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July 26, 2006

Underwater again, and thoughts about the PADI approach

Yesterday was the fourth evening of my PADI Open Water Scuba course, and the second where I got to experience being underwater. The first time had been life-altering in a sense that is hard to describe. Humans simply aren't meant to breathe underwater, and the frist time you do so, it's had to shake the sense that this is all wrong. But that quickly changes as the air flows reliably. The odd sensation of breathing underwater is then quickly replaced by trying to keep up, getting used to your body moving very differently, by the laws of gravity no longer seeming to apply, and by essentially having to learn how to move all over again, like a baby.

Getting into Scuba diving really consists of two things. One is above water, the other beneath the surface. Above water you study books, listen to lectures, try to process and remember it all, and test your knowledge in quizzes and by answering the instructor's questions. In and under the water you try to remember it all, or at least a little bit of it, try to adapt to a new world where different rules apply, and slowly learn all the skills on how to act and move and get things done, all safely and, eventually, elegantly and effortlessly.

You can teach skills in many ways. PADI's approach has three prongs:

One is self-study via a rather voluminous perfectbound 260-page instruction book and a DVD that is an exact copy of the book, with (almost) all of its text spoken verbatum over video. The book has frequent multiple choice tests, all with the answers right there. It also outlines what you're supposed to take away from reading a chapter and encourages you to then underline the pertinent text. At the end of each chapter -- there are five -- is a "knowledge review," which you fill out (no answers printed here) and then hand in to your instructor. Don't underestimate the self-learning. It takes many hours to read the book and view the video, and while the tests in it are "open book," the ones you take during class are not.

The second prong are the classroom sections, and those appear to vary widely from instructor to instructor. From what I can tell, most instructors use classroom time to a) briefly go over the basics, and b), in much more detail, zero in on what they, based on their own experience, find truly important. PADI courses, which are meant to be accessible to everyone across a very wide age range, keep things simple and even complex concepts are described and explained in simple language. However, some concepts are not that simple, like understanding dive tables. While a lot of other stuff is common sense and self-explanatory, dive tables really address a very serious matter, that of how long you can stay at any given depth, and how the nitrogen that is still in your body after a dive affects the next one. Chuck, our instructor, spent much of his time on explaining dive tables and going through example after example. He went as far as saying that you may get this or that answer wrong in the final quiz, but getting dive table answers right is mandatory.

The third is pooltime and applying what we learned with actual scuba gear. This is the second time for us, so now we know how to pick a tank, a BC, a regulator, then assemble the whole thing. This time I find a BC my size, but pick a marginal regulator. While we finish prepping our gear, the instructor already explains the "giant stride entry" where the diver essentially walks off the side of the pool (or whatever). Hold onto your weight belt with your right hand and keep your mask firmly in place with your left. Jump, do this, do that, about ten steps. Hard to keep all those checklists in mind. Amazingly, it's no big deal. I jump in and quickly come up, mask still in place, and everything else as well. I give Amanda the "ok" sign.

While I am still checking this and that, making sure all is well, the instructor quickly goes through all we'll be doing in and underwater today. Then off we go, following him underwater. The rest is almost like a blur. Down we go, breathing underwater again. I now know why "ease of breathing" is listed as the most important thing when selecting a regulator. The one I have has a wimpy, chewed-up mouthpiece and every breath seems a struggle. It works, but I'd never pick this one. And its alternate seems identical in design and length to the primary. Though my BC fits much better, I still struggle with inflating and deflating it to achieve neutral buoyancy. I either float up or sink down. At the bottom of the pool we practice pivoting, i.e. keeping the tip of the fins at the bottom, then inflating and deflating just a bit so that our bodies move up and down. Then we do the same thing free-floating. I eventually get how to adjust buoyancy simply by adjusting my breathing, and feel a sense of elation when I do. We then go on just diving, following the instructor.

This gives me my first glimpse of the serenity, the just-floating, the peacefulness I am told to expect. I float through the water, occasionally check for my buddy, and force myself to view the pressure gauge. Clearing water that seeps into the mask is no longer an issue, I do it automatically. I never even paid much attention to equalizing pressure. That, too, seemed to happen almost automatically. Later the instructor's assistant tells me I am not using my fins correctly. I wish I could see that on video as I am very much determined to do it right. I do not want to look like the klutzy guy/gal they always show in videos as the example of how not to do it.

Then we move back to the shallow end to practice alternate air source ascents. That's what you do when your buddy runs out of air and you need to share yours. Or the other way around. So that's serious stuff. Again there are numerous steps. Do this, do that, make all those signals. I force myself to remember just the essentials: have the buddy to your right. Find your alternate with your right arm, give it to her with your right hand, then grab her right shoulder or BC with your right arm. Make sure she is okay with air, then motion up, inflate your BC, and go up. On the surface, make sure she is okay, then make her inflate her BC with her mouth. We practice that and it works fine, except really being a bit bewildered over all the many signs the instructors makes and wants for us to make. Then we go to the deep end and do it there. No problem.

Up we come and practice releasing, and then putting back on, the weight belt. And then taking off and putting back on the BC. One of my clasps will simply not release, so I am lagging behind, but eventually do it. I realize that making all this second nature is going to take some practice, given that we won't always do it within the confines of a small pool...

So that's the end of underwater session 2, or my second "confined water" dive. We get out, disassamble our gear, stow it away. I think I did okay, though certainly not with the effortless grace that I hope to achieve. As of now, I don't think my buddy views me as providing much help or guidance, which I sort of expect of myself given that I am so much older than her. I remember a stunning fact that the instructor had told us: the profile of the average Amercan scuba diver is male, age 52, overweight, half of them smoke, almost all drink. I fit the age bracket, the others do not apply to me, but I sure expected the demographics to be way different.

Later I find myself sitting in my own pool in the dark, just reflecting. I wonder what comes next, and where this adventure will take me. What wonders I will see, and how far I will go.

And later yet I discover another thing: a strongly chlorinated pool just about marinates you. Despite two showers I feel bleached! Of course, the fact that I'm spending the fourth day in a house without air-conditioning during the worst heatwave to hit my area in decades may have something to do with it as well.

Posted by conradb212 at July 26, 2006 10:44 PM

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