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The ungraceful rise of the novice diver.
The Sunday of my second-ever open-water dive was one of those glorious spring days – bright and clear and warm, sun sparkling off the water – that makes even the Brits believe they may have a summer.
On my first open-water dive, three weeks earlier, I’d been as buoyant as balsa wood, so for my second day’s diving I’d added another 8 lbs of lead to the 24 lbs I’d needed in the pool. I could hardly walk in it all. On the plus side, people kept telling me I was too light – music to my ears, as I’m no sylph.
Sadly, they weren’t being complimentary!
Anyway: my second dive. I had trouble getting down but eventually made it to the sandy bottom. We practiced a couple of technical exercises, then set off to swim a gully between the beach and a small island. In excellent visibility we saw plenty of starfish and some dead-men’s fingers, and got down to about 10 metres. But I was struggling with my buoyancy and started rising way too fast; not dangerous from that depth, but uncontrolled and meaning my instructor also had to surface quickly to make sure I was OK.
We went back down – I sank much more easily this time – and did another exercise before finding the anchor rope and going up it, at the recommended rate this time, to un-kit before clambering back into the boat. The instructor’s suggestion that I’d be “agile as a gazelle” was rather wide of the mark (more like “stranded whale”) but elegance was never my strong point, and at least I was in….
Back to the boathouse for lunch and air fills, then my third dive. I had even more trouble getting down, spending ages at the surface before I began to sink and we could set off to have a look round and get down to 15 metres. Lots more to see – tiny brown and white crabs scuttling across the sand, dahlia anemones, sea urchins, and plenty more starfish and dead-men’s fingers. We shone our torches hopefully into crevices to search for lobster, but no luck.
We dived deeper, and I began having problems keeping my feet down. As my head went down the air in my suit was rising into my boots and I was just about inverted. I did the forward roll that’s supposed to solve the problem – one of the exercises we’d practised on the morning dive – but it didn’t work. Tried again – no result.
I could not keep my feet down.
To make things worse, with all that thrashing about my fins had come loose. It turned out later the boots were half off my feet with the fins still attached (apparently it looked as though I’d broken both legs), but it felt as though I was going to lose them completely, so I stopped kicking. I could feel myself rising rapidly to the surface but once I got there matters didn’t improve because I put air into my drysuit instead of my BC* , so more air went to my feet and it was difficult to hold my head out of the water.
By now I was panicking. My regulator kept falling out of my mouth, so I was swallowing gouts of seawater. I did remember to wave my arm over my head, to signal “I’m in trouble”, and I yelled for help, but I had no idea where the boat was or whether anyone could hear me.
I don’t know how long that lasted – it felt like several minutes, but was probably much less – and then my instructor was filling my BC with air and the coxswain was telling me to hang on to something on the boat. I was relieved of my kit and pushed and hauled into the inflatable, more like a stranded whale than ever, and collapsed on the bottom-boards feeling rather faint.
Everyone was very kind, and made it seem like an ordinary occurrence – I was later told everyone comes up feet first at least once in their diving career (though, writing this several years later, that seems to be an exaggeration).
Lessons learnt: I have worn ankle weights ever since, both to help me sink and to keep my feet down. I also mentally rehearsed putting air in my BC as I surfaced: every time I saw the mental action replay of myself floundering I thought “now inflate BC, now inflate BC”, so that it would become an automatic response.
I did consider giving up diving and settling for snorkelling, but not for long. Well, I’d bought all the kit by then. Shame to waste it, and a winter’s training, for a minor setback.
*BC: buoyancy compensator – a double skinned jacket that keeps your head above water at the surface when inflated.