This is the fourth blog entry that I’ve written about risk and risk management. It’s a very long, detailed, checklist-filled entry. It can take hours to read it in one session, so I suggest that you take small bites and long breaks. It’s dry and preachy, but very important to your development as a safe diver. I suggest that you grab a copy and read it from time to time, to refresh your memory and sharpen up your preparedness prior to any dive day.
Risk can be defined as the negative consequences of some undesirable event happening to a diver. An equipment malfunction or failure is an adverse event, and it’s an ever-present possibility during every dive. In this blog I’ll discuss the mindset and skills that you need to develop over time to take responsibility for yourself as a diver, for your own safety and for your buddys’ within the buddy system. I’ll offer checklists for inspecting and testing your gear before getting into the water, and offer some step-by-step suggestions for how you can manage risks when some minor and major problems do happen.
Whenever you plan to go diving in the future, I encourage you to spend some time thinking in advance about the decisions and actions you would need to take to manage problems and stay safe. Develop your mental preparedness!
Gear Does Malfunction and Fail
Scuba diving is a gear sport. The gear keeps you alive and enables you to function in an unnatural environment. Most students choose to use rental equipment during their Open Water course and as newly certified divers. This means that the equipment they dive with is unfamiliar, used, abused, much of it is old, mediocre quality, and all of it requires some form of maintenance to keep it in good working condition.
But it’s a fact of life that some equipment – owned or rented - receives no inspection or maintenance at all until someone reports a problem with its’ functionality, or until it fails completely. This means that there is always some probability and uncertainty of an equipment malfunction or failure during every dive. A dive day with zero gear problems is always a pleasant surprise. You should expect and be prepared for gear problems every dive day.
You - the diver - have legally assumed responsibility for all the risk
If you’re using any rental gear, then you have signed a liability release that absolves the equipment supplier or tour operator of any legal responsibility for damages to you if that equipment malfunctions. You and you alone are responsible for anything that happens to you.
Think about that…no matter what happens, minor frustration to major injury, they’re not even obliged to refund you the price of admission. So you should never place blind faith trust in rented dive gear.
What accident statistics and real-life experience reveal about equipment-related risks
Divers Alert Network (DAN)is the preeminent source for information and data regarding dive accidents and fatalities. They publish an annual report of their findings, available at their website.
DAN has estimated that equipment problems were involved in about 25% of all reported dive incidents, accidents and fatalities. And I would personally add to this stat by emphasising that there are many equipment malfunctions that result in injuries/damages/costs but no medical treatment, and no official report. These minor incidents can include disappointing or aborted dives, spoiled dive days, lost equipment, scary moments, close calls, dramatic rescues, dodged bullets, and so on.
This is a huge problem that could be at least partly mitigated if divers simply exercised greater care and attention to the inspection, assembly and testing of their equipment.
But most certified divers quickly forget their training. In the real world of recreational diving after you’ve been certified, you will find that pre-dive safety checks between buddies tend to be performed poorly and incompletely. Most buddy teams I’ve observed from a distance do little more than check that their tank valves are open, and compare air pressures. They don’t even look at each others’ equipment! I’ve witnessed this hundreds of times, all around the world. Most of the time, there is no professional dive leader supervising the safety checks, and no staff double-checking anyones’ equipment.
How to take responsibility – equip yourself, familiarize, inspect, test, observe, become self-reliant
The best way to manage this risk of personal injury/loss resulting from equipment malfunction is to own and use your own equipment as much as possible, and dive with the same gear all the time. Get a computer. Carry a dive light and a tank light, a multi-function knife/hammer tool, and communication devices (underwater noisemaker, writing slate, whistle, submersible marker buoy), and safety accessories. Be sure to maintain, test and service it all regularly.
Better still, equip yourself with redundant backup equipment. Carry a spare mask in your BCD pocket. Attach a pony bottle to your rig, for spare air. Get a computer… an air-integrated computer that gives you a digital reading of your tank air pressure, so that your analog pressure gauge becomes your backup. Same with the depth gauge. Two pressure gauges and two depth gauges. Some divers carry two computers.
Supply yourself with spare parts and tools to perform minor repairs and maintenance on-site, to avoid aborted dives or taking equipment into the water that you’re less than 100% confident about.
THAT is a lot of gear.
And gear is expensive, so you might aspire to becoming that 100% self-reliant diver over the longer term. If you’re not yet ready, or never will be ready, to invest $5,000, then at least you should equip yourself with some basics to minimize some of the worst or most frustrating equipment risks.
Here’s an incentive: according to DAN accident statistics from recent years, more than half of all reported fatal and non-fatal accidents happened to divers with less than 2 years’ experience from their date of certification.
If you’re going to use rental equipment, then the best way to manage and mitigate the probability and consequences of an equipment malfunction involves (1) a thorough familiarisation and testing of all the gear prior to using it, and (2) a comprehensive pre-dive safety check with your dive buddy. And if there are any professional divers around, ask one to double check your gear.
It’s also important to observe yours and your buddys’ equipment during the dive- looking for things that aren’t right - like loose tank bands, leaking hoses, untied boot laces, dangling equipment, etc., then taking action to fix minor problems before they become significant.
Proper due diligence: distrust the equipment… scrutinize and test rental gear, piece by piece
If you’re using rented dive equipment, it was picked for you from a rack in the shop’s rental department, and handed to you in a bin or gear bag. This equipment has very likely not been inspected or tested since it was last used. You can inspect this gear now, at the shop, or later at the dive site. I urge you to inspect it immediately, because you probably won’t be able to swap any of it later. This avoids unpleasant surprises, like being forced to choose between aborting the dive or using equipment that doesn’t fit right, is dodgy, or in need of maintenance. If some piece of equipment doesn’t pass your initial inspection, ask to replace it or have the problem fixed.
The inspection process could take five minutes or more if you do it properly, so you should always allow yourself enough time.
Very few recreational and professional divers are ever 100% equipped and carrying redundant backup equipment, so you must do all that you can within your constraints to minimize the probability of some adverse event, while knowing that you’ll never completely eliminate the uncertainty. Be anal about it…it’s your health & safety, and your legal responsibility.
I strongly recommend to every student diver that they buy their own mask, to be 100% confident that you’re always wearing one that fits. Nothing sucks the fun out of diving more than an ill-fitting, leaky or foggy mask. And a leaky/foggy mask increases the probability of other undesirable events, such as stress, rapid air consumption, inhaling water up your nose, the inability to focus your eyes and read your gauges, and bad decisions made under stress.
If you do decide to buy a mask, then also get a neoprene strap cover and a supply of anti-fog. New masks tend to fog up, even if you’ve diligently scrubbed to remove the film deposited on the lenses during the manufacturing process.
Dive masks have a range of features, lens and frame shapes and sizes, nose pocket sizes and skirt sizes. They are definitely not a universal fit for every face.
Take the rental mask to a mirror. Inspect the skirt for signs of aging, wear and tear, or warping. Hold it in position on your face without using the strap, and inhale through your nose to suction the mask against your face so that you can see whether the skirt is flat against your skin. Observe the entire perimeter of the skirt, especially around your cheeks and above your lips. If the mask doesn’t stick to your face, then it’s a bad fit. But even if the mask does stick, it can still be the wrong mask for you in other ways. Observe your nose in the pocket to be sure it fits and is not squeezed or scrunched up. Look down to your torso to check whether the mask gives good visibility to your chest area, so that you are sure to see your gauges and BCD effortlessly. Look side to side and assess your peripheral vision. Check the mask strap and the clips that it’s attached to, looking for signs of wear and tear or breakage. Tug and stretch the strap to check for slippage. Tighten and loosen the strap to check the adjustability.
If you have facial hair, then it can be especially difficult to prevent leakage when you’re wearing some random mask picked for you from a bin.
Observe the type of snorkel (wet or dry), and its’ attachment to the mask. The proper position for the snorkel is on the left side of the mask, in front of your left ear. Snorkel holders can be hard plastic or soft silicone. If it’s hard plastic, be sure it’s a proper fit with the snorkel, and correctly positioned on the mask strap. Observe the mouthpiece resting position, which shows you where it will hang during the dive. Check a bottom draining snorkel’s drain plug/diaphragm, which can disconnect from the snorkel and get lost, rendering it useless. Test the mouthpiece for integrity and fit in your mouth. Breathe through the snorkel.
Check your fins to identify their type (standard, split), length (short or long), weight (heavy or light), design features (channels, openings) stiffness (stiff or flexible), and proper size/fit for your dive boots. Check the straps and clips, looking for proper attachment to the fins, wear and tear, and test the clips by closing and opening them. Tighten and loosen the straps to check adjustability. Check to see if there’s a clip lock, and learn how to use it.
BCD malfunction is the most common kind of gear failure.
Inspect and test all the releases/clips/velcro cummerbund, looking for wear and tear and breakage. Check the tank band for its’ type and proper strap threading. (More about this later.) Check the weight pockets for match/fit in this BCD, and amount of lead weight in each pocket. Find out what the BCD’s maximum lift capacity is. Check the storage pockets, including non-droppable weight pockets, looking for holes, and test the zippers. Check the condition of the velcro strip that holds the low pressure inflator hose and large-diameter exhaust hose in place on the left shoulder.
Inspect and test the inflator unit. Observe the location of inflator and exhaust buttons. Figure out the proper way to hold the inflator unit when diving. Partially inflate the BCD orally. Connect a low-pressure inflator hose to the unit and inflate the BCD fully up to its’ over-pressure release point. Let it sit full of air for a minute, to check for leakage from the air bladder and leakage from the low pressure hose into the BCD. Test the exhaust button. Test the quick dump exhaust valves, noting their location. Turn the BCD upside down, grasp the dangling hose and press on the exhaust button, to drain any water that’s leaked into the air bladder.
Don the BCD to check for proper size/fit. In most cases, the BCD will be a jacket style. A properly fitting BCD will have a cummerbund that can be velcroed snugly below your rib cage, to prevent it from riding up. The horizontal clip at chin level should hold the BCD shoulder straps snugly. The clip at waist level should be snug as well. It should not be possible to pass a hand between your back and the BCD. Now twist left and right from your waist, to test whether there is an effective transfer of energy. The jacket should move in sync with your body.
Regulator free flow was the second most common gear malfunction leading to a reported accident.
Remove the dust cap from the first stage and inspect the filter, looking for green signs of oxidation. This is an obvious sign of no recent maintenance. Attach the regulator first stage to a tank. Don’t open the tank valve yet.
Inspect the gauge console, Check the plastic gauge covers, looking for cracks. Note the size of the pressure and depth gauges, the units, printed numbers, coloured warning zones, and readability. On analog depth gauges, reset the maximum depth needle to zero. If there’s a compass, test its’ North reading, bezel rotation and floating disc.
WARNING: It’s not possible to test whether a depth gauge or air pressure gauge is functioning properly and giving you accurate readings. You can compare two pressure gauges on the same tank prior to diving, to check the initial accuracy of tank pressure. But you cannot know whether the gauge will give accurate reading throughout the dive. I recently had a client who went to Mexico and had the pressure gauge get stuck on 1,000psi, which eventually led her to grab the Divemaster’s alternate air source for an assisted ascent to the surface. When she surfaced, the gauge suddenly read zero air pressure in the tank. Another client of mine went to the Blue Hole in Belize. During the dive, the Divemaster signalled him to ascend to shallower water. His analog depth gauge read 130 feet at the time, and the DM later told him that he was actually at 180 feet! I have seen compasses that function on the surface but not underwater.
Once you’ve inspected the gauge console, open the tank valve, being sure to hold the face of the pressure gauge against the side of the tank. Never look directly at a pressure gauge when opening a tank valve! …there’s 3,000psi of air pressure coming down the hose.
Examine all hoses for signs of wear and tear, fraying, bends, cracks, and possible leakage, especially around the connectors at both ends of the hoses.
Inspect the main 2ndstage demand valve (your primary reg): examine the mouthpiece for chewed-up nibs, check that the tie-strap is secure and positioned within the channel on the mouthpiece. Tug and twist the mouthpiece to be sure it’s secure. Press the purge button to blow out any water, sediment or spiders (I’m half joking!) before ever putting a reg in your mouth. Insert the mouthpiece to test for good fit and comfort. (I recommend that all students buy their own mouthpiece, which can be attached to any rented regulator. This will ensure proper fit, comfort and prevent germ transmission.) Exhale first, and take 3 or 4 full breaths, testing the air flow and ease of the draw when inhaling.
Inspect the alternate air source in the same way.
Test the springiness of the couplings that connect the low-pressure hoses to the BCD and drysuit.. Inspect for sand or sediment in the couplings.
6. Drysuits, accessories and undergarments
Check hoods, gloves, boots and fleece undergarments for proper size/fit. Look for holes in gloves. Check boot laces and zippers.
Check the drysuit for proper size. Check neck and wrist seals for wear and tear, and proper fit. Inspect the zipper, looking for missing or misaligned teeth. Ask for the zipper to be waxed. Inspect inflator and exhaust valve assemblies, checking that they’re screwed in position tightly to prevent leakage. Open and close the exhaust valve, and test the purge button, listening for a clicking sound..
Put the drysuit on, connect the inflator hose, close the exhaust valve and add some air to the drysuit.. Listen for air leaking from the inflator into the suit. Test the exhaust purge button. Open and close the adjustable exhaust valve.
7. Communication/Safety accessories
Check the BCD for a whistle, test it. Check whether an inflatable surface marker buoy (SMB), is supplied. Rental BCD’s usually only come with a safety whistle and no other safety accessories. Buy your own accessories and always bring them on every dive.
List of core equipment you should get if your budget is <$750
-mask, defogger, neoprene mask strap cover, snorkel
-a long knife
-surface noisemaker: whistle
-underwater noise maker: a long knife is a good tank banger, and a medium sized wrench fits easily into a BCD pocket (see pic)
-delayed submersible marker buoy (dsmb) or surface marker buoy (smb)
-regulator mouthpiece, tie straps
-retractors and clips to attach hoses securely to the BCD
The five steps to a proper pre-dive safety check
Once you’ve assembled, inspected and tested your equipment at the dive site, donned your drysuit and the scuba unit, the last step before entering the water is the pre-dive safety check. The sad reality is that most certified divers quickly forget how to perform the safety check, and many just become lazy and complacent about it. Don’t trust that your buddy can perform a proper safety check. If they can’t, you should take this as a warning sign of weak buddy skills and elevated buddy risk for yourself. Take the lead and show them how it’s done.
I strongly urge you to burn the five-step PADI safety check routine into your memory….BWRAF
B-W-R-A-F = BCD-Weights-Releases-Air-Final OK
PADI suggests that you use these 5 letters to form an easily-remembered acronym in your mind, and they suggest using Begin-With-Review-And-Friend. Hmmm… if it’s hard for you to remember that one, then use your imagination to create a personally meaningful acronym, so that you’ll be more likely to remember it. Here are some ideas to stimulate your creativity:
Blue Whales Really Are Fantastic
Big White Rabbits Are Fluffy
B________ Women Really Are Fun (pick your favourite B-word!)
Bruce Willis Ruins All Films
The possibilities are endless.
Performing the B-W-R-A-F with your dive buddy
When you perform a safety check, you are not only checking whether your buddy has correctly assembled and donned their equipment, you’re also familiarising yourself with it in case you need to assist in fixing a problem during the dive, perform some rescue maneuver, or use the buddy’s alternate air source. You should insist that your buddy understands the equipment that you’re wearing, in case you’re the one who needs help, so be prepared to lead that buddy through their half of the safety check, explaining the details of your equipment to them in a way that they’ll remember.
Perform each of the 5 steps systematically and out loud, don’t mumble.
Inspect the BCD for its’ type (wing or jacket style air bladder), proper size and fit. Look for twisted shoulder straps. Try to pass your hand between the BCD and your buddy’s back. It should be a snug fit, so adjust/tighten the cummerbund or belly clip straps as necessary. A Velcro cummerbund should be wrapped snugly below the rib cage. Its’ purpose is to hold the BCD close to your body and prevent it from shifting.
Note that the shoulder straps are adjustable. This adjustability enables the diver to shift the location of integrated weight pockets upward or downward to fine tune their trim underwater. Use your BCD straps like on a backpack to shift weight pockets up or down.
Ask your buddy how much lead weight they’re carrying and where it’s located. Check that integrated weight pockets are correctly installed and secure. Know how to unclip and drop the weight pockets in an emergency. Identify the location of non-droppable weight pockets, and check that they’re closed and securely clipped. Check for other non-droppable weights stored in accessory pockets, and ankle weights.
Check weight belts for amount of weight and proper positioning (tightly around the waist, so that the belt doesn’t slip down over the hips once the buddy is underwater and their drysuit/wetsuit is compressed). Check that the belt buckle is clearly accessible for an emergency weight drop, with a right-hand-release (meaning that the diver pulls the buckle open with their right hand).
A BCD can have seven or more releases, including two shoulder clips, one across the chest, the belly clip, the velcro cummerbund, non-droppable weight pocket clips, and the tank strap. Count them as you’re inspecting them . Look for correct and secure connections, and for any wear and tear or breakage of the clips. Check that the tank strap is correctly threaded, securely closed, and with the loose end velcroed down.
Check that the tank is fully opened by rotating the valve counter-clockwise.
Inspect and test every hose, one at a time, from the top where it connects to the first stage to the bottom where it connects to a device. Scrutinize hoses for signs of wear and tear, fraying, cracking or bending, and possible leakage. Low pressure hoses all eventually get worn down, and will begin to leak air.
The 2nd stage primary regulator: Press the purge button to check function and air flow. Inspect mouthpiece integrity and tie strap. Ask the buddy to taste and smell the air, checking for flow and possible air contamination.
The alternate air source (a.k.a octopus): This is the reg that you’d be using in an out-of-air situation! Inspect it as if your life depended on it. Note its’ colour and the length of the hose. Purge the reg. Inspect the mouthpiece for integrity. Inspect the tie strap. Insert the mouthpiece, checking for fit and comfort in your mouth, and take 3 or 4 breaths to test air flow and ease of breathing. Secure the alternate air source to your buddy’s BCD in a way that is easiest for you to access if you need it.
The drysuit inflator hose: Check and test the connection by tugging on the hose. Press the inflator button to check for air flow. Test the drysuit exhaust button. Open and close the valve.
The BCD inflator/deflator assembly: Check that the entire assembly is secured by the Velcro strap at the left shoulder. Tug on the low pressure inflator hose to test the connection. Inflate the BCD partially, then test the exhaust button.
Quick dumps: Locate and test all quick dumps, checking that their pull-cords are free and accessible.
The gauge console: Examine the high-pressure hose into the tank air pressure gauge. Familiarise yourself with the features and layout of the pressure gauge. Read and compare your buddy’s tank pressure to your own. Examine the analog depth gauge, and reset the red maximum depth needle to zero. Examine the compass, if there is one, testing the North heading, examining the bezel and floating disc.
5. Final OK
Check for dangling hoses. There should be no free-hanging hoses. Check quick dump cords, making sure that they are hanging freely. Check your buddy’s fin straps, so that you know how to clip and unclip each other’s fins. Check that bootlaces are tied and double-knotted.
Identify and locate all of your buddy’s communication/safety accessories: whistle, SMB, noisemaker, knife, mirror, writing slate.
Activate all computers and check the status of computer batteries.
If you have masks on, check for fog, proper mask strap positioning (horizontal), and make sure the mask skirt is under the hood. If you wait to don your masks in the water, be sure to perform mutual mask checks before the descent. Also check for hair caught under the mask skirt, which creates channels for leakage.
Discuss any potential or anticipated equipment problems, or things to watch out for during the dive. For example, you might know that one of your hoses has a slow leak, so tell your buddy about it, and warn them that they should expect to see bubbles underwater, but it’s not a serious issue at this time. Or if you know that your mask gets fogged up, give the buddy a heads-up.
Review all your hand signals.
Establish a sound-making signal that alerts each other of an unexpected ascent all the way to the surface, such as a constantly repeated tank bang, or five taps of the knife against the tank. Remember that if you’re wearing hoods, sound can be muffled or you might not hear it at all. So make loud noise.
Reconfirm pertinent details of the dive plan.
A thorough pre-dive safety check can be completed in three minutes. Take the time and do it right.
Managing Equipment Problems in the Water
In this final section, I’ll suggest some principles by which to manage the risks for yourself and your buddy. And I’ll discuss some of the common and uncommon gear problems that I’ve experienced or read about in accident reports.
Dive with heightened situational awareness
The most important way that you can always be mentally prepared for dealing with problems is to maintain a keen situational awareness throughout a dive. Be obsessive about checking your gauges and computers frequently so that you always know your air pressure, your current depth, bottom time, and remaining no-decompression time.
Be aware of your surroundings: bottom composition, slope, major features, visibility (how far can you see in any direction), and position of the sun (if you can see the surface). Know where your planned exit point is and how to navigate to it underwater. Use your compass on every dive.
Know where your buddy is, their tank pressure and relative rate of air consumption. Compare your tank pressures every 500 psi, or every couple of minutes. This is especially important during the second half of the dive, when exertion and fatigue can cause a diver to consume air more rapidly than earlier in the dive.
Don’t cramp each other, but don’t let yourselves get too far apart. As much as possible, swim side by side and keep your buddy within your peripheral vision. Set a rule to make eye contact frequently.
Know your dive plan, stick to it, and if your buddy deviates from the plan then signal them to stop, get together to communicate about the situation, and agree on the path forward. Similarly, if you want to change the dive plan, stop your buddy and communicate.
If your buddy is leading and navigating with a compass, be sure to back them up by monitoring your own compass and applying natural navigation techniques to keep track of where you are. Don’t blindly trust anyone elses’ navigation skills.
How to manage risk if an adverse event happens
For most common gear issues that suddenly occur, there really isn’t any time pressure to fix the problem. There’s no urgency, and no need to get mentally/emotionally stressed. Stress will affect your clarity of thought and your breath control, which can escalate and multiply the risks. Most minor problems will only take a few seconds or a minute to fix. Remember that everything seems to happen in slow motion underwater. It takes much longer to travel short distances or make simple maneuvers.
Stop, get neutrally buoyant, and assess the situation
When you first notice any problem, stop what you’re doing and establish neutral buoyancy to stabilise your depth. This mitigates the risks of injury from a rapid ascent to the surface, or from an uncontrolled sinking and crash on the bottom. Neutral buoyancy gives you time to think about how to fix the problem. Take a few seconds to assess the situation…When there are multiple problems occurring at once, focus on solving one at a time. Fix the problems that pose higher risks first.
1. Refresh your situational awareness – check your gauges for tank air pressure, your depth, bottom time, and remaining no-decompression time.
2. Determine whether the gear problem is fixable. A loose fin or mask strap is fixable, a broken strap is not.
3. Assuming the problem is fixable, consider the alternative actions and maneuvers you would have to take to address the problem most safely and effectively. Do you need one hand, two hands, or 4 hands to fix the problem? Do you need finesse, or muscle and leverage? Can it be fixed where you are, while neutrally buoyant, or do you need to move somewhere safer or more stable? Do you need to use a tool?
4. Look around and consider the features of the surrounding area. Are you close to the bottom where you can settle down and fix the problem more easily? Is there some structure nearby that you can hold on to or brace yourself against for leverage.
5. Consider your buddy, who is both a resource to help fix a problem and source of uncertain buddy risk. (Here’s a link to an entire blog entry on buddy risk!)
How far apart are you? What are your relative depths? How much time it would take to get together in physical contact? Is the buddy looking at you and aware of your problem or looking in another direction and unaware? Assume that your buddy is unaware. Consider what must you do to get their attention. Can you swim to the buddy or do you need to make noise?
Buddy risk is an uncertain risk on every dive, for the novices and experienced divers alike. It’s an uncertain risk because you can’t estimate the probability that your buddy will be skilled, willing and in a position to help you with your problems.
6. If you’re thinking about going to the surface and aborting the dive immediately, consider where you are in relation to a safe exit point. It might be safer to delay the ascent until you’re in a better position to surface. Consider the conditions and risks that you might face if you were to ascend directly to the surface, such as an unfavourable surface current, choppy seas, or a long and tiring surface swim to the exit. Would you need to be rescued if you surfaced now? Consider how your decision will affect your buddy’s safety, and whether a decision to surface might cause a buddy separation, or be a buddy abandonment.
All of this can go through your mind in about 5 seconds.
All things considered…decide what to do and take action
If you don’t need your buddy’s help, your highest priority is to dive safely and deal with the problem. Buddy communication can wait, or might not even be necessary.
If you do need your buddy’s help, then get their attention, signal them to stop, signal to get neutrally buoyant, signal them to come to you, signal that there’s a problem, point to the problem, and signal the maneuvers and actions that each of you must take to deal with the problem. Your buddy might have a better solution to the problem, so remain open minded. Agree to a plan with ok signs, then execute that plan.
Recognize that while you might not be able to perfectly resolve a problem, you still might be able to continue with the overall dive plan… or with a modified dive plan with a higher level of alertness and conservatism (for example a shorter, shallower dive).
And if your decision is to surface, then you should communicate this to your buddy and make a safe, normal ascent, close together. However, your buddy might not agree to surface with you, in which case you’re both on your own. More buddy risk.
What if your buddy has the gear problem?
If your buddy has the gear problem, your primary role is to support them as needed. You should always be mentally prepared to physically intervene to maintain neutral buoyancy for both yourself and your struggling or oblivious buddy. Be prepared to take hold of them, guide, maneuver and tow them. Be prepared to fetch things that they’ve dropped. Be prepared to hold onto and lead your buddy in a safe ascent to the surface. And be prepared to deal with a panicked buddy while keeping yourself safe.
If all that responsibility seems like it’s too much to ask of you, or too much to expect from your buddy, and you’re not sure that the buddy would be there for you, then you should consider always hiring a divemaster as your personal buddy.
If a problem happens to your buddy, they might notice it first, or you might notice it first, in which case you would need to alert them.
If you notice that your buddy has a gear problem that they are already working on alone to fix, then maneuver close to the buddy, get neutrally buoyant, watch what they’re doing and get ready to assist.
If you notice that your buddy has a gear problem that they are not yet aware of, then get the buddy’s attention, signal there’s a problem, point to the problem and be ready to assist. Allow the buddy time to assess the situation and communicate a plan of action.
You should always be mentally prepared to maintain neutral buoyancy for both of you, because your buddy could lose it while fixing the problem. To prepare yourself, you should maneuver into a position where you can intervene quickly and prevent their rapid ascent or sinking. Get ready to grab hold of a fin, the alternate air source hose or the gauge console hose (with your right hand), which would enable you to stabilize their depth and give them time to perform maneuvers. If your buddy is becoming positively buoyant, you would need to dump air from your BCD (with your left hand) to sink and pull them down. Use the quick dump if you need to dump air fast! Alternatively, if your buddy is sinking, you’d have to add air to your BCD to prevent you from sinking with them….so don’t let go of your buddy’s hose until you’re both neutrally buoyant again.
If your buddy panics and bolts to the surface when you’re holding on to them in some way, then you will be able to slow their ascent. But you’re under no obligation to rocket to the surface (or sink to the bottom) along with them. Let the buddy go if you’re exceeding the maximum safe ascent rate or plunging to the bottom. Make a safe ascent to the surface, establish maximum positive buoyancy and be prepared to assist.
I suggest that you establish two personal safety limits for yourself as a certified diver:
1- Get free of /let go of any buddy who is causing you to exceed the safe ascent rate.
2-Do not chase a buddy into the depths.
Example problems, step-by-step risk management solutions
This section discusses 13 different equipment problems, from your own perspective as the diver with a problem, and from the perspective of yourself as a buddy assisting another diver with a problem. You need to understand every problem from both sides. The suggested actions can’t take into account the many variables in any specific diving situation. Rather, these are basic scenarios to guide your own thinking and mental preparedness.
1 Leaky mask
If your mask keeps leaking continuously, it might be a bad fit, which you can’t do much about. Try tightening the strap, or loosening it. Check that the strap is horizontally positioned on your head so that the pressure is balanced equally on the top and the bottom sides of the mask skirt. Check that the mask skirt is resting flat against your skin, not folded over, and that the entire skirt is underneath your hood.
If you can’t get your mask to stop leaking, alert your buddy, signal to stop, signal to get neutrally buoyant, signal to get close together, signal a problem, point to the mask, hold on to the buddy’s BCD, turn your head left and right so that your buddy can visually inspect it. Hopefully the buddy can identify the problem and fix it.
If you can’t stop the leaking, then you’ll have to deal with constantly blowing the water out. In that case, dive with your head up, so that the water pools on the bottom of the mask. This will keep your vision as clear as possible and your eyes dry. This problem will cause you to consume more air than usual. Consider modifying the dive plan to a shallower, shorter dive. And if the distraction and discomfort have sucked all the fun out of the dive, signal to abort and make a safe ascent to the surface with your buddy.
Once at the surface, it might be possible to fix the problem there, test the mask for further leaking, and resume the dive.
2 Foggy mask
There’s always some water inside your mask, either liquid or as vapour in the air. Water vapour will condense against the mask lens. Fog forms because the inside of the mask lens is not perfectly flat, but rather has tiny imperfections that will catch and trap tiny droplets.
The best way to prevent fogging is to apply a coat of anti-fog and let it dry as you are setting up your equipment. When you enter the water, rinse the mask but don’t rub off the anti-fog.
If your mask fogs up underwater, you have to solve the problem alone. Let a small amount of water into the mask, look down, swish it around and purge it. Having to do this every minute or two is an annoyance, but it’s necessary and the only thing you can do under the circumstances. Alert your buddy to the problem.
If you notice that your buddy has a badly fogged mask and is doing nothing about it, signal to stop, signal neutral buoyancy, signal problem, point to the mask, signal to add a bit of water to the mask and clear it. You can’t dive and communicate normally with a buddy who’s mask is all fogged up and is half blind. If the buddy won’t add water to the mask, this is a sign of someone with weak mask skills. You might decide to alter the dive plan to make it safer….shallower and shorter. Or if it’s safe to surface, then signal the ascent. Once on the surface, the buddy can defog their mask, you can refresh their mask clearing skills for them, and possibly resume the dive.
3 Lost Mask
A lost mask is a minor problem that could escalate quickly into a panic or near-drowning.
You can lose your mask in a number of ways: it can be knocked off by an impact, it can slip/slide off, or the strap could break. While it’s an uncommon event, it’s sudden and dramatic. If you can’t catch the falling mask and get it back on, you’ll lose the ability to focus your eyes. It’s not an emergency situation as long as you keep control of your breathing. But some divers will panic in this situation, risking an out of control ascent.
To prevent your mask (or your reg!) from being knocked out of place, raise an arm in front of your face to protect and block any time you might collide with something or someone, get bumped, or kicked in the head by someone’s fins. Keep at least an arm’s length apart from other divers, and preferably a couple of metres. Push off if somebody is too close to you.
If you lose your mask, keep your eyes open and try to catch it. You won’t be able to focus, but you will still see shapes and colours. If you lose sight of the mask, you could decide to abort the dive rather than try to recover it. You might decide this if it’s a long distance to the bottom. In that case, alert your buddy, point to your face, point down, signal to ascend, grab hold of your buddy’s bcd with your right hand, your exhaust hose raised in your left, and rely on the buddy to manage a safe ascent.
If you decide to try and recover the mask, get your buddy’s attention, point to your face and point to where the mask might be. Your buddy might swim directly to the mask, or stop and visually search for it. Watch your buddy’s movements and focus on trying to stay neutrally buoyant. The buddy should realize that it’s their responsibility to locate the mask, go get it and bring it to you, or guide you to it together. If your buddy doesn’t grab hold and start to guide you, and if you’re close to the bottom, drop down, get balanced and get ready to receive the mask and put it back on. Stay calm and focus on breath control. If your buddy returns without the mask, make a safe ascent together, holding on to each other’s BCDs
This incident can be very stressful, and unless you have good breath control, you might inhale water up your nose. Hold your reg firmly in your mouth with your right hand, in case you aspirate water and start to cough. If you spit out your reg, you could drown. But you can cough your lungs out into a reg, and even vomit into a reg, and when you inhale you get nothing but dry air.
If your buddy is the one to lose a mask, they might suddenly grab hold of you and frantically point to their face and to where the mask might be. If the mask is within easy reach, go get it fast. But if you don’t see the mask or can’t reach it quickly, then grab a firm hold of your buddy’s BCD to stabilize their buoyancy. Look around and If you see the mask, swim to it towing/guiding your buddy along, and recover it. If the mask is below you by no more than a metre or two, signal “ thumbs down” and control the descent down to retrieve it. But don’t chase a sinking mask. If you decide that the mask can’t be safely recovered, then signal “thumbs up” to your buddy’s face and lead a slow, safe ascent to the surface, holding each other’s BCD securely.
If your buddy grabs hold of you and frantically signals to surface, they are in serious distress and could panic. It’s very difficult to calm down or make effective hand signals to someone who can’t focus their eyes. All you can really do is hold their BCD securely with your right hand, keep that arm straight and locked to establish a safe distance between you, and lead a safe ascent to the surface. Establish positive buoyancy there and keep your reg in your mouth. Be prepared to get behind the distressed diver, inflate their BCD, and grab hold of their first stage to stabilize them on the surface. They might be coughing heavily or still semi-panicked.
During the ascent, the buddy could possibly go into full panic mode. This is why you want to keep a safe distance. If the buddy inflates their BCD and you begin to accelerate upwards faster than the safe ascent rate, consider letting them go, and slowing your ascent. You have to keep yourself safe. Two suffering victims at the surface won’t do either of you any good.
Similarly, if your buddy pushes you away and bolts to the surface, let them go. Ascend safely and be prepared to provide positive flotation for the both of you, safely holding their first stage from behind the buddy. Look for signs of decompression sickness or other injury.
4 Boot lace untied
Always be sure to double-knot your dive boots. If your boot lace comes untied, you are at risk of having it fall off and take your fin with it. It’s hard to tie a boot lace with gloves on, so the procedure can take up to a minute. It’s usually best to drop to the bottom, get settled on one knee with the problem boot in front of you, get balanced, then tie up the lace. But if you’re mid-water, get neutrally buoyant before trying to tie it up.
If your buddy is nearby, get their attention, signal neutral buoyancy, signal problem, point to the boot lace, signal what you need your buddy to do (either support your leg by holding the fin or tie the lace up for you). Alternatively, you could both drop to the bottom, get balanced and tie the lace up there.
If you tie the lace while neutrally buoyant, be very mindful about keeping yourself neutral. If you lose neutral buoyancy, stop tying the lace and reestablish it before resuming the task.
5 Fin falls off
A fin can fall off if the clip pops open, the strap slips loose or breaks, or if the fin is too big and you kick it off. When a fin falls off it will probably sink and you will need to maneuver to retrieve it. You should establish neutral buoyancy and get your buddy’s attention immediately. Signal a problem, point to your finless boot, and point to where your fin is. Signal for your buddy to retrieve the fin, unless it’s within easy reach. It’s difficult to maneuver with one fin.
If your buddy retrieves the fin, take it and inspect the strap to determine what went wrong. The clip might have popped open or it might be broken. The strap might have slipped loose. Test close the clip and stretch out the strap. Put the fin back on, secure it and resume the dive. If you’re close to the bottom, signal to drop down, get settled and balanced on one knee, then inspect, test and put the fin back on there.
If the problem can’t be fixed, abort the dive and ascend safely.
6 Sagging weight belt
A loose weight belt will slide down over your hips and can work its way down to your legs. The shifting of the weight belt will throw you off balance and cause your hips and legs to drop, throwing you out of trim. This problem can be fixed quickly, or it might take a minute or two. Be very careful not to drop the belt.
Get neutrally buoyant and level yourself horizontally so that you are facing the bottom. Keep the lead weights draped over your back side. You could even invert yourself a little and add some air to the drysuit, letting it migrate your legs to add support. Shimmy the belt back up to position above your hips and cinch it tightly. You are performing this maneuver by feel, not by sight.
If you’re close to the bottom, touch down, lie horizontally face down, shimmy up the belt and cinch it tightly.
If your belt is slipping and you need help, alert your buddy, signal to stop, signal neutral buoyancy, signal problem, point to the weight belt and get horizontal. Signal for your buddy to support your legs and help shimmy the belt into position.
If you’re close to the bottom, signal for the buddy to set down beside you and help shimmy the belt into place above your hips. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to sit on top of a buddy to prevent them from rocketing to the surface.
If you see that your buddy is dealing with a sagging weight belt mid water, you can help them immediately by supporting their legs in a horizontal position and maintaining neutral buoyancy for both of you.
7 Leaking BCD or drysuit inflator hose
All low pressure hoses eventually wear down and start to leak air into the BCD or drysuit. The problem can be with the hose or with the inflator valves. The leak might be slow, or it might be fast. Hose leaks will make you positively buoyant, so you will find yourself having to exhaust air regularly to maintain neutral buoyancy.
When you first notice this problem, get neutrally buoyant, then detach and reattach the hose. This might or might not fix the problem. If air leakage continues and becomes a constant problem, detach the hose. You can re-attach it whenever you need to add air, then detach it again.
For air leaks into the BCD, you can also choose to detach the hose and add air to the BCD by oral inflation.
Alert your buddy to this situation: get their attention, signal problem and point to the detached hose. Continue with the dive plan, monitoring your tank air pressure closely. Consider making the dive plan more conservative (shorter and shallower).
If the leak is bad and you have to exhaust air every 15 seconds, it’s best to abort the dive and surface safely with your buddy.
8 Loose tank band
A tank can slip out of position for a variety of reasons: loose attachment when you set up your scuba unit, slippage due to incorrect threading of the band through the buckle, incorrect cinching of the buckle, or a wet band stretching out during the dive.
Incidentally, no PADI course that I know of actually teaches students how to thread a tank band buckle! I would wager that 95% of all divers do not know how to thread a buckle. This is how it’s done:
So, what often happens with rented BCD’s is that some diver tries to adjust the tank band, unthreads the band from the buckle and re-threads it incorrectly. This diver could be you, or the guy who rented it yesterday. This is why you should learn and practice the proper way to thread the buckle.
You cannot rely on your buddy to recognize a problem with your tank band during the pre-dive safety check.
If your tank band comes loose underwater, you’ll probably notice it when the tank slips down and interferes with your legs finning. You might feel off-balance, or notice that your hoses aren’t in their usual positions. You cannot fix this problem alone without removing your BCD, so get your buddy’s attention, signal to stop, signal neutral buoyancy, signal problem, point to your tank, turn your back to your buddy and get horizontal. Your buddy will slide the tank into position, then tighten and cinch the buckle. This problem can usually be fixed in 15 seconds while neutrally buoyant.
If it’s easier for you, go to the bottom, land on your knees and lie horizontally face down, so that you both have more stability and leverage.
If your notice your buddy’s loose tank band, get their attention, signal to stop, signal neutral buoyancy, signal problem, point to the tank, signal like you’re closing a buckle, signal to get horizontal, help by lifting and supporting your buddy’s legs, slide the tank into position, tighten the band and check the buckle threading as necessary, then cinch it down. Do it on the bottom if easier or safer.
9 Dangling hoses
Prevent your gauge console from dangling by passing the hose under your shoulder strap or under your belly strap when you gear up, or attach it to the BCD with a retractor or length of bungie cord. Don’t let the console dangle loosely.
Always secure the alternate air source to the BCD, with an attachment clip or by bending and tucking the hose into a small pocket in the BCD that is designed for this purpose.
If your alternate air source hose comes detached, establish neutral buoyancy and reattach it. If your buddy’s alternate is detached, alert the buddy, signal problem, point to the alternate and be prepared to help secure it in a way that makes it easily accessible to you.
Have at least two attachment clips in your gear bag: a backup in case your clip breaks, and a spare clip that you can attach to your buddy’s alternate. Remember that your buddy’s alternate is there for you to grab and use, so you want to be sure that it’s secured in the right place and protected from damage.
10 Computer failure
Millions of divers do not use any computers or bottom timers. They’re not even required equipment in the Open Water course! If you dive without a computer, then you have limited situational awareness underwater, from your analog depth and air pressure gauges. You are not keeping track of bottom time, remaining no-decompression time, water temperature, or other situational data.
If you do use a computer, then you should always check the status of your computer battery before every dive. But this doesn’t guarantee that the battery won’t suddenly die on you in the water. And you should always carry a spare computer battery in your equipment bag.
Dive computers will automatically activate themselves within two or three metres on your descent. However, you should always perform a proper 5-point descent, which includes activating the computer on the surface. Don’t wait for it to turn itself on at depth.
I have had personal experience with my own computer battery being OK during the predive safety check, followed by my being lazy and complacent about activating it prior to descent, and the computer failing to turn itself on underwater. This forced me to abort the descent, return to the surface and establish a modified dive plan….and feel embarrassed.
If your computer shuts down during a dive, you are losing the main source of data that supports your situational awareness: your depth, bottom time and remaining no-decompression time. You also lose other features, like water temperature, and sophisticated computer features like a digital compass and digital tank air pressure readout. And you also lose the visual and sound warnings that the computer provides to keep you within no-decompression limits. You can still refer to your backup analog depth and air pressure gauges on your console, and an analog compass, but you have lost the ability to measure time.
If your computer fails underwater, you should stop, establish neutral buoyancy, try to restart the computer, then alert your buddy: signal problem, point to the computer and give an X sign, signifying that it’s not working.
Now you have to consider your situation and decide with your buddy on a course of action.
PADI recommends that the safest and most conservative course of action is to abort the dive and make a safe, normal ascent with your buddy. Do not dive off of your buddy’s computer. You should exit the water, change the battery and start the dive all over again with a functioning computer. This is the best solution if your computer dies at an early stage of the dive. It’s an inconvenient annoyance, but the safest course of action.
But you and your buddy might decide to continue the dive anyway, with a modified dive plan. If your dive buddy has a functioning computer, then your buddy team still has the ability to measure time. If you continue the dive, establish a more conservative dive plan (shorter and shallower), and stay shallower than your buddy. This is no guarantee that you will remain within your personal no-decompression limits. Uncertainty is increased, but it still might be your safest option, all things considered.
After the dive, you can replace the dead battery. But your computer will have not recorded your previous dive, so you won’t have an accurate assessment of your decompression status. In this case, you can refer to your printed RDP tables to determine your pressure group for planning purposes. Take an extra long 3-hour surface interval before your next dive. Or cancel your next dive altogether.
11 Weight pocket falls out
If you lose a weight pocket from an integrated BCD, or if your weight belt falls off, you will likely become positively buoyant and rise all the way to the surface. If an out-of-control ascent can’t be avoided, you must dump air from the BCD and drysuit to slow down the ascent, get horizontal and flare your body to maximize drag. Breathe normally and keep your airway open. You only have a few seconds before rising out of your buddy’s visibility range, so do your best to alert them to your situation by making noise. (for example, use a tank banger, tap your knife repeatedly against your tank, shake a rattle.)
If you do go all the way to the surface, establish positive buoyancy, get your bearings and be alert for any signs or symptoms of decompression sickness. Continue to make noise. A responsible buddy will ascend to meet you there in a minute or two.
Take visual note of your position on the surface using a triangulation technique, and try to stay in this position, because the weight pocket is likely directly below you on the bottom.
When your buddy surfaces, explain what happened and consider your options. Consider the depth at the bottom, the amount of time it would take to complete a search and recovery operation, your air supply and decompression status.
Determine whether the buddy has the skills and willingness to safely perform the operation. The buddy might or might not agree to the search. If the roles were reversed, would you go search for your buddy’s weights?
If your buddy declines to go search, then you have two options: abandon the pocket or borrow lead weight from your buddy to make the search yourself. Any decision to descend to the bottom alone, perform a search, and lift a 10-15lb weight by hand to the surface should not be taken lightly. This maneuver takes skill. There are risks to be managed, like being severely overweighted or dropping the pocket on the way up. You could take the buddy’s loose weights and put them in your BCD accessory pocket, descend, find the lost pocket, re-attach it, and surface very slowly, with a lot more air in the BCD. Unless the bottom below you is fairly shallow, it might be best to note the location, exit the water and return later fully re-equipped and carrying a proper lift bag. Look on the bright side: if all you lose from this incident is a weight pouch, consider yourself lucky.
There is a PADI Search & Recovery course that trains divers to plan and execute searches and lift heavy items to the surface safely.
12 Leaking drysuit
There are three kinds of drysuit leaks: minor, major, and catastrophic.
1. Minor leak
You will never be bone-dry inside a drysuit. At the very least, there will be some condensation that makes your undergarment damp on the outside, but still dry inside. There’s nothing you can do about that.
Minor leaks are most common at your neck and wrist seals. You’ll get minor leaks just by turning your head, or by moving your wrists, which will create little channel openings. You will notice a wet ring around the neck of your undergarment, or at the wrists. Worse, but still minor leaks will also happen if the seals are too loose against your skin. If you have a thin neck and wrists, consider getting a Velcro strap (20 inches long and 1 inch wide) to wrap around your neck over top of the neck seal. Use elastic bands over top of wrist seals. Consider getting dry gloves, which will keep all water away from the wrist seals, but take note that dry glove systems are also prone to leak.
You can also get minor leaks at the inflator or exhaust valves, which will happen when the valves are old and failing, or if the valves start to unscrew and become loose. Valves have two parts that screw together, one part on the inside of the suit and another part on the outside. Be sure to test and tighten your drysuit valve assemblies before every dive day! Leaky valves will show up as wet spots in the middle of your chest or at the left shoulder and upper arm. You might not even notice this kind of leak during a dive. But if you feel wetness or soaking during a dive, abort that dive, surface safely and get out of the water.
Don’t use that drysuit again before the valves are checked or replaced. Consider keeping a set of spare valves in your equipment bag.
2. Major leak
On drysuits that have manually removable/replaceable wrist seals, these seals can be installed incorrectly, or come unseated from their proper positions when being installed, causing water to leak through the attachment assemblies. If this happens, you could get soaked up to your elbow, or worse.
You can get leaks from small/micro holes and punctures in the body of the drysuit. I once had a leaky fabric drysuit with thousands of micro holes.
A major leak is also possible from an incompletely closed zipper. When you gear up, visually check that it’s closed all the way, and tug on the pull cord to be sure….especially if your buddy has zipped it for you. And be extra careful to avoid catching threads or your undergarment in the zipper as it’s being closed.
In a major flood, you will feel wetness against your skin as the water soaks through the undergarments. I recommend that you abort the dive, as this kind of problem can only become worse.
3. Catastrophic flood
A catastrophic flood can happen in several ways, including from a torn/shredded neck or wrist seal, a zipper popping open, a hole/puncture in the suit body, or a valve coming unscrewed.
I’ve experienced two catastrophic floods while performing a giant stride entry from a platform: a shredded neck seal and a total zipper failure. I’ve also experienced a complete flooding of my left arm due to a loose exhaust valve.
A catastrophic flood is a life-threatening situation. Within a few seconds, a full flood will overwhelm your thermal protection and likely throw you into shock. For the next minute, your breath rate can go up to 1,000% faster than normal. After the shock has passed, you’ll have 10 minutes or less before losing the use of your limbs. You must get out of the water in that time.
I have spoken with other divers and have read stories about what to do if you’re in this situation. These are my thoughts:
3.1 Catastrophic flood at the surface
For any giant stride entry from a platform (boat or dock) in a drysuit, prepare yourself by purging and burping the suit so that it has as little air inside it as possible. Open the exhaust valve too. Inflate your BCD fully for maximun flotation, so that you won’t sink as much when you hit the water. Check around the entry area and note the location of ladders, ropes, floats and other divers. Plan to drop into the water as close as you can to something that can keep you afloat in an emergency. If there’s nothing available, ask the boat crew to set up a rope, or preferably a ladder, which would enable you to climb out of the water promptly.
When you stride into the water, land with your fins flat, which will also help minimize how far you sink. As you sink, the air in the suit will rush up to your neck and can blow right out the neck seal. The more air in the suit and the deeper you sink, then the more forceful the blast. A neck seal can be instantly shredded, before you’re even chest deep. Or a zipper could burst open.
If this happens to you and you can’t climb right back up a ladder, grab hold of anything that will prevent you from sinking, with your left hand: a rope, a surface float or another diver. Scream “FLOOD” or “EMERGENCY”. Put your reg back in your mouth. Use your right hand to drop your weights if necessary to stay high in the water. Make yourself as buoyant as possible, and prepare to be shocked. Hold on to your reg so you don’t spit it out, or to pull it out if you start hyperventilating and feel air-starved.
If you keep yourself positively buoyant, you can still pull yourself along a rope or swim and maneuver to safety, and rescuers can reach you in a few seconds.
If the flood happens to your buddy, make yourself as positively buoyant as possible, put your reg in your mouth, maneuver to get behind them, grab hold of the regulator first stage and wrap your knees securely around their tank. Inflate your drysuit. Provide flotation, and be prepared to tow the buddy to an exit. In this position behind the victim, you can control them and keep yourself safe in case of a panic.
3.2 Catastrophic flood underwater
A catastrophic flood underwater could make it impossible to become positively buoyant, but still able swim and maneuver around. If you sink to the bottom, you can crawl and pull yourself along.
Alert your buddy immediately, signal them to swim to you, signal problem, signal that you’re cold, signal X for abort, signal up. Signal to hold each other’s BCD’s. Try to ascend. If you are able to ascend normally, then make a safe ascent to the surface, establish positive buoyancy and exit as fast as you can.
If you are unable to ascend normally, add air to the BCDs to get you going, and if necessary drop your weights. If you still can’t get positively buoyant, invert yourself and add air to the drysuit so that an air bubble goes to your legs and displaces the water. This creates the risk of injury from an out-of-control ascent, but it’s better than going hypothermic and drowning on the bottom.
If the flood happens to your buddy, prepare to assist while keeping yourself safe. Grasp their BCD and provide both lift and buoyancy control for the ascent.
If the zipper has opened, and the buddy can’t get positively buoyant, and the situation is desperate, a final alternative is make the drysuit into a lift bag. Get the victim into a horizontal position, slightly inverted and add air to the drysuit in small amounts using your alternate air source, until positive buoyancy is established. You’d be in effect using the suit as an open lift bag and controlling the ascent to the surface.
The buddy might panic at any time, so be prepared to maneuver behind them, hold the first stage and squeeze the tank between your legs to protect yourself. How you get behind them is by reaching across them with your right hand grasping their right hand, then pulling and spinning them around counter-clockwise to face away from you. You can now also control a safe ascent.
At the surface, establish maximum buoyancy and tow the buddy to the exit.
A fully flooded drysuit will be very heavy and it might be difficult to stand or exit the water. In this situation, you can use your knife to puncture holes in both legs, to drain the water.
A few years ago, during a group Open Water course being taught by an instructor and a divemaster that I knew personally, a student experienced a zipper failure and catastrophic flood. It took dropping weights and both professionals to lift the victim to the surface. Emergency medical services were called and the victim was taken to hospital with hypothermia. He was released a few hours later, but this story is an example of what can happen and what it might take to rescue a diver with a catastrophic flood.
13 Free-flowing regulator
A free-flowing regulator will empty a full tank in about a minute or two. While it’s actually quite easy to breathe off one, it’s almost impossible to do anything else, as it occupies your full attention.
Establish neutral buoyancy, take a full breath, take hold of your alternate air source, remove the free-flowing reg and breathe off the alternate. Hold the malfunctioning reg with the mouthpiece facing down. Press the purge button and stick your finger into the hole in the mouthpiece. Shake and bang the reg against your left hand. All of this will take about 10 seconds.
If none of this works, alert your buddy, check your gauges, especially your air pressure, signal X to abort, signal up and ascend safely to the surface.
Establish positive buoyancy and shut off the tank valve. Inflate the bcd orally as needed.
If you successfully stop the free-flow, check your air pressure to see how much you’ve lost, compare air pressures with your buddy, and modify the dive plan if necessary.
There are many ways to get into minor or major trouble underwater. If you know what the equipment risks are, if you’re equipped with thoroughly inspected and tested gear, if you carry the appropriate personal gear and safety accessories, if you always prepare in advance to dive with well thought out action and contingency plans, and if you dive within your training limits, then you’ll not only be a lot safer diver than average, you’ll have a lot more fun.
My suggested responses to equipment problems might or might not be the best course of action for you to take in any specific situation. But if you have thought through these hypothetical situations in advance, you’re more likely to stay calm and make good decisions when a problem does happen.