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April 2007 Vol. 33, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Weighing In on Weight Systems

two schools of thought about their use

from the April, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Perhaps a diver’s worst nightmare is ascending too quickly after losing one’s weights. The dangers of decompression sickness and embolism are ever present. Soda pop in your veins? No thanks.

With all the discussion about proper gear configurations, it’s remarkable how divided we can be on the issue of weight systems. On any given dive trip, you might see a diver with quick-release integrated weights sitting next to a diver with a double-buckled weight belt. Underlying the visual difference is a clash of ideology that could become a matter of life and death.

Cold-water divers typically wear full 7-mm wetsuits or bulky dry suits that can require up to 35 pounds of weight to counter their suit buoyancy. For these divers, attention is increasingly focused on weight “security” over “quick release.” Even warm-water divers are reconsidering the ageold axiom “when in danger, drop your weight belt.” That notion is so ingrained from early open-water training that the consequences of weight dumping are seldom discussed - - and divers typically aren’t trained to perform a free ascent without a belt. In fact, this “auto-dump” philosophy can conflict with the concept of “stop, think and then act.”

Specifically, the issue involves one’s belief about emergency dumping procedures. This determines one’s choice of weight systems, which could range from old belts of beat-up plastic, to the various integrated systems, to double steelbuckled belts. It all depends on your primary focus.

Release or lockdown?

You likely subscribe to one of two schools of thoughts: the “easy releasers” and the “security lockdowners.” The “easy releaser” is most concerned about the effortless release of weights in an emergency. The philosophies are quite dissimiliar. The “security lockdowner” is more concerned about an accidental loss of weights. This diver focuses on the unintentional loss of weights that could result in an uncontrolled ascent and death by embolism or DCS.

The easy releasers are divers with weight-release handles sticking out from their BCDs. They might even have weight pockets held together with thin strips of Velcro. On dive trips, they often rent weight belts without first checking the condition of the buckle. The security-first divers often wear two buckles on a heavy-duty weight belt. The belt’s tail is secured into the second buckle for double security. They consider a crotch strap over the belt a good thing.

Who’s right? The answer depends on many variables. The obvious ones include the diver’s level of training and skill, type of diving, and the ability to avoid panic in an emergency. Beyond those, however, is a more complex discussion about how training principles and scuba technology can lose pace with each other.

When diving was in its infancy, divers did not wear buoyancy compensators, they wore just a tank on a harness and a weight belt. If an emergency occurred, an injured diver’s only recourse for gaining buoyancy was to drop his weights. Along came the horseshoe collar BC, devised to provide manually inflated buoyancy. This primitive device also became the diver’s first alternative to weight dumping. However, it was no easy task for a diver in an emergency to blow, inhale from his tank, and then blow again to inflate his vest.

Eventually, modern BCDs evolved with the obligatory power inflator and multiple dump valves. Interestingly, throughout this evolution, the crisis mantra has remained the same: “When in trouble, drop your weight belt!” If you drop your weights at 100 feet, can you really expect to make a controlled ascent afterward? Have you ever tried it? And if you’re in an overhead environment, do you really want to rip your weights off and end up on the ceiling?

Still, existing notions are slow to change. In the November 2006 issue of Scuba Diving, the “Ask the Instructor” section had this to say about weight-integrated BCDs: “Make sure you can find and pull the weight releases without looking, without thinking and without too much effort.” Great news for dementia divers, but for the rest of us?

Learn from others’ mistakes

One can refer to any number of back issues of Undercurrent in which Divers Alert Network (DAN) cases are reported and analyzed. Drownings outnumber embolisms, but the cause of drownings can vary widely from air depletion to entrapment. The cases often mention situations where a drowned diver might have been saved if the weights were dropped, but questions remain. Did the panicked diver even think of dropping weights, or was a difficult release the problem? And if the diver had released the weights, would he survive a rapid ascent without DCS or embolism?

Embolism reports are somewhat easier to sort out, but the issue of whether the weights were dropped on purpose or by accident is rarely determined. These cases generally involve a panicked diver shooting to the surface, often without thinking. And there is never a mention of whether they lost a belt inadvertently.

Neal Pollock of the DAN research staff says that by not capturing incidents involving a positive outcome, the data does not provide a true picture of successful emergency ascents. He notes that there is “far less risk in premature surfacing if students are taught to flare to reduce speed and to avoid breath-holding.” However, students might be told about these skills, but they are rarely given to openwater divers underwater.

Undercurrent readers weigh in

I recently took a wreck diving trip on the Lois Ann out of San Diego. I did a survey and found that six of the divers aboard, many of them students, preferred easy-release weights to more security. The captain, the divemaster and two other divers were more concerned about an accidental release of weights that could result in an uncontrolled ascent and embolism.

Via e-mail in March, Undercurrent subscribers were asked to weigh in on the issue. Most respondents showed greater concern for uncontrolled ascents and possible embolism due to unintentional release. Typical comments echoed those of Mike Ferland of Tulatin, Oregon. “I had my weight belt come off once and wound up ascending feet first and kicking like crazy to slow my ascent.” Dennis Marquet of Pleasanton, California, added, “I dive a lot in cold California waters and heavy belts are the norm. Losing 26 pounds of weight at depth will really send you flying toward the surface.” His point correctly indicates that the issue is more severe for divers in heavy wetsuits or drysuits.

These responders revealed little consensus on the preference of weight belts or integrated weights. Both systems seem to have their advantages and disadvantages. While some like the comfort of integrated weights, others prefer the traditional two-part separation of tank and weights.

Another observation suggests that dropping weights for most divers is like using the exit door in an airplane - - it almost never happens. Bob Santini of Brookfield, Vermont, says, “The only situation that I would see myself dropping my belt in is after I was on the surface and looking at a prolonged wait for assistance or had to swim a great distance to survive.” That sentiment seems quite pervasive.

Several wrote about the use of Velcro as a weight retainer. Few consider it suitable for holding weights without a snap-release buckle. Many cases have been reported where heavier weights opened the Velcro and fell out, resulting in a rapid ascent. (See a full report on the problems with Velcro in Undercurrent’s October 2005 issue.)

Some divers combine integrated weights and weight belts, believing this allows for better distribution and trim. And most integrated BCDs now have non-ditchable weights that lessen the buoyancy effect of dumping. Some ditchable weights have positive locks, others pull out with just a tug. In any case, a diver should consider the ease of use, ease of weight packing, and the security of the weight pockets.

What, when and where to drop

Divers might also consider under what circumstance they’d drop their weights. Inside an overhead environment? Probably not. Struggling with kelp at the surface? Perhaps. Dropping at depth is a serious judgment call that might involve a malfunctioning BCD, complete loss of air, or another type of buoyancy crisis. Depending on the diver’s ability to swim, the option to drop just one integrated weight pocket might be wise. But consider the consequences!

If you can’t find a reason to drop your weights, consider the following DAN incident report: A diver was being taunted at the surface by a large shark. He dropped his weights and swam like crazy to the shore. He made it in time but his partner wasn’t so lucky.

I once lost my weight belt accidentally at depth while lobster diving. I was lucky to grab a rock ledge and retrieve the belt as I began to “launch.” Because I was wearing an extra large 7mm full suit, the sudden 27 pounds of positive buoyancy would have been tough to fight. These days, I use one buckle on a Dive Rite harness, two buckles on my weight belt, and a crotch strap over that. If I’m diving doubles on a decompression dive, dropping weights is not an option. If I’m on the surface breathing air, I can release the belt in two seconds if I want to donate my lead to King Neptune.

The worst enemies in any diving emergency are panic and the inability to think. If you’re prone to panic, you may be better off playing tennis. Periodic procedural reviews are also a good idea as diving skills progress. Clearly, training mantras like “the first thing to do in an emergency is drop your weights” need to be reassessed. And if you want to avoid getting a crummy rental weight belt in the tropics, bring one you can trust with zippered pockets. The best advice is to consider all the factors and all the consequences of this weighty issue.

Chuck Ballinger, who has written for Scuba Diver, Skin Diver and other magazines, is author of An American Underwater Odyssey: 50 Dives in 50 States. It is available at Undercurrent, and all profits go to save coral reefs.

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