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By Rich Walker
There’s a funny thing about taking a scuba diving course; it’s not the same as buying a loaf of bread. If you don’t like the bread, you buy a different type the next day or choose another bakery. It’s basically a recurrent cost, and you can try the type of bread that strikes your fancy on any particular day.
With a scuba diving course, whether it be an open water course or an advanced technical curriculum, most people will only ever take that particular class once. After all, how many people do you know that have done two open-water courses?
So how should you make decisions about your training?
I think that before you can answer that question, you need to take a step back and decide why you’re looking at training in the first place. If it’s because your friends, or local dive store, or some guy on the internet told you that you need to take the “advanced technical helium rescue specialty (sidemount version)” because that was the next step on your pathway to becoming an awesome diver, then do yourself a favor and stop everything. It’s time for a reset.
Conversely, a good strategy when looking at further training is to think about the kind of diving that you’d love to do. It might be a World War II wreck dive in the cold waters of a Norwegian Fjord. Maybe it’s a reef in the Philippines with unparalleled biodiversity. It could be a cave system deep in the Mexican jungle with pristine formations and endless visibility. Your imagination is the driver in this process. Read magazines and books. Follow the footsteps of other explorers. But be sure to have an idea of where you’re going.
In other words, set yourself a goal.
The Right Tool for the Right Job
Once you’ve got a goal in mind, it’s time to look at the skills you’d need to learn in order to do that dive. Now it’s often said that “you don’t know what you don’t know” so how are you to work out what it is that you need to learn?
Most diver training relates to either a particular environment or a type of equipment. Some environments that you encounter would include caves (or other overhead environments), deep diving (including decompression diving), or cold water. Equipment can generally be simplified into open circuit (back mounted), open circuit (side mounted), or rebreather.
Now you should look at your intended goal and try and work out what skills are needed as well as what equipment would be most appropriate to make those dives. I find that I switch between all three equipment configurations on a regular basis, depending on the tool I need for the job. But choose the right equipment for your goal.
Backmount open circuit equipment is great for diving to a depth of 50-60 m/164-197 ft. Don’t get hung up on the exact numbers. You can argue about the precise depth on the internet. Beyond that, rebreathers become much more efficient.
Sidemount is seful in small, overhead environments. It’s not so good if you need to carry a lot of gas. People will tell you they can dive deep on sidemount with lots of stages. You can. But there are better ways.
You can dive shallow on a rebreather too. But open circuit is simpler, cleaner, and cheaper. You can also dive very deep on open circuit. But most people would now agree that rebreathers come into their own for deep diving.
Decide what tools would be best for the goal you want to achieve.
The Right Stuff
Next, you will want to connect the tools that you will need with the right kind of training. Most agencies have a course that will fit your requirements. Deep, sidemount, cave, whatever. But don’t forget, as a general rule, you will only take a single class at the level you need, so it’s important to take the right class. So now you need to do some homework.
At this stage it’s worth highlighting a very important point: you should never consider taking a “deep air class” or any other variant. Any project that is deeper than 30 m/100 ft will be much better using helium in the breathing mixture. It’s easier to breathe, reduces narcosis, and is ultimately a much safer gas. If you “need” to take a 50 m/164 ft air class before progressing to another level, then look elsewhere for your training.
Now that’s out of the way, have a look at the instructors that are offering the kind of training you need. There are a few criteria you can use to evaluate your potential instructor. Remember they are there to do a job for you, and you should check their credentials in the same way you would expect to be checked if you were applying for a job.
Do they have the correct experience?
I once gave a talk to 30-40 dive professionals and shop owners. I was delivering a piece about how project diving could help build a community of active divers that would help their businesses flourish. I asked them to put up their hand if they’d dived within the last two months. Half of the hands went up. I asked them to leave their hands up if those dives had been “personal” dives, i.e. not teaching. Sadly mine was the only hand still in the air.
Make sure that your instructor is doing “real” dives. And that those dives are aligned with your goal. That way, you will be able to gain valuable experience from your instructor that is more than just the content of a slide presentation. You should be looking for an instructor that can provide value above and beyond the course standards and help you build the skills that you need to achieve your goals.
Book a Day
The easiest way to find out if you have the right instructor is to book a day with your potential candidate. You might need to pay a coaching fee for this, but if you explain where you’re heading and what your goals are, the instructor might waive their fee. But don’t expect it.
Take the time to talk to them. Find out their history. What were their goals and how did they achieve them? This is part of working out if your potential instructor is the right sort of diver to learn from.
Make sure that you get to dive with them, too. I’m going to tell you some secrets about this process now. Some inside information, if you will. Pick some skills that you already know, but maybe need a little refinement. Don’t go for brand new skills. This way you have the advantage that you more or less know what you’re doing, and you have the capacity to evaluate how the skills are delivered and taught. Now, have your potential instructor help you with these skills.
Clear Briefs, Demonstrations, and Personal Skills
Listen carefully to the dive briefing. Is it exactly clear what your potential instructor wants you to do and how the dive will be conducted? This is crucial when it comes to learning new skills. If you don’t know what’s expected of you it will be much harder to learn the new skills.
Take a good look at how your instructor looks in the water. Do you want to look like them? If they are kneeling down to do a skill or not in precise control of their buoyancy then how effective do you think they can be at delivering the skill to you?
Did they demonstrate the skill? Is it how you would like to look? If it doesn’t make you think “Wow! That was well done,” then maybe they’re not a good match for you.
But what should you be looking for? Instructors should be in complete control of their position in the water at all times. They should be neutrally buoyant and able to position themselves wherever they need to be to be effective. They should always be able to communicate with you, the student, and be in a position to give help and feedback if needed.
The demonstration should be clear and slow. It should highlight the important points that were mentioned in the briefing. It should act as a trigger to your memory to help you when you perform the skill yourself.
When you’re doing the skill how does the instructor work? Are they looking at you and giving you feedback? The instructor should be helping you to get better, and there is no more effective way than to explain how to improve while you’re underwater. Right there in the moment. Their signals and communication should either be intuitive and obvious or have been briefed beforehand. They should know common student problems, so you should expect that they have a repertoire of instructional signals to use when teaching.
Not providing in-water feedback is something to be concerned about. Without it, if you don’t get a skill right in the water, then you will need to make another dive to correct it. Which is pretty inefficient when you think about it.
Not all things can be fixed underwater. So a debrief is a critical final step of the process. The debrief should reinforce and encourage the things you did well but also give you a pathway and solutions for how to improve on the next dive. Solutions need to be specific. By this, I mean things like, “Keep your head up when sending up a marker buoy. It will help you stay referenced on your team and environment” or, “Make sure your backwards kick is slow and precise. Too much power will make you unstable.”
Feedback like, “That was awesome, you just need to practice more” is all too common. If it was “awesome,” then it wouldn’t need more practice. And if it needs practice, what exactly are you supposed to do? The same thing over and over? You need a solid, practical solution. And you should expect one from any instructor you are going to employ.
The final thing to consider is, do you enjoy spending time with your instructor? They should not feel like your “best friend.” There needs to be a professional relationship, rather than a friendship, as they may have to deliver some firm feedback to you at some point. If you’ve been best friends for four days, then it can be psychologically challenging when your new friend gives you some tough love. The counterpoint is that you should be able to enjoy your time with this instructor. They should not intimidate you, speak down to you, or make you feel bad about yourself. If they make you feel like that, again, find another instructor.
If you go through these steps and follow the advice, you are very likely to choose a good pathway for your diving. Remember though, your goals are the foundation for all of this. Without them, you will wander from c-card to c-card, and one equipment configuration to the next, and not really achieve your dreams.
Get clear on your goals, and go achieve them!
Rich Walker learned to dive in 1991 in the English Channel and soon developed a love for wreck diving. The UK coastline has tens of thousands of wrecks to explore, from shallow to deep technical dives. He became aware of GUE in the late 1990’s as his diving progressed into the technical realm, and eventually took cave training with GUE in 2003. He began teaching for GUE in 2004.
Walker is an active project diver, and is currently involved with the MARS project in Sweden, and cave exploration in Izvor Licanke, Croatia. He is also chairman and founder of Ghost Fishing UK. He is a full time technical instructor and instructor evaluator with GUE, which he delivers via his company, Wreck and Cave Ltd. He sits on the GUE Board of Advisors, and several other industry bodies.
Fiona Sharp, You Will Be Sorely Missed
As you have likely heard, we’ve lost one of the irrepressible and much-loved characters in the tech and diving medicine community, 55-year old Australian anesthesiologist and diving physician Fiona Sharp.
By Rosemary E Lunn
Header photo by Catherine Meehan. Fiona in Sodwana Bay.
One of the colorful characters in the field of diving medicine died tragically in a rebreather diving accident on Thursday, October 17, 2019. Fifty-five-year-old, Australian diving physician and anesthetist Dr. Fiona Sharp, MBBS, FANZCA, was found unresponsive on a reef at 24 m/80 f. She had been solo diving on a rebreather, and she was discovered with her mouthpiece out. Fiona was medevaced but did not regain consciousness. The incident occurred on the last day of Fiona’s diving trip to Bonaire, located in the Leeward Antilles, Carribean Sea. It was the week after Bonaire Tek. Fiona enjoyed deep rebreather diving and was known to be a bit of a maverick.
“We are shattered.” Bruce and Lynn Partridge, Shearwater Research.
The disturbing news of Fiona’s death rocketed around the world in a few hours. Many people from the diving medicine and technical diving communities expressed their dismay and distress at Fiona’s death. She was gregarious, fun-loving, irrepressible, and generous. Fiona was a friendly colleague and we had dived together a few times. I wrote a heartfelt tribute about Fiona’s bulldozer attitude to life and diving, and this was published by X-Ray Mag. It includes a myriad of voices from around the globe and amply illustrates just how well-loved she was by her colleagues and friends.
“Fiona was an individual. She did what she wanted. She did what she loved. She was very much her own person, and drove us mad at times. Fiona was down to earth, had a massive heart, a huge personality, and was very dear to all of us. She will be greatly missed.”Dr. Catherine Meehan
Fiona Sharp was born in May, 1964, in Perth, Australia, and she was bright! She attended Mercedes College Perth, where she was “Dux” in her graduating year. [Dux: from Latin for ‘leader,’ the term that is now used in Australia and New Zealand to indicate the highest-ranking student in a specific achievement).
After leaving high school, Fiona studied medicine at the University of Western Australia where she graduated in 1989 as a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS UWA). After serving an internship in Perth in 1989, followed by a year as a junior Resident in Sydney, Fiona moved to England where she gained her Diploma of Anaesthesia (DA) in 1992, whilst working as a Senior House Officer in Anaesthetics in Southend, Essex.
Fiona then returned to Australia and commenced specialist Anaesthetics training. In 2000, she flew once again to the UK where she spent five years practicing diving medicine at DDRC Healthcare (Diving Diseases and Research) in Plymouth. During this period, she was awarded a Fellow of the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists (FANZCA) Fellowship in 2004.
At the time of her death, Fiona Sharp was working at the Fiona Stanley Hyperbaric Medicine Unit (FSHHMU) in Perth, Western Australia. She had been in post since it opened in November 2014. Prior to that, she was employed at the HMU at Fremantle Hospital from 2007 to November 2014. (The department then relocated to the newly built department at FSH).
Whilst writing this, I spoke to Fiona’s family and asked: “why medicine?” They responded,
“If you are really smart at school, you are expected to be an architect, a lawyer, or a doctor. Medicine appealed to her; however, it was possible that she could have become a vet because the family did have a lot of animals.”Fiona’s family
“She was nuts, about everything. But especially about diving.”Dirk Peterson
Fiona got into diving in her late teens after trying skydiving and scuba diving. Water prevailed and she learned to dive when she was 18 years old. She was a PADI Divemaster, cave certified and qualified to dive the Inspiration, Evolution, SF2, Drager Dolphin, Mark VI Poseidon, and JJ-CCR rebreathers.
You cannot ever say that diving was her hobby. It was her all-encompassing great passion. Fiona recently told her older sister that she felt happiest when she was underwater. It was therefore natural that she would take an active interest in diving medicine, and she became a fixture at all the major diving medical or tech conferences. SPUMS, UHMS, EUBS, HTNA, as well as EUROTEK, OzTek, Rebreather Forum 3 and other diving industry events. These helped keep her current and educated in this niche sector.
“Fiona loved the diving, diving medicine, and the camaraderie around the bar. She was regularly first up and last to bed. Most often, Fiona could be heard well before she was seen on land and underwater!! She was well-loved by her colleagues at these events and, as many have said, the SPUMS Conference won’t be the same without her. I think she attended at least 17.”Dr. Neil Banham, Fiona Stanley Hospital
Fiona’s first South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society (SPUMS) Conference was at Layang, Layang island, in Malaysia in 1999, a venue well suited to her type of diving because it was deep. It was at a later SPUMS, in 2008, that Fiona’s diving would change. Dr. Catherine Meehan takes up the story.
“I met Fiona at a SPUMS meeting about 20 years ago. In 2008, I chartered the ‘Golden Dawn’ liveaboard. Ten of us flew into Alotau in Papua. New Guinea. and we sailed and dived our way across to Kimbe Bay, West New Britain, to join the SPUMS annual scientific conference. There was a rebreather on board and Fiona had a guided rebreather dive. She enjoyed it so much that she dived with it for the rest of the week. I believe this was one of her earliest experiences rebreather diving, and I think that she embarked on her passion for diving rebreathers shortly afterward.”
Catherine and Fiona would regularly dive together, at least two or three times a year, all over the world.
“We did a lot of conferences and diving together. We were most recently in South Africa diving Sodwana Bay. She was dressed in her vibrant orange drysuit so it was easy to see where she was, doing her own thing. It was tough cold water diving, but she was very hardy and didn’t miss a dive, even when her suit leaked. It is a good lasting memory of her.”
“It was like she had been shot out of a cannon when she entered a room.”Joanna Mikutowicz, DiveTech
Fiona Sharp never did anything by halves, and this is amply demonstrated by a classic Fiona story that her older sister Donna regaled to me.
“Many years ago Fiona rang me up and said, ‘I have got two tickets to the rugby game on Friday night, do you want to come with me?’ I thought, ‘Why not?’ One of our kids plays rugby at school. I rocked up at the game and she said to me, ‘Here is your ticket. Don’t worry about paying. And by the way, these tickets are not just for tonight’s game. They are season tickets’.”
She goes on:
“We ended up supporting the Western Force, a professional Perth-based rugby team, for the next twelve years and watched them play Super Rugby against New Zealand and South Africa. What I found ironic was that I went to nearly every game. I think Fiona missed more games than any of us because she was away diving so much.”
“Fiona Sharp drew no quarters when it came to life and diving. I only met her a few times, but she left an aircraft carrier shipwreck-sized impression on my psyche and we remained in contact.”Laura James, Environmental Campaigner, Underwater Cinematographer
Many divers have been generous with their Fiona stories. Todd and Tiffany Winn of Silent O Solutions reached out to me with another classic Fiona tale and said I could share it. When Fiona decided you would be friends, the recipient really didn’t stand a chance.
“Fiona’s reputation as ‘difficult’ preceded her, and our first encounter with her was memorable, to say the least. It was in San Diego for an in-water recompression symposium and training event in 2014. She exceeded my expectations. I believe she only told me I was completely mistaken two or three times. I conceded two of three and agreed to disagree on the third. She had an uncanny ability to defuse my ire with a wry smirk. As she had already decided we’d be friends, I had little say in the matter.”Tiffany Winn
“Tiff liked Fiona immediately and loved her unflinching honesty and authenticity. Fiona threatened to visit us on Maui on one of her transits across the globe, but unlike nearly everyone else she called and texted for a month straight, ironing out the details, and sure enough, one day, showed up. We loaded up our little boat for its maiden voyage, and Tiff and Fifi had a girl’s day rebreathering all by themselves. We had a beautiful day and a fabulous sunset. We will remember her fondly and often, and will miss her dearly.”Todd Winn
It is only right that I leave the last words to her family. I was told that Fiona had wanted to climb Mount Everest, but she suffered so badly with altitude sickness, that she just about made it to base camp and no further. Fiona was always willing to take a risk, and push herself. Apparently she competed in triathlons in her early 20’s, and she liked challenges. Everyone who came into contact with her soon found out she had a very dry sense of humor.
“Fiona didn’t like cheap champagne or wine. It had to be good quality and lots of it, and she always brought home two bottles of whiskey from every trip for her father.”Donna Sharp
Fiona was close to her family. She is survived by her mother, three sisters, a brother, and 18 cousins. She was an “oh so very proud” aunt to 13 nieces and nephews. Typically big-hearted and kind, Fiona had planned to take a nephew to Antarctica this November. You mad as a box of frogs lady, you will be missed.
The author is very grateful for the assistance of the Sharp family and Dr. Neil Banham, Director of Hyperbaric Medicine at Fiona Stanley Hospital in writing this tribute.
Dive industry fixer, Rosemary E Lunn (“Roz”) is the Business Development Director at The Underwater Marketing Company. This British firm specializes in providing marketing, communications, social media and event management for the “tecreational” and technical diving industry. Rosemary is a PADI IDC Staff Instructor, BSAC Advanced Instructor, Trimix, and CCR diver. Before moving into the public relations field, she worked as a professional recreational instructor, safety diver, and underwater model underwater and appeared on the History Channel and National Geographic documentaries. She established TEKDiveUSA and organized Rebreather Forum 3 on behalf of AAUS, DAN, and PADI. In 2008, Rosemary co-founded EUROTEK, the European advanced and technical diving biennial conference. She is a respected and prolific diving author, an SSI Platinum Diver, an Associate Member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame, and sits on the SITA Board (Scuba Industry Trade Association).
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