When you face unexpected problems underwater, no one is in a better position to solve them than you are.
Good divers, even you, have bad days. Maybe you're swimming alongside the wreck when you suddenly feel a tug on your BC and you stop moving. You're caught on something you can't see and can't reach--like fishing line. Or maybe you're five minutes into the dive and down to 95 feet when your reg starts breathing really hard because, it turns out later, you have mounted your reg on an almost empty tank.
The bad days are rare, thank goodness, and in the training video they always have a happy ending thanks to your buddy, who reaches behind your back and disengages the fishing line or offers you his octopus. Then you exchange OK signs and resume your dives or ascend calmly to the surface, smiling all the way. But in real life, too often all you see of your buddy is his fins disappearing ahead of you in the murk. You're left to deal with this problem alone. Would you know what to do to rescue yourself? And could you do it, under stress, without help, and not screw up? Not sure?
There are five tools you'll need to rescue yourself in case a dive turns ugly and a buddy can't help: training, experience, physical fitness, equipment and attitude. Acquire them, and the payoff is going to be not only more safety underwater but more enjoyment. As PADI rescue instructor Ned Branch once put it to me, "The more confident you are, the more relaxed you are. The more relaxed you are the more fun you have."
Train for Self-Rescue
There are few secret tricks. You've already been taught the skills you'd need to rescue yourself in almost any situation. But did you retain everything you were taught? No one does. Have you ever had to take your scuba unit off underwater since your open-water certification classes? Me neither. For sharpening old tools--your diving skills--and acquiring new ones, there's no substitute for the discipline of formal instruction and drill in the hands of a good teacher. Continuing education is required of doctors because lives depend on their skills. Lives, or at any rate one life, may depend on your diving skills.
Almost any advanced scuba course will make you more competent by adding new skills and reviewing old ones. Technical diving courses teach self-reliance in the context of buddy or "team" diving. On these more challenging dives, every member of a dive team has to add to the team's abilities, not subtract from it. Everyone needs to be able to do as much as possible to rescue himself, and not be a drag on his teammates. Courses in solo diving are sometimes taught, and these can be valuable whether or not you ever actually dive solo. The whole course, essentially, is about how to be able to depend on yourself in a crisis. The divemaster and instructor track is also a good one for developing self-reliance. Because an instructor can't realistically expect rescue help from a student, he's taught to take care of himself.
But for most of us, the single best course for developing self-rescue ability might be the course in how to rescue someone else. That might sound strange, but that was Branch's experience when he took the course he now teaches. "It did more to increase my confidence level and my personal skills level than virtually any other course since I got certified," he told me when I took his course. One reason is that rehearsing emergencies makes them more real--helps you visualize what they will be like and what will need to be done.
If you don't have the time and money for a full-length course or access to one, next-best is a brief refresher course in basic dive skills. It pulls those dusty files out of your mental filing cabinet and spreads them out on your desktop again. Even if you learn nothing new, you gain confidence from reminding yourself how much you already know.
We all know that we should practice diving skills on a regular basis, but few of us actually do it. Try turning Mom's rule on its head and doing your chores after you play, not before. During your safety stop at 15 feet, you've got time and air to burn. Why not practice a skill like replacing and clearing your mask? Or going to your alternate air source? Once on the surface there's no need to hurry to the ladder and good physiological reasons to pause for another "safety stop" at zero feet of depth. Why not use this time on a drill like air sharing or the scuba unit doff-and-don? By practicing at the end of the dive, you waste no dive time, and with little or no water over your head, the risk is minimal.
I'd call air sharing a self-rescue skill, by the way. Although it's your buddy's octo, you're the one who needs to initiate the exchange, keep your head and make it work. I wouldn't practice that one as a last-minute impulse, though, or with a buddy I'd just met. You want to go over what you're going to do with your buddy in advance so you do the skill correctly. Otherwise, you're just practicing mistakes. And you want to trust your buddy to stay calm and not turn a rehearsal into a real performance. Better let the divemaster know what you're up to also, so he doesn't go into full rescue mode when he sees you lunging for an octo.
One of the most important self-rescue skills can be easily practiced at the surface: ditching weights. Unbuckling a weight belt or pulling the weight releases doesn't sound like much of a skill, but it's amazing how often dead divers are recovered with weights still in place. In most cases, the divers know how to release their weights but never actually do it in the water and probably don't even think of it in their panic. So before you climb the ladder, imagine yourself in trouble and ditch your weights. (Put them on the swim step instead of dropping them.) It may sound unnecessary, but you're creating the "muscle memory" that will take over for you in an emergency. Deploying a safety sausage is another of those skills that seem simple until you need to do them, and it too can be practiced near the swim step.
Buoyancy control is a basic dive skill that is actually critical to self-rescue. Many dive accidents happen because a diver loses control of his buoyancy. If an emergency does occur, one of your first tasks is to get neutral so you don't add to your other problems an uncontrolled ascent. Perfect buoyancy control starts with correct--usually, minimum--weighting, and you can best experiment with reducing your weights by handing a pound or so to your buddy at the safety stop or placing it on the swim step.
The buoyant emergency ascent is obviously an important skill if you ever lose your air supply. It's what would make it possible to escape drowning by ascending much faster than the regulation 30 feet per minute. Done correctly--exhaling all the way up--you'll avoid suffering an embolism too. However, any fast ascent is more dangerous, even if you do everything right. For that reason, most instructors tell students how to make a buoyant emergency ascent but don't want them to actually practice it. That's probably good advice.
Gear Up for Self-Rescue
Equipment alone does not make you competent, but some pieces of gear are critical if you are going to be able to rescue yourself. First is an alternate air source. An octopus is standard equipment today, but since a complete shutdown of the second stage is incredibly rare, your octopus is really intended to help your buddy, not you. And that may be no help at all because if one diver has used up all his air, chances are good that both have.
More valuable is your own completely redundant air system, like a pony bottle or a Spare Air. The latter carries enough air to make a prompt ascent from fairly deep, and it packs easily for travel. A proper pony bottle of 20 cubic feet or so gives more margin for error, more time to deal with a complicated problem. You decide which you want, but either is a lot better than nothing. You also need cutting tools--several of them--for dealing with entanglements, and surface signaling devices in case you surface out of sight of the dive boat. Mount knives so that at least one can be reached with either hand. Today, many divers prefer a pair of shears to a second knife, as it will cut fishing line and nets one-handed. On the surface, you should be able to make both a conspicuous visual signal and a loud noise.
And, obviously, all your gear needs to be maintained and overhauled on schedule if you're going to be able to depend on it when you need it most.
Attitude adjustment may be the most important part of becoming competent to rescue yourself. There are three elements: planning for trouble, situational awareness for early detection of trouble, and solution thinking--dealing with trouble rationally instead of sinking into the "ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod" spiral.
Planning the dive should always include playing the game of "What if?" What if I become entangled, what if I run low on air, what if I get lost? It's a rehearsal of those emergency techniques you've learned and practiced that brings the correct response to the front of your mind before the need arises.
During the dive you need to be aware of what's happening and of how you're feeling. We're all taught to check our air pressure and depth frequently while we dive, but you also need to be aware of where you're going, where the boat is and what the current is like. Is all your gear still in place--your weight belt isn't loose, for example? And you should ask yourself how you're feeling. Are you getting tired? Cold? Nervous? All this helps you anticipate problems before they snowball into emergencies.
The key to solution thinking is captured in the well-known mantra "stop, breathe, think, then act." That's good advice, because it helps control panic. In a crisis, your real enemy is not so much the immediate threat as your panicky response to it. If you're suddenly caught in kelp or fishing line, for example, it's natural to feel a rush of adrenaline. But your first task is to get control of your emotions. Otherwise, anxiety can quickly grow into fear and then panic, and when panic comes in the door, reason and your ability to solve problems go out the window. Panic knows only two responses, fight and flight. Neither is much use underwater. So before you do anything else, stop all movement to reduce your sensory inputs. Take a slow, deep breath and exhale fully. As long as you can breathe, you're not in immediate danger.
What if you can't breathe, what if, against all odds, your regulator suddenly cuts off your air supply? Even in the case of an interruption to your air supply, you may have a minute or more of air in your lungs. When every second counts, that's all the more reason to to get yourself under control so you can use them wisely. Those few emergencies requiring immediate action are the times when it pays to have rehearsed what to do and visualized it just before your dive. Whether the best course of action is to reach for your pony bottle, swim to your buddy or dump your weights and make an emergency ascent, it's essential to have the plan at your fingertips. If you have to rummage through file drawers for it while alarm bells are going off, you may not find it in time.
Common sense is part of the formula too. If your weight belt has come undone and is slithering off your waist, grab it now--don't wait to take that calming breath first. But most of the time, taking a few moments to calm down is not only time well spent, it is the essential first step.
The next is to prioritize. One problem often generates others, and even single problems must be solved in steps. Your first priority is to secure your air supply. Even if your air supply is not immediately threatened, check how much air you have left so that this does not become a problem too. Next, if your mask has been bumped in the excitement and is beginning to leak, deal with it now. Then, make sure your buoyancy is under control. In most cases you'll want to get neutral, though if you're on the bottom you may be more stable if you make yourself negative.
Now you can begin dealing with the problem itself. Plan how to solve it, then act out each step in the plan carefully and, if conditions permit, slowly. In most cases, the solution to the problem is no different when you are alone than when you have a buddy at your side. The buddy's role is to help if needed, not take the lead, and becoming better able to rescue yourself is nothing more than becoming a more competent diver.
A craftsman can be judged by his tools. The best of them frequently acquire new tools and keep all of them clean and sharp. Your self-rescue tools are not only your knife and pony bottle but your dive skills, your experience, your health and your mind. Keep all your tools clean and sharp and, like the master craftsman, you'll have the confidence to tackle any problem--alone if need be.