It’s October 2012, 05:00 a.m.
As quietly as possible I try to get out of my bed without waking my (then) pregnant wife. As all fathers know: waking up a pregnant woman is a very unwise thing to do, so I do my utmost best not to make too much noise. Happy that I made it out of the danger-zone I pick up pace and: WHAM! My left toe hits the blunt side of an open door in the dark. I am never at my best in the morning, but the surprise of the sudden pain in my sweet pinkie toe totally wakes me up. The monologue towards our dear Lord takes care of the sleeping wife… But it gets me a nice cup of coffee and a goodbye kiss. On my way I am!
At 08:45 I arrived in a village near the German border. From here, my passenger Rob Vierwind accompanies me. Rob is in his final part of his “Tec one instructor”- training and joins me on the 750 mile drive to Krnica Croatia. He has brought about half a dive shop with him: D-12’s, D-18’s, 80- and 40 cuft stages and scooters. The spacious bus that I borrowed from my company comes in very handy. The “Sopar bus” will proof to be the preferred transportation for Team Pitch Blue in the years to come.
Rob will teach our T1 course, but in turn will be assessed by Ron Baars who is in the final stage of his training: “course director technical diving”. Ron in turn will be examined by overlord Cees den Toom who has to give the final verdict on the whole mess (you still with me?). On the one hand a great opportunity and a unique thing to have so much knowledge and skills in one training session, on the other hand, it is a test for three divers in front of three instructors of which two are getting assed themselves. Talkin’ about setting the bar high…
Sixteen hours later we arrive at Krnica. We did it in one go and we have the first choice of the apartments. I am sleeping before I hit the pillow. The next morning somewhere around eight o’clock I come back to life, awakened by barking dogs. What the h… Dogs? Where am I? The pulsating pinkie toe quickly reminds me of where I am. My fellow students Jeroen and Peter are already having tea and coffee.
The day starts right at 8:00 with the 101 about reeling. That’s a good thing, because we can do that in front of the apartments. None of us really has experience with the reel and this shows once again that something as ordinary as the line of a reel is a potential source of many mistakes. Every piece of equipment that you have no experience with, can potentially be a big problem. This is all still above the water. Fortunately divers visit this place regularly. The locals are used to it and do not look at us weirdly when three grown men armoured with diving masks, and dive lights walk around like morons in touch contact and trying to successfully put out a line in the backyard. A curious hobby that technical diving…
After about two hours everyone (thinks) their reel technique is at the desired level and whist enjoying a delicious salami sandwich we get the program for the next week.
In short: at the end of the T1 course we need to be able to safely plan and execute dives with an average depth of 150 feet and with up to 30 minutes of decompression. We make use of standardized gas blends. At these depths the preferred breathing gas is 21/35 (a mixture of 21% oxygen and 35% helium) and the decompression is done from 21 meters at 50% nitrox at a max ppO2 of 1.6.
We need to be able to knock out a solid dive plan with deco strategy and gas planning on a piece of A5-paper. Okay. That makes sense.
The approach of the practical part is different. Normally, you learn the few tricks that you must master at the end of the course to the satisfaction of the instructor. Easy does it. During this training we encounter various simulated problem scenarios that we have to solve as a team. These dives are with a so-called ceiling: we cannot directly go up to the surface because of the decompression obligation, so we have to be comfortable with our knowledge and expertise / underwater skills. All problem solving must be done underwater whilst maintaining awareness on a solid platform at the desired depth. Valves and connections “spontaneously” leak and buddies are out of gas just when you try to shoot a buoy and both your hands (and your mind) are busy. Masks need to be taken off whenever Rob desires and all kinds of diving attributes lights, reels (and even stage bottles) will get nicked without you even noticing. Of course, the moment you need them and the specific item is not there, we need to take the desired actions. In short, nearly all possible diving problems that can occur are reviewed during the next ten days. Your underwater brain, which oddly enough does not works as well under- as it does above water, will be continuously tested and the learning curve is steep.
The course is roughly divided into two chunks: the first part is packed with skills, drills, procedures and failures. It is ultra-intensive. Three and sometimes four dives a day and in between and during the evening theory lessons. After that homework for the next day. When I drove off my wife told me to have a nice vacation. Even now I am having difficulties trying to explain to her that it wasn’t a vacation.. It was hard, hard work! Also it was made very clear from the start: under-perform in the first part would mean: back to the drawing board and end of story. Then no deco dives would be made. It’s was bit of a shock, but also fully understandable… If we get through the first part than part two comes into sight: where we can actually go wreck diving. During these dives, we must show that we have understood the theory and that we can make independent dives as a team. In order to fully boost the morale we are told that a “C” is considered insufficient. It is either good (“B”) or not. Just enough does not exist.
As stated before: Rob will do all instruction and diving support. Rob is being judged by Ron, but during the scenario dives these two are also “partners in crime” with regard to failures and stealing our equipment. So there are two instructors, three students. That is more than enough to make our life miserable. Cees de Toom should be disregarded completely. He just hovers above us like a giant underwater spider. The man has exceptional trim and buoyancy, barely moves – but sees everything and the final decision on whether someone has been successful or not will be made by him.
It’s time to dive! We drive to the port of Krnica where Maurizio Grbac’s shop: Knrica-dive awaits us all. It’s a strange sensation to see Cees den Toom (at least 6ft 7″) having to look up at the Croatian giant. The man did not have baby milk, but pure Dianabol in his baby bottle. Unbelievable, what a colossal creature.
The shop itself is slightly small, but well-stocked. It’s cool to be in a shop that specializes in technical diving. And wow, what a nice stuff. Because we go out on a boat and do two dives a day, we need quite some equipment and tanks on the boat. There are six men on the boat. It is therefore 12 double sets and 12 x alu80 cuft stages. They proudly lay on the floor waiting to be analysed and loaded. For me it is an awesome sight: it starts now.
On the boat Rob lets us know what the first team formation will be: No. one is team captain, no. two is deco-captain and no. three will shoot the buoy. The next dive number one will be two, two will be three , etc. In this way everyone will have to perform all tasks and there will be no dodging of responsibilities. Staying in the comfort zone and conveniently performing a task that you can do well is out of the question. We will rotate responsibilities each dive so that everyone is forced to learn everything.
During the first couple of dives we do dives with a max depth of 65 feet. Of course in full tech setup: but both the backgas (D-12) and the deco stage are filled with 32% nitrox. This way we can show that we can control our trim and buoyancy enough to safely perform our gas switches at a ppO2 of 1.6. At this high ppO2physical exercise contributes to all kinds of side effects that we really don’t want,so excessive finning and correcting trim is out of the question. We should basically do the gas switch, and then “fall asleep”: do absolutely nothing more than observe each other and watch the time pass by. Because we do many dives in one day and with sometimes more than one ascent and descent, we have Nitrox 32% to have a bigger safety margin.
First things first: team composition underwater. Jeroen (ROEN) and I did our intro to tech together, so we were familiar with each other’s diving capabilities. Team member Peter (PDG) we had not met before. It’s nice to see that because everyone has exactly the same mindset and equipment, Peter had no problem fitting in. The first dive passed without problems. Little did we know what we were heading for. That would change very, very soon…
During the second dive the problems and failures started to occur. The idea is to keep on diving and finding solutions for the failure/problem until an unfixable failure occurs and the dive has to be aborted. This way, the instructors can evaluate our problem solving capabilities and skills and see if our “underwater brain” can deal with accumulating problems. Dive after dive, more and more failures had to be dealt with before the inevitable unfixable problem occurred. Failures came inexorably and rapidly, so that at the end of every dive, all three of us were missing at least a lamp, a reel, a buoy, a stage bottle or a mask (and don’t bother getting your spare-mask cause you have to give that to Rob and/or Ron as well) and a wide variety of problems on the first and second stages had passed by before a thumb goes up: end of the dive.
The first part of the T1 course, we are mauled by Rob and Ron. I have got quite a big mouth when it comes to diving now I’m not going to lie: I really spent some time thinking “Do I want to do this” and even: “Am I capable of doing this”. During the dives Ron and Rob really go out of their way to do anything they can possibly think of to have you make mistakes.
Absolutely everything “breaks down”, “breaks” or “gets stolen” from you. Believe me, I thought it was impossible to steal a deco bottle, but when you are busy with a failure you don’t even notice. All three of us ended up “dead” a couple of times which Rob, Ron and Case explained to us in no uncertain terms.
Every evening we had theory about gas management, rock bottom, turn pressure, rules of third, halves and of course, decompression theory.
It is very confronting to have the feeling that you really do not know as much as you thought you did. A pat on the shoulder is completely absent, whilst the diving getting more and more difficult. Therefore more and more things go wrong. The words “under-perform in the first part-means back to the drawing board and end of story” echoes in our heads. What we learned is that anyone can get into a situation in which a minor mistake or equipment failure can quickly lead into a major problem. The biggest problems are caused by a cluster fuck of small problems that follow each other in quick succession and form a big unsolvable problem.
On day three we lock ourselves in our apartment and simulate on land everything that Rob and Ron have done to us underwater. We’re lying on the kitchen table turning valves, walking through the apartment with our eyes closed whilst holding the reel. We pass a fictional stage bottle around on a “lost-deco gas” scenario and we make almost obscene-sounding noises to simulate leaky first- and second stages. If someone had filmed that, I would not dare to show myself anywhere. A curious hobby tech-diving…
The next dives are significantly better. Bring on those failures! In that one night we became a team and helped each other out when in need. It appeared that we wanted to do things too fast (to show the instructors how good we were) but wanting to show off by doing things fast, bit us in the rear-end. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
After this lesson we received great news: we could proceed to the second part of the training! Trimix dives on the beautiful wrecks of Croatia. More about that in the next issue (Part 4.2). For a taste, you can have a look at https://goo.gl/VJULiQ . This video shows of some of the wrecks, gives a good idea of what attracts us in the wreck-dives.
Hope to see you at the waterfront and do not forget to like and follow Team Pitch Blue on Facebook.
WORDS by Job Kuperus and PICTURES by Case Kassenberg