Words by Steve Lewis
I can’t recall what the original meeting was about. Probably something to do with training schedules or core standards or perhaps what flavour wings we’d order later that evening at ‘beer night’, but I do recall the head of the agency running up the stairs, swinging open the boardroom door and panting an apology for interrupting. He said: “Sorry, but I have someone on the phone downstairs and I have a quick question.”
He looked around the room at us, a mob of eight or nine training-agency staff and senior instructors.
“How many of you teach our drysuit diver program?”
To a person, we put our hands in the air like obedient schoolkids.
“That’s what I thought…”
We all left our hands in the air, but one or two of us were checking out our neighbours and wondering what this was all about. An audit, inventory, show and tell, a purge…yikes?
“Now, a final question.” He looked around the room again but more slowly this time. “How many of you have actually taken a drysuit instructor course?”
Our hands hovered for the briefest moment, then they all fell back to rest quietly on the tabletop or in their owner’s lap.
“Did anyone, anyone of you take a drysuit diver course…a basic user course…ever?”
One person raised a hand, but the rest of us shifted uncomfortably in our chairs. I looked down at my hands, surprised to find them wrapped innocently around a cup of tea as though they were trying to stay uninvolved.
“Okay, that tells me all I need to know…” And our boss, the head of our agency, the guy who had the power to send any and all of us spinning wildly into the purgatory of ‘Suspended Status’ for a potential breach of standards, gently closed the door and ran back downstairs.
As far as I could tell, none of us did get suspended that afternoon, and I never found out who was on the phone call or what prompted Brian’s question, but even though I have no idea what we were discussing before his interruption, I know exactly what we talked about afterwards.
That’s right, drysuit courses.
This is a Canadian dive magazine, and, although our readership is global, let’s assume a large number of our readers spend some of their bottom time diving in Canadian waters.
Here in this fabulous country, we have magnificent shipwrecks, abundant marine life, the longest coastline of any nation, and too many rivers and lakes to count. As you know, most of that water, for most of the year, is chilly…refreshing…bracing…thermally challenging…a bit nippy. In a word COLD. And because of that, many of us choose to do the Canadian portion of our underwater frolicking wrapped in the comfort and protection of a drysuit.
You have probably guessed by now that the question I want to ask is: How many of you drysuit diving folks have had training in drysuit use? Furthermore, how many of you who are instructors—had you been sitting around that boardroom table—would have been able to leave your hands in the air?
I have to admit that I have never taken a drysuit course. Even after the ‘boardroom incident’ describe above.
I’d like to say that episode and the following chat with my peers prompted me to sign up and become ‘legal’. However, that would be a total fiction. My rationale for lying would be to save face, and it might also add some weight to the fact that I feel comfortable telling you that I believe if you’re thinking of investing in a drysuit, you’d benefit greatly from taking a drysuit course. Was that a disingenuous statement? Hypocritical? Perhaps, but indulge me for a few moments.
When I purchased my first drysuit, I had a couple of free orientation sessions, but it certainly wasn’t a formal class. Looking back and knowing what I know now about drysuit courses and what they’re supposed to cover, it was a barely decent enough to get me started as a drysuit owner. And even that’s stretching things. There was a lot missing from my education and preparedness, especially things that a formal course would have covered…should have covered.
For example, information about the pros and cons of different materials, the advantages of different options, how to actually stay warm in a drysuit, what to look for in fit and finish, how to care for the suit, how to store it and maintain it. Even the best way to get in and out of it without giving myself a hernia. And most importantly, how to wear it and ‘own’ it, and maintain decent trim and some degree of buoyancy control.
Looking back on those early cold-water drysuit dives, it probably took me more than a year of trial and error to fill the gapping holes in my education and to become a drysuit diver, rather than just a drysuit owner.
Some of that process was painful, some parts embarrassing, and all of it was more expensive than budgeted.
In fact, my first drysuit was totally inadequate. It was poorly made, so it leaked; it didn’t fit, so it was uncomfortable and trapped air in all the wrong places; and it did not keep me warm, because I did not own the correct thermal protection to wear under it. My second drysuit was slightly better, but only slightly. It took three attempts to get me into a drysuit that was almost right.
Something key to the whole debacle was that my autodidactic fumblings lead me to believe that a formal drysuit course should be delivered in three or maybe four parts.
Step one should happen BEFORE the student (that might be you) buys his or her first suit. This step doesn’t need to take place anywhere near water. Just some practical hands-on show-and-tell with drysuits to touch and feel, followed by a thorough discussion about how drysuits work, what to expect when wearing one, and why there are different options. Add a little materials science, some simple gas laws revision, a dash of physiology, and after that’s all wrapped up, things could move to step two.
Step two brings up the spectre of having to try on a drysuit system, ideally more than one! I use the term ‘system’ advisedly. Pairing a suit with the appropriate thermal protection is at least 30 percent of the challenge. In a perfect world—and perfect is not a bad goal—a drysuit should always be coupled with undies designed to work hand-in-hand with the suit, what it’s made from, and what it’s to be used for… sort of like an electric guitar and its amp. One is not complete without the other, which is why many of the top-drawer drysuit manufacturers make undersuits or recommend specific third-party products.
It would be awesome for the student to get a real sense and a feel for the difference between silicon, latex and neoprene neck- and wrist seals, for example. Also compare the different types of zip and have someone with actual knowledge explain the pros and cons of a front zip compared to a shoulder zip. Finally, they could explore different pocket designs, placement and size, types of boot: the little details that will make a difference between their drysuit purchase being adequate and damn fine.
Step two should also include some time in a pool or pool-like conditions putting some of the theory discussed earlier in the step into practice. Chances are the suit will not fit well, it certainly will not have bells and whistles, custom features, and tweaks that go into making a suit ours, but it will help a wanna-be drysuit diver get a feel for the little idiosyncrasies of diving dry.
Now, step three: buying a suit. If this is you, there are three suggestions: buy a custom suit rather than off the peg; get all the extras you want…do not scrimp; and do not settle for anything but perfect when your suit arrives from the manufacturer.
A suit should fit over your undies without having bags of space. A sloppy fit in the legs and across the shoulders will be nothing but a pain. A suit should not leak…if a suit leaks, send it back, ask for a refund, contact another manufacturer. Seriously. There is no acceptable level of leakage in a new suit. NONE. Finally, a suit must allow
you to move without restriction…see point one.
NOW, and only now, you’re ready to move on to part four and earn that drysuit certification. Everything leading up to this was foreplay.
Steve Lewis is an author, cave diver, life coach and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. His day-job as Director Diver Training for RAID International keeps him busy, but not too busy to meditate daily using yet another method of focusing his mind!
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