Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Trusting an 'Experienced' Diver

How do you Define ‘Experienced ‘ ?
I was pondering the concept of an ‘experienced’ technical diver (or any diver for that matter.

The reason why I am curious is because associated with the word experienced comes a whole host of privileges. I routinely see or hear about so-called experienced divers who take it upon themselves to ‘break’ their agencies rules (sorry, the politically correct term is ‘make exceptions’). It seems that along with the label ‘experienced’ comes immunity (and in some cases an almost God like power). The really disturbing aspect is when (as apparently an experienced diver) I get asked by newbie technical divers to ‘take them’ outside of their training and experience. The implication is that my experience will keep them safe…which disturbs me greatly. Nothing in my experience has equipped me to be soley responsible for some-one else’s life.

What do we as a community mean by this rather vague yet powerful word, ‘experienced’ ?
If one looks at the different agencies they all have standards in place to define the level of experience a diver must have in order to get onto a course or to complete a course. Depending on the agency this is defined as a number of dives or a number of hours in the water (there are also a set of skills that need to be practiced a certain number of times to complete a course). But once you have finished with a course, how can you as a diver tell if the person you are about to dive with is really competent and experienced ? Or out another way, how do you know if you can trust this dude with your life ?

Often step one is to find out what agency they got their certification from the theory being that some agencies offer better training than others (which is mostly not the case these days).
Step two is to take a look at who his (sorry ladies, it is invariably a he) instructor was. There is a common belief that the quality of a diver is based more on the instructor than the agency, the theory going that a good instructor will make up for his agency’s ‘bad’ points and produce a diver that is more competent. I would like to believe that there is some truth to this belief and that even within an agency one can see a difference between competence in students that goes beyond the students individual ability.
But both of these mechanisms are qualitative. Just because a diver has had the best instructor from a highly credited agency with strict standards (that are actually enforced) does not mean that a diver is going to be competent and capable. So what next ?
Step three is normally to get an understanding of how many dives the dude has. Which is all well and good, but what we forget to ask is over how many years and when last he dived. What we also forget to ask is where those dives were been obtained ? An example perhaps…

Meet Jo Blogs. He is a certified Normoxic Diver with 250 dives to his name. Sounds good right ? What he forgot to tell you is that he started diving nine months ago and the first 150 of those dives were obtained thanks to a number of hectic weekends at Bass Lake. Now meet Bob Smith, he has 120 dives, has been diving almost two years and has less than 30 dives in Bass lake. Of his 120 dives less than 30 are shallower than20 meters or shorter than 30 minutes long. Which one would you prefer to dive with ?

Or what about Jim Green who has been diving for ten years, has 300 dives to his name but has not done anything other than the odd sea dive over the last 3 years and now wants to do a 60 meter dive with you ? Then there is Phil Black who has been diving for 5 years, has over 400 dives (most of which are deeper than 30 meters) but has bent himself stukkend (broken for the international readers) on several occasions (you later found out that he was not breaking the ‘rules’, but would it make a difference ? )?

Tricky isn’t it ? Most of us are fairly careful about who we end up underwater with. We surreptitiously institute ‘trial’ dives that allow us to gauge the person’s skills for ourselves, but what happens when it is not a buddy you are trying to gauge but an instructor ? Most instructors pride themselves on their reputations and their abilities (real or perceived) and most are not open to the concept of you the student trying them out.

We assume instructor competence and experience because of the pieces of paper they have - their certificates. These certificates carry with them some important assumptions. Each one means that the instructor has passed that agencies prerequisites. On paper these pre-requisites and standards are impressive. Instructors are required to have a certain number of dives, have assisted on courses, have practiced lectures, have demonstrated all the skills and have ‘bought into’ passing on the agencies standards and methods .

What we do not know is that agencies love to do paper cross over’s which do not require you to physically fulfill the course requirements from either a practical or theoretical perspective. Even more worrying is the concept of instructor and instructor trainer discretion, which means that once qualified an individual may effectively ignore his agencies rules because in his opinion the student is competent and capable. The student does not necessarily need to demonstrate this or any of the skills required for his certificate. In the worst case scenario instructors have been blessed with certification in a matter of hours.

All of which means that the pieces of paper we rely on so much to grade the divers around us are pretty meaningless.

So how do we define experienced ? My personal perspective is that the only way to gauge a diver’s ability is to dive with him and spend time with him, both above and below water. This is a much safer (and accurate) approach to determining the safety and reliability of a diver than either his logbook or his certificates can ever be.

So next time you hear the word ‘experienced’ look a bit deeper… and take the time to judge for yourself. After all, it could be your life on the line!