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by Mark Powell
Header and other images courtesy of Mark Powell
What is more important, training or experience?
One of the most popular discussions when it comes to diving is, “What is more important, training or experience?”
You often see divers on the internet asking, “Why does anyone need dry suit training? I just bought a dry suit and picked it up as I went along,” or “I can’t believe some instructors offer a course on how to deploy a DSMB, isn’t it obvious?” These are examples of people who believe that training is pointless and you can pick anything up through experience. On the other hand, you also see people who expect a diver to be absolutely perfect at the end of a course, insinuating that an instructor is a poor one unless the students are perfect at every skill.
In reality, this is one of those pointless questions. Of course, the real answer is that both training and experience are important and, in fact, practice and judgement are also required to become a fully rounded, competent diver.
Is Training Really Necessary?
“Why do I need a course to learn how to use a dry suit, DSMB, twinset, or rebreather. I can just jump in and learn it by trial and error.”
It is possible to learn by trial and error and building up experience. However, different people learn in different ways. Some would prefer to learn by trial and error while some learn better by having it explained to them or seeing a demo. Just because you prefer to learn by doing it doesn’t mean that others prefer the same method. For many people receiving training from a good instructor is the best way for them to learn.
Experienced divers often assume that, since they know how to do something, it is easy and other people can pick it up easily. They underestimate the time and effort it took for them to learn that skill.
Experience is a great way of learning, but it is also an expensive way in terms of time, money, and risk.
“Experience is a dear teacher but fools will learn at no other”.Benjamin Franklin
Learning from an experienced instructor is one of the most efficient ways of picking up new knowledge and skills. It can be much more effective than trial and error or learning from experience. It allows students to draw on the knowledge of many other divers, and not just their own experience. It can help avoid blind alleys or practices that seem like a good idea at the time but have hidden flaws that may not be immediately obvious.
Learning from an instructor can be much safer than making dangerous mistakes. Sometimes a dangerous mistake can result in no ill effects, in which case the diver learns the wrong lesson—they ‘got away with it’ and did not acknowledge it was a mistake. In other instances, the dangerous mistake causes an issue which the diver manages and takes as a lesson. In this case, making a dangerous mistake—and surviving it—can be a very effective learning situation. However, at other times, the dangerous mistake may result in a situation that the diver cannot deal with and may result in very serious consequences.
It can also be much cheaper in the long run to pay for quality training than making costly mistakes, especially when it comes to buying the wrong kit. When I run a course for a diver looking at getting into tech diving, I recommend that they do not buy their kit in advance. Part of the course is to look at the various kit configurations, compare the pros and cons of each and allow the student to determine what kit will suit them best. After this exercise, the students often realize that what they thought they needed is not what they actually need, so they can then buy the right kit straight off. Time after time, this approach has meant that students save more money in avoiding buying unsuitable kit than the cost of the course.
Training, no matter how thorough, does not produce the finished article
It is not reasonable to expect a student to have mastered each skill by the end of a realistic training course. This statement may surprise some people, as some agencies do suggest that the student should display “mastery” of a skill as a performance requirement of the course. In reality, this can only be achieved by redefining “mastery” to such an extent that it means no more than “competent under good conditions.” This is not real mastery.
There is simply not enough time to achieve real mastery in a training course. And there shouldn’t be. There is a time for working with an instructor and practicing with feedback from the instructor and a time for practice on your own. Both are required in order to achieve mastery but only one needs to be done as part of the course. Practicing on your own needs to be done over an extended period of time, with breaks to allow for consolidation. It is just not feasible or even necessary to do this with an instructor.
What this means is that the end of a training course is not the end of the learning process; rather, it is just a checkpoint in the student’s long-term progress. I have seen many students that were the strongest in the group at the end of the course, but after six months they had not progressed or had often gotten worse. However, I have seen other students who only just scraped through the course, but realized they needed to practice, and with determination and practice they had much stronger skills after six months.
Good students are not the ones that get it right the first time. They are the ones that know they need to keep practicing after the course. They are the ones that realize that training is only valuable with follow up practice.
“Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.”Unknown
Good instructors are not those who get their students to a good level at the end of the course or who get students to “practice until they get it right,” but a good instructor is one who makes sure the students will continue practicing in the future and “will practice until they can’t get it wrong.”
Welcome to the Real World
No matter how good your training and how much you practice, you also need to have real world experience. Even the most realistic training is not “real,” so you need to put the training into practice in the water. Training situations are often clear and unambiguous, but the real world is not always like that.
If the training environment is different to the real-world environment then it takes time to apply the training lessons to the real world. Different visibility, cold water vs fresh water, sea vs fresh, currents, entry points, different dive buddies, boats, and local procedures may also add variables they could not practice in training.
When training and practicing, the diver can focus primarily on the activity they are doing without too many distractions. Experience involves using those skills, not in isolation but as part of the whole dive, possibly when you are distracted by other considerations such as environmental challenges, your buddy, or the situation you are in.
“Experience is something you don’t get until just after you need it.”Steven Wright
Experience is obtained by putting yourself in different environments. If you do 100 dives at the same location, in the same conditions, that is not really 100 separate dives but rather the same dive repeated 100 times. By exposing yourself to different environments, you encounter different conditions and challenges which may make the activity more, or sometimes less, challenging.
This is the real meaning of mastery. It is not when you can do it reasonably well on a couple of occasions in good conditions. True mastery is being able to perform a skill each and every time under different or challenging conditions.
“Victory comes from finding opportunities in problems.”Sun Tzu
With experience will hopefully come judgement
It is your judgment that will be relied upon to make the right decisions on how to avoid a potential problem or deal with a difficult situation. Judgment cannot be bought, or fast-tracked; there is no zero-to-hero option. It is the result of time spent practicing and gaining experience in a variety of conditions.
Good judgement means making a sensible decision at the moment it is needed. It means picking the right tool at the right time. It also means knowing when a rule is applicable but also knowing when to break a rule. Judgement means knowing when to call a dive when the situation is not right and avoiding an incident rather than having to deal with the consequences.
Unfortunately, judgement is not an automatic result of the previous steps. Often, we see divers that do something dangerous and get away with it; their experience tells them it is okay and skews their judgement as to what is acceptable. As a result, some divers become arrogant and think that they have so much experience that none of the rules apply to them.
“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”Will Rogers
Finally, judgement means recognizing that you don’t know it all and that additional training, practice, and experience are always valuable. Keeping an open mind and learning from others is an important aspect of developing your judgement.
This means that the process is not a straight line but is a cycle. Practicing something might reveal that there is a hole in your knowledge and you need to circle back to an instructor for additional training. As you gain experience, you may realize that there are additional skills or combinations of skills you need to practice or further training you need. Good judgement often results in the realization that you need training on a different area of diving before undertaking deeper dives or progressing further into a wreck. The best divers are constantly learning and actively seek out opportunities for new training, practice, and experience.
“Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.”Ronald E. Osborn
Stories by Mark Powell:
X-Ray: One for All or All For One?
Mark had his first experience of diving at the age of 10 when he did a try-dive in a local pool. He was hooked from that point onwards. He learnt to dive in 1987 and has been diving ever since.
Mark became an instructor in 1994 and has been actively instructing since then. In 2002, Mark set up Dive-Tech, a dedicated technical diving facility, with the intention of providing the highest quality technical diving training. Dive-Tech provides technical training at all levels up to and including CCR Advanced Mixed Gas Instructor Trainer.
Mark is a TDI/SDI Instructor Trainer and a member of TDI/SDI’s Global Training Advisor Panel. He also represents TDI/SDI on a number of international standards groups. He is a regular contributor to a number of diving magazines and a regular speaker at diving conferences around the world.
In 2008, Mark published Deco for Divers, a widely acclaimed overview of the theory and physiology of decompression. This has quickly become the standard text on the subject and is recommended reading by a number of the technical diving agencies. In 2010, Deco for Divers was awarded “Publication of the Conference” at the EuroTEK.10 technical diving conference, and in 2014 it won the Media Award at TEKDive USA. In 2019, Mark followed this up with a new book, Technical Diving: An Introduction.
No Direction Home: A Slovenia Cave Diving Adventure
Suffering from Covid lockdown, young, poetic Italian explorer, instructor, and gear-maker, Andrea Murdock Alpini, decided to take social distancing to the max! He packed his specially designed cave-van and set out on a three-week solo road trip to dive the water-filled caves lying beneath the Slovenian soil. His report and must-see video log, dubbed, “No Direction Home”—an homage to Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan docu—will likely satisfy those deeper urges for adventure. Did I mention the killer soundtrack? Kids don’t try this at home!
Text: Andrea Murdock Alpini
Photo & Video: Andrea Murdock Alpini
Ecco la storia originale così com’è stata scritta in italiano
Author’s note: I do not encourage other divers to conduct solo diving. The trip and the dives described in this article were conducted after significant training and experience.
Ed.Note: Global Underwater Explorers does not sanction solo diving.
That was the feeling I had last June 2020 when I left my home to begin a journey alone. Caves, abandoned mines, alpine lakes, and a few wrecks—that was my plan for a great adventure.
The first COVID-19 lockdown had been in place for a couple of weeks, and I was afraid of going out and meeting people. Social distancing left an open wound. I loaded my wreck-van with plenty of stuff to survive alone for a long month traveling amongst rivers, lakes, mountains, and forests, and I was ready to practice scuba diving.
At that time, tourist travel was impossible in Italy or abroad—anywhere in Europe—because the coronavirus had locked the borders. I asked an editor in chief from a magazine—one whom I am used to sending articles to—to prepare a couple of official invitation letters for customs. For my trip, I converted my wreck van into a cave van. It was fully equipped with a 300-bar air compressor, helium, oxygen, deco cylinders, twinsets of different sizes, gas booster, fins, mountain boots, tent, camp burner, and brand-new dry suits, as well as thermal underwear to be tested for my company PHY Diving Equipment.
I remember the day well. I was thrilled as I crossed the border between Italy and Slovenia. I had been restricted to nothing but a 200 m/650 ft walk from my house because of the pandemic restrictions, but with an eight-hour drive, I was free to enjoy walking into wild nature all alone.
The mental switch was awesome, and unexpected. I did make just one phone call from abroad. I talked to an incredible Russian who was the first guy I met in a small rural village in Slovenia. He had emigrated some years ago, and now he welcomed travelers by sharing his farmstead.
However, once I arrived on site, I was not very welcomed by the weather; instead, I was met by heavy rain. After the storm passed, I went out walking and filming with my phone. I had decided to record all of the trip. As luck would have it, the rain returned again, and it never left me for the entire duration of my trip (almost a month).
My tour was articulated throughout Slovenia, Garda Lake (Italy), Austria, and South Tirol’s Alps, Tuscany’s caves, and finally I reached the central part of Italy—Appenini mountains and their peaks. I planned to reach two mines, but heavy rains stopped my dream. Excluding Slovenia, where I slept in a traditional bed, I passed all my time living in my tent. Cold weather and storms were my constant companions.
I managed to see a ray of light for just a few hours, I never had any chance to dry my equipment, and I warmed up inside my van. Every night I slept only a few hours because of loud wind noise or strong rain storms. Day-by-day I grew tireder and more feeble. One day, three weeks after I left home, I was in South Tirol descending a mountain when I decided to conclude my trip, and I returned home safe.
The goal of my trip was to tell scuba adventures from the surface point of view where the water is only a part of the context and not the objective. I made a mini-series film composed of three chapters. Each one brings you inside the scene. What follows here is the first episode of the trip.
Social Distancing Beneath The Slovenian Soil
The first day of cave diving in Slovenia was very tricky and full of adventures. I had no idea how the second day would go.
I left my accommodations around 6 a.m., after a good breakfast of cereal, dark chocolate with black coffee, dried fruit, and tasty Italian Parmesan cheese. I could not see anything from my window because what had fallen was not simply rain; it appeared to be an awesome flood. My plan for that day had been delayed.
I think that most parts of dry caves are condemned for hundreds of kilometers. So, I decided to check the weather forecast and water level conditions in caves close to the Croatian border. It would mean driving about four hours to see for myself whether scuba diving was allowed. I didn’t have to remind myself, I was alone here.
Wheels were on the road and local conditions seemed quite good. I had checked the weather on my laptop and understood the risk. If I was lucky, I could dive; if not, I would have to drive back. I drove through Slovenia forest meeting no one. With less than an hour left to my destination, I came across an abandoned farm village, completely empty.
The dive inside Bilpa Jama was breathtaking. Now I was seated beside the cave shore preparing soup to warm myself. After a stunning solo dive, I was cold and wanted only to taste the peace of this magnificent place. While I was dipping the spoon in my soup cup, I heard a faraway voice, a police woman calling me and asking me to stop eating and come quickly to her.
After I did as I was asked, she started examining my passport, documents, and permissions. A few minutes later, a huge National Army truck reached us. The soldier had an abnormal body shape, a man the size of a walking mountain in an Army uniform. Can you imagine how I was feeling in those moments?!
Well, in the end, everything went really well, and I now have a story to tell my grandchildren.
Once the passport control was over, and they had checked that I did not cross the border from Croatia to Slovenia illegally (customs was only a few hundred meters from us), I had the chance to get back to my soup, which by then had turned cold. I warmed it up again, and I spent half an hour seated on a slippery stone covered with moss and lichens watching the beauty of the forest surrounding me.
On the way back to my accomodations in my cave van, I played a new playlist.
Four hours later, I approached my country lodge. I was really exhausted, but I had to refill tanks and plan the next scuba diving days. Once I finished, I watched the forecast again. Unfortunately, it was growing worse, so I decided not to dive and instead get a surface break. Tomorrow I would drive, search, and catch info and GPS coordinates of caves. My tomorrow plans had turned into a sketching and surveying day.
The Road To Suha Dolca
I drove and walked for hours and hours, up and down the forest or on lonely roads in search of caves where I could return in winter or perhaps next year. During the last survey of the day, I watched a talented young guy playing a traditional concertina and thought, what a lovely atmosphere and a fitting way to close my hard-working day!
I decided to give a last gaze to Suha Dolca cave, my favorite one, on the way home. This was the third consecutive day I had arrived back at this spot. Observing it day-by-day, I tried to find the best moment to dive this cave.
Until now, it was inaccessible due to the strong flow. I wanted to dive here before leaving Slovenia. Tired and driving slowly, I parked my van away from my accommodation. Since I had no lunch, I started feeling very hungry. A simple dinner was quickly served: dried fruits and a cup of hot noodle soup.
My ‘NO DIRECTION HOME’ trip was now at its peak. I had become a wanderer. I was alone in a wild country with, yes, an internet connection for historical research and checking the weather. That was the only technology I used. Aside from that, I lived simply. I walked, dived, wrote, and filmed my experience all with my mobile phone.
Rain was tougher than expected. I had hoped to stop for one day, not the two that it took. Following the surveys, the next day I started fixing my video equipment and saving photos and videos I had made on my hard drive.
I had too many ideas, no one clear till the end, and too many cave sketches and GPS points to reorganize; I needed a day to regroup. I just went out for a few hours to check Suha Dolca’s Cave conditions. On this day it seemed that the flow was getting more stable, and general water conditions were growing better. I had to be patient and wait one or two days more for the right conditions. I tried and failed to find a solution on my own, but the water always showed me the way. She told me to wait and to go back to where I came from. Step-by-step I walked the path again.
The third video chapter of Slovenia Solo Cave Diving is the one I prefer, because I remember the indecision I felt, to stay or to leave. Solo trips are strictly linked to life’s decision.
The last day I was in Slovenia I left the accommodations and asked a new farmer, close to a different cave, if I could sleep inside his barn and dive the river hole on the following day. I was at the same place where I had dived the first day. He told me I could not stay in the barn due to the high risk of bears who live in the surrounding area. I jumped in my van again and I drove to the lake beside Suha Dolca’s Cave.
I descended the path several times and brought all my scuba gear piece-by-piece. I decided to give myself a chance to dive my dream cave in the late afternoon. I had no other choice. Once I was inside the cave it was unbelievable, and I had a very nice dive even though I was really tired, and again I broke my light arms and camera housing. I resurfaced after the dive into a reed’s lake, which made me feel like a beaver.
I had conflicting feelings as I left Slovenia that same night after making a tricky and stunning dive. Bears, awesome forests, and rural areas were now all behind me. The cave-van played a new disc, I needed to shake off these feelings and look forward to my new goals: Garda Lake’s wrecks, South Tyrol’s stunning lakes, and finally Austria. In the country of green and wide grazing land I wish to dive surrounded by the amazing scenario of beautiful Alps mountains.
At 9:30 PM I crossed the border again, and Italy was straight ahead.
Andrea Murdock Alpini is a TDI and CMAS technical trimix and advanced wreck-overhead instructor based in Italy. He is fascinated by deep wrecks, historical research, decompression studies, caves, filming, and writing. He holds a Master’s degree in Architecture and an MBA in Economics for The Arts. Andrea is also the founder of Phy Diving Equipment. His life revolves around teaching open circuit scuba diving, conducting expeditions, developing gear, and writing essays about his philosophy of wreck and cave diving. Recently he published his first book entitled, Deep Blue: storie di relitti e luoghi insoliti.
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