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September 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Is PADI Diver Training Adequate?

thereís more to diving than simply getting a C-card

from the September, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

I had been a very busy Advanced Instructor for the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) for more than a decade when, in 1992, I pursued a PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor (OWSI) certification. While the BSAC instructor course had been, in my opinion, unnecessarily harsh (I'd seen grown men break down in tears), I was surprised to discover the PADI course was more about delivering the PADI product correctly than extending one's knowledge of diving.

I'd seen a warrant officer in the feared Special Air Services regiment of the British Army fail the BSAC instructor standards due to lack of an all-round knowledge of diving. Yet the night before the PADI Instructor exam, I found myself explaining to another candidate the significance of and method of using the PADI Recreational Dive Planner, the agency's no-stop decompression table, because he really didn't understand what it was for. The following day he was a qualified OWSI.

More recently, I had to explain how buoyancy and displacement worked to another PADI Instructor candidate. He had no idea, yet the next day he successfully qualified, too. When discussing this with another young instructor, I was interested to hear that she thought you needed a BC because as you went deeper, the increasing weight of the water "pushed you down." (Of course, the reason is because the pressure of depth compresses the integral bubbles in the neoprene of your wetsuit, so that you displace less water and become less buoyant.)

I was certified as a PADI OWSI at age 45. The others in the course were all in their 20s or younger. I recall suggesting to one newly qualified teenage OWSI that I wasn't sure such a young person should be taking responsibility for the well-being of others in the hostile environment that is water. He argued that if he could do all the skills, why shouldn't he?

Twenty years later, by then an award-winning underwater photographer, he was gracious enough to admit that I was right, even though he disagreed at the time.

My view is that PADI courses teach diving on a need-to-know basis. PADI Instructors deliver the teaching product designed elsewhere. It's rather like someone who knows how to prepare the food for a burger chain not being an all-round professional chef -- he delivers the product to the required specification.

As long as the customer knows the difference and manages expectations accordingly, that's all that matters. Of course, it certainly doesn't mean that every PADI OWSI is limited only to the diving knowledge he learnt on the Instructor Development Course.

I recently read a blog by Kai Steinbeck, a PADI Course Director in Port Douglas, Australia, who has been a PADI member for more than 25 years. He thinks the PADI educational system is good. However, he asks, is PADI diver training really always adequate? My answer would be it depends on where the training is put to use.

Steinbeck's blog was precipitated by a discussion he had with an experienced diver from New Zealand certified with CMAS (another international dive agency that's now widely known as the World Underwater Federation) who wanted to gain an equivalent PADI card. Steinbeck looked at the certifying prerequisites for a CMAS Basic Scuba Diver achieved by the Kiwi diver many years previously, and noted it included such things as swimming with a blacked-out mask, and rescue of a buddy from the bottom - both done in confined water. In open water, trainees had to swim 300 feet without a mask, and duck-dive on a snorkel to 18-feet before changing over to a scuba regulator.

What really caught Steinbeck's eye was that, as part of the course equivalent to a rescue certification, it was required for the trainee diver to remove her mask, remove and replace her regulator, and then replace the mask - all at a depth of 50 feet. Also, the trainee was expected to be able to plan and execute a dive with a buddy to 130 feet, where neutral buoyancy had to be demonstrated, and then, under the watchful eye of the instructor, trainee and buddy had to exchange scuba equipment. After that, an ascent had to be made at a maximum of 60 feet per minute, with deco stops as required by the US Navy's dive decompression table.

Times change, and so do courses. While there are some real dangers to contemplate in teaching those skills, it is clear that that the old CMAS course was attempting to teach someone to be a fully competent all-round diver.

Steinbeck admits that the majority of people with diving certifications go diving perhaps once or twice a year, and are usually shepherded by a divemaster or scuba instructor. So how much training above and beyond what is taught on a PADI Open Water course is really needed? Problems only arise when wrong assumptions are made about an individual's competence. It is then that disaster might strike.

A diver recently died during a dive with a friend to 200 feet deep in a popular diving quarry at Chepstow, England. Younger divers on Internet forums were quick to attribute her demise to the fact she was breathing air on a deep dive -- ignoring the fact that many older divers stll use plain air. Many training agencies now suggest nitrogen narcosis is an important factor in deeper air dives. Air would not have helped her think straight, but we should avoid such simple conclusions. She made a dive deeper than she was used to. The water was cold, visibility was poor and she was wearing an unfamiliar drysuit. She had problems with her mask leaking, and this precipitated a chain of events that led to her panicking and making an uncontrolled ascent. She was extended beyond her realm of competence. A more suitable breathing gas, like a trimix, would have made little difference.

In his blog, Kai Steinbeck reminds us, "Limit your diving to the training you have received. If you were trained in the tranquil waters of some Caribbean-sheltered island beach, realize that diving in extreme currents and [possibly] rough conditions in Southeast Asia will be very different. If you have not dived in a while and have only a limited number of dives, then do a refresher in the pool before going on that dive trip."

Sage words.

-- John Bantin

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