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Can this man save the diving industry? Interview with Paul Toomer

By Michael Menduno

RAID’s Paul Toomer. Photo: Olivier van Overbeek

 

RAID’s co-owner is on a mission to make diving sexy again. He’s passionate, experienced, and brings a fresh point of view. Don’t underestimate Paul Toomer…

By creating a new market for diving, PADI co-founder & former CEO John Cronin—reportedly the first person to rack up a $1 million in sales in the fledgling U.S. scuba industry—might be the industry’s most successful salesman. But it’s conceivable that in the not-so-distant future this mantle may pass to Paul Vincent Toomer, co-owner and training director of RAID.

The 52-year old, artfully-inked South African biker, recovering dive retailer, ex-PADI Course Director and Director of Technical Training for SSI, who has served as an instructor trainer (IT) for more than half dozen agencies, wants to change the way the industry markets diving. His proving ground, RAID (originally the ‘Rebreather Association of International Divers’), which he purchased from founder Barry Coleman in 2014, offers the most sophisticated, cloud-based e-learning platform in the business.

The company’s technology, coupled with Toomer’s contacts, experience, and his unique diving duende has arguably made RAID, which is now in 85 countries with more than 1500 instructors, the fastest growing dive training agency in the world. In the process, he attracted the attention of many diving veterans. “Paul’s a passionate outlier. He doesn’t do anything half-way,” explained explorer Jill Heinerth, who with educator Steve Lewis helped design RAID’s new cave and cavern programs. “He’s pushing the industry to something new, whether it wants it or not.”

Toomer was born in Manchester, England, and grew up in South Africa. He still remembers his first dive in 1976, the year Jaws was released. “My dad took me to go and do a try dive with a Navy friend of his down in Durban and I couldn’t even put my face in the water I was so scared of sharks,” he told me.

It took Toomer another two decades to get back in the water. It was 1996, when Toomer, recently moved to London, signed up with a friend for a PADI open-water course with a young Phil Short, now a consultant and training director for IANTD UK. Toomer was hooked. “I got out of the swimming pool and went into the office. I took my wallet out, and said, ‘I want to be an instructor, help yourself.’”

A year later, Toomer opened Diving Leisure London and attended his instructor exam (IE) under PADI’s Steve Axtell and Mark Caney, but not before selling two open-water classes he intended to teach upon completing his course. At the time, Toomer was sporting shoulder-length dreadlocks along with lots of ink and metal. “He was hard to forget,” Caney recalled.

We need to stand together and push ‘Brand Scuba’, not just Brand Scuba Pro or Brand PADI or Brand RAID

Under Toomer’s direction, Diving Leisure soon became one of the busiest dive shops in London, doing 1000-1500 certifications a year out of a 900-ft2 (83-m2) space. Two years later Toomer opened a second shop, Amphibian Water Sports, and then, in 2001, completed his training to become a PADI course director.

That year Toomer discovered tech diving, after taking an Inspiration rebreather course. “I decided to go into tech because I’d gotten myself to where I wanted to go in recreational diving. I was very, very focused,” he explained.

In 2007, Toomer sold his shops and launched Dive Matrix, a tech training company based in Malta that contracted with other dive centres. By that time, Toomer was not only a PADI Course Director but also an instructor/IT for the BSAC, DSAT, IANTD, PSA, and TDI. That same year, Barry Coleman started RAID as Poseidon Diving System’s in-house agency to provide training for their newly released MKVI recreational rebreather.

In 2012, Scuba Schools International (SSI) tapped Toomer to become their International Director of Technical Training, and help the company expand its tech program and transition to digital teaching materials. “I loved working for SSI,” Toomer explained. “They were two of the best years of my life, training with Robert Stoss. I consider him a leading light in the diving industry—there is nobody who thinks like Robert. He could make money selling sand in the desert and would find a way of packaging it in an SSI wrapper.” Like famed explorer Sheck Exley, Toomer always has a kind word for fellow divers.

Two years later when Mares announced its intention to acquire SSI, Toomer was forced to make a decision. About that time he got a call from Coleman, who was interested in selling a majority share of RAID if Toomer would help build the company. It was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down. “I would never have left SSI if that merger didn’t happen,” Toomer said. “The reason I chose to move is because I had an opportunity to grow and because Robert and his team would no longer be at the company. I didn’t want to work in a corporate environment while in my fifties.”

Poseidon had decided to cut Coleman and RAID lose so that mainstream agencies like PADI would offer Poseidon rebreather courses, but Coleman had signed up 300 instructors and issued 2500-3000 certifications before this happened. Subsequently, he broadened the platform to include other rebreathers and began adding open circuit training and looking for someone to help. Coleman teamed up with Toomer and partner Jim Holiday, a former Australian dive retailer and distributor, in 2014 and remains RAID chief technologist. Since then the team has updated and/or rewritten most of RAID’s programs, which now number more than 65 courses.

Over the last year Toomer logged more than 150,000 air miles and several hundred dives, leaving him with precious little surface interval to spend with his wife and 5-year old son in London.

In addition to serving as the public face of RAID, the up-and-coming diving firebrand is also Vice President of the Rebreather Training Council under chair, Mark Caney, who ironically has been very supportive of RAID. “Mark has some serious integrity and he’s not a fool,” Toomer explained. “I’m pretty sure he recognizes and appreciates what we’re doing; that we’re trying to grow diving and we’re trying to make diving safer.”

DIVER Magazine caught up with Toomer earlier this year. Here is what he had to say…

Jill Heinerth, Paul Toomer and Steve Lewis during BETA testing of cave programs. Photo: Jill Heinerth

 

Menduno: Big picture, what do you hope to accomplish with RAID?

Toomer: Outside of my ambition to become the Apple of the diving industry? [Toomer smiles]

Think different?


Yeah, outside of that. I want more people to go underwater. I don’t think that any single entity of scuba diving at the moment is doing a good enough job of getting people to go underwater. We’re not even doing a good job of getting people to go in the water. Have you been on the European Recreational Scuba Training Council website?

I haven’t.

Go there, you’ll find something really interesting. The council reckons that the number of divers will decrease by 8-9% over the next 20 years and new certifications are expected to decline by around 1% per year. That’s their advertisement to the world. The Recreational Scuba Training Council is saying that our market will decline.

Today, there are 7.5 billion people walking around on the planet, and we manage to pump out about one and a half million certifications a year. And there’s expected to be a billion more people on the planet over the next 10 years. Yet the leaders of our industry are saying that we’ve reached stagnation and we’re now in decline? Seriously? What’s taking scuba’s place then? Why are the stakeholders not moving us forward?

What should we be doing?


It’s really simple. We need to stop competing against each other. I mean that in a global sense, not on an individual basis. We need to stand together and push ‘Brand Scuba’, not just Brand Scuba Pro or Brand PADI or Brand RAID.

Grow the pie and everybody gets a bigger piece?

If you look at the cycling market, it’s something like 100 times bigger than scuba and it’s less half the age of scuba. You know why? Because it’s Brand Cycle. It’s not Specialized this, Specialized that. Specialized is more than happy for people to modify their bikes with someone else’s wheels and suspension, and they’ll even advertise those. [Ed note: The global cycling market exceeded $78 billion, in 2015. By comparison scuba diving was approximately $1-2 billion.]

The diving industry can only grow if we all stand together. But instead, everybody, including the major agencies, is focused on beating each other up in silly wars and silly discussions. We don’t need that.

There needs to be a massive shift in what training agencies offer their dive centers and instructors

We‘re fighting over the crumbs?

Absolutely. So I have a story for you. I was diving with seven-gilled cow sharks in Cape Town with a group from Denmark. The boat drops us on the beach. I get out and walk up the beach in my rebreather and there’s these six or seven 17-year-old mountain bikers covered in mud, right?

So one of the guys says to me, “Geez, you look so cool.” I’m like, ‘Yeah, we are cool. We’re divers. Are you a diver?” And he said, “No, no way. We don’t dive.” I said, “Why is that?” He goes, “You guys are wankers.” I’m like, “Seriously?” And he goes, “Yeah, every time we go on a forum to find out about diving you’re all bagging each other. So we can’t have this suit because that one’s better. We can’t have this rebreather because that one’s better. We can’t have this regulator because that one’s better. Don’t go to this agency because that one’s better, this one’s rubbish.”

And I’m just standing there and I’m like, “Okay, I hear you.” And the guy says, “Check out this. We’ve just come down this mountain behind us, and this morning I spoke to the runner-up world champion mountain biker to get tips on coming down there. He didn’t bag my equipment. He didn’t bag my bike. He just told me how to come down the mountain safely.”

And cycling is, what, 25 years old? There must be 20 cycling shops within four miles of where I live in Wimbledon (UK). And these guys are selling bikes up to a quarter of a million pounds.

What are they doing that we aren’t?

Absolutely anybody riding a bicycle, no matter what they’re doing, is accepted right in. What we’ve done in our industry is made it so the tekkies won’t talk to the recreationals, the recreationals won’t sit with the rebreather divers, the rebreather divers are better than open circuit divers, and the side mount-ers are more superb than anybody else in the world. You know, we’ve created niches within niches of niches within our industry.

So what would promoting ‘Brand Scuba’ look like?

I think our biggest challenge is that we are just self-cannibalizing, particularly with social media. We are allowing it to be used in—I’m trying to think of the right word—an unethical way. I think that we’ve got too many people spending hours on social media, making comments about who’s good and who’s bad. And in actual fact, what we should be concentrating on is going diving.

We need to stand together and take action against any diver, member, instructor, instructor trainer, dive center—any one—who disparages other divers on a public forum, because it is not helping our industry. In fact, RAID will be releasing a standard on this; if a RAID member bags another dive entity on social media and found guilty of that sin, they will be expelled on the very social media that they used to pick this fight. What I’m hoping is that the other agencies will see this as a sign and we can start to clean our industry up. They’re the only ones that have the power to do this.

Secondly, we need to unify our messaging. We could do some incredible stuff together, but at the moment we’re not even acting like unified front. The dive industry has a big hurdle. It’s called certification. That certification could be used massively to our advantage in terms of marketing, but were not using it that way. Instead we treat it as a hurdle. Instead of promoting how cool it is to get an open water certification, we’re convinced we have to smash down the course to two days and smash down prices to get potential divers in the door.

No! Instead what we should be saying is that this C-card is your passport to world. It’s the only international passport that you’ll ever need. It’s your license to travel to the 71% of the planet that is water. If we stood unified, we could give the whole world the reason why that passport to discovery is so important. It is absolutely the most fundamental and important course of their life, because it sets the theme, doesn’t it?

I love that! So what is RAID doing to grow diving?

Now there is a question whose answer is as long as a piece of string. We’re trying to make diving sexy again. We’re certainly pushing our marketing at the adventure sport market. So you’ve got kite surfers, your paddle boarders, your motocrossers, your mountain bikers, and triathletes. We’ve got a big plan trying to attract them. I suppose that’s our biggest drive at the moment.

We also have a stellar RAID swim program we’re just rolling out and a freediving program. So we’re trying to attack it from those fronts as well. You can learn to swim, move to snorkelling, which links to freediving, which links to scuba, and from there diversifies into open and closed circuit, recreational to technical, wreck diving you name it. It’s all about exploration, exploration of the aquatic environment.

 

Are there areas in current diving practices that you think deficient and or need to be improved?

For recreational divers it’s buoyancy and trim. They’re not getting taught well enough. They’re being over-weighted so that they can sit on the bottom and do their skills and the instructors are not spending enough time with them. You just have a look at Diver’s Alert Network (DAN) figures for contributing factors to dive accidents. Buoyancy is right there at the top. So modern diving dictates that the agencies need to pick up their game and that’s exactly what we have done at RAID. We don’t offer a buoyancy specialty class like other agencies. Neutral buoyancy and trim are an integral part of our courses beginning with our open water program through technical. We expect our open water divers to be trim and neutrally buoyant.

No more clearing masks on their knees?

Absolutely. Obviously for the first few skills—you can’t start someone in a hover until they can safely clear a mask, and safely remove and replace a regulator and recover it, because they could get hurt. So we’re not being silly about this. But we aim to turn out trim, neutrally buoyant divers.

Our instructor trainer course is absolutely trim and neutrally buoyant; instructor trainers never touch the floor for any demonstration of any skill. Our divemaster and instructor courses are now being done neutrally buoyant as well and we’re starting to bring our divers off their knees. This is reflected in our training manuals, standards, and videos.

How about on the tech diving side?

The rebreather market is the one that I feel needs the biggest fundamental change. First off, rebreathers are not Harley-Davidsons. My Harley, which is sitting in my garage, is tricked up to the nines. It is nothing like what I bought: the brakes and trick forks are made by Harley, the top end of the engine is made by Screaming Eagle, the exhaust is made by Vance & Hines, and the wheels are made by one of the top wheel manufacturers in the world, and the tires are Michelin. We’re talking about add-on products from billion-dollar companies, so they’ve been tested to the nines. It’s not something that some guy made in his shed and now he’s going to stick on his rebreather.

So when Martin Parker [AP Diving], or Dave Thompson [JJ CCR] makes a wonderfully functional, safe rebreather and then somebody rips it to pieces and sticks manual plug-ins and all sorts of doodads all over it—I’m not talking about changing your back plate and harness because it’s more comfortable—I’m talking about fundamentally altering the rebreather, is it any wonder why it bites them in the ass and kills them? If you were doing the right thing by making all these changes to your rebreather, don’t you think someone as smart as Parker or Thompson wouldn’t have already made them?

We should be saying that this C-card is your passport to world. It’s the only passport that you’ll ever need!

Evidently some divers think they know better.

There’s another thing that just astounds me about rebreather diving. I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten on a boat and looked around and found divers had inadequate bailout. Last year, I was on a boat with ten divers preparing for a 96 fsw (60m) dive with 40 minutes of bottom time and most of them only had one stage, and a few had two stages. That just isn’t enough to come home on.

I was carrying three stages: I had a bailout, a mid water gas and a good decompression gas. I’m just looking at this lot going, no way. RAID’s ethos is, if you are diving your rebreather and it fails, the open circuit gas that you are carrying should bring you home in the same time, or less, than it would’ve taken you on the rebreather.

Unfortunately, it is not the manufacturers and it’s not the educators that are causing the problems. I’ve been a rebreather educator with PADI, SSI, IANTD, TDI, PSA, BSAC, and IART, and I can tell you there’s not one that has a fundamentally unsafe program. So where is the message getting lost? A lot of people are getting themselves hurt on rebreathers. It’s just utter insanity.

It seems to me, RAID is exactly what a training agency would look like if you created it today. The coursework along with downloadable manuals, course standards and quizzes are all in the cloud and always up to date. There’s also a cloud based quality assurance program so the student, the instructor and the dive center are all on the same page. Maybe you could explain how that came about and why it’s important?

Barry Coleman founded RAID, in conjunction with Poseidon Diving Systems in 2007, to train recreational divers to dive the Poseidon MKVI rebreather. They decided to go digital for two reasons. First, the rebreather’s hardware and software were changing rapidly. I remember getting software updates between dives as Poseidon refined its product. So they wanted a digital manual so it could be updated regularly as the product continued to evolve.
Second, they wanted to go digital because now they were taking the liability for training on to themselves. So they developed a unique, dynamic quality assurance (QA) program that offered three-way quality assurance to protect the student, the instructor, and the dive center. It takes E-learning to a whole other level.

A comprehensive selection of courses and certifications, opening up a new world of discovery.

 

So something unique to RAID?

Absolutely! I consider the dynamic QA system our unique selling point because a RAID instructor or dive center cannot be thrown under a bus if they do everything properly. The system requires that there is a photograph, a liability release, a medical, student skills QA, and a safe diving practices form completed for every course or no certification is issued.

Traditionally instructors and dive centers are required to keep all their paperwork for seven years. If there is a missing signature, or form or a skill that has not been checked off, then they are on thin ice if something happens in the future. With RAID it’s complete by design and stored in the cloud.

Look, there needs to be a massive shift in what training agencies offer their dive centers and instructors. It’s 2017, yet we’re behaving like it’s still 1970. Seriously? We live in times where everybody gets sued for any reason at any time, and yet it’s near impossible for large mainstream agencies like PADI or SSI to vet every course that’s conducted, but our system can. It protects everyone, even the manufacturers in case of rebreathers, which approve the standards for their products, because the certification cannot be issued unless everyone has done their job. And I don’t care if other agencies want to copy us.

So how do RAID courses compare to those of other training agencies?

People often ask me to comment about other agencies. In fact, they’re all doing their jobs really well. I disagree with quite a few things that some of them are doing, which obviously led to me starting my own agency, but fundamentally, I think they’re all safe and above board. But we do things different.

As far as courses, our standards are higher than most of the other mainstream training agencies, and we tend to require more hours in the water. I’d say we stand above most agencies in terms of standards and slightly below Global Underwater Explorers (GUE), I would guess.

Let me ask you some specifics about the RAID program. How about equipment configuration?

For recreational divers, RAID recommends a six foot (2m) hose for the primary and the secondary is to be worn on a necklace like a tech diver. It’s a lot better than having an octopus floating behind them. We also recommend a back plate and harness.

We haven’t enforced this configuration on recreational divers at the moment but it’s slowly starting to happen. I think over the coming years you’re going to see the recreational market move to a more ‘tech-reational’ market. But it has to be slow. You can’t ask your dive center with hundreds of sets of kit to upgrade everything overnight, which could cost quite a bit. So it’s got to be a slow fight forward. But at least we’re taking the fight. Do you know what I mean?

Of course, we require RAID technical divers to be equipped consistent with modern tech standards: 6 foot (2m) hoses, secondary with necklace, back plate and wings, dive computer with back up.

“I don’t think that any single entity of scuba diving at the moment is doing a good enough job of getting people to go underwater”

How about air diving? Does RAID encourage it, and do you set a maximum depth limit for nitrox mixes?

Look, we’re still following the recreational path that you can use air to 130 feet (40m). However, this world changes as time goes by. The problem is that we are a mainstream agency. We are based in a lot of places where even nitrox is a bit of a pain in the ass to get and we have dive centers that don’t have nitrox at the moment. We do have plans to limit air and nitrox to 100 feet (30m) in the future, and, like GUE, we do advocate using trimix in our recreational deep diver program. So, yes, we are heading that way. But as I said, the only hurdle is that we are a mainstream agency and we need to make sure our dive centers can actually do the work when they choose to come with us.

Team diving?

Absolutely! We have a ten foot (3m) maximum rule and that’s in clear visibility. In low visibility, yeah, you’ve got to be able to touch and see your buddy. We do not advocate solo diving in any way, shape or form. Solo rebreather diving is basically taking a revolver, sticking one bullet in it, and spinning it as many times as you like. One time that thing is going to fire on you. You need options.

Conversely, we absolutely support the whole notion of the self-redundant diver. Because God forbid something does happen and you do get separated from your teammate, you want to know 100% you can bring yourself to the surface.

It’s amazing to me that you have worked with most of training agencies in the industry, before taking over RAID. What has been the reaction from your peers?

Richard Lundgren [a founding member and board member of GUE] made an absolutely fantastic comment when I saw him last. He shook my hand and said, “I guess I lost the bet.” I said, what bet? He said, “Well, we were all laughing about this lame duck that you bought called RAID and how long it would last. Now I see you talking about RAID at dive shows, you’ve got the RAID booth at DEMA and hundreds of instructors are signing up. It’s phenomenal. I congratulate you.”

I think his comment sums up where we are. It’s going to take a bit of longevity before people really put their faith in the RAID brand; the fact that we are named after a bug spray doesn’t help either.

At the start of our interview, you said that your ambition was for RAID to become the Apple of diving. What did you mean by that?

What I love about Apple is that they are focused on the idea of simplicity. I am striving to make diving simple. Not stupid. Not shortcut it. But take it back to being simple. Where standards are easy to understand. Courses are easy to enroll in. I also want to take us back to a high level of quality training. If you make an open water diver experience magic and you make that diver feel safe, they are staying with us. I’m not saying that other agencies aren’t keen to push high quality training but I would much rather have my instructors teaching fewer students at a time and offering more quality to the customer. We’re working to do that.

Paul Toomer. Photo: Jason Brown / Bardo Creative

Dive different?

Apple only controls a small percentage of the market, but they set the trend of what the market does. I recently spoke to someone who told me a story about an aspirational speaker who went to Microsoft to give a presentation. I don’t know if it’s bollocks or not, but it makes the point.

So the person made their presentation and when it came to questions and answers the Microsoft people asked, “How should they combat Apple? How could they make their product as good as Apple’s? How could they market as good as Apple?” As it happens a few weeks later, the same speaker gave his presentation to Apple. Again it came to questions and answers and all the Apple people wanted to know, “How do we get more computers in kids hands? How do we get more computers in schools? How do we get more kids to understand IT?” Microsoft was not mentioned at all. And that’s what I want with RAID.

My dream is to stop attacking our market and cannibalizing it, and grow a fresh market. If more of us started thinking this way we could be adding three to four million divers a year, maybe five million, and there would be no arguments.

For more: www.diveraid.com

 

 

 

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