Stepping Up to Tech
Want to dive deep inside the World War II wrecks of Truk Lagoon? Touch down on the flight deck of the USS Saratoga in Bikini Atoll? Open the grate at a Florida spring and explore the far reaches of an underwater cave system?
It all falls under the category of recreational technical diving, using sophisticated equipment and techniques to go far beyond the conventional limits of sport diving. You can do it, but it means getting a new C-card or three, probably some pricey new gear and making the commitment of time, energy and money to rigorous training. It also means accepting more risk and perhaps facing more seriously than you have before your responsibilities to yourself, your fellow divers and your family.
Do I Really Need Formal Training?
If you want to do one of those dives, yes. At the simplest level, you'll need to show the right tech C-card before the dive operator will let you make the deep wreck dive or give you the key to unlock the grate.
More to the point, there's a lot you need to know in order to dive safely. Even more important than the technical information you could glean from a book are a number of new skills that must be practiced in the water under the supervision of an instructor until they become second nature.
What Is Tech Diving?
It's a moving target, as dive techniques and equipment have drifted from commercial and military fields to recreational diving. There is general agreement that within recreational diving there are two categories--sport and technical--and that a technical dive is one deeper than 130 feet, and/or using nitrox mixtures of more than 50 percent oxygen, and/or using trimix. In addition, tech dives often involve using gear like double tanks, stage tanks and penetration equipment like reels.
Pedants will point out that this is a description, not a definition. True, and maybe the best we can do, because the inner and outer limits of technical diving are in constant movement. For example, all nitrox was once considered technical, but 32 percent and 36 percent nitrox are now considered sport gases. At the other end of the scale, trimix was once confined to commercial diving and has recently become more common in recreational tech diving.
Perhaps what should distinguish technical from sport diving is that in an emergency, the tech diver looks to backup systems and buddies almost exclusively and does not consider bailing out for the surface a realistic option. That means serious attention to equipment, backup equipment, buddy contact and diving the plan.
The Training Path
Most tech training agencies have a series of courses designed to be taken more or less in order, at least in the beginning. How far you progress in the series depends on what you want to do.
Agencies have different approaches, but typically you start with nitrox if you're not already nitrox-certified. Even if you are, there is often a "technical nitrox" course covering mixtures other than the standard 32 and 36 percent blends.
Next might be an extended-range course designed to cover open-water diving in the 100-to 150-foot range. You'll learn about nitrogen narcosis, use of various nitrox blends and decompression planning. Then come deeper dives and the use of trimix. Later in the sequence are courses covering the applied skills specific to the dive: wreck and cave penetration, for example.
Finally, some agencies offer courses in rebreather and scooter use, as well as topside dive management, gas mixing and other support functions.
Tech Diving Boot Camp: What to Expect
Typically, the "entry-level" tech course takes about a week, but it's an intense week. Tuition alone can range from $500 to $1,500 or more (prices are often set by the individual instructors), plus boat fees, gas fills and equipment purchase or rental. Then add airfare, hotel and meals if, as is likely, the course is not available in your hometown.
Expect eight-hour days, lots of classroom work and one or two dives per day. Expect to be tired at the end of the day and exhausted at the end of the week.You'll have close contact with the instructor; there will probably be only two or three other students in the class. The academic work is challenging. It involves more than high-school math, but in general, if you understood the basic concepts and physics of your open-water class, you should be able to master it.
In the water is where most students have trouble, says Tim O'Leary, NAUI's Technical Diving director. "The most common reason for failure is lack of watermanship skills--the diver can't perform the required timed drills like taking off and putting on a stage, staying within a prescribed distance of a line, staying horizontal 12 inches above a floor or below a ceiling, etc."
Notice the word "timed"? That's one way of increasing the stress on students. Another is task loading. You'll have far more stress than you've experienced before because you'll be struggling with new equipment and skills in addition to your old ones, and doing it under more challenging conditions. The purpose, of course, is to test whether you can keep your wits and cope.
And you might fail. Unlike open-water training, where virtually anyone can be certified if they stay with it long enough, in technical dive training you may find yourself flunked out and sent home. Agencies and instructors differ in their philosophies about this, of course, but the thinner margin for error in many technical dives and the lower likelihood of a safe bailout to the surface make most instructors very cautious about signing a tech C-card.
If you wash out, don't expect a refund. Paying your tuition does not (and should not) guarantee your graduation. IANTD has a motto that says it well: "A student purchases training. A certification must be earned."
Physical and Mental Requirements
I know I can do it! Sign me up!
Whoa, pardner. First, you might ask yourself why you want to do this. Your instructor will be very interested in your motivation before he takes you on. Expect a face-to-face interview focused on this subject before anyone accepts your check, and maybe even an in-water skills evaluation.
Even if a formal interview is not scheduled, expect the first hour or so of your first lesson to be basically that. Most instructors will want you to be fairly experienced and comfortable in the water before you embark on technical training. Buoyancy control skills are especially important, and indicative of a student's general comfort level.
Next is the question of prerequisites. Most agencies require a minimum number of dives in your log book, usually 100. Most have a minimum age requirement, usually 18. Some require other advanced certifications, like rescue.
Then there's the question of your physical fitness. Bulging biceps and massive pecs aren't required, but evidence of good cardiovascular conditioning is, because it's widely believed (though not absolutely proven) that aerobic fitness helps you handle decompression better. It certainly helps you to withstand the fatigue of long, deep dives with bulky equipment.
All this adds up to the fact that technical dive training is not for everyone. IANTD's general manager David Mount estimates tech divers comprise no more than two percent of the general diving population. But if you like the challenge of learning new diving techniques, the opportunities are endless. "A tech diver has far more courses he can take than a sport diver does," says Mount. "There's a huge world of training and learning in technical diving."
Just how dangerous is tech diving? Safety statistics indicate that properly trained, equipped and motivated tech divers are as safe as the average recreational diver. The best indication of that is that tech divers, tech diving instructors and schools are able to buy liability insurance at affordable rates.
Absolute safety is, of course, impossible in any endeavor. The real issue is risk management. Proper training, equipment, procedures and attitudes can reduce the risk of accidents or injury to acceptable levels, and tech training is designed to do just that. Of course, the nature of most tech diving environments means the diver is attempting to manage or offset more risk than he would in a typical recreational environment.
For example: Tech dives frequently mean restricted access to the surface. An equipment failure that would be a bit of excitement in open water becomes fatal in those circumstances if you don't have a backup.
Techniques to handle these dives can themselves be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. Take, for example, gas switching. To avoid oxygen toxicity, a deep diver may use a bottom mix so lean (low in oxygen) that it won't support life in shallow water. To facilitate decompression, the same diver may use a shallow-water mix so rich that it would cause convulsions at depth. There are techniques and equipment configurations designed to handle the situation, but more than one tech diver has died because he switched to the wrong gas at the wrong time.
Extended Range Diving
How to dive safely on air to a maximum of 180 feet with gas switches for decompression. By experimenting with deeper depths under direct supervision, errors can be controlled, mistakes assessed and corrected. This training is considered a significant safety breakthrough since it has saved many divers from fatal experimentation on their own.
Explore the dramatic wrecks off Florida's east coast. Most lie between 130 and 180 feet and are rarely visited. As a qualified diver, you'll enjoy virgin conditions and stunning fish life on wrecks like the 435-foot Lowrance, only minutes from Pompano Inlet.
Reality Check: Why Do You Want To Do This?
Everyone in technical diving I interviewed for this article stressed the importance of having a good reason for wanting to take technical dive training. Good reasons are:
- A SPECIFIC DIVE GOAL.Take tech training because you want to dive the Andrea Doria or Truk Lagoon.
- TO BE SAFER ON SPORT DIVES.You may never intend to go to 200 feet, but the more rigorous procedures you'll learn in tech training will give you a greater margin of safety on shallower dives. And in case of the unexpected--chasing your buddy deep to make a rescue, for example--you'll be better prepared to handle the situation.
- CURIOSITY.You want to learn about more advanced diving techniques and find out if you can handle them.
Bad reasons for taking technical training include:
- Wanting to show the world what a studly person you are.
- Trying to keep up with your buddies.
- Wanting to join an elite club.
As a general rule, when testosterone starts talking, prudence goes walking. Some desire to grow your ego is probably inevitable and may even be desirable, but ask yourself honestly if you're most interested in the technical diving itself or in the audience reaction to you doing it. If it's the latter, maybe you should find a way of showing your stuff that's less dangerous to you and to others.
Speaking of others: Some technical divers go solo, but more often tech diving is built around teams of buddies who depend on one another. Many sport divers pay only lip service to their buddy responsibilities, but you'll have to take them very seriously in tech diving. Be sure you want to do this, and want to live with the consequences if you don't measure up.
Doing It Right
The tech certification agency Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) offers a course entitled the "Fundamentals of Doing It Right." This class can be described as an "experience" course designed to prepare sport divers for technical training. Jarrod Jablonski, who heads up GUE, sent me a copy of their manual, Doing It Right: The Fundamentals of Better Diving. The book is very well-written and a must-read if you're interested in technical diving. It also provides useful information for divers of all abilities and skill levels. Jablonski and his colleagues leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of safety. In addition to technical equipment selection and configuration, the book is also dedicated to the philosophical standards of safe diving.
While the phrase "Doing It Right" has drawn criticism for a seemingly condescending tone, Jablonski's writing comes across as straightforward, not negative. After readingthe book, I view my equipment and diving habits in an entirely different light. Whether or not the reader adopts DIR techniques, he will surely ponder the ideas and philosophy.
Doing It Right: The Fundamentals of Better Diving (ISBN 0-9713267-0-3) can be ordered directly from Global Underwater Explorers at www.gue.com or by calling (386) 454-0820.
Technical Dive Training Agencies
ANDI (800) 229-2634
GUE (386) 454-0820
IANTD (305) 751-4873
NAUI (800) 553-6284
PADI (800) 729-7234
PDIC (570) 342-1480
TDI (207) 729-4201