'She Can't Swim',  Diving,  Thailand

A Stressful Day

Emma and Lionel DMT

Today we were being assessed on our rescue skills as part of our Divemaster training. Stress levels were already elevated as rescue always brings some unexpected surprises with it. We triple checked all of our gear and each others gear to make sure we are ready for the rescue scenario we would face. Matt, our friend from university in Melbourne arrived on the island today to visit us, and just as we were wading into the water, he greeted us from the restaurant. He’ll get the front row seat to watch us struggle as we drag each other onto the beach.

Once we hit the water, we were split into two teams of three each. One of us would play the victim, one the rescuer and the third one the equipment collecter. This person is responsible for holding all the gear that the rescuer desides to ditch in order to perform the rescue successfully. Our scenario was an unconscious diver underwater. I was first up. They hid Emma away underwater somewhere and I had to determine and execute a suitable search pattern in order to locate and rescue her. I did a U-pattern search along the shore into the current and soon I saw her white fins. I descended and attempted the rescue. We are doing PADI, so the lift is from behind, holding the regulator in place and using my BCD to ascend. At the surface I went into the surface procedures. First I established buoyancy for both Emma and myself, by inflating us both, then dropping both weight belts and finally removing the regulator and mask. Then onto opening the airway and determining if the victim is breathing or not. We are dealing with an inconscious diver so I pretended she wasn’t breathing. Once I fake alerted EMS, I began the count. 1-1000, 2-1000, 3-1000, flick, breathe. In the first three seconds I undo one of Emma’s clips in order to slowly and methodically remove her equipment, then I flick the water from my hand, pinch her nose and provide a rescue breath. I do this while towing her into shore until her gear and my gear is removed. Finally, I undo the Velcro strap and roll her onto my shoulders and drag her onto the beach. This is where we cut the exercise – rescue success! There is always stuff to improve in rescue skills. It is a very serious and important skill and I want to be as good as I can at it. Nat, our supervising instructor gave me excellent pointers as always and my next rescue should be even smoother. Then it was Emma’s turn. She had to locate and rescue Nathan, he’s about twice her size, but she dragged him onto the beach like a champion and nailed the exercise!

After we all had a go, it was time for our final water skill we have to do for our DMT course. The “Stress Test”. It does exactly what it says on the box! It creates high levels of stress underwater and tests your ability to remain calm, methodical, while communicating with your buddy in order to achieve the task. This test can get a bit hairy, so we did this in shallow water. We descended as a buddy team and then, while sharing a single air source, exchanged all equipment bar the wetsuit. It sounds easier than it is! Emma was my buddy. The first two times we tried, Emma panicked and we had to ascend and restart. I was kind of glad as I was very stressed myself. The third time we were tracking much better and managed to exchange weight belts relatively easy. Then however the mouth piece from my alternate, which was our air source, slipped off the regulator due to a missing cable tie! Suddenly Emma was left with just a mouth piece and breathing water. Of course we had to go up again and fix the problem. We decided to try again, despite the near miss and already high level of stress. We opted for Emma’s alternate this time. Neil, our supervising instructor for this exercise was happy with our performance on the weight belt, so we were able to continue on from there. Down we went again. Now to the BCD. We both started to slowly remove our BCDs while sharing the one alternate. I noticed that Emma’s breath holding time was getting shorter and shorter. I made sure I took a huge breath in when I had the regulator. I had to remind myself to remain very calm and only blow very small bubbles. When I was running low on air, I would start tapping on the regulator with my index finger to let Emma now that I need air NOW! A bit of fumbling and then I was wearing her BCD. Fins were quite easy. The mask was last and probably the hardest part. One of us (me) would have to sit there with no mask and no regulator for a while. Then a breath of air and a flooded mask which I couldn’t clear because I only had the air in my lungs. I had to wait for the regulator again before clearing it. That is it, we did it. I’m very proud of Emma. This is a tough test. I am very comfortable in water and it was pushing my boundaries.

No, not just yet.

There’s one more optional test. It is more tradition than anything else. The “Dunk ‘n Dive”. This, again, tests your ability to remain calm with high levels of stress underwater as well as problem solving skills and equipment familiarity. The idea is to descend to 3 meters, remove all your gear, turn the air off and ascend. If you are smart or lucky, you somehow manage to keep your equipment in a neat little pile directly underneath yourself, because now it is time to free dive down, get into your SCUBA gear and establish neutral buoyancy! Emma, quite understandably, sat this one out. I was still out of breath from our last underwater dance. Regardless, on three, we all dove down. I hold onto my tank and turn the air on so I can breathe from my alternate, then I put my mask on. The problem now is that every time I breathe in, I float up like a buoy! So I do a half arsed job of clearing my mask, prioritising my weight belt. With about 47% vision when facing directly down, I find my weight belt. I grab it and fling forward, completely off balance now. My regulator tears as I tumble away. Only once I move the weight close to my chest do I regain some balance. I get it onto my waist and try to secure it. I’m breathing substantially. Then, as I go to take another deep breath, I get 92% water and 8% air! What the hell is happening? I spit out the water and inhale again, this time 100% water. Then I whack myself in the face, trying to use the purge button on my regulator only to discover there is no regulator in my mouth, just my mouth piece. Like before, this has come loose again! I start to panic as I have still not had a breath of air in all this time. I flap around, then force myself to think clearly, calm down and dash for my primary floating nearby. I grab it and inhale a few times very deeply. Thank God. All this time I could see Nat holding his alternate ready for me to grab. I finally clear my mask fully, secure my weight belt. As I calm down fully, I slide into my BCD, secure it and then put my fins on. Then I start to hover mid water. I can see two others are already hovering and two others are still swimming around, chasing their mask with no fins on, but wearing their BCD. I’m in the Buddha position now, calming down, controlling my breathing. This exercise has certainly pushed my comfort level in the water.

I have learnt to check my equipment even more thoroughly, because something as simple as a cable tie nearly caused an emergency. Today has also reinforced my respect for water.

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