On Wednesday I tried doubles in open water for the first time. While this has been a long time coming, I have not had the gear or the technical training to go off and give it a real shot. My desire to be able to dive doubles and perform decompression diving is tempered by my respect for the additional knowledge I feel I need to gain in order to dive this setup safely and with confidence.
Fortunately, since sharing my desire to branch out into the realm of technical diving, I have had a lot of support, most notably from other tech divers, including Jeff Carr and Gilly Elor, who both encouraged me, lent me gear, and taught me a number of valuable scuba lessons, as well as shared many an inspiring (and sometimes hair-raising) story. Chad Everson has also been a big help of late. Numerous others have played their part along the way too, people far more knowledgeable and experienced in the realm of scuba diving than am I. The many books I have read on the subject have further broadened my knowledge of what can go wrong and how to manage it if it does, an inevitability when you are dealing with more gear, unpredictable ocean conditions, and required decompression stops.
As much as I really did want another qualified technical diver to hold my hand through the whole process, I knew that with my technical diving courses drawing ever nearer, I needed to get in the water and soon. I did not want my first dives on my doubles to be in a class, not when I’d be doing “real dives,” and still trying to figure out how to best set up my gear. So, when Chad (now training to become a tech instructor) suggested we head out to Cottage Grove to dive my doubles, it was a no-brainer. Not only could he keep an eye on me, but he could help me practice some of the drills he’d recently had to perfect in his own technical dive training courses. We would figure out my weighting, practice valve drills, practice switching to deco gases, shoot lift bags and make deco stops on them, as well as practice handing off and accepting deco bottles. In theory it sounded like fun, in practice I thought I’d be a “hot mess.”
Admittedly, this would not be the first time I’d be diving doubles. I had previously tried a set of Jeff’s in the swimming pool one day before “divemastering” for an open water class. While heavy out of the water, I had found them surprisingly straightforward, especially because Jeff had set the whole rig up, and because I trusted his well-maintained, high quality equipment. Ever the proponent of real life experience, Jeff told me to practice becoming overbalanced and righting myself. Unnerving at first, I quickly got the hang of it. I soon realized that two tanks seemed to trim out even better than one (unless I plunged sideways) and I could reach the valves with relative ease. They really didn’t feel that different than a single tank setup, though I was in a wetsuit which no doubt made it easier.
Taking the next step and dragging my own doubles over to an open water site took another few months. Not only did I have to bank the trimix that had come with them, but I had to finish acquiring gear and knowledge. With those three tasks completed I was ready for a “get to know my doubles” session.
Though I had never dived Cottage Grove Lake, the section Chad and I would be diving would bottom out around only 20 feet, and visibility was supposed to be better than our usual haunt at Woahink Lake. Upon reaching the site, Chad said that the water level was lower than normal and that it would likely be even shallower. This was just fine by me for a practice session.
Because my doubles needed to be adjusted and neither Chad nor I had the tools to do it with us, I used his doubles, in addition to his backplate and harness, which he suggested I try because he’d made his own with plenty of large, suitably placed D rings, and because he’d added a buttplate with two large handles that he said would make clipping off stage bottles a whole lot easier. This way, if I liked his setup, I could then buy or make my own in preparation for my checkout weekend at Lake Washington a couple of weeks hence. It made sense so I left my bulkier transplate harness and backplate in the car.
Once I’d readied my gear I zipped up my drysuit and added hood and gloves. I waited for Chad to finish getting ready himself, and then with his help, hauled the doubles onto the back of his pickup so that it would be easier to slip into the harness. We did a head-to-toe check to begin with: hood, yes. Mask, yes. Surface marker buoy in right pocket, yes. Backup mask in left pocket, yes. Two computers, yes, and so it went, right until we reached my fins. This is a handy little practice, especially if you’re diving solo, as it ensures you have all of your gear with you before you get in the water.
Because I’d tried doubles in a wetsuit the first time around, I had a little trepidation around reaching valves. My nerves quickly eased when I realized that with a “butt up, head down approach” I could easily reach them, even in a more restrictive drysuit.
Next, we adjusted my weighting. Chad took all of the weights on my weight belt off. This meant that diving steel 100s in freshwater, I needed no additional weight, and that was with an aluminum backplate too. I was a little surprised. Up until this point, everyone I had asked has said to buy a steel backplate. Had I done so, my freshwater dives would have been significantly more uncomfortable. That said, I imagine this will indeed be an additional purchase when I dive saltwater.
Weighting done, we went for a dive.
While I typically use my drysuit for buoyancy control underwater (instead of my BCD), doing as much in just 20 feet was next to impossible. I had to add too much air to my drysuit, which, with its dump valve entirely open, sent me plummeting back into the silt as soon as I made a wobbly adjustment. Pretty quickly I resolved only to add air to my suit to relieve the pressure and then, for the rest of the dive, switched to using my wing.
While my buoyancy was certainly off, swimming around wasn’t too bad. I still managed to stay out of the silt and in a horizontal knees bent feet up position. When Chad began miming that I should try my tank valves drills, it wasn’t long before I was mucking up the visibility. While it was easy enough to reach them, in such shallow water too much off a head down position threw me off. I had to practice minimal trim adjustments. The more I practiced the better I got.
Next I unclipped my stage bottle and handed it to Chad. Given all of the weight handling I’d done for my Scientific Diving course, I should have known better. As soon as I’d passed off the bottle, I began to rise. I dumped air until I was back on the bottom. Buoyancy fixed, I attempted to clip the bottle back on. Of course, this wasn’t easy either and I fumbled for ages, further mucking up the visibility. Once again I was a beginner.
Next on the agenda was switching to a deco gas. I watched Chad first and then followed suit. It wasn’t complicated and I soon got the hang of it. First check my depth and dive plan and get neutrally buoyant. Next, pull the bottle’s neck into sight, check my mix and MOD, remove the regulator and hose, trace the hose back from the regulator to the tank, pointing out the mix and MOD to my buddy when I got back to the tank. Turn the tank on. Then I made the simple switch from primary to deco gas. From here I clipped off my primary and then switched to my deco gas on my computer. Doing this in reverse meant switching back to my primary, tucking my deco reg back into my sling, turning off my deco gas and then switching to my back gas on my computer.
Chad and I practiced both of these skills a couple of times and I was pleased to find myself quickly picking it all up. One of the really neat things about Chad’s sling bottle rigging was that it used bungee cord instead of fixed nylon. I noticed the difference as soon as I clipped his deco bottle over my own as there was a little more give. A good takeaway before my checkout weekend as I could easily adjust my own bottles.
When I’d practiced these skills a few times, I moved onto SMB deployment. Thankfully, I’d also put in a fair bit of practice during my Scientific Diving course and with wet gloves, I had very little problem deploying it. The one neat trick I picked up from Chad was using two bolt snaps. His mantra of “two is one, one is none” struck a chord and I made a mental note to start working in pairs when I bought gear, or rigged it. We simulated making deco stops on the line and then, after a little more swimming around decided to call it a day.
All in all, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I had taken the plunge. I felt significantly less worried about my upcoming tech course. Now, rather than worry about whether or not I had the right gear, I could make adjustments to the gear I had and buy a couple of extra items that I did not have.
At the end of the day Chad and I reviewed the additional equipment I’d need, and later I sat down to order all of my nylon, bungee, D-rings and the rest of the equipment I would need to make my own harness. With only a week and a half to go, I finally feel ready for the challenge!