Buddy System Breakdown

By John Francis

Keeping your buddy by your side takes communication--before and during the dive.

We all promise our buddies to stay by their sides almost till "death do us part," yet buddy pairs split up every day. Something like this happens:

You're following your buddy who's barely visible ahead when you glimpse something incredible in the murk off to one side. An eagle ray? You fin hard for a closer look, then it's gone. So you reverse course to the reef --but where's your buddy? Presumably he missed the apparition and continued ahead without you. You chase hard, but after a minute or so you haven't found him. Now what?

By all accounts, buddy separations like this are a daily occurrence at most dive destinations. "Buddies enter the water together and return to the boat separately all the time," one boat operator told me. Another captain put the number of separations at close to 50 percent on his boat. It happens in lousy visibility and in clear water too, where divers cruise farther apart to begin with. It even happens in guided group dives because it's less obvious when one diver is missing out of eight or 10--"Hey! That's not my buddy, it's the other guy with blue fins." Buddy breakup leaves some divers frightened, some angry, some sadder but wiser.

Can This Relationship Be Saved?

There are as many kinds of buddy separation as there are buddy relationships. There are the new divers so absorbed in this exciting new experience that they temporarily forget their partner's needs. Often, they don't even know each other well yet. There are the buddies who've been diving long enough to lose their initial excitement and become comfortable, complacent and even a little bored. They intend to stay together but take each other for granted--until one is tempted by an interesting shape in the dark and strays.

There are buddies in name only, with different values and goals and no real desire to stay together longer than is convenient. Sometimes they enter into the relationship in good faith, assuming compatibility but never discussing it, and just drift apart. Other times they buddy up only for the sake of appearance, to avoid criticism. Or because a divemaster has insisted on a "shotgun wedding." Then there are the cases where one buddy skips out without warning.

How can you keep your buddy by your side? It takes lots of communication, both before and during the dive. And it takes effort. You've got to work at the buddy relationship.

Talk the Talk

Planning the dive is more than deciding on maximum depth, bottom time and direction from the boat. You've also got to agree on ground rules for your buddy relationship. Will you in fact stay together always? How close? How will you communicate? Who decides where to go? What will you do if you do separate? In other words, what are your "vows" to each other?

Some divers prefer what might be called an equal relationship. They swim side-by-side so that whatever they encounter, they encounter together. Communication--by touching a shoulder, for example--will be easy, they suppose. If one partner changes direction, the other is likely to notice. When a decision is called for, they will discuss, negotiate and decide together.

But there are disadvantages to side-by-side equality. It's not really as easy as you'd think to watch each other constantly because your limited peripheral vision means you have to turn your head to see your buddy. Sometimes, when both are in charge, nobody is in charge. And sometimes the terrain is too narrow for side-by-side swimming. For these reasons and others, many divers assume leader and follower roles. That way, at least one of them (the follower) should always be able to see the other. But discuss it a little first, because what seems natural may not be smart.

For example, the less-experienced diver often takes the follower role. But this is backwards, since the more experienced diver should be following and watching the less experienced. "I'd rather follow any day," says Linda Van Velsan, a PADI course director. "By keeping somebody in front of me, I can decide whether there's a problem."

Hunters and photographers teamed with sightseers should lead too. They rarely make good followers because they are distracted so easily and stop so often. In these cases, the sightseer needs to follow and join the enterprise as spotter, bag-holder or model if the two plan to stay together. Likewise, the diver who's absorbed in a new computer, BC or dry suit might be a better leader than follower--if he pauses while scrolling through menus, the leader may be gone before he looks up again.

No one likes to be a follower all the time, so trading roles halfway through the dive preserves a sense of fair play. Leading gives the novice a taste of responsibility, while following gives him a chance to learn from a better diver. The experienced follower may be less likely to wander off if he knows he will be called on to lead later.

Whoever leads and follows, you each have specific duties to the other that should be stated and fulfilled. You need to not only repeat your vows but act on them. This is where the work comes in. The leader's first duty is to not lose the follower. You should swim as slowly as you possibly can, says Bill Kendig, an instructor with NAUI, PADI and NASDS. "Buddies separate when the follower stops to look at something and the leader keeps kicking. If you're swimming fast, you get separated a lot easier," he says.

Remember to stop wherever you change direction. "When you're going along a wall, there's really only one way to go. It's where you have to make a choice whether to go left or right that people get lost," says Kendig. Likewise, when you reach an open area after transiting a swim-through or a channel through kelp, stop and let the follower catch up. Make eye contact before moving off again. Finally, look back and check on the follower not only frequently but on a schedule--say, every 10 kicks--so it becomes a habit like checking your rearview mirror.

The follower's primary duty is to not go off on his own, to not chase that eagle ray before getting the leader's attention, for example. One way would be to agree on a tank bang signal that means "Look at me" before giving chase. The follower also needs to control the pace so the leader does not swim uncomfortably fast. That may mean staying close enough to tug a fin.

The Search Is On

When buddies separate, our training gives us only one option: Search for one minute. If that fails, surface to link up there. If that fails, report a missing buddy and launch a rescue effort.

Searching the immediate area makes obvious sense. The problem for most divers comes when they don't find their buddy after one minute. If you go to the surface, you'll find your buddy only if he surfaces too. But what if he's still below, searching for you? Or he's trapped or unconscious just beyond the next rock? And what if your lost buddy is fine, and he just went on with his dive?

At this point, most divers will balance the odds that the buddy is really in danger against the chance of bringing help and against the danger to themselves in ascending. Each decision is unique to the circumstances and made easier if you've discussed and agreed, before the dive, what you'll do if you are separated.

You might agree to execute the search-one-minute-surface-report plan no matter what. You might agree to search for three or five minutes before surfacing. If it's a deep dive, you might agree to rendezvous at the anchor or mooring line. Whatever you decide, you should consider the depth, visibility and current, also your experience level, your buddy's and your comfort levels with risk.

None of these options is training-agency doctrine, but an imperfect plan that's understood and acted on is always better than vague intentions. The important point is to reach an explicit agreement so you'll both know what to do.

On Your Own

Whether the buddy breakup comes as a surprise or you expected it from the beginning, you'd better have prepared yourself to finish the dive alone, whether that means surfacing immediately or continuing as you had planned. Much has been written about solo diving, but at a minimum, you'll need specific equipment and sharper skills. Solo diving equipment includes a second cutting tool, probably paramedic shears or good wire cutters, and surface signaling gear--a sausage and a loud horn like a Dive Alert, says Mike Ange, Scuba Diving's Technical Editor and an Instructor Trainer for TDI and SDI as well as a PADI Master Instructor. "And I'd want a completely redundant air source. I'd want a pony bottle of at least 18 cubic feet if I'm deeper than 60 feet. If I'm going down to 100 feet plus, 30 cubic feet."

Before going solo, says Ange, you should practice deploying and using the redundant air on ascent, inflating your BC manually, dumping your weights, making emergency ascents and navigating both by compass and natural clues. Your basic open-water introduction to these skills is not enough; you need enough practice to be comfortable actually doing them.

It can be a cold, cruel world down there alone, but it needn't be. If you prepare for even the most solid buddy relationship to break up and that happens, you'll survive. If you never need those skills, you'll feel more confident and relaxed. Add the communication and commitment that you've invested in making your relationship strong, and diving together will be more satisfying for both of you. Isn't that what it's all about?

The One-Minute Search

When you realize your buddy is gone, your first impulse is to do something now, like turning around and charging down your backtrack. But it's easy to miss each other in less-than- perfect vis, especially if your buddy has abandoned the track to chase something or to look for you. Instead, stop a moment and look all around you for bubbles. Take it slow; remember, your buddy only makes bubbles when exhaling and a quick 360 could miss them.

Ascend about five feet if that will get you out from behind a rock pile or a coral head for a better view. That will also make you more visible to your buddy, who's supposed to be looking for you. Look not only around you but upward. If your buddy is in trouble, he may be heading for the surface. If not, his bubbles will be expanding as they rise so they'll be more visible above you.

Still no bubbles? Presumably they are beyond the range of visibility and it's reasonable to search back along your track toward where you last saw your buddy, but go slowly. You have to assume at this point that your buddy is also searching for you and you could easily be going away from him, not toward him. Keep scanning all around you for bubbles. If you decide to ascend to the surface, pause frequently for a 360-degree bubble search.

Three-Diver Buddy Teams

Who looks out for the third buddy? Short answer: nobody. Three-buddy "teams" are notorious for neglecting one diver, especially when the third is a stranger to the first two. That happens often when a divemaster tells the single diver, "You buddy with these two." The existing buddy pair doesn't know him, doesn't want him and easily forgets him. Groups dilute individual responsibility: each of the first two can imagine that the other is watching the outsider. If it's offered to you, refuse the threesome and buddy with the divemaster instead.

Same Ocean Buddies

In the real diving world, experienced divers often agree that they'll dive as "same ocean buddies." In essence, they agree to look out for each other before and after the dive, but to effectively dive solo when they submerge. For reasons of both safety and liability, the practice is taboo on most dive boats and forbidden by training agencies. But why not legitimize the practice as an option for divers who choose to exercise it?

Same ocean buddies could be expected to carry redundant gear or even have solo certification. They would agree to help each other gear up and check each other's readiness to dive until the moment they both leave the surface. After surfacing and returning to the boat, they would agree to help each other with gear, watch each other for DCS signs and make sure the other diver is accounted for.

Divers often vote with their fins against "shotgun" buddy weddings and end up as unintentional same ocean buddies. At least when divers agree on the practice in advance, they're prepared for any additional risks.

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