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by Richard Walker
For the first 10 years of my diving, I was a recreational diver. I dived on most weekends and had a great time. However, there was something in the back of my mind that wasn’t quite right. My training had been good, and I was a safe diver, but I was looking for more.
There was a gap between where I was, and where I wanted to be.
I read magazine articles about amazing wreck diving projects—things that really excited me. But I could not see how I could get to those projects. I tried different training courses and talking to people on the projects, but none of that made it possible for me to participate. It was probably because project managers don’t want unknown divers on their team. New members can be a risk. As somebody that now runs my own projects, I completely understand that mentality. I started to look for training that was delivered by active exploration divers and was designed to develop a project diver. That’s when I found Global Underwater Explorers (GUE). GUE had divers that participated and contributed to projects around the world. They were active all over the world. When I heard that GUE had a training program, I had to look into it.
To start training with GUE one must first take what is called a Fundamentals course. This course introduces already certified divers to the GUE configuration and GUE methods, and it makes sure that their basic skills are at the level needed to continue training.
Breaking Down Fundamentals
The most important component in any diving class is the diving. A GUE Fundamentals or “Fundies” class is the starting place for all of GUE’s technical diving courses and comprises at least six dives designed to challenge and refine your skills. It starts with a surprising element.
Proper neutral buoyancy and trim are the foundation of this course and the first thing the instructor will focus on. Most divers think they will have no trouble with this, but try it on your next dive. Get neutral and horizontal and then see if you can remain perfectly stationary. Do you track forwards, wave your hands, or have some other unwanted movement? GUE helps to teach the skills necessary to be able to achieve this.
Propulsion techniques for greater efficiency and preserving visibility are the next skill the course focuses on, with advice to improve whatever your level currently is. Instructors often use video of your dives to help you see your progress. So whether you have had 20 dives or over 100, you will get something out of this.
Dive two works on precision and control—the backwards kick, and how to adjust your position using the helicopter turn. This makes interacting with your team easier and enables stability for shooting photos, collecting samples, or making observations during a project easier. Without this precision, simple tasks take longer or can impact the environment and sometimes even your safety. Next, you’ll be ready to begin challenging your new stability. Regulator removals, exchanges, and mask clearing are part of this, but now you will be expected to do them while neutrally buoyant, in trim, and holding position relative to your team.
Dives three and four introduce the valve drill and the s-drill. These skills work on important safety elements such as gas sharing and manipulation of cylinder valves, and they provide a perfect way to develop your new buoyancy, trim, and positioning capability while task loaded.
Dives five and six introduce the surface marker buoy as a communication tool between the diver and the surface, and of course controlling an ascent while using one. Managing an unconscious diver, a no-mask swim in touch contact with your team, plus any skills that need more refinement to complete the class are also done during dives five and six.
There are classroom sessions designed to explain gas management, nitrox, and decompression strategies for recreational diving. There are field drills for practicing the elusive backwards and helicopter kicks, as well as sequence and team-based skills like valve drills and s-drills. Field drills allow you to learn the steps of a skill without the complication of being underwater. You get instant feedback, making your performance in the water significantly higher.
It’s a packed few days by any standard, but your instructor will support you all the way, giving you honest feedback combined with realistic suggestions for you to improve. “Go away and practice more” without explaining exactly what you need to change, and why, is not acceptable feedback.
Even if you’re a rebreather or sidemount diver, the GUE Fundamentals class will still make you a better diver. You can take the class in either a single or doubles backmount configuration. The course can be taken in one or two parts depending on the students’ preference. Now, let’s address some common misconceptions about the GUE course.
Elisha Gibson a NSS-CDS Basic Cave Instructor intern who recently earned a GUE Fundamentals technical passed said this about her motivations for taking Fundamentals:
“The appeal of GUE is that no matter where you are in the world, you can meet a dive buddy and both be ready to dive in the same configuration with the same set of rules. This undoubtedly makes the dive safer and less complicated.”
She took the Fundamentals class, GUE’s most popular course. It’s a four-day event, but your instructor can deliver it in two parts if prefered.
If you’re thinking there’s nothing new I can learn from this class…
“I wasn’t sure what to expect. My previous training had left me thinking that all I had to do was complete the tasks, and I would pass. With GUE, I found that there was always an improvement I could make on every skill. Every dive was an opportunity to improve. All of my debriefs included specific solutions for improving, not just ‘go away and practice.’ I discovered that whatever my starting level was, there was always a way to get better.
Other divers started to comment about how comfortable I looked in the water. They would ask me how I could make such controlled ascents. They said that diving became more comfortable, safe, and enjoyable when they dived with me.”
This constant improvement can only be delivered with high attention to detail, and by an instructor that has an intimate knowledge of the mechanics of scuba diving. They must know how to provide solutions that are understandable and easy for the student to digest
For an experienced diver, it might seem that taking a step back to look at some very basic skills like buoyancy and trim would be unnecessary. Surely you would expect a technical diver or instructor to perform any skill whilst maintaining their position in the water, wouldn’t you? Sadly, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to go back to basics and have a closer look at the things you think you know.
“After about a year of exclusively backmount diving, I still felt there was room for improvement in my skill set and comfort level. The GUE Fundamentals class seemed a logical choice,” Gibson said.
GUE divers think they’re better than everyone else.
Some say that GUE divers are elitist and consider themselves better than other divers. It’s easy to understand how that perception would exist. GUE divers often try to explain how we dive, as well as why we don’t do certain things that are common within the sport. Sometimes this comes across wrong.
“I never felt any elitism or superiority from any of the GUE members. The one thing I have noticed is a humble and simple approach to excellence,” said Luke Inman, who is a photographer/filmmaker and PADI course director explained. Inman recently took a GUE Fundamentals course.
Much of this perception of superiority comes from internet exchanges, which mask the true tone of a conversation. It’s always better to communicate in person!
“What finally pushed me to sign up for the class was the people. I have had the opportunity to dive with quite a few GUE trained divers over the past several years and they have all been exceptional buddies and divers,” Gibson said.
But I only dive sidemount or rebreather. Why should I take a “basic skills course”?
Many divers hesitate to consider GUE because they dive sidemount or rebreather. To focus only on the equipment is a mistake. One should focus on the skills. According to Gibson,
“The main reason I did not take Fundamentals earlier in my diving career is that most of my diving has been in sidemount, and Fundamentals is simply not taught in that configuration!”
The basics of buoyancy, trim, and propulsion are universal—even with a rebreather! The GUE approach to teamwork is universal. The simple and logical approach to emergency procedures can also be mapped back to any other configuration. For an experienced diver, learning GUE procedures would be a highly useful exercise.
“GUE shows how something sophisticated in theory can be simple in application,” Inman said.
It’s a cult. They will fill my head with nonsense.
Believe it or not, people hear that GUE teaches dangerous practices, removes your ability to think independently, and turns you into a robot. Sadly, the individuals passing along these rumors have rarely taken any training with GUE.
“Some of my best dive buddies had taken the class long after starting cave training and said it was challenging and beneficial to their diving level,” Gibson said.
A GUE instructor will take pride in explaining the logic and reason behind every piece of advice that they give. There is no “Kool-Aid” in a GUE course. GUE instructors present information, logic, and solutions.
My experience is not recognized!
If you’ve done a thousand dives in a range of environments, then you’re probably skeptical of training that goes right back to basics. You want something that will bring you forward in your diving, right? As Gibson explained,
“I felt as if my basic trim and buoyancy were not as good as when I first started my cave training. What better way to get this reset and return to the fundamentals of diving than with this class that is literally titled Fundamentals?”
This is one of the big differences between GUE and other systems. GUE instructors are not trying to tick a “required skills” checklist before certification. They are always trying to help a student improve, whatever their level. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get an advanced CCR cave class on your first morning of a GUE class, but it does mean that you will get coaching and feedback to improve your performance. In short, GUE training will make you a better diver, wherever you start. According to Inman,
“After 18 years teaching technical diving, the GUE valve shutdown is the perfect example of simplifying something others have complicated.”
When I went to Florida for my first cave class, I chose GUE for two reasons. Firstly, I’d experienced a range of instructors and wondered if this would be different. I was an instructor with several organizations and was curious to see their approach. Secondly, I’d researched my instructor and decided that his background in exploration would mean that I would gain knowledge from an active explorer, which is what I had been searching for.
By the end of the class, my world had changed forever.
I stopped teaching technical diving until I could dive like my GUE instructor. A year later, I started GUE instructor training, and the rest is history. I’m now a full-time instructor, only delivering the GUE curriculum.
My story is not unique. Luke Inman, whose quotes have been sprinkled through this article, has recently decided to become a GUE instructor.
“I remember taking a Full Cave course in Mexico and noticing that the GUE classes had a simple and distinct difference from the other agency’s courses. It is far more difficult to identify a GUE instructor and differentiate them from their students. Simply because the student standard is so high. The excellence shines through,” he said.
Before people have passed through their GUE training, they look at diving in a different way. They often have some very common worries when starting out.
“I worry that I might blow off some stops if I lose control of an ascent.”
“I don’t want to be worrying about buoyancy and trim when unknown or unexpected things happen.”
But after the class, these worries turn into an appreciation of the GUE system.
“It’s reassuring to know that everyone is on the same page. Everyone has the same working plan.”
From the least experienced diver to seasoned professionals, divers taking GUE training talk about real improvements in their comfort and capacity. Many of these divers join projects around the world. They bridge that gap between reading about exciting and important diving projects and being an active part of the story!
If you’re open to learning new skills, want to find out about GUE for yourself, or are ready to get started on your route to project diving, then talk to your nearest GUE instructor. They’ll meet with you for a chat and give you some honest advice. If you talk to me, I’ll get in the water with you for a quick dive, no strings attached, and show you what it’s all about. I know most GUE instructors will offer this service too.
What have you got to lose?
What have you got to gain?
It depends on where you want to be diving a year from now!
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 through to deep technical dives. He became aware of GUE in the late 1990’s as his diving progressed more into the technical realm, and he eventually took cave training with GUE in 2003. His path was then set, and he began teaching for GUE in 2004.
He is an active project diver, and is currently involved with:
Mars project, Sweden; Cave exploration team in Izvor Licanke, Croatia.; Ghost Fishing UK, Chairman and founder.
He is a fulltime technical instructor and instructor evaluator with GUE, which he delivers via his company Wreck and Cave Ltd. He sits on the BoD of GUE and several other industry bodies.
Getting Back in the Water with Caveman Phil Short
With local diving slowly opening in the wake of the pandemic, InDepth caught up with British cave explorer and educator Phil Short to see how he navigated his post lockdown re-submergence. And what about those 14, 15, 16 month old oxygen sensors?
by Michael Menduno
Header photo by Michael Thomas. Phil Short swims under Wookey Chamber 14.
With diving just beginning to resume in various parts of the world after what felt like an interminable shutdown, we thought it would be interesting to check in with some of our friends to see how they were approaching their return to the underwater world after such a long hiatus.
Ironically, it’s been the longest that 51-year old British cave explorer, scientific diving officer, exosuit pilot, educator and film consultant Phil Short, principal of Dark Water Explorations Ltd. has been out of the water in his entire 30-year diving career. How did one of tech diving’s indefatigable pioneers plot his re-submergence, and what would he offer up to colleagues about to take the plunge?
We chatted up Short just as he was booking his first dive project trip abroad; this is what the ardent caveman said.
InDepth: Maybe we can start with you explaining a little about the circumstances in the UK. I know you were on lock down as far as diving was concerned, and they are now in the process of opening up.
Phil Short: Basically, when the COVID-19 crisis began, the country went into lockdown for all nonessential activities. So obviously, any type of sport and recreation was included in that. And then, after about two months, they slowly started to reduce the restrictions, certainly for more normal activities and allowed certain sports to take place again. There was a lot of controversy over diving, because COVID-19 is a respiratory or lung-borne disease. So there was concern that it could create additional potential hazards with lung expansion injuries and embolisms.
In the UK, we have a group called the British Diving Safety Group, which is made up of various organizations including diving training agencies: the British equivalent of the Coast Guard, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which is our version of OSHA and the diving industry trade organization, and SITA (Scuba Industries Trade Association). I am a member, and we met to determine what the safest and most prudent, most expedited means were to get people back in the water. We consulted with the hyperbaric medical community, COVID-19 related medical experts, the agencies with the authorities that control charter boat operations, and with the HSE.
The first permissions were for small groups. Basically, you and one buddy could do shore dives. We adopted recommendations by the NSS-CDS as to how gas sharing should take place, and safety or S-drills so you are not breathing from each other’s equipment.
So when did you go diving?
As a member of the BDSG committee, I was very diligent not to go in the water until the evening we announced that it was permissible to go beach or shore diving. The next morning, 28May 2020, I left my house at 4 AM to go and do a beach dive on a landing craft from the second world war, a genuine World War II wreck. I descended at 6:23 AM and it was just heaven because I had been out of the water for 86 days because of the restrictions. And it was just great to get back in.
Where did you make your last pre-COVID-19 dive?
My previous dive had been on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands off of West Africa teaching a trimix rebreather class. It was a 93m/303 ft dive. I got on the plane, flew home, and the lockdown started almost immediately. And then 86 days later, I was doing a 12m/39 ft dive off the beach in the UK. It was my longest break in diving in the 30 years I’ve been in the industry.
Let me ask you, did you have a conscious strategy or approach to getting back in the water? You didn’t start back in at 90 meters.
Yes, it was conscious. Certainly rebreathers, it’s not just like riding a bike. You do need to keep current. I recommend to my students to be doing at least one skill dive on the rebreather per month, minimum, to maintain currency.
So I decided that for the first dive, once the permissions had been given, to go make the beach dive on doubles. I’ve got a nice little twin 8.5L set that’s small enough for walking over the beach. It still had the redundancy, but it was simple scuba and a simple depth of just 12m/39ft. Basically, the first thing I did when I got in the water was descend just a few feet and made sure that I was proficient with doing a shutdown and isolation drill on the doubles.
Then I went for the dive on a good nitrox with a long no-decompression time and surfaced way before I was getting anywhere near decompression. I took it gently. First time back in 86 days, I took it gently, and then over the last six or seven weeks, I’ve started to build up from there.
I know you’ve talked and probably compared notes with colleagues and other divers. Do you think people there are approaching getting back in the water sanely or is it a bit of a madhouse? How would you characterize things in the UK?
I would say, as often happens, it’s mixed. So, based on recommendations of the agencies and their instructors, the majority of people are getting back into it gradually like I did myself. But there’ll always be those who say, “Oh, I’m a good diver. I don’t need to do that. I’ve not been allowed to dive for two or three months. I want to go do what I want to do.” And they go straight out and do a 50 or 60m dive, which I think is just foolish.
Even ignoring the COVID-19 situation, if you were out of diving because of having a kid, or experiencing a job change or anything like that, or after a big layoff, I think it would be prudent to get back in gently and then slowly build up. So, my first dive was shallow with open circuit doubles. My next dive was a very limited penetration, shallow cave dive on open circuit, side mount, again with redundancy. A no-decompression dive but back in my natural environment of caves for a little swim around.
Gradually over the weeks, because I had better access to caves than I did to the sea, I did more and more cave dives and slowly built up in duration and distance, but still on open circuit. I then got permission from the owner to access one of the inland lakes, and we did some pre-official opening work for the owners of the site. I got back in on the rebreather but again, no-decompression, relatively shallow, no more than 30m/100 ft. Next, I integrated stages and my DPV (diver propulsion vehicle).
My first teaching was a Level one, Mod One rebreather course that I team-taught with a fellow UK instructor. It was a perfect way to get back in gently because we were running 10 hours over 8 to 10 dives of constant skills for the students. So that was a real refresher. And then finally last weekend, a group of us that had all been doing that type of gradual build up got out on a boat off the south coast of the UK, on a 33 m/108 ft deep wreck on Saturday. On Sunday, we dived a very well-known wreck, the SS Salsette, in 45 m/147 ft of water in beautiful conditions. Calm sea, good visibility, and a real wreck. So I had made a gradual buildup over seven or eight weeks to get to that point, rather than jumping straight back in.
Sweet. You mentioned rebreathers (CCR). Currently, there is a global shortage of oxygen sensors underway as a result of the pandemic. Oxygen sensors are being diverted to the medical industry, which is under siege right now from COVID-19. Any concerns or worries that people will go diving with out-of-date cells? Do you think that’s an issue?
It definitely concerns me. I’ve been a CCR instructor at all the levels, almost exclusively for the last 15 years, and I’ve seen people go out and happily spend five, six, seven, 10,000 pounds on a brand new rebreather and the training and then go out and be cheap on a £16 fill of Sofnolime or a £16 fill of oxygen. And you’re like, what are you doing? You paid £10,000 for this equipment and you’re risking your life on a £16 refill of consumables? People are so desperate right now to get back to their hobby; they feel like it’s been taken away from them, that I worry they may not always act sensibly.
It’s been a battle over the last five or six years to get people to really wake up and pay attention to the fact that these sensors are your life support. There was a very high-profile accident that was caused by overrun sensors a few years back with a quite-well-known person in the industry. He effectively died on the bottom, was rescued by his buddy, then was helicoptered to the hospital where he was put into an induced coma. He came out of it several days later and he was very, very lucky to survive. And very, very lucky to come back to actual diving again. But that was all caused by old, overbaked sensors.
So what do you see happening?
I think what’s going to happen, you know, is that some people ran out of fresh sensors a couple of months ago so now it’s 14 months, 15 months, 16 months. And some may be thinking, “It’ll be okay, it’ll be okay. They’re reading fine, they’re working fine.” Some people might be doing linearity checks, doing oxygen flushes at 6 m/20 ft to check if they read high when appropriate.
But really, the companies like AP Diving, JJ-CCR, Vobster Marine Systems, and others have put a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of money into researching and independently testing these life-support machines for functionality, with certain parameters. Much like car manufacturers do so you can drive your family and your kids in a safe car. [Hammerhead CCR developer] Kevin Jurgenson summed it up once brilliantly when he put out a statement saying, ”Okay, people are questioning the duration that a sensor can last. Some people would say 12 months. Others would say 52 weeks. Some would say 365 days.” And he carried on to include hours, minutes etc. Basically saying, a year is a year. Whichever way you try to stretch it, it’s a year. No more.
Personally, I would not violate that because those three simple galvanic fuel cells that represent probably somewhere between $200 and $300 depending on the manufacturer and the unit, representing a tiny percentage of the expense that I’ve outlaid to become a rebreather diver, is not worth my life.
As I mentioned, I am now back on my rebreather after starting on open circuit, and if my sensors eventually pass their 12-month date, I’m very happy to return to open circuit for as long as I have to while I wait to buy some new cells.
I have always believed in my educational career of thirty years in the diving industry to lead by example. Those are my feelings. I know from experience when you make comments like that, and it’s effectively the same as raising your head above the trench in a warfare situation. People are going to take shots; but bring it on. If you’ve got a sensible, scientific argument for extending your cells past 12 months, then I’m happy to discuss it. But I don’t think there is one.
So the moral is, if you have sensors that are past either one year, 12 months, 365 days, 8760 hours, 525,000 minutes, or 31.5 million seconds, then you need to go back to open circuit, or not dive until you can get some new ones?
I believe so. The manufacturers whose rebreathers I have dived and taught on over the last 10 years are people that were passionate about rebreather safety. And much like [Sheck] Exley, who focused on improving cave training and cave safety by writing Basic Cave Diving: A Blueprint for Survival, these manufacturers—people like Martin Parker at AP Diving and Jan Petersen at JJ CCR have gone the extra mile to improve safety.
You know full well from the aquaCORPS days, if you look at the safety record of CCR diving now, versus 15 years ago, we made a difference. It has become safer. Why ruin it, because of impatience and a short-term, relatively short-term, restriction on availability of consumables?
Right. In fact, I have talked to Nicky Finn at AP and also Jakub Sláma at Divesoft who have been in touch with sensor manufacturers regarding shortages, and it seems that the situation may be stabilizing and or easing up, assuming we don’t have a second wave of COVID-19 infections. So hopefully, the situation will improve.
Actually, I’ve heard that from several manufacturers, and I think it will improve quicker than was first anticipated. And that’s even more of a reason for not doing anything foolish and being a little bit patient with this to be safe.
Last question: What’s next for you? Got any big projects coming up?
I just booked my first flight to travel out of the UK again. This time to Croatia. I’m going to be designing and building a water dredge system for recovering and capturing sediment on an archaeological site for a project that we are going to do in October. This is a follow-up project from one we did in 2017 to recover a US World War II pilot from a wrecked B24 bomber that ditched in the Adriatic Sea. We’re going back to do another recovery on a different wreck.
The dredge system will be designed to work at the appropriate depth level so that we can basically recover the sediment without losing anything. Specifically, we’re not going to miss any of the crew that are found through that dredging. So, I’ve got a 10-day trip to build that system, test it in the same depth of water, and have it ready for the project.
When I come back from that, I’m flying out to Switzerland to train on the Divesoft Liberty sidemount with a good friend and former student of mine, Nadir Quarta. It will be my first sidemount rebreather. I’ve got no intention of moving away from my JJ as my primary rebreather, but I’ve got quite a few cave projects that require a side mount that I can’t do in my back-mount JJ. They don’t offer a sidemount, and because of distance and depth, I can’t do it on open circuit. I put a lot of thought into which unit to use, and am very impressed with Divesoft’s engineering and build. They’re also very courteous and professional to deal with. I like working with people like that.
After training, I plan to attend a Swiss technical dive conference, Dive TEC! in Morges as a speaker, where I will be talking on my 30-year journey as a cave diver and explorer.
Fun times ahead! Thank you, Phil. I look forward to talking to you again soon.
Michael Menduno is InDepth’s executive editor and, an award-winning reporter and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for 30 years. He coined the term “technical diving.” His magazine “aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving”(1990-1996), helped usher tech diving into mainstream sports diving. He also produced the first Tek, EUROTek, and ASIATek conferences, and organized Rebreather Forums 1.0 and 2.0. Michael received the OZTEKMedia Excellence Award in 2011, the EUROTek Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 and the TEKDive USA Media Award in 2018.
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