was missing, and teammate #2 went back to check, I (#1) failed to go back. I assumed that it was an entanglement and with my sidemount enabled independence thought it would be better to stay put. Pile up and mass entanglement ideas flashed in my overactive mind. While it was an entanglement that trapped #3, it could have been a directional change that both myself and #2 had missed. As the result, rejoining the team would have been the better decision.
After the review of the line work, it became obvious that #2 played a significant role in the communication. And it was he that dictated a lot of the team’s movements and actions. A failure of #2 to communicate would have disastrous results.
A classmate volunteered to clean up the reel and we proceeded to stage our tanks. At the edge of the platform, I incorrectly situated my tanks and Steve corrected me. We were told to gear up and given 15 minutes to get a feel of the sidemount configuration before we conduct the skills work.
Surprisingly, putting on the sidemount bottles was as easy as attaching stages. I had read about sidemount divers struggling putting on their tanks, but with Steve’s harness this was a non-issue. Left on first, route the hose. Second on last, route the hose. It required a few more minutes to set-up, but the only thing that required muscle was the bungee that held the tanks in place.
With only my drysuit for buoyancy, staying comfortably on the surface with full tanks was not a possibility. Steve stated that sidemount is optimized for in-water movement, and not for on-water comfort. As my head bopped in and out of the water, I definitely agreed. Finding a rock became a priority.
In the water, my initial discomfort immediately disappeared. The freedom and flexibility of the configuration was exciting. While the battleship stability of my backmount set-up was gone, the sidemount rig was instantly balanced. I expected to have trim issues, and was pleasantly surprised that this was not the case. With the tanks, the ballast and buoyancy device at the midpoint, things were very stable. As I looked at my fellow classmates quietly hovering in the basin, I knew that they were happy as well. The feeling of a balanced rig was simply amazing.
After flexing my spin and rolling my neck and shoulders a few times to flaunt the lack of a backplate, I swam about Ponderosa. Fortunately, my turns and kicks still worked. With the baseline functional, I knew that I could focus on the new sidemount body positioning and skills.
Elissa usually teases me that I am a teacher’s pet in class. This time, I can say that I was not. The classmate who was also a cave instructor was very comfortable in the water and was already swimming upside down, and then on his side, and then at a 45 degree while upside down. I looked over at my other classmate, a professional videographer, and he too was swimming with ease.
Not to be outdone, I tried turning laterally and holding position. The sensation of being on your side and not have your tanks try to turtle you is quite refreshing. If anything, it was the bubble of my drysuit that kept me on my toes. The tanks themselves felt stable in almost every position I tried. It was getting a little ridiculous, and I could sense that we were all getting high on these 15 minutes of play.
But before we could get too big headed, Steve appeared and directed us in a series of skills. We formed a semi-circle around Steve and proceeded with basic propulsion methods – frog, helicopter, and backwards kick. Then Steve demonstrated sidemount specific positions and movements and asked us to emulate – slowly. These were lateral rolls, vertical rolls, and then swimming rolling laterally and proceed to swim upside down. While my classmates seem to be doing fine upside down, I had a hard time determining how to stay at the same depth. 10′ forward was okay, but 10′ feet more and I’d lose (or gain) a few feet.
After kicks and positions, Steve had us manipulate our equipment and pouch contents. Steve stores his gear in the back, while I divided items between the back and in my thigh pockets. In order to reach my thigh pockets with dry suit rings, Steve recommended that my way between the tanks. My first timid attempt proved unsuccessful, and later attempts I just jammed my hand in between. Definitely more difficult and time consuming than manipulating the items attached to the back. On on drill, I tried to cheat by pulling an item from my back instead of the requested item from my pocket. I was told to do it correctly.
Once we proved competent in taking out and replacing items with both hands, we moved onto tank clipping and unclipping. Steve’s harness has a unique feature that allows the AL80s to be reclipped on lower D-rings when the tanks become lighter. While diving stages, I’ve clipped a lighter stage on the crotch D-ring or used the SPG to hold the stage down. However, I found these mini D-rings quite practical and very simple. Unfortunately, clipping and unclipping for me wasn’t pretty. Ultimately, I had to do one tank at a time. Steve and the cave instructor classmate manipulated both tanks at the same time. I obviously had very weak thumb strength.
At least I could clip and unclip (and Steve would tell me to keep repeating it at every break), so we started our safety drills. First up was regulator exchange. Then we did S-Drills. First individually, and then alternating as a team. With a dive light mounted on the helmet, deployment of the regulator requires an additional step. The videographer classmate had some issues with the S-Drill, so we proceeded to practice this until he had it down. During the debrief, he was clearly disappointed in himself. However, I too have had frustrating issues during class (my stage class in particular comes to mind), so I totally get the disappointment.
We then do valve shutoff drills. With the tanks in front, it’s obviously much easier than backmount.
We surfaced and debriefed. Steve asked each of us to replay the dive and critique the experience. Overall, my classmates and I were impressed with sidemount. The freedom and ease of movement was really unexpected and quite exciting.
The second part of OW involved a circuit. Without thinking I quickly dropped down and found myself as the first student underwater… floating right next to Steve. He pointed to me, pointed to the line, and I took off my mask. Since we’ve had plenty of practice in no viz exits (it felt like half my cave courses were spent lights out and sharing air), I wasn’t initially concerned about the circuit. In retrospect, I should have made sure that I’m not the first in the water or next to the instructor.
On the circuit, as soon as I touched the first tie, it popped off. As I re-wrapped, Steve knocked the line aggressively. Fortunately, I was holding for dear life and the line remained in my hand. Soon, everything started to come apart. I won’t give away too many of the details, but any that could be turned off got turned off, each piece of gear that could come loose came loose, anything that could get entangled got entangled. I thought that things were going okay until Steve knocked the line the third time! I was in the middle of donning some gear and I must of showed weakness. I felt the sudden pressure on the line and gasped as it slipped from my fingers.
There I was in the middle off the water column and no reference. All I could do was slowly descend and sweep my arms side to side. I expected to hit bottom and then conduct a lost line search (while cursing myself out). Fortunately for me, as I descended, my arm hit the line. I was right on top of it (thank goodness). After a moment to regain composure, I attempted to close the circuit without dying.
With the circuit closed, I was handed my mask and got the opportunity to watch my classmates. It’s interesting to see how others handle the same or similar situations. The cave instructor classmate was super speedy when he’s on the line with no viz. Even sans fins, he swam faster than me.
Once the individual trials were complete, we performed team no viz exits. Like the lands drills, we conducted three runs with everyone rotating position. To demonstrate that we won’t endanger ourselves in the cave, we encountered a good number of issues – lost and entangled buddy, multiple unmarked jumps and intersections on the line, etc.
At one of the more confusion intersections, I was #2. #1 had made a decision and kept wanting me to join him. #3 was pressed against me wondering why I was taking so long. All the usual tricks to determine the mainline wasn’t working, and I had to redo them again. And once I made a decision, I took my cookies to mark the side that I came from, but I couldn’t connect the bolt snap to my shoulder D-ring. As the result, I used the entire cookie holder as my personal marker on the line. Even though we were in OW, the pressure was quite strong.
After the team circuits, we debriefed on the surfaced. Steve then asked about our gas, and confirmed that we were switching tanks appropriately. All of us had left and right tanks within 300 psi of each other. Maybe this switching isn’t going to be too bad.
We then replayed the entire dive and Steve asked for everyone’s critique. Steve has a photographic memory with regards to the things that transpire underwater. While I might forget a mistake (I remember big ones very vividly, but little ones only part of the time), Steve definitely does not. Steve would say something like, “And what happened on the second tie?” And my response would be something like, “Oh, yeah…” and smile very broadly as I remember. As one of the many takeaways, I have to work on my no viz, locking re-wraps.
With two OW dives complete, we broke for lunch and geared up for our first sidemount cave dive.
Our first dive, the River Run. The plan is to penetrate the cave on the mainline, and once the dive turns Steve will throw a bunch of issues at us. Once the issue(s) are resolved, we would get back to pre-incident team order.
Our team reviewed that plan, and I was #3 for the dive. After some sorting of how we wanted to do a match, to got underway. Since we never dove together, even just the equipment match took more time and required more communication than my regular team. In addition, since I had contents in my left and right thigh pockets (a deviation from the team standard), this added to some of the extra communication.
In the water, we did flow checks and then attempted to match cylinders. We each had our own way of calling pressure and turn until Steve set us straight. Everyone needed to say their current pressure, the team magic number (the agreed 1/3), and then our turn pressure. This was for one tank at a time. In this slow and methodical method, we were able to validate each other’s calculations (and we caught a math mistake on a subsequent dive).
After gas calculations, our team dropped and conducted S-Drills. We then proceeded into the cave entrance. After the secondary tie, teammate #2 sank to the bottom – his BCD not providing enough buoyancy. Steve and him exchanged signals and they ultimately worked it out. At this time, I’ve been hanging at 45 degrees (following the contour of the cave) and air had been slowly migrating to my feet. Fortunately, before I spazzed out, we got underway and I’m able to adjust.
Within the cave, the sidemount rig remained stable and easy to manipulate. The most enjoyable part was my ability to look straight ahead and still remain perfectly horizontal. In backmount, if I was truly horizontal, I lose some ability to look straight ahead. The manifold is usually in the way. I’d usually have to contort my body a little or break horizontal trim to get full vision straight ahead. Otherwise, I’d be looking slightly down and I would only get limited vision of the top of the caves. With no manifold in the way, my neck was free to arch back.
While sidemount was proving to be good, our team communication was not. As #3, I swam through a good amount of disturbed halocline and at one point almost overtook teammate #2. The addition of new gear and not thoroughly discussing team positioning and communication was having an effect on our diving. In no way were we dangerous, but enjoyment of the dive was reduced for everyone involved. While they were mostly efficiency issues, it’s amazing how it did change the comfort of the dive.
Near our agreed upon turn pressure, #1 slowly helicopter turned. He made a signal that was hard to distinguish in the halocline, so when I swim up, I flashed thumbs. We were all thumbs and began our exit.
A couple of minute passed and then there was a flashing of light. Not the usual broad emergency flashes and not the slow tight flashes that we use to highlight an arrow or something of interest. The flashing was tight and fast.
I turned around and #1 was OOG. #2 and I arrived at the same time but since I had my primary extended, #1 got on my regulator. We get into the appropriate position and continue with our exit. After a minute, Steve called off the drill and I restowed. Instead of having team watch over me, I signaled ok and they swam ahead (yeah, not smart on my part and not vigilant on theirs).
Shortly after, I was OOG and was donated to. Once that was resolved and the donater stowed (this time the team stayed together better), #2 was OOG. As the result we each got an opportunity to be OOG as well as the donater.
Another minute of swimming and Steve called lights out. As we switched off our primaries, the darkness enveloped us. However, with no one in touch contact, it’s really lonely. As I am now that last person exiting the cave (we never did follow Steve’s instruction of resetting the team order), I started our team’s movement by swimming forward and bumping up against my teammate.
Bump and Go exit proved to be very fast, but I did miss the company. Hitting a tie and then meeting the team was on the other side was a welcomed feeling. We exited the rest of the cave in this manner, and I appreciated all the practice time in the dark.
At our safety stop, we watched each other do a valve shutoff drill.
On the surface we debriefed. Again we checked air and confirmed that we did switches even during the no viz exit. And again, the dive was reviewed in detail. Steve especially noted our poor team cohesiveness, communication, and ability to follow instructions. While we were to learn to dive sidemount and not cave dive, it was the actual cave dive with a new teammates that proved difficult. Weighting and buoyancy was also discussed, and we’d be making small changes for the next day to make sure that we’re squared away.
We left Ponderosa as they are closing up for the day.
Basic Sidemount Class – Day 3
Basic Sidemount Class – Day 1