Training Tips: Waypoints for Open Water Dives
All divers who truly enjoy the sport should devote time to reading and research within our diving canon. Within this article, I will be referencing work provided by Steve Lewis, The Six Skills and Other Discussions: Creative Solutions for Technical Divers. I encourage everyone to pick up a copy and give it a read.
In the book, Steve Lewis provides an excellent break down of six primary skills that any diver would benefit from reading twice. The six include buoyancy, trim, movement and position, breathing, situational awareness, and emotional control. (Lewis, 9) Herein, we will make recommendations with the novice to intermediate divers in mind, intertwining my own experience as well as Lewis' writings. Prospective technical divers should already have a copy of Lewis' work and experienced cave and deep technical divers could probably quote his concepts; verse and script.
Here we will zero-in on only 3 or 4 pages, a nuanced discussion within Lewis' Chapter Four: Movement and Position, where Lewis offers a method to reduce stress and task loading by creating deliberate way points to use throughout the dive. (Lewis, 73) Though the book is titled with technical divers in mind, many lessons provided throughout are sound advice that should be incorporated into the most challenging as well as the most novice of dives.
So let's first define our terms. We can define waypoints as a location or time period used during any route of travel, preferably pre-planned, though waypoints could be determined on the fly when selecting them for navigation. For example, on a road trip one would naturally plan to make a series of stops for fuel, rest, or sight seeing, with at least a rough time estimate of when one would arrive at those points. A well planned trip may include deliberately choosing refueling points prior to steep grades or long stretches or remembering the last gas station you saw as you started a trek across the desert. Lewis lays out a similar concept for inclusion into our dive plans. One important point Lewis emphasizes is the simple mantra of GO or GO HOME, which allows for an easy mental check-in that can occur at each way point. (Lewis, 74) In order for that mantra to mean anything, however, the team must have solid situational awareness and must know where they are at all times. The dive team must truly know where they are in order to make a determination as to the feasibility of continuing on (Go), or returning to the ascent point or exit (Go Home). Planning waypoints before entering the water reduces stress, simplifies navigation, and improves awareness, which enables an informed Go or Go Home decision. The waypoints that follow below occur after proper pre-dive planning, buddy checks, pre-dive sequences, and then entering the water.
I highly recommend using wet notes to record the waypoints prior to entering the water and during pre-dive plans. Having them on hand to reference during a pause in the dive can take the guess work out of the dive plan and significantly reduce stress.
First Waypoint (2 Parts): (Bubble Check and an S-Drill)
Part 1: Begin with a deliberate in water bubble check at the beginning of a dive prior to descent or immediately upon descending, where you inspect each other's gear for the champagne fizz from first stages, bubbles near fittings of the SPG or 2nd stages, or other leakage. Small leaks are often ignored by many dive tours and buddy teams, but it would be foolish to continue to depth or into any overhead environment with a faulty O-Ring or other malfunction. Best to fix a mild issue before a catastrophic failure occurs.
Part 2: Teams should then perform an S-Drill, which refreshes the motor skills for an out of gas emergency within the team. The S-Drill should occur at a deliberate stop in the first 3-5 meters or 10-20 feet of the dive. (Lewis, 75) An added benefit of this planned waypoint presents itself with this deliberate stop. Too often one diver in the team may descend too rapidly, while their buddy struggles due to a mistake made with weighting, problems with ears, or a simple error in gear setup. By simply planning to stop for an S-Drill at 10-20 feet, team separation can be avoided and errors can be corrected. While some recreational divers may not perform a complete S-Drill, or have yet to convert to the 7-foot hose on their primary regulator and necklace mounted alternate regulator, the concept of the drill remains valid; though, the long hose permits for vastly safer diving in countless environments. Even if the teams are still using a standard octopus or safe-second type of alternate air source, the act of performing a simulated out of air emergency at 10-20 feet, refreshes a critical motor skill, prevents team separation, reinforces buoyancy control, and ensures that equipment is properly stowed, clipped, and streamlined at the end of the drill.
Second Waypoint: (Gas Switch)
Lewis recommends the next planned waypoint as the deliberate switch from travel gas to back gas, as used in deeper Trimix dives. As promised, we will keep the article succinct with focused recommendations for the novice to intermediate recreational diver. (Lewis, 75)
Third Waypoint: (Arrival at Target Depth or Wreck)
Arrival at the target depth or the wreck should serve as the next natural waypoint in a dive. (Lewis, 75). Once we reach this point, we should take a pause to check in with the team and make sure everyone agrees to continue the dive, Go or Go Home. More than just flashing the OK at each other, this pause should take perhaps up to a minute to fine tune buoyancy, orient the team to the wreck or use a compass on a reef, and ensure everyone is a GO for the next leg of the dive.
Fourth Waypoint: (One Quarter of Planned Bottom Time Elapsed)
Here we are in meat of the dive, where we are engrossed in the goal or objective, or frog kicking along the reef enjoying the landscapes. Lewis recommends to have a planned waypoint when the team has reached one quarter of the planned bottom time. (Lewis, 75) Proper dive planning back on shore was necessary for this waypoint to occur. If the team had planned on 40 minutes of bottom time, then the team should make a deliberate pause at 10 minutes into the dive and check-in to review gauges, fine tune buoyancy, evaluate conditions, maybe double check wet notes, if needed, all before determining a Go or Go Home decision. If all is good, Go.
Another technique to support the concept of waypoints is the 5-minute mental snapshot of their bottom time, remaining pressure, location, depth, team position, etc., which could also be considered a personal waypoint that enhances situational awareness. Maintaining situational awareness is paramount and assists the team with nailing their waypoints without forgetting, which could be come a critical error. Always remember, anyone can "Thumb the Dive" at any time for any reason, without question or reprisal.
Fifth Waypoint: (Turn Pressure or Time)
Is it time to turn around yet? During the dive planning back on shore, one of the strategies that required consideration was a gas consumption strategy (Rule of Halves, Rule of Thirds, etc.) or a decompression strategy (keeping within a conservative NDL and using a Rule of Thirds type strategy on available bottom time, minimum deco procedures, planned staged decompression). Gas or time being the key factors to determine the turn-around pressure or time. (Lewis, 75)
Sixth Waypoint: (Team Check Before Ascent)
Back to the ascent point, whether it be anchor line or free ascent (perhaps with an SMB), the team should take another deliberate pause to perform a check and ensure the team is prepared for ascent. (Lewis, 75) A review of ascent procedures or planned decompression stops may be in order. If diving a dry suit, ensure the valves are positioned to permit a comfortable and controlled ascent. Conditions should be evaluated for any changes in current to anticipate the need for measures to avoid team separation (could be as simple as staying with an anchor line, or could be as complex as following team mates through a cut in a heavily surging reef that requires precise timing to not end up in the fire coral. (Gun Beach, Guam)
Seventh Waypoint: (The Ascent)
While each dive training agency advocates for their preferred flavor of ascent procedure or dive table, I simply recommend the team choose one with a minimum deco profile that encourages a S.A.F.E. (Slowly Ascend from Every) dive; one that reinforces the need to master buoyancy control. The team should begin their ascent facing each other in the horizontal trim position. If using a SMB with a line or an anchor line, place the line in the center. Being able to perform a free ascent without a line or reference is paramount, but there are no cookies at the end of dive if one ignored an available ascent reference. I'm not saying to hold onto the anchor line, but in a current, make use of the tools available for a safe ascent.
(Remember, the target audience here is the novice or intermediate diver. As such, gas switches, optimum gas selection, and staged decompression stops are reserved for another time).
Move no faster or slower than 30 feet or 9 meters per minute to 50% of your depth, then move 10 feet per minute thereafter. For example, if diving at 100 feet, and assuming the team begins their ascent well within limits of their NDL, they ascend to 50 feet at a rate of 30 feet per minute, which should take nearly two minutes. Thereafter, the team moves between 50 feet to the surface at 10 feet per minute. I recommend you move between 10 foot intervals at 30 seconds per interval and then hold for 30 seconds at that interval before moving again. 30 seconds may not seem like a long time, but it is enough to ensure buoyancy is under control, SMB lines are secure, and the team is moving together as a unit. Ascending in this fashion is a common technique used by Global Underwater Explorers, which I have come to adopt. Ascending without deliberate pauses may lead to an uncontrolled ascent, especially if the expansion of gas in the BCD or Dry Suit is surpassing the diver's awareness. If desired, or if your agency dictates, go ahead and perform the safety stop. In any case, moving in this fashion from such a depth should take 8-11 minutes to perform, therefore, teams should account for the gas necessary to perform the ascent. Too often we see recreational divers move quickly to a safety stop (bend and mend) without any tactical pauses, only to fight with a run away ascent in transit.
Slow movement and deliberate attention to ascent rates and decompression models, coupled with mastery over your buoyancy, trim, and position in the water column...these are key tenets of a safe ascent.
Notice that discussions of dive computers have not been mentioned. While they do enhance a divers situational awareness, divers should never rely solely on a computer to alert them of an issue, such as a rapid ascent rate, approaching NDLs, maximum operating depths, or any number of alarms and chimes. If divers plan their dives and dive their plans appropriately, then they should never hear a peep out of a dive computer. When glancing at the computer, it should read what the divers anticipate according to their plan. Dependency on a computer is foolish.
Recreational dive planning considerations often fail to include the simple concept of including waypoints. Most will ensure the plan include some form of the following: a simple goal or objective, a break down of teammates duties, an evaluation of conditions and environment, gas consumption strategies, turn pressures or times, enter and exit strategies, proper exposure suits, equipment checks, buddy checks, drill rehearsals... but seldom will they include a break down of waypoints or deliberate pauses that Lewis recommends. Training tells us to check in with our teammates often and to check gauges often, but when we are engrossed in the dive, dealing with something abnormal, or have unfamiliar buddies, we can often overlook these waypoints and settle for the classic flashing of an OK sign and accepting that as a true measure of readiness. Lewis opened my eyes to a very practical tool, which I have added to my dive planning tool box. I reserve a small space in my wet notes page to capture waypoints and to date, this method has reduced stress and made my dives safer.
Mr. Lewis, thank you for service to the dive community and I hope those that read this article are intrigued about what else they may find in your work. The Six Skills and Other Discussions has influenced my perspective on diving. Thanks again.