Ten Tips On How to Prepare for Technical Diving Training
By Andy Davis
I teach a wide range of technical diving courses, including deep diving decompression, technical wreck penetration and advanced overhead environment sidemount training.
Of all those diverse and challenging courses, the one I see students struggle the most with is entry-level tech; their first introduction to technical diving standards on a RAID Deep40, PADI Tec40 or Advanced Nitrox course.
The reason why many students struggle at the threshold of technical diving is the sheer and dramatic elevation in performance standards necessary to qualify divers to complete technical dives.
Recreational scuba training is often experiential in nature and based upon diving within very forgiving safety parameters. Consequently, the performance requirements demanded on recreational courses are not challenging to most divers.
They are ‘everyman’ courses, designed to be achievable by the vast majority of divers, with little or no significant surmountable hurdles to qualification. There is also very little, if any, planned progression in overall diving skill level from one course to another.
In most scuba agencies, recreational diving courses do not progress from one ‘level’ to another ‘level’, based on any progressive and assessed improvement in diving skill. The end result is that the student can drift from one recreational diving course to another forever, whilst never actually needing to improve their core skill-set as a diver.
All too often novice technical divers exhibit flawed foundational scuba skills; buoyancy, trim, propulsion, control, situational awareness, equipment familiarity and team diving skills. These critical aspects are rarely developed to higher standards in recreational diving curriculum.
At best, deficiencies in these foundational skills dilute the efficiency of technical training through the need to do remedial work. At worst, they stop technical diving students from achieving the standards needed to qualify.
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that many divers emerge from the water on the first dive of their first technical training course in shell-shocked disbelief. I had the same experience myself, years ago. I’ve heard many of my students state that their initial technical training was one of the biggest challenges of their life. It shouldn’t be, if they prepare themselves diligently.
Here are my ten tips to ensure an effective and seamless transition from recreational to technical diving:
Research well in advance.
Enrolling on a technical-level course should never be a spur-of-the-moment decision. There is a lot you can gain from effective research in advance of training.
Youtube is crammed full of excellent training/demonstration videos showing technical diving skills and standards. The internet, both blogs and forums, is a goldmine of information and good advice.
But when dealing with internet forums, do be wary of ‘internet divers’, who can act authoritative and give advice well beyond their experience.
Books such as Mark Powell’s “Deco for Divers” and Steve Lewis’ “The Six Skills” provide an excellent theoretical springboard into technical diving theory and mindset. There are even several free-to-download eMagazines; such as X-Ray Magazine and Tech Diver.
Understand the philosophical alternatives.
There are a number of schools of thought when it comes to technical diving methodology. It’s helpful to identify the varying tech philosophies and assess the pros and cons to them in relation to your own preferred beliefs.
These philosophies encompass multiple issues such as; the appropriate level of necessary standardization in diver equipment, approaches to gas selection, preferred methods of calculating decompression ascents etc.
Are you the sort of person who enjoys a clearly-defined ‘path’ with little need for personal decisions? Or do you prefer having the flexibility to investigate multiple options and defining your own personal preferences? Will you be diving in a single geographical area and a consistent team, or will you travel extensively and often dive with strangers? Do you appreciate standardization or individuality?
In your initial stages as a technical diver, always maintain an open mind. Don’t succumb to hype, elitism or get drawn into dogmatic thinking.
Find the best tech instructor for you.
One thing is for sure – you shouldn’t walk into a random dive centre and enrol on a technical diving course without knowing who your instructor will be.
You will spend a lot of money as a technical diver, but the best money you will ever spend is on your first instructor who will set your technical diving foundations and shape all of your future progress.
Find the best instructor that you can. Travel, if necessary to get to the best you can, even if it costs more money in course fees, travel or accommodation. Research and interview prospective instructors. Ascertain their experience and activity within the technical diving community.
How frequently do they conduct technical dives? At what level? How often do they teach technical diving courses, and for how many years? Are they a tech diving community ‘mover and shaper’, or just another insta-instructor, card-collecting drone? Are they cutting-edge in a developing field… or an ‘old dog’ that stopped evolving years before? Are they truly passionate about technical diving, or is teaching technical diving just another income opportunity for them? What percentage of students do they fail, defer or provide remedial or extra training for? What is their policy if you don’t meet the necessary standards to qualify? What are those standards?
Trust me, a good tech instructor is one who won’t hesitate to withhold qualification if you can’t meet the standards.
You should pay for the training… but qualification is something you have to earn. Instructors who hand out certifications to under-skilled students put lives in danger. Technical diving courses should never be limited to the ‘minimum requirement’ or ‘attendance’ based.
There has to be a very real element of assessment; that means failure (more training needed) should be a very real possibility for those not able to demonstrate reliable competency in all required aspects.
A credible tech instructor will have a verifiable ‘footprint’ in the community. Reputation means a lot in technical diving circles. Be selective. Get the best instructor you can afford. Travel for excellence, if necessary.
Consult with your prospective tech diving instructor.
Any technical diving instructor worth their salt will encourage you to consult extensively over your pre-course preparations and equipment selection.
Their concern is that you attend the course with existing solid foundations from which they can progress you with technical diving skills and drills. They won’t want your technical training with them to be diluted or hindered by having to remediate skills deficiencies that otherwise prevent you reaching high-performance standards and/or requiring extensions to the training schedule.
Communicate with your future tech diving instructor and ascertain what their pre-course standards are.
Prerequisites for tech training should be more than x, y or z plastic certification cards; there should be a real and tangible foundational skill-set that you have mastered before attempting a tech diving course.
Practice and prepare diligently before the course starts.
You should aim to put aside some time to develop and improve your buoyancy, trim, propulsion, static stability, situational awareness before starting a technical diving course.
No matter how good you think you are, technical training with complex new equipment, demanding skills and drills, will place great demands on your task loading. That task loading will degrade any other existing skill that isn’t firmly ingrained, unconscious and automatic.
For instance, you might have achieved the ability to hover in stable horizontal trim for 10 minutes with no more than +/- 50cm deviation; but how much focus does it demand? Could you still achieve those standards when task-loaded with new skills, like shut-down drills, mask-changing, DSMB deployments, manipulating deco cylinders or gas changes?
Even small skills, such as clipping and unclipping bolt-snaps onto D-rings can be ingrained into muscle memory prior to training. A lot of students suffer significant task-loading and frustration over small-scale routine skills. You can practice a lot of these without even getting into the water.
Learn the necessary tech diving hand signals – and apply them in your diving. Learn how to calculate your SAC rate/RMV…and do it.
Research and purchase technical dive planning software in advance; read the manual, learn how to use it; then use it to plan your recreational dives. Your tech diving instructor can suggest drills for you to practice, along with standards you should aim to achieve. Also, make use of the numerous skill demonstration videos on Youtube as a guide to role-model what you should aim to perfect.
Apply technical diving mindset on your recreational dives.
Technical diving mindset is about disciplined, precise, meticulous, accurate, methodical and uncompromising diving. Even as a recreational diver you can start developing this mindset in anticipation of technical diving.
How? Simply apply what you have learned thus far as a diver; simple rules like ‘plan your dive and dive your plan’. Make your safety stops accurately within centimetres of your intended depth. Check your gauges frequently and be able to estimate accurately your remaining gas before you check the gauge. Maintain frequent communication with your dive buddy, confirm gas levels, remaining no-stop time etc.
Diligently plan your dives; including your allowable bottom time, predicted gas consumption and navigation – stop just ‘flying your computer’ or delegating all responsibility to a dive guide. Perform diligent self and buddy checks before every dive.
Take a little time to practice those ‘unused’ emergency skills; like air-sharing or mask removal/replacement on every dive.
Contrary to what many recreational divers assume, technical diving isn’t (just) about learning to use cool gadgets, complex equipment or complicated drills and skills – it’s about the refinement and perfection of the core diving skills and procedures that are taught from day #1 to novice divers on Open Water courses.
Equip yourself properly before training and get familiar with using that equipment.
Before making any purchases, research technical diving equipment options and principles comprehensively. Understand the principle of K.I.S.S. and the benefits of a minimalistic ‘less is more’ approach to technical diving. Confirm your planned purchases with technical divers and absolutely do get your prospective instructor’s advice.
Tech diving equipment is costly, so the last thing you want to do is purchase equipment that you might later find to be less than optimal and have to replace. Be sceptical of manufacturer’s claims or gimmicky marketing. There’s a lot of unsuitable equipment marketed to specifically appeal to naïve and ill-informed aspiring tech divers.
‘Cool’ brand labels or the most expensive kit will absolutely not make you a better, or more respected technical diver. Don’t succumb to chasing an ‘image’ at the expense of functionality; it sucks to be labelled as one of those “all the gear, but no idea” divers.
Once you’ve made equipment purchases, get familiar with using it. This reduces task loading and frustration once you start your tech diving course. From the smallest bolt-snap to the harness to the regulators; from the simplest backup torch to the most complex tech computer; wear it at home, operate it until it becomes tedious, practice with it in a pool, and utilize it on your recreational dives.
If it comes with a manual, read the manual. Then read the manual again. Don’t underestimate the advantage of committing micro/sub-skills into your muscle memory…. each, in turn, will make the complex tech skills so much easier once your tech course begins.
Get your course manual early and complete the theory well in advance.
Technical diving theory is extensive and considerably more in-depth than anything you’d encounter at recreational diving levels. Arrange to receive your tech course manual as early as possible and complete your theory study homework as soon as you can.
If you know the basics on arrival, a motivated tech instructor can then use available classroom time to expand upon those basics and give you considerably more insight into the subjects covered. Pre-study will also give you the opportunity to conduct further independent research on subjects that interest, or confuse, you. It’s a good idea to educate yourself beyond the scope, or views, of a single agencies’ training material.
Get Physically Fit.
Technical diving places far greater physical and mental demands on the diver than recreational diving does. Tech equipment is heavier, bulkier and causes more water resistance. Technical dives are longer, colder and drain more energy.
Whilst you don’t need to be some sort of Adonis, or Amazonian, to be a technical diver, it is important to understand the physical stress and exhaustion plays a large role in your ability to effectively learn, maintain mental focus and to retain psychological calm.
Improving your strength, stamina, flexibility and endurance has numerous benefits when your technical training starts. Excess body fat is a cited pre-disposing factor towards decompression illness. Improving your cardiovascular system is believed to enable better off-gassing in decompression. Learn to hydrate yourself effectively, as a lifestyle habit. Adopt eating habits that provide you with effective fuel to sustain longer, more demanding periods of activity.
You might be able to just struggle through a technical diving course at the limits of your fitness, but that is a controlled environment and your instructor will pace it accordingly. What is your capability to cope when a real tech diving emergency arises?
Commit yourself to the pursuit of excellence.
Technical diving training removes the cast-iron limitations and boundaries of the recreational diver. The horizon becomes very wide. You can go as far into technical diving as you wish… right up to, or beyond, the boundaries of human sub-aqua achievement. But each measure of further progression you wish to take must be underpinned by a determined and unrelenting passion to continually refine and improve your diving skills. Technical diving suits the humble perfectionist.
Yes, there’ll always be some cash-starved, plastic tech diving instructor who’ll exchange your credit card details for the issuance of an undeserved technical certification card. Yes, you can bounce from tech course to tech course without developing an iota of skill improvement if you’re willing to find unethical instructors and throw money at them. Yes, you can kit yourself from head-to-toe in all the ‘right’ equipment and brand labels. Yes, you can flout your qualifications and use all the right ‘buzz words’ to boost your ego in dive centres and on scuba diving internet forums.
But don’t think you’ll fool anyone that matters. Certainly, don’t think you’ll fool Mr Murphy – for he is likely to join you on a technical dive one day and illustrate the extent of your shortcomings.
Money can buy you anything, even technical diving certifications. But you might pay a much steeper price if you haven’t earned those qualifications through the cost of hard work and dedication in water.
Commit also your time, effort and energy in the pursuit of excellence and the accumulation of progressive and current experience relative to your qualification level and the dives you elect to undertake.
Start now. Strive to be an excellent diver at whatever certification level you are at.
About the Author
Andy Davis is a RAID, PADI TecRec, ANDI, BSAC and SSI qualified independent technical diving instructor who specializes in teaching advanced sidemount, trimix and wreck exploration diving courses across South East Asia. Currently residing in ‘wreck diving heaven’ at Subic Bay, Philippines, he has amassed more than 9000 open circuit and CCR dives over 27 years of diving across the globe.
Andy has published many magazine articles on technical diving, has written course materials for dive training agency syllabus, tests and reviews diving gear for major manufacturers and consults with the Philippines Underwater Archaeology Society.
He is currently writing a series of books to be published on advanced diving topics. Prior to becoming a professional technical diving educator in 2006, Andy was a commissioned officer in the Royal Air Force and has served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Belize and Cyprus.