How To Become A Confident Diver - Technical Diving
By Christina “Huck” Sophonpanich
Here’s me. Both happy as a clam and terrified. SPG trailing, inflator nowhere to be found, one overly-deep breath away from shooting to the surface. “Okay!”
Figure 1 My first OW dive in the Red Sea (Egypt).
For as long as I’ve been a diver, I’ve loved it. And been afraid of it. This love-fear relationship started when I was a teenager and was plunged under the surface by an instructor in Thailand. My first breaths from the regulator were in a total panic. I couldn’t breathe. Then I breathed too much. It was chaos.
But my instructor firmly held me and signaled to inhale slowly…and exhale slowly. Then he pointed to some fish swimming by and I got distracted enough by the wonder of the underwater world that I calmed down. I spent the rest of the dive clutching him for dear life as he led me around a reef, watching the marine life in amazement.
This theme of near-paralyzing anxiety paired with total wonder followed me later on in life when I started my Open Water course. I was with my boyfriend by the Red Sea. It was our first vacation together, and he already had his Open Water certification. I wanted to catch up to his certification level so we could dive together. It was harder than I thought. Even pool drills made me feel out of control. I spent a good part of our training on my bum.
Figure 2 Feeling very uncoordinated underwater (Egypt).
I came to see diving as blissful chaos. I battled a sense of claustrophobia each time I kitted up and submerged. Here I was trusting my life to an artificial air supply fed by the single cylinder on my back. Its possible failure was something I had no backup for. I had no confidence in myself.
Figure 3 Skills practice for my Scuba Discovery course (Egypt).
I had even less confidence in the conditions surrounding the diving itself. Each instructor and dive center did things differently. Most of the time, my gear would be set up for me and checking it oftentimes came as an afterthought. What I learned during my Open Water and Advanced Adventure training was how to dive “well enough” so that I could wing it each time, fully dependent upon my instructor in case anything went wrong, and never fully understanding how diving and all its related components really work.
In short, I was this girl:
Figure 4 Floating away and being held down by my instructor (Corsica).
Needless to say, I never got over my pre-dive trepidation. Not even with meditation or medication. It was all the more exacerbated by a couple of bad experiences and there were several moments where the thought crossed my mind, “I am never doing this again.”
Figure 5 Three minutes prior to saying “I am never doing this again”. (Corsica).
But I did do it again. Why? Because deep down (no pun intended) I love diving. When I finally find that calm moment, my buoyancy is right, and I just feel myself floating and watching the marine life swim by. It’s a tranquility and a sense of wonderment that I’ve never felt elsewhere. Looking back over these early dives, there’s at least one picture like this:
Figure 6 My boyfriend and I, both proud of my having completed the Open Water Diver course (Corsica).
There had to be a way to get over my anxiety. Was it just about doing it over and over again?
I looked into more courses and read about technical diving. But I hardly gave it a second glance. The images I saw were of men in “skydiver poses” in cold, murky waters, wearing stern expressions on their faces with rebreathers and drysuits. It just wasn’t “me.”
Figure 7 My boyfriend ready for his head-to-toe check before a deco dive (Malta). Boyfriend is not stern in real life.
And then there were decompression divers — I had enough trouble with one cylinder. Why would these divers want to carry even more? The words fun and relaxing don’t spring to mind. Nothing about technical diving seemed to fix what I felt wasn’t right. That is my confidence in myself and in my equipment. The opposite, even — there was even more equipment in which to feel claustrophobic!
Figure 8 My boyfriend acting as a “tank mule” on one of his deco dives (Malta).
In the end, I decided to get my feet wet by taking the Drysuit Diver course. I felt this at least might help me be less cold. I might not be confident, but at least I’d be comfortable. Good? Bzzzt. Nope. It took me at least a dozen dives to get even remotely comfortable diving in a drysuit. There was a lot of panic mixed into those dozen tries… talk about feeling claustrophobic! Needless to say, my air consumption suffered.
So I continued to dive, and to my diving fears added drysuit failure. Over time, though slowly more experienced, I never really felt confident, and my anxiety caused me to have such a high air consumption that I’d often be the first to signal the end of a dive around the 30-minute mark.
Yes, I was that diver. I’m sorry, anonymous dive buddies over the years.
Figure 9 Struggling with stress and hyperventilation (Egypt).
Then one day, watching some technical divers do their head-to-toe checklist and bubble check, I suddenly realized that would probably help me feel a lot better about my own equipment. In my own dives, the pre-dive checklist was much more casual. And equipment failure mentioned only in hushed, secret voices.
The more I thought about tech divers’ methods and equipment, the more it chilled me to think of what would happen if one ever were to have a free-flow on a single cylinder dive. Where is our back-up anything? I realized that a lot of my anxiety came not knowing what to do in the event of failure, where failure seemed always possible.
Moreover, even if I mastered the subtle art of trim, how would I ever feel confident, and thus less anxious, knowing that small failures could result in calling the dive at best? Keep in mind that to me at the time, trim at the time was what I saw in other divers.
Figure 10 Trying for “good trim”(Egypt).
I was essentially useless as a dive buddy
Then the last time I went diving while on vacation in Mozambique, I came up with less than 20 bars/300 psi more than once. That should never happen. What if more than one person in my group had a similar air consumption as me, and needed to share air with our divemaster? What if my dive buddy’s equipment had failed and he would have needed to depend upon me?
The more I paid attention to what these pre-dive checklist folks were up to, the more I saw that technical diving had merits I was missing. After my 20 bars/300 psi incident, I resolved to switch to technical diving. Bring on the stern faces and sky-diving poses!
So just what does technical diving mean to me?
I used to think technical diving was all about multiple cylinders and incomprehensible jargon. (Don’t forget sternness.) What I realized instead was that it’s about redundancy for everything, about being in control of yourself and your gear; and above all, about being safe in an unforgiving environment.
It means being at 30 m/100 ft and knowing exactly how much gas it’s going to take you to reach the surface, including your safety stop, plus accounting for your dive buddy’s needs should they run into trouble. Because everything is planned out in advance. It’s about knowing where that pesky SPG actually is instead of needing to root around in BC pockets. And it’s about using those pockets — for your backup gear.
In short, technical diving means consistency in equipment configuration across all divers and dive centers. It means checklists and backup plans. This is exactly the sort of training I needed. Not to mention that with two cylinders, I’d double my bottom time!
Figure 11 “I survived one more dive! But I’m never doing it again.” (Corsica).