BSAC has recently issued guidelines so that those who have trained with the agency GUE (Global Underwater Explorers) can dive safely within a club environment.
As part of this process, National Diving Officer Sophie Heptonstall and I decided to take a Fundamentals course (popularly known as ‘Fundies’). The idea was for us to see for ourselves exactly what was involved and how the GUE system would slot into the world of BSAC. It’s a four-day course, and at the end of it, Sophie and I were qualified to 18 metres and could use 32% nitrox. Hooray!
So why did we do it?
Well, the whole GUE ethos is about the ‘end game’. For them, it’s all about ending up 11km up the back of a cave in Florida and their philosophy is that everything right from the beginning leads up to this – things that don’t make any sense at the start of training make perfect sense when you put it into the context of extended cave penetrations.
The first day was hammering the theory. Lots of this is common across agencies so much was revision, but there are a few concepts such as ‘Minimum Gas’ that are really smart ways of diving. Then it was off to the car to pull out the kit that Sophie and I had put together for the course for our instructor James to have a look at and prep it for open water.
I have been diving a twinset for years, so the only modification I had to make to my kit was to add a crotch strap and swap the harness webbing for one without a break. Sophie, however, has been diving a rebreather rather than a twinset, so had to borrow her kit from a friend who dived a GUE-type setup. Into James’ garden and on with the bare backplate. Here is where the pernickety fiddling started – we were moving D-rings along the webbing about an inch – the idea is if you make everything a tiny bit easier to use, then it makes your overall diving that much easier.
A good example were my D-rings – they were 6mm thick and swapping them for 5mm thick ones makes clipping things on-and-off just that bit easier. Next, we were off to Stoney Cove for the first bit of diving. The drills are introduced gradually with dry runs in the car park to develop muscle memory and this is where all that messing with kit starts to pay off. Removing a primary reg and clipping it off would, over the course of the four days, become a simple, natural thing that you could do without fumbling or looking for a D-ring. There are five basic drills ranging from an S-drill (where you deploy the long hose to your out-of-gas buddy) to a valve drill where you practice shutting down your twinset valves.
Back to basics
Initially, we concentrated on developing a stable platform. Now I have pretty good buoyancy control, but the GUE standards push you towards developing this perfectly flat, perfectly neutral position in the water where you’re not moving a thing. Not even twitching a fin. Once that’s nailed, then it’s all about adding skills onto that solid platform and learning efficient propulsion techniques so you can scoot along with ease and you don’t kick the silt up.
There are a few basic kicks – a frog kick, flutter kick and a back kick, some with mini or ‘modified’ versions. All of which are done from this rock solid initial position with the minimum of fuss. Cue lots of finning around the wooden platform at 6m with James waving a GoPro at us for some post-match feedback. We both found that it was all too easy to drop the knees, which messes up the kicks, but eventually with lots of practice and some quite disturbing hand signals from James, we were both finning efficiently around.
The mystery of the back kick was also sorted out. Sophie and I both had effective back kicks, but we both used the side of our fins to do it, which produces a bit of downwash and tends to make you go up a touch. James got us into the right position, head back against the manifold knob, back arched, knees up and fins pointy and flat. The trick is to slowly straighten your legs so the water doesn’t notice, then pull your legs back into the starting position. A few goes at it with Sophie and I staring into each other’s eyes and it was starting to come together.
It did seem a bit odd to spend a couple of dives concentrating on these basics, but when you start throwing in the drills it all makes sense, as you can adjust your position in the water with millimetric precision. I had a go in the club pool later, and found that with this technique you can quite happily scull backwards without wearing fins. Very odd.
We did plenty of S-drills where we were deploying the long hose. I’ve dived a long hose with primary donate for years so I thought it would be simple, but of course there is a GUE specific way of doing it! The buddy makes the out-of-gas signal and you punch your regulator out at them so they can get it fast, while switching to your necklaced backup reg and putting in a cheeky back kick to maintain position. All while staying perfectly flat and stable and not moving up or down at all. The addition of an umbilical light complicates things, as it’s all too easy to get the cord wrapped around the long hose, so you have to do a bit off underwater faffing to sort it out.
We had a couple of weeks’ break next with a pool session in the middle, only mildly complicated by me making up the pool postcode and sending James into one of Nottingham’s more interesting rich and vibrant districts. Eventually he made it looking somewhat peeved and Sophie and I dropped into the pool to do the swim test – a 275m swim in under 14 minutes. If you’re even half a competent swimmer it’s not particularly taxing, nor is the 15m breath hold swim afterwards.
We then had a sweaty change into undersuits and drysuits to drop in for more propulsion and buoyancy practice, and a little play with a valve drill. All the while, we were hovering about 100mm from the bottom of the pool. One of the club instructors commented that “blimey your buoyancy control is extraordinary”. But that’s what the course is about!
It was off to Stoney again for the last two days of diving. The stable platform was really starting to come together and it was a case of building up the muscle memory for the drills – it’s so easy to forget to do something simple such as clipping off a primary reg when you have swapped to your backup. We were joined by another GUE diver to build on the strong team diving ethics – that’s something I’ve always been interested in and it proved to be very effective, using lights to communicate position instead of having to look around for your buddy and agreeing team roles before you jump in the water. Sophie also surprised James by turning up with a completely different set of kit from the previous weekend, prompting a face-palm and gentle groan.
There was more practice of team diving, V-drills and S-drills and Sophie and I were starting to look like we almost knew what we were doing. Getting trim absolutely nailed was great – you end up shifting a tiny amount of weight, just a single kilo, to get yourself flat and stable and become very sensitive to it being wrong as it’s annoying to find yourself with very slightly sinky feet.
The tell-tale is you unconsciously put a tiny kick in to correct for this which, of course, pushes you a little forwards which you have to correct for. We’ve all been hanging around on deco with a gently finning buddy, having to give them occasional shoves to get them out of your face!
The final day had Sophie in yet another set of kit and one of my spare sets of Arctics, much to the howls of disbelief from James. But we were back in the water with propulsion, buoyancy, drills and team diving all looking pretty polished. There is an assessment where you have to complete the drills, all the time maintaining trim and
your buoyancy to within the depth of the thickness of a Sunday newspaper.
Hopefully you will start to see some of the great things that we played with surfacing in BSAC courses – certainly the focus on creating a rock solid, stable platform is what I took away, along with some great techniques. It’s not a course where you learn to dive, it’s much more of a coaching course to hone and polish your diving skills and I found it to be thoroughly enjoyable.
Learning Curve article from SCUBA issue 62