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January 2001 Vol. 16, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Line Dancing and the Buddy System

And why experienced divers should go alone

from the January, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

What can be worse for an experienced diver than having a boat crew assign you to dive with a neophyte who shouldn’t be diving in the first place? There’s no better formula to ruin a dive.

Many readers complain this happens all too readily, as subscriber Mark Rosing(New Rochelle, NY) reports about diving with Subtropic in Key West Florida. “I got buddied inappropriately with a diver without enough weight and spent the whole dive (shallow so she couldn’t overcome buoyancy) pulling her down. Came up with up to 1,200 psi. It was a wasted dive, wasted money, and there was no attempt by the operator to compensate.”

Aussie Bob Halstead, who once owned the Telita in Papua New Guinea, doesn’t like that kind of pairing any more than we do. Here’s his take on it:

I recently saw a TV promotion for a country music festival. A special attraction was a horse, line dancing in step with a family all togged up in cowpoke gear. Viewers were meant to be astonished at how smart the horse was and rush off to see this phenomenal animal perform. To me the horse looked quite ordinary, perhaps a bit bored. I wondered just how smart the line dancers were.

Divers are usually quite smart simply because they have to pass a sort of intelligence test to get certified. That is correct I think, isn’t it PADI? ... NAUI? ... Hello, where are you? Well, I might as well go the Full Monty here and offend everybody. I do not know whether it is because I am 6’2" and have a clearer view of the world, but I do tend to see things differently.

My latest complaint is that a very silly diving practice has risen from the dead — buddying inexperienced divers with experienced divers. The argument is that inexperienced divers are vulnerable (true) and that they therefore will be much safer paired with experienced divers (doubtful).

This ignores three things: First, how less safe this makes the dive for the experienced diver. Second, it becomes a form of instruction, by using an experienced diver, not an instructor. And three, it assumes human nature is different from what it actually is. In other words, They’re Dreamin’!

I know the uneven buddy system does not work because I have tried it. The experienced diver has to sacrifice either a dive to care for the inexperienced diver, or he leads a too advanced dive for his novice buddy.

Each dive is incredibly valuable. You spend a lot of time, effort and money to get to dive and even then nature can deliver rough seas and poor visibility. The thought of finally getting to the dive site and having to babysit a beginner — well it’s an unnatural act. The theory assumes that people behave in good and unselfish ways. Like I said, They’re Dreamin’!

We train instructors and divemasters to teach and look after beginners. It is their job, a tough and skillful one at that. They get paid to do it, as they jolly well should. This is no place for amateurs.

I am no admirer of the buddy system. It is a big mistake — along with no-decompression diving — that we make in diver training. We should have ditched it years ago and instead promoted self-sufficient diving and surface support. Alas, too late now. The legal risks are too great for instructor organizations to make the changes.

Nevertheless, if you are going to buddy, it is essential that your buddy be of equal standard and interest. I first defined buddy diving many years ago as follows: “The buddy system occurs when two divers of similar interest and equal experience and ability share a dive, continuously monitor each other throughout the entry, the dive and exit, and remain within such distance that they could render immediate assistance to each other if required.”

I am flattered that several authors have borrowed my definition. Many dive operators seem to think that just by putting two divers together they create a buddy system. A little thought will expose this stupidity.

After observing some near catastrophic so-called buddy dives, I put my own theory into practice and paired inexperienced divers with other inexperienced divers. It worked like a charm. The divers did not dive deep. They did not stray far from the boat. They did not have unrealistic expectations about their buddy’s ability to rescue them. And they surfaced from the dive proud of their own achievement and eager to gain more experience.

The buddy system -- along
with no-decompression
diving -- is a big mistake that
we make in diver training. We
should ditch them both.

I also allowed experienced divers to dive solo, though this does not mean diving alone because we always provided excellent surface lookouts and rescue capability. Solo diving is extraordinarily popular with experienced divers, especially photographers, since it allows close experiences with many wild marine animals that would swim away if confronted with pairs or groups of divers. In fact, only solo divers ever had close contact with wild dugongs while I was running our boats.

Mike Ball of Mike Ball Dive Expeditions is the only Australian dive operator who can honestly say he caters to all styles of diving at his training facility in Townsville and on board his liveaboard fleet, Paradise Sport in PNG, SpoilSport and Water Sport out of Townsville and Super Sport out of Cairns.

If you are a beginner, you can get instruction. If you are qualified but inexperienced you can get a dive guide who is a qualified divemaster or instructor to be your buddy. That is their job and they get paid for it. If you wish to buddy dive and have a suitable buddy, you may do so. If you came alone, the crew will help you meet with likeminded divers on board. And, if you are experienced and have a redundant spare air supply such as a pony bottle with an independent regulator, you may solo dive.

This service is dedicated to giving divers the best possible experience commensurate with their ability and interest. It provides choice instead of treating everyone at the lowest common denominator. And it promotes excellence rather than mediocrity. Mike Ball is a smart operator. I do not think you will ever find him line dancing, with or without a horse.

P.S. from Ben: Next time you’re off to dive without a buddy, put a copy of this article in your dive bag; you may need it to prevent being paired with someone who doesn’t know his fins from his fanny.

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