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By Andy Pilley
Header photo by Marcus Rose.
At the beginning of March 2020, I completed Global Underwater Explorers’ (GUE) Closed Circuit Rebreather Diver Level 1 (CCR1) course with Rich Walker. Taking this course had been a long term goal since I began diving under the GUE framework. By way of an introduction, even though I had been curious about GUE for a couple of years, my focus had been on training to use a CCR so that I could extend my diving and undertake more challenging dives. At this point, taking a ‘step back’ to participate in a Fundamentals course, the first step in the GUE education system, was not high on my agenda, and I pushed ahead with a 60 m/196 ft normoxic trimix and Cave CCR.
In May 2018, I had joined a trip to Molnar Janos in Budapest, where we did some relatively deep dives to the 60m/196 ft section of the cave. During one of the dives I realized that if something were to happen at this point (deepest phase and farthest point from the entrance), the likelihood that any of the divers I was with would be able to effectively assist me in an emergency, was slim to none. After returning from this trip, I completed my “Fundies” with Marcus Rose, and made the decision to pack away my JJ-CCR and dive with the growing GUE community we now have in Scotland. My end objective was to get back on to my CCR, but only when I was ready and could be an effective and vigilant teammate.
Since completing Fundies, I have built up experience, worked on my core skills to develop my capacity as a teammate, and undertaken more serious dives. Following up on this, I completed GUE’s DPV1 and Tech 1 courses in order to develop my abilities with mixed gas diving.
We’re very fortunate in Scotland that there is such a wealth of maritime history around our coastlines, and divers can find wrecks to suit any level of depth and ability. The east coast of the town of Eyemouth provides access to a huge range of wrecks, which include HMS Pathfinder, U-12, the British submarines HMS K4 and HMS K17, as well as the NJ Fjord passenger liner. Many of these wrecks were on my list to dive; but, I wanted to do them with a team that I trusted, so it made sense to proceed with my training in the appropriate manner.
A huge problem in Scotland is that helium prices are astronomically expensive, and a fill of Trimix 21/35 can cost in the region of £180/US $219 if filled from empty cylinders. This of course restricted the frequency of when we could carry out these dives. In addition to this, there are a number of very remote sites that we have dived in the recent past, and gas logistics became the biggest problem in being able to carry out these trips. We would often load up with two twinsets and two stage cylinders each for a weekend, and the cost of these fills soon adds up. As I’m sure you can imagine, the ease of logistics that is made available by using a CCR became appealing very quickly.
Diving Into The Course
What struck me about the course with Rich Walker was the level of detail that went into every aspect of using these machines. In my previous CCR courses, we had carried out checklists for pre-dive assembly and breathing checks. But, these were done as a group of individuals rather than as a team. Prior to this there had never been a sense of accountability toward my teammates, as it was very much a solo diving mindset.
For example, with the GUE class, the pre-build checklist sticker, recording individual measurements of cell linearity, and cell manufacture dates contained a new level of detail that I hadn’t experienced before. That is not to say they weren’t discussed in my previous training, but cell linearity went only as far as, “If the cells sit between 46-54mv (millivolts) they’ll be ok,” and, “remember to change your cells every 12 months.” It was left to us as individual divers to maintain our own equipment without any real accountability to those we were diving with. Needless to say, looking back on this from a GUE view point, I was shocked that I had once been prepared to accept that level of risk.
From the start of the GUE CCR1 course, the point was made that rebreathers are meant to facilitate dives that are infeasible on open circuit due to gas logistics. When you are venturing into these remote and hostile places, why would you be willing to expose yourself to an intolerable level of risk? Especially when something as simple as a checklist could identify faults and prevent a potential failure that could result in an aborted dive for you and your teammates. Teamwork requires that each member be accountable to the others. Something as simple as a completed checklist confirms that you are thinking with the end in mind, and providing reassurance that you have physically checked each element of your unit.
My previous CCR training had no prerequisites in terms of skill level prior to enrolling in the course; the only requirement was a minimum number of dives. I managed to complete Module 1 without too much difficulty; however, Module 2 was a different story.
In my previous CCR training, when I started Module 2, I felt as if I was ready to start undertaking deeper dives. However, my lack of fundamental skills, stability, and buoyancy control became apparent when we started diving with two bailout cylinders and trying to manage these effectively. My buoyancy fluctuated massively, and problems I encountered became progressively worse as new skills and increasing depth were introduced and I became task-loaded.
As with Module 1, I managed to pass the course; however, looking back on my performance at that time, I should never have passed. I should have been sent home to work on my foundational skills since what I was missing was the appropriate skill level.
After completing GUE’s Fundamentals, that solid base became apparent.
Capacity and Configuration
As we moved on to learn new rebreather skills in my CCR1 class, the necessity for solid fundamental skills was clear, as we now had to manage our loop volume in addition to our wing and drysuit buoyancy. As I mentioned previously, prior to undertaking Fundamentals I had perceived this as a ‘step back’ from the point where I thought I was in terms of my own diving. However, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having a solid skill base from which to build your capacity, and progress in your diving.
The capacity that GUE training instills in divers provides a common baseline for the team. It provides the reassurance that each diver is trained to the same standard, and will respond in the same manner to particular scenarios. In contrast, the skills taught in my original CCR courses varied depending on which instructor taught them. This could lead to a significant variance in an individual’s response in any given scenario without guarantee that the response will be correct, and more importantly safe. The difference led me to consider GUE’s rebreather configuration in particular, and the benefits it offered in comparison to a standard CCR configuration.
The rig, configured GUE style, looked very different from what I had seen previously, but after it was explained to me, and how it fits into the GUE framework, it all made sense. I first saw the setup about four years ago in a video demonstrating how a long hose deployment would work, and my first impression was that it looked very complicated and time consuming. ‘Why would you not just hand over a bailout cylinder and be done with it?’ was my thinking back then. In hindsight, I believe that deploying a long hose is much less risky than giving/receiving a bailout cylinder that may or may not have been analysed by that particular diver. Some of the CCR divers I had dived with prior to coming across GUE, don’t analyze their bailout gas before each dive. [Ed. note: GUE standards mandate analyzing and labeling gas before every dive.]
Incorporating a twinset of diluent into the rig reduces the number of external cylinders that must be carried on any given dive. As I alluded to earlier, I was carrying two Ali80’s (11 liter cylinders)—one bailout, one for deco—during my Mod2 course and was overweighted to the point that my wing was fully inflated and impeding my ability to manipulate the valve on my oxygen cylinder during a high PO2 drill.
Maintaining muscle memory from using a twinset allows for a smooth and familiar manipulation of the valves when required, and mounting the O2 bottle farther back removes any risk of the valve being caught by the wing if it’s overinflated. Overall, the rig feels safer to me, particularly when bailing out to open circuit. As mentioned previously, my prior training had been to use an external bailout cylinder and deploy that if the breathing loop was compromised.
I was not taught a set drill for verifying and deploying the bailout reg in my original CCR classes, and in a state of panic, I could very well have switched to a cylinder containing 50%, rather than a deep mix. In the case of the GUE configuration, it’s a case of either switching to a backup reg or using a bailout valve (BOV). Personally, I would prefer to do this, rather than running through a full gas switch procedure, especially if I was hypercapnic for example.
With this piece, I thought I would provide an overview of the particular elements of the course rather than a day-by-day account. I hope you’ve found this an interesting account of my experience and reflection on how the course sits in comparison to some other CCR training courses. If your objective is to move to CCR diving in the future, I would thoroughly recommend this course. I look forward to diving more with the GUE community and seeing you all on projects in the future.
Andy Pilley is a Chartered Surveyor, team member of GUE Scotland, passionate wreck & cave diver and Ghost Fishing UK team diver. Andy started diving with the Scottish Sub-Aqua club in 2011 and began diving with GUE in 2018. Andy dives on the east and west coasts of Scotland where there is a rich maritime history and an abundance of wrecks to be explored. He has a passion for project diving and is developing objectives for a number of sites with the GUE Scotland team. He hopes to assist on the Mars Project and with the WKPP in the future.
Fact or Fiction? Part 2: Interview with World Record Holder Ahmed Gabr
by Michael Menduno
The day before this issue of InDepth was to go LIVE with Gabr’s world record story—I had reached out to him to comment but he declined—I received an email from Gabr. He apologized for any previous confusion and told me that he had checked my credentials and legitimacy and was now willing to grant me an interview. An hour later, we were speaking on FaceTime. Gabr was animated and very talkative. He would frequently go off on tangents and I had to keep bringing him back to my questions. At first, he seemed a bit nervous, but he started to relax more as the conversation went on.
After we briefly talked about his military background—note that he made the dive while still a colonel in the Egyptian army—I began by asking Gabr why he thought these allegations were surfacing now, six years after he conducted his world record dive. He said he believed it was because a documentary of his dive had been completed, and his detractors wanted to get back at him. “Their agenda is to discredit me and the movie,” he said. I asked him if he knew who Scuba Sam was, and he told me that he was a former disgruntled member of his team that had fled Egypt under legal suspicion and wanted to get back at him.
Gabr verified that the head cam video included in Scuba Sam’s email was accurate. I asked him why he hadn’t carried a camera and filmed the dive to begin with. He explained at the time he had an 8-year old child and a pregnant wife, and he said it would have been a huge stressor for him to know that they might see the video if he had died. For that reason, he hadn’t videoed his training dives either.
What About The Depth Timer?
I asked Gabr about Scuba Sam’s first allegation, whether his Scubapro 330 m Depth Timer with blacked out corners—that only showed his Maximum Operating Depth—was metric or imperial. He answered by first saying that computers were not required as part of the validation and launched into a detailed explanation of Guinness’s measurement methodology.
Guinness’s procedure for validating the dive was twofold. First, Gabr had to retrieve one of the unique, signed, and wrapped depth tags from the certified descent line. More on procedure surrounding the tags later. In addition, Gabr’s deep support diver, who met him at 90 m/295 ft, instead of 110 m/361 ft, as planned, was supposed to video him giving a special hand sign indication “3-5-0,” which was requested by the Guinness adjudicator shortly before the dive. In addition, he was to display the retrieved tag, which was the 335 (335 m/1094 ft) tag as shown in the video. He said that only the adjudicator, deep support diver, and Gabr knew the sign. Computers were not required. However, Gabr told me that he was so excited that he held out his Depth Timer (DT) which showed a max depth of 330. The question is whether it was feet or meters.
I asked him why he had blackened out the three corners of the Depth Timer so that only the max depth was showing. Note that only the last digit of the current depth reading, and part of the preceding digit, in the upper left-hand corner is showing. He explained that he did that before his last training dive because he was worried that breathing helium beyond 300 meters would give him hallucinations, so he wanted to keep his brain focused by having a single number. Is max depth the best number? His account contradicts the explanation that two of his team members independently gave me. They reported that Gabr told them it was to insure the integrity of the device under pressure as per the manufacturer.
Gabr explained that he made the dive with four measuring devices: two computers, the Depth Timer, and a Swiss military watch which was rated to extreme depth. He told me that he clipped one of the computers on the line at 90 m/295 ft on his way to depth, as he was worried that it would fail and he wanted it to keep track of his overall dive time compared to his runtime table. He later retrieved the computer which is shown in his hand with double enders in the video. Gabr then said that the main computer died (went blank) at 290m/796 ft during his descent.
OMG! How did he monitor his depth with no working computer and a depth timer only showing MOD? Gabr explained that he used the rope as his “depth tool,” and his watch to keep the time?!? Wow. Can you imagine? What if you got blown off the line? The rope was NOT marked in 3 m/10 ft increments. Rather, according to the engineering report, it was marked in 5-meter increments from 320-350m, and 50-meter increments from 300-150 m, then 10m increments from 120-100 m, and the 3m increments from 96-90 m, where he met his first safety diver. In other words, it would be very difficult to follow as a depth guide, particularly if he were suffering confusion. Gabr reported to me that he was mentally confused and feeling drained at depth.
Note also that Gabr’s first three planned 1-min deep stops (186 m, 171 m, 150 m) were not marked on the rope, nor his stops at 140, 130, 123 (see the partial runtime deco table shown in Part 1). On the video, Gabr gave his first safety diver the OK upon meeting him at 90 m and later reported that the dive went according to plan. No mention of computer problems or the lack of a depth-keeping device at depth.
Again, I asked him about the Depth Timer, whether it was the imperial (feet) version as alleged, or the metric version. Specifically, if it were the metric unit, why wasn’t the decimal showing before the last digit of current depth? [See the analysis in Part 1] Note that the Scubapro metric unit shows the current depth shallower than 100 m in three digits XX.X, to the tenth of a meter. Gabr said that the device “wasn’t in feet.”
What happened, he explained, was that the depth timer began to flood on ascent, and as a result, the decimal point indicating that it was a metric unit and the temp reading had disappeared by the time he reached 90 m/295 ft. He said that eventually the face of the depth timer went blank. Again, Gabr pressed the point, “Why do I need to fake something that is not even required [for the record]?”
One source told me that Gabr had been wearing his metric depth timer on his previous training dives with a standard strap mounting. However, the depth timer in the video has bungee cords. Was the metric device swapped out for an imperial version for this dive?
What About the Gas?
I asked Gabr about arriving at his 90 m/295 ft stop, where he met his deep safety diver, roughly eight-minutes (21 meters shallower) earlier than the plan. He explained that it wasn’t an issue and was within his calculated safety limit. He said that he had reached the 335 m/1099 ft depth tag between 12-14 minutes, and in the absence of a working depth monitor, he ended up making his first stop from depth at 150 m/492 ft using the rope markings. The plan called for slowing his ascent rates as he ascended through various depth zones.
I next asked him about the video which shows him breathing his back gas (trimix 4/85) as he is met by his safety diver at approximately 90 m: “Why were you breathing your bottom mix?” Gabr answered immediately, “I ran out of deco gas.” He then launched into an explanation about Isobaric Counter Diffusion (ICD), and why it wasn’t a big concern for him to switch back to his back gas because the differences in nitrogen were minor. But what about the oxygen?!?
Note also, that none of the tanks had SPGs. I asked him about this. “It’s a weak point for failure,” he explained. However team members told me that all cylinders were triple checked, analyzed, and marked for proper contents prior to the dive.
In the video, the safety diver descends to Gabr, asks in sign, Are you Ok? Gabr, who appears very relaxed, responds with an OK sign. No mention of an out-of-gas issue. Gabr then displays his retrieved 335 tag, shows his Depth Timer reading 330, and makes the sign requested by the Guinness adjudicator 3-5-0. “The first thing I wanted to do was secure the record, and do the whole video process,” Gabr explained. He next secured the tag to his support diver to prepare it for its trip topside. “My nightmare was that my deep support would lose the tag so I zip-tied it to his D-ring.”
After the Guinness protocol was accomplished, the safety diver switched out Gabr’s empty stages and passed him his stage bottle with trimix 12/75 deco gas, that was supposed to be breathed from 120 m up to 90 m. Gabr then went back on his deco gas. The support diver also sent up a status slate to the surface indicating Gabr was OK. The 90 m safety diver met them soon after, and facilitated Gabr’s gas switch to trimix 16/69.
There were several things that were a bit inexplicable. First, if you had just completed a 330+ meter diver, lost a computer, and then ran out of deco gas prior to your 90 m stop while you were facing another 14-hours of decompression, would you give your safety diver, who was carrying back-up deco gas the OK sign? Again, according to Guinness and other news reports, Gabr said that the dive went as planned. Second, were Gabr’s priorities. Wouldn’t you switch to your deco gas and then do the record protocol?
Finally, most troubling, Gabr had four 12L cylinders of 12/75: three staged on the line and one in a carried stage bottle. According to the plan, Gabr was to breathe 12/75 from 120 m to 90 m, for a period of 15 min at an average depth of 110 m or 12 atm. You do the math. For example, with a high 20L surface consumption rate for example, he should have burned through 20L/min x 12 ATM x 15 min=3600 liters. That’s roughly 1.5 12L cylinders, not four. Was he in that depth range longer? Gabr acknowledged that he had burned through lots of gas between those depths and was crazily coughing and had some chest pain. He thinks he had mild pulmonary edema.
Lines, Tags and Fitness
The fourth allegation concerns the angle of the descent line. The video, 50-minutes into the dive, shows the line at what is estimated to be 25º angle, which performing a trigonometric analysis, would mean that the 335m tag would be at approximately 303 m/989 ft short of the record. Gabr explained to me that the Guinness adjudicator and the calibration engineer who was on board measured the angle of the descent line at 15 minutes into the dive. Accordingly they subtracted 2.65 meters to arrive at the record of 332.35 m/1094 ft and 4.5 inches.
The fifth allegation is that there was a broken chain of custody with the tags, meaning that they could have been altered or replaced prior to the dive. Gabr disputed the claims. Though he wasn’t present for all of it, he said that the tags were under the control of the adjudicator the whole time, who even had his own locks to secure the tagged line the night before the dive. That is in Guinness’ bailiwick to determine. Gabr said that the adjudicator watched him dress and searched him prior to the dive. Eye witnesses reported that Gabr and his lead support diver were not searched thoroughly for tags before entering the water, and that the diver who escorted Gabr to depth was not searched.
Finally, I asked Gabr about his reported high energy level following the dive, which contrasted sharply with Gomes’ experience who had to be helped to walk (See Part 1). Gabr, who is reportedly very fit, explained that, unlike Gomes, he removed his quads at 21 m/70 ft and so only wore them for 4.5 hours. Gabr said that he also hydrated and ate every hour during his shallower deco stops, which he asserted Gomes’ did not. He also pointed out that at 41-years old at the time of the dive, he was 12-years younger than Gomes when he set his record. Ouch! I later checked with Gomes’ who said that he also hydrated and ate. As discussed in Part 1, Gomes insists the quads were not an issue for him. We ended the post-dive discussion with Gabr pointing out that its difficult to compare one person to another.
I asked Gabr what he intended to do. To my surprise he launched into a story about a sustainability project he was involved in with the first Egyptian to climb Mt. Everest. He then told me about a shipwreck exploration project in the Mediterranean in late September that he planned to do a pilot film about. I finally interrupted him. “But what about the allegations?”
“I have no idea,” he said. “What do you think?” “It’s up to Guinness,” I offered. “No, Guinness is done with it. It’s over,” he said. I asked Gabr if he had been in touch with or heard from Guinness or his project leader. He said he hadn’t, adding that, “They have a bullet-proof system.” He went on. “I am confident in what I did. But it bothers me that my reputation has been targeted. Why do I have to justify myself? I am confident, but I’m being hurt,” he said.
He went on. “Why are they doing this now, after six years,” he asked rhetorically. “Usually people try to discredit a record at the time it is made. But why six years later?”
“Do you think it’s because of the documentary film?” I asked. “I’m sure about that,” Gabr replied. “It’s the same person who was with the team. He was trying to sell helium illegally in my name and got me into trouble. He wants to discredit my whole record and the movie,” he said.
I asked if Netflix was going to release the documentary, which several people had told me about. Gabr said, no, that the documentary, which had investors, had not been sold yet. “Netflix didn’t buy it?” I asked. “No,” he said. I asked him several times if he had a financial stake in the film but did not get a clear answer, though he acknowledged he was under contract.
Gabr then said about his anonymous accusers. “They are not searching for the truth. They only mention half the truth. There was no peer review from professionals. My record would be discredited if I had relied on one of the computers. For sure. But that was not the measurement methodology.”
I asked Gabr if he would be willing to have a peer group review all the information and possibly clear him. Gabr said that he was open to anything. He said that he has been using the same video in his talks as presented in the emails and is always willing to sit and discuss things at every dive show he attends. “I don’t mind talking about my dive,” he said.
There is obviously a lot of information to unpack, and numerous additional details, as well as information protected by confidentiality that I have omitted here. It’s clear to me that I am not in a position to render a judgement, nor is it my job. My job has been to ask questions, lay out what appear to be the facts as best and fairly as I can and point out inconsistencies as I see them.
As I said before in Part 1, it’s up to Guinness to decide if they want to investigate the allegations or not, and on that basis to determine if Gabr completed a record dive or not. However, given the widespread distribution of allegations about the record, and what seem like surprising discrepancies, it’s likely that his record will remain under a shadow until the full truth is known, whether by Guinness or perhaps, as Gabr suggests, through a peer review by professionals.
Michael Menduno is InDepth’s editor-in-chief 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. In addition to his responsibilities at InDepth, Menduno is a contributing editor for DAN Europe’s Alert Diver magazine and X-Ray Magazine, a staff writer for DeeperBlue.com, and is on the board of the Historical Diving Society (USA).
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