Sunday 14 April 2013

Assertiveness for Divers, Part 2 - Self-Assertiveness

I was originally going to write this as "Assertiveness with your buddy", followed by "Assertiveness with yourself", but found that didn't work, as the one in many ways precludes the other.

In sense, what I'm writing about is not assertiveness at all, but honesty with yourself. Perhaps self-assessment is a better term than self-assertiveness?

I suppose what I am getting at is this. I don't know whether what I'm about to describe is true for all divers; the answer is "probably not all, but some". I feel there's a tendency among newer divers to fail to take full responsibility for their safety when diving, and if this continues as a habit it can be a real danger.

The reason for this is pretty simple. When you learn to dive, you are learning to do an entirely unnatural activity in an environment that can kill you. This is not unlike learning to drive, and both activities involve a very early stage where you have little idea what the hell you are doing, you don't know what all this equipment does, and you must have absolute faith in your instructor. With diving, even more so than with driving; your instructor literally has your life in their hands. They know far more than you do, and in the interests of learning to do it safely, you must suspend relying on your knowledge, place your trust in them and let them guide you.

The main difference between the two activities is that when you pass your driving test, you will shortly afterwards find that you are in a car, on your own, with no-one there to hit the brakes for you if you bugger it up. This is the point at which you realise they make the driving test so bloody hard so that when you find yourself in this situation, your skill level will be high enough that you should be able to get yourself out of the inevitable mistakes you'll make without killing yourself or any bystanders.

With diving, however, you continue to dive with someone else, due to the buddy system. And, due to your own lack of experience, this person is more experienced than you. It can be very, very tempting to rely on them to do a lot of the hard work of planning a dive - choosing the location, timing and date, checking the tide and weather conditions, planning the route and, not least, planning what to do if it all goes horribly wrong.

In the early stages, this is pretty inevitable. It takes quite a few dives to really get the hang of managing yourself and all your gear in the water, much as it takes quite a lot of driving experience after you pass your test before you master it to the extent that you can drive the car without thinking about it. However, there comes a point where you must start to take responsibility for yourself.

Why? Simple. Because you only get one life.

I had this knocked into me when I overbreathed my regulator at 22m in the Farne Islands, with my two buddies out of sight in front. The sensation of being unable to get enough air to breathe properly with 22m of water overhead is uniquely horrible. It scared the hell out of me, and to this day it's why I'm not sure I'll ever try technical (decompression) diving. I made it back safely then by resisting the urge to hit the inflator button and rocket to the surface by repeating to myself "You are getting enough air to survive the few minutes it will take you to rise at a safe speed to the surface, and once you're up there this horrible feeling will go". The thought of having a near-panic attack with twice the water over my head and no possibility of a direct ascent to the surface scares me rigid just sitting at my desk writing this.

And from this experience, I took away a useful lesson: you have one life, which you take down there with you, and if you don't manage your dive properly, you are the person who will feel the consequences. Not your buddy. I don't blame my buddies for what happened. I should have realised that I was overexerting myself and slowed down to stop the situation before it started. But when that happened, it was me who felt like I was suffocating, me who nearly panicked, and me who, if I had panicked, would quite possibly have ended up in a hyperbaric chamber with a nasty case of the bends (or worse). Not them.

This is not me having a go at the buddy system, which I think is an essential part of recreational diving. It's me saying that I don't always know if every diver really takes on board the fact that if there's any aspect of the dive you personally didn't plan or think about, you're putting your life in the hands of the person who you trusted to do that - and, if they didn't do that, that's your safety at an unnecessary risk.

So be assertive with yourself. Ask yourself if you really know what the dive involves, what equipment and skills it requires, and whether you can handle it if it all goes wrong. If not, think twice about doing it. Because, again, you only get one life.

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