The manor in which we dives seems to be a topic that keeps coming up through out the diving community. Just the other day my copy of “Dive Training” magazine arrived in the mail and at the same time my digital copy of “Tech Diving Mag“, both featured articles about this exact topic.
Since this topic almost always comes up in my classes I figured I would weigh in on were I stand and what I teach my students regarding the Buddy System. While many instructors have a completely difference stance on this depending on the course being taught I teach it the same no matter what the divers level is.
The truth of the matter is every single diver has received different training, and has different thoughts about what being a good buddy is. The real question you need to ask yourself is, “When I need my buddy will they be there to help, and do they have the skills required to help me?” If you are simply assuming the answer to these questions is yes, you are likely to find yourself truly disappointed when the need for your buddy to respond arrives. For the purpose of this article we are going to disregard the aspect of the enjoyment of having a buddy along and focus only on the safety side of the buddy system.
Starting on our first day of training divers are taught the buddy system is an essential tool required in scuba diving, but the real question is why? Those who support the buddy system 100% state the main reason is that two brains are better then one. When a problem arrives underwater who people will be better able to handle an emergency then one, but is that true? In my experience its rare that a dive buddy is actually going to be able to provide anything more then the most basic assistance. The reality is the assistance a buddy can provide in an emergency situation is rarely actually needed for a diver who has been properly trained and is correctly equipped.
In all the training I conduct divers are taught self reliance first and buddy dependency as a last resort measure only. The thought process here is simple, most divers dive with those of a similar skill and experience level. If you are unable to depend on yourself in a given situation it is likely that you will be unable to depend on your buddy either. For example two buddies that have poor navigational skills are no less likely to get lost as one, in fact they are more likely to get lost as a result of the additional confidence of having a buddy with them.
Although having a dive buddy along does provide some clear benefits in a situation, I contend that every diver should be prepared to handle any situation that arrises underwater independently. If you are unable to handle the situation alone you have put your life in your buddies hands and are now doing what is known as a trust me dive, which you are taught from the first day of training to avoid as well. So to recap new divers are taught to always dive with a buddy but also to never participate in a “trust me dive”. The 100% buddy system and the no trust me dives actually contradict each other, unless both members of the buddy team do not actually need the other for assistance. As the need for the buddy decreases the distance of separation from your buddy often increases as well and as a result the buddy is even less effective then before. So what is the solution to the issue here?
The answer to the never ending debate of the usefulness of the buddy simple is actually very simple, be a good buddy. The first step of being a good buddy is being self reliant. By being self reliant we increase our own safety and it provides us with the ability to assist our buddy when a problem does arrive. The first step of being self reliant is not conducting dives that you wouldn’t complete alone. As divers we need to accept there is risks associated with diving and that buddy separation does occur for a wide range of reasons. Before going on any dive you should ask yourself: If for what ever reason I get separated from my buddy could I with out incident return to the surface safely even if I had a equipment failure? If the answer to the question is no then you should not be completing the dive because it is beyond your skill level, and is now a trust me dive.
As this article is about the buddy system and not about being a self reliant diver, I am going to stay off the topic of what makes a self reliant diver and direct those that are interested in how to be a self reliant diver to my post on that very topic. Moving forward we will assume that you are already following rule number 1 of being a good buddy and are able to act as a self reliant diver.
When it comes to the buddy system and diving there are essentially three types of buddy teams: New Dive Buddies, Established Dive Buddies & Insta-Buddies. For the sack of simplicity we are going to stay away from the topic of dive teams that involve dive teams of 3 or more divers as this is actually no buddy diving but is known as team diving, and is a completely different topic.
New Dive Buddies
The Insta-Buddy situation while the most common is also the most dangerous situation. In this situation you are meeting your dive buddy in a very short period of time before the dive, often while on the boat ride out to the dive site. With absolutely no knowledge of your buddies skills, experience or personality your ability to depend on this person in an emergency is likely about zero. Remember if you are not self-reliant you are putting your life in this persons hands, if something goes wrong can you depend on that person to save you. If you are anything like I am the answer to can I trust this person is a very large no. I have dived with enough people and seen enough people do stupid things that I have to assume that my new found insta-buddy is not going to help me at all should anything go wrong. My insta-buddy may in fact simply swim away as soon as we get on the dive site. For this reason when ever I dive with an insta-buddy I plan the dive assuming that my buddy is simply going to swim away at some point during the dive. Insta-buddies are not a buddy team, do not provide any of the intended benefits of the buddy systems and in many causes put both buddies in a situation of higher risk then if they had completed the dive alone.
In contrast to the insta-buddy the established buddy team is a shinning example of were the true benefits of the buddy system present themselves. This buddy pair has a large number of dives with one another, first hand knowledge of each others skills & training, knows the others divers equipment and last but certainly not least knows the buddy well enough to know how they will respond in a given situation. Established buddies teams are most often in a relationship with each other or have a long standing friendship, even if that friendship is only based around diving. No matter what the situation is that created the established buddy pair, they all started out as the new buddy pair.
The new buddy team is very similar to a new relationship, through trial & error and discovery we learn about each other and develop a relationship. Depending on the situation it may be short lived or it could last for a life time. Either way establishing a buddy pair requires an understand of commitment from both individuals and similar desires of the relationship. There are countless ways that new buddies can find each other and to keep this article on track with the main topic I am going to assume you are not reading this article to find a new buddy but instead are interested in developing a good and safe dive buddy relationship.
Once you have established with your soon to be good dive buddy that you are both on the same page and want similar things we begin the process of becoming a true buddy team. There are three steps in this process:
- Be a self reliant diver and as result a good buddy.
- Be a good team player.
- Develop a sound understanding of team dynamics.
The process starts with developing a sound understanding of the team dynamic. I have found the best way to do this is to use a tool found most commonly in the business world known as a SWOT Analysis. SWOT Stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Many agencies even teach this process to new instructors as part of the instructor training program. Using a SWOT Analysis dive buddies teams are able to get a better understand of team dynamics. Its important for both members of the team to be honest and upfront during this process. Each member of the team being able to address were they have strengths and weaknesses also the team dynamic to develop and the trust relationship to begin forming. Addressing the opportunities and strengths of the buddy team allows the pair to put forward plans for the future to take advantage of the opportunities it has and overcome the challenges it will be face with.
With the SWOT Analysis complete its time to move on to getting a feel for each other as divers. Head to a local dive site and do a simple and easy dive. This is going to allow each member of the buddy team to get a feel for how the other dives. Don’t worry about skills at this point, this is simply a warm up dive to get used to one another as a perspective buddy pair. This dive will also provide you with a chance to get basic familiarity with each others equipment. After the dive take some time to grab dinner or a couple beers and talk about the dive. Each person should be provided with the chance to present what they liked or disliked about the dive, remember that you are developing a team here, there is likely going to be a need for some give and take.
With the first dive out of the way its time to head to a pool or similar controlled water environment. This part of the process is were the ground rules for safety are going to come to being. Run through all the basic dive skills with one another, and spend extra time on practicing emergency procedures. This really should become a regular thing for the buddy team and emergency skills should be practiced on a failure regular basis (monthly at minimum in the beginning).
As you develop as a buddy team stay away from challenging dives until you have gotten into a routine with each other. When you know what your buddy needs or wants before they ask for it you are ready to start moving on to more challenging and demanding dives. As you develop as a team you will also develop and refine your own personal dive skills.
As time goes by you will likely find your gear becoming more and more similar until one day you both are using almost matching equipment. This is extremely common as the team develops as gear matching has some major benefits and you will find together what equipment works best for you buddy team. The other thing that is common in most established buddy teams is they will complete training in new skills as a team with an instructor. Once you have your buddy team established consider working with instructors who specialize in team based training. This allows you to continue the development of your buddy team while expand both individuals skills under the direction of a professional.
Don’t be to surprised if you end up forming a couple of different buddy teams to meet your interests as a diver. Personally I have a couple but the funny thing is the majority of us all dive together using the same practices. In the long run what you end up with is a full blown dive team or even a small dive club. This is a great thing as it allows you to all train together and develop as a collective. A well developed dive team or club is a wonderful thing.
Stop for a minute and think do you have an established dive buddy or are you more of a lone wolf exploring the underwater world with who ever happens to be along for the ride? I would encourage you to take a moment and share some details about your relationship with your dive in the comments below: How did you get started as a buddy team, do you practice skills together, do you training together, and what future adventures await you & your buddy?