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Basic Training: Who Leads the Dive?

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Basic Training: Instructors are always "on"

Article & Photos by James Lapenta

A recent incident is the inspiration for this month’s column. A couple months ago a diver certified in a new discipline. Right after the course, they decided to go on a dive with a much more experienced diver. Though not an instructor, this diver has the skills and knowledge of one. The recently certified diver actually came up with the plan. It was an aggressive plan. Within the recommended limits for the new certification, but they did not have the experience I would have wanted in a buddy.

Dive buddies are always interdependent – James Lapenta

The problem was that the experienced diver went along with the plan knowing that the person had just completed their training for these types of dives. Though they had a card (temporary one), the required skills, the knowledge, and a few dives in this area, they had not yet built up much experience. They had come up with a similar plan just the day before. The difference was they would have done the dive with a person from the same training class. That person, being a bit more cautious, remembered what the instructor had told them about being too aggressive early on and nixed the dive. Insisting on a more conservative one that went off without a hitch.

The more experienced diver agreed to the plan. Though I have stated before in this column that each diver is responsible for themselves and that the team should plan dives, there comes a time when someone needs to step up and say “No, you’re not ready for this yet.” That is what should have happened here. When you have divers of equal training and experience the position of leader is pretty flexible. Or it should be. It’s not uncommon for alpha types to take the lead or for non-alphas to allow someone else to lead. I had a dive buddy whose navigation plan on most dives was to follow me and they were fine with that.

When you have divers of vastly diverse levels of experience and training it’s another story. The more experienced diver becomes the de facto team leader. Though they will plan the dive together, the more experienced diver should also be the voice of reason and common sense. They need to realize that the other is not as experienced as them and veto an aggressive plan or refuse to dive with the person. An instructor friend of mine related a story of a similar team where one wanted to do an aggressive dive. The more experienced diver went along. My friend did the body recovery of the less experienced diver. When the experienced diver was asked why they agreed to dive the excuse was “He seemed like he was going to do it anyway. I just thought he’d be safer with me.” He was wrong.

One of the problems with teams of divers with vast differences in experience is that the more experienced can become complacent. They are often used to diving with people who are at the top of their game. They expect that their buddies can handle anything the dive throws at them. When they get partnered with someone that has less experience and training they don’t seem to see the deficiencies.

As an instructor, I am always “on” if you will. As good as my students are, they are still my students and I feel a sense of responsibility for them even on non-training dives. I am constantly reviewing the dives we are doing for risks. As a result, it’s tough to relax sometimes. I accept that as my moral, ethical, and professional obligation. To the point where to relax, I dive solo or get with a handful of people I trust implicitly that are at the same level or higher of training and experience as myself.

So even though the students may be leading the actual dive, coming up with the plan and route, and when to call the dive, I am the team leader who is leading sometimes from behind. With my equally experienced buddies, we share the duties of leader equally. Sometimes they will make me the leader just to keep me sharp and raise my game.

When you have non-pros leading less experienced divers or agreeing to their plans, there exists a grey area legally as to who is responsible for the dive. If I lead a diver beyond their limits or the limits of the class and they get hurt, I can be sued. It’s why I have insurance. Not to mention the mental and emotional toll that takes on a dive pro. That can be more devastating. Dive pros have committed suicide over an accident on their watch.

With non-pros, you don’t have insurance or a professional duty of care when it comes to leading a dive. You do, however, if you’re a decent person, have a moral and ethical responsibility to recognize a plan that is unsafe. You can still be sued and, in some jurisdictions, be held criminally liable. It also needs to be stated that leading a dive doesn’t just happen in the water.

When the decision is made to dive a process takes place that is what I call the entire dive plan. If you are the one making the decisions as to when, what, where, who, etc., you are actually leading the dive before you get in the water. You need to ensure the decisions consider the experience and training of those you invite. Do not allow your ego or that you have an experienced person on the team lull you into a false sense of security.

The dive I talked about at the beginning did not go as planned. The team got separated and one did a rapid ascent and ended up in the hospital. Purely as a precaution as it turned out, but it could have been a tragedy. The fault for what went wrong lies with both divers yes. But the team leader (the more experienced diver) bears just a bit more. So, when you agree to lead a dive, think. Think about who you are leading. Think about their level of training and experience. Be conservative and not afraid to lower the level of risk or call the dive entirely. You may save a life by doing so.

About James Lapenta

James Lapenta – Scuba Instructor, Author

James Lapenta from Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, a Diver, dive Instructor, Author and owner of UDM Aquatic Services has been diving since 2004.

He is a Scuba Educators Instructor # 204, SDI/TDI Instructor # 16810, CMAS 2 Star Instructor # USAF0012000204

For more on basic skills and education pick up a copy of either of my books

SCUBA: A Practical Guide for the New Diver or SCUBA: A Practical Guide to Advanced Level Training on Amazon. Dive Safe.