Been out of the water over the winter? National Instructor Luisa Smith shares her tips on how to start the new scuba diving season safely.
Some hardy stalwarts will have braved the colder temperatures and kept diving over the winter months. However, the vast majority of UK divers are likely to have entered a state of hibernation in November, packing their kit away for the winter to wait for the warmer weather.
So, when the time comes and you're getting yourself ready for the new season, what do you have to consider? Luisa tells all...
Essential equipment checks
Even if you didn't pack away your equipment for the winter, ensure it is all serviced before the diving season starts in earnest.
- Cylinders should be checked to ensure they are in test. If you have cylinders that have any mix other than air in them, you will need to re-analyse the mix to ensure that what you have written on your label is accurate, before you use the cylinder for a dive.
- Drysuits should be carefully inspected – check that seals have not perished or stretched, dump valves are not clogged with clumped-up talcum powder. Check that zips are well lubricated, and none of the teeth are damaged. You also need to try your suit on to make sure it fits… it is amazing how many drysuits seem to ‘shrink’ over the winter months!
- O-rings on torches should be inspected and lubricated; batteries and bulbs tested to make sure they are working. Mask straps and fin straps are subject to a lot of wear over a diving season, so inspect them for any sign of splitting, which could lead to a catastrophic failure later in the year if not replaced.
- Finally, check your dive computer. It is a vital piece of equipment that is frequently not turned on before you arrive at the dive site, at which point it is far too late to rectify a flat battery. This is also the best time for a little refresher in all the functions on the computer that you may need, from planning functions to changing the gas mixture. Spending a few minutes now checking all your equipment thoroughly can spare you frustrating kit failures later in the year, leading to lost diving days.
It is surprising how ring-rust sets in after just a few months out of the water. All those skills you took for granted last year seem a little harder now, requiring thought. The best way to start your season is in the swimming pool, running through basic skills such as mask clearing. Needless to say, there are no excuses for more advanced divers not to be running through the essentials.
But the tekkies among us have more skills to practise, including regulator switching and shutdown drills. Needless to say, we should all be brushing up on our rescue skills. This is also the perfect opportunity to test your kit, to ensure that everything is in full working order and you are happy with the set-up.
Build it up
The next step, after checking your kit and your skills in the swimming pool, is to move to a controlled open water site. Depending on where you are based in the country this may mean a trip to a local inland site, or it may be a familiar, shallow coastal site. Wherever you choose to go, it is important that you build it up gradually.
On your first couple of times in the water take the opportunity to re-familiarise yourself with the location of everything on your kit – releases, inflators, dumps, handy D-rings to attach torches and dSMBs. It is also a good time to check your buoyancy and trim – when was the last time that you actually did a weight check to ensure that you are not over weighted, instead of running with the popular but flawed theory that if you sink you must be heavy enough?
Your basic skills re-cap should not be limited to the swimming pool – it is always beneficial to repeat your skills in open water as well, where you will be wearing a hood and gloves along with other protective clothing, making tasks that much harder. It’s a fact of life – we all add some extra kit when we move to open water. Take the time now to practice unclipping and handing off your stage cylinder, to remind yourself of the best way to do it before you are in choppy seas hanging on to a line on the side of a dive boat, with a queue of other divers waiting impatiently to get on the lift.
Although a basic level of physical fitness should not be knocked, the easiest way to build up your diving fitness is to do just that… go diving. Carrying heavy open water kit should always be done with care to prevent injury, but by regularly carrying your kit at dive sites, you will start to improve your strength. Climbing in and out of the water in full kit, along with finning any appreciable distance either on the surface or underwater, will soon start to have a positive impact on your overall fitness level. Any physical exercise you choose to do over and above this will only bring added benefits to your diving performance, in terms of decreased gas consumption and decreased fatigue.
The important thing is to take it at your own speed – do not be tempted to push yourself unnecessarily in order to keep up with friends. If you are planning more technical diving, start your season with a single cylinder to get yourself going, before jumping in with a twinset and stage cylinders.
The same is true when carrying out build-up dives. Start your dives shallow, in relatively relaxed conditions. Once you start to find such dives easy, begin to increase the depth, and the degree of task-loading you allow yourself, ranging from additional equipment carried to using run-times to practice decompression schedules. This is also the time to re-cap those essential skills that are easiest practiced in open water – navigation, dSMB deployment and good buoyancy control for maintaining decompression stops.
Although you cannot plan for every eventuality, if you check everything carefully at the beginning of the season, and then build up your experience gradually, you are setting yourself up for an enjoyable diving season. The only thing you won’t be able to guard against is the weather!