Training vs “Experience”

df.gifThis is a bit of a sidetrack before the next Under Pressure post. I’m writing this because of some thinking that occurred to me after reading an article, posting it, and then responding to a comment made. The article was about the recovery of a deceased diver, who had been laying, preserved, on the bottom of Lake Michigan. What the short conversation centred around was this: “‘They knew what they were doing and they had the equipment to do it,’ an officer wrote in his report.”. To one reader, this was sufficient proof that they were ready for the dive and that I was engaging in hyperbole in my description of the series of events as being “grim”. There is a vast gulf of difference between experience and training. Having done something with no ill effects does not mean that you’ve done it safely, correctly, or that you are ready for emergencies at depth. The deceased in this case was (according to the article) certified to Open Water Diver with a Wreck specialty. The skills required for a technical dive to 225′ (68.5m) with decompression stops are not taught at that level.

On the safety side of the house, there were several glaring errors that stood out to me on the part of the divers:

  1. Free-flow drills weren’t followed
  2. With a functioning octopus, there was no reason to buddy breath and add to the stress of the situation
  3. poor response to a panicked diver to unresponsive diver situation
  4. insufficient training for the dive at hand

Now, there are a lot of defences that can be mustered, and hindsight is always 20/20. These men were in a bad situation that got progressively worse, and they responded the best they could. Yes, it was 1999, and the diving world still had more than a bit of “cowboy” going on when it came to assessing whether or not you could/should do a dive. “Experience” is also a relative term, to people outside the diving world, an Open Water Diver who does five or six dives a year is an “experienced diver”; whereas some within the diving world are looking at several hundred dives in an “experienced” diver. Experience ≠ Training Equivalence. Even the infamous OJT (on the job) training style has to adhere to standards for how things are done and how to react to situations. Taking a diver down and past their training level multiple times without incident will not prepare them for an incident or emergency at depth. To use a more familiar analogy: would you put someone who had only ever driven tractors on the farm but had been on trips to the city behind the wheel of a sports coupe and tell them to drive through a city? Probably not. They haven’t been taught how to operate the sports coupe, or how to navigate traffic and pedestrians.

The final point I’ll raise is one that I’ve touched on briefly before in Deep Diving, that depth restrictions are there for a reason. Sure, you could read about the effects of depth on your mental state, or how pressure affects your physiology, but that doesn’t replace actually being formally instructed, and more importantly, shown. I still distinctly remember the surprise I felt at seeing how I’d made mistakes using the tables at 40m down vs on the surface. I also remember being drilled repeatedly on rescue techniques during my Rescue Diver and Divemaster training with Bali Scuba, and again during commercial dive training at DiveSafe International; in addition to emergency drills. Could I do a lot of the same dives without that training? Yes, but with dramatically increased risk to myself and others in the event of an incident. Scuba diving is one of the original extreme sports, and it’s easy to forget this with the level of mainstream penetration it has as a sport. Like any other extreme sport, it’s important to know your limits and to make smart decisions about when and how you push the envelope, and be sure you’re trained and practiced for it.


About the author

Graeme is a professional diver, qualified as a PADI and SDI Divemaster, DCBC 40m Unrestricted Commercial Scuba Diver, 30m Restricted Surface Supply diver, and CAUS Scientific Diver Lv.2. Graeme has an Associate Degree of Arts in Environmental Studies, where he focused on archaeology and physical geography, and an Advanced GIS certificate.