Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Thank Heaven for Support Divers

A successful deep dive (be it to 100 meters or to 300 meters) revolves around three things; the ability of the deep diver, the thoroughness of the dive plan and the effectiveness of the support. The role of the support team is often neglected (even by experienced divers who instead choose to rely soley on their own abilities to get themselves out of the water when things go wrong). Now I am a strong advocate for solo diving BUT having said that, I also believe strongly in stacking the cards on your side. On any dive (never mind an extreme dive) things can go wrong that are simply beyond your control. It does not matter how thorough your dive plan is or experienced you are as a diver, you can not control everything. It is then that an efficient and reliable support team can mean the difference between life and death. Whilst I prefer to do my deep push solo, the actual time I spend alone in the water is as little as possible, with my first deep support diver meeting me from 100 meters (deeper if I can find qualified divers). This is a strategy I picked up from Nuno Gomes, and indeed, the use of support divers is one that other highly successful deep teams such as WKKP use.
If you are still unconvinced, let me tell you the tale of two highly experienced deep divers, Dave Shaw and Don Shirley. Until their last dive (the ill-fated recovery of Deon Dreyer from 272 meters) they believed in no support, preferring to rely on their own skills underwater. It would be fair to say that they did not believe there was anything of value that a support diver could add. Their choice to add a support team to the attempted body recovery was a combination of logistics (the divers were there to get the body out) and pressure from the police and other professional support teams. One of my strongest impressions as surface marshall on that dive was that we were there more for window dressing than any real belief that we could make a difference. Yet, when Don suffered his near lethal ICDS hit (inner ear bend) at 50 meters it was the support divers who made the difference and ensured that he made it to the surface. Most of the divers who were there strongly believe that Don would not have made it back by himself. It was the support divers who put him onto the right deco gas (he had bailed from his rebreather onto the wrong mix) and made sure he was doing the right deco stops. They were also making sure he remained upright and on the line. It took hours before his nausea subsided and whilst he was always conscious, his ability to write and respond straight after the hit were seriously impaired. Don’s description of how seriously impaired his abilities were was chilling the next day. His focus was on just the next breathe! And it was one that required all his willpower and attention.
Not every extreme diver relies so heavily on its support divers. When things go according to plan their job is mundane, fetching additional weights to the diver, getting him gas and arriving with warm drinks. Boredom and cold are the support divers enemies. Until things go wrong.
The first question I ask someone who is keen to support is this, “Are you prepared to leave me behind, knowing I will die ? Are you prepared to be on the surface when I do not come back ? ” Most support divers never think of how they will feel if things go wrong, especially if they are there at the time. The truth is that there is little they can do, especially if the diver is unconscious and not breathing. If the deep diver gives up or if it is simply not meant to be, the only thing a support diver can do is get the deep diver to the surface where (hopefully) professional medical support is waiting.
Decision making is simple, you avoid what will definitely kill the diver (leaving an unconscious diver who is not breathing in the water at 40m will definitely kill him, bringing him to the surface and skipping all his deco just probably will kill him and probably, no matter how small a chance, is worth fighting for). If the diver is still breathing, then the support divers job is to do his dive for him. His chances of survival increase for every minute of the deco that he is able to do, and that is the chance that the support diver gives.
The role of support is one that comes with a large amount of responsibility. As a support diver, you need to understand the dive your deep diver is doing. You need to know what his gases are, when he is changing and you need to have discussed with the entire team what action is expected of you if things go wrong. And as a support diver you need to know that all that is expected of you is your best, nothing more. At the end of the day your deep diver’s life is not in your hands, but in his and dare I say it, God’s.

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