Back to basics with GUE Fundamentals

Things are developing here at Otter Lodge on the scuba diving front. After clocking up nearly 350 dives, mostly in the amazing waters around Skye, Martin and I decided we should have a bit of a skills brush-up. The thing about diving is you never just get to a point where you think, ‘that’s it, I can do it now’, you’re constantly trying to get better (and safer). With this in mind, we enrolled on a course run by Global Underwater Explorers called The Fundamentals – affectionately known by divers as ‘Fundies’.  Sounds like a beginners course, but it sure ain’t.

It’s not quite a case of breaking you down to build you up again, but it does thoroughly dismantle all your bad habits before getting back to the basics of making you a safer diver.

This is pretty important for Martin and I because the kind of diving we do is unsupported: no boat, no back-up and often no phone signal. Sometimes we’ll be clambering down to survey a new bit of coast without any idea what’s down there apart from the lines on an admiralty chart. We’re meticulous at checking tides and currents, but the most surprising thing about our seas is how little information has been recorded about some bits. It’s one of the reasons we love diving here; but it comes with extra responsibility.

Global Underwater Explorers sound a bit like something from the makers of ‘Thunderbirds’ but it’s bona fide US-based organisation dedicated to diving education, marine conservation and undersea exploration. There quite a few groups that offer diver training, but few that are as rigorous as GUE. This is partly due to the fact that it was originally formed from a group of cave divers; and there’s nobody more conscious of the deadly pitfalls of diving than they are.

Consequently, GUE has a reputation of being, well, a bit strict. However, the instructor we signed up with, John Kendall, was totally nice and approachable. The thing is, if you enroll on a course you’re already looking at yourself and thinking, ‘I could be better’ and even incredibly experienced divers will do Fundies in the knowledge they’ll learn something. The attitude of GUE is that even if you aren’t a professional or technical diver (and we’re not), you can gain a huge amount by being taught in a technical way.

In the classroom and the pool

So, there we were in October – back to school! There were a few fellow divers who questioned the wisdom of driving south to devote a precious four days to diving in a quarry in Leicestershire, but we tried to forget about them as we drove up and down the motorway each day for our course. To add to this, on the first day we only got to see the classroom and the pool. However, when we rolled up at the start of our course we realised we’d struck lucky; there were three students and three instructors: essentially, one-to-one. The other two guys who were teaching us were interns, but not inexperienced by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just you have to already have high credentials before GUE lets you anywhere near one of their students.

It wasn’t long before they gleefully swooped down on all our diving gear, pulling off various improper parts with much tutting and sucking of teeth. Luckily we were based in diving shop, Divemaster Nottingham, who must have been rubbing their hands in expectation of our arrival. GUE divers may have the philosophy ‘less is more’ when it comes to gear, but it has to be the right kind of ‘less’. We ran up a tab in the shop, but it was all worth it in the end.

After a full day of melting our brains in the classroom, we headed out to the local pool for a swimming test. This involved a timed swim, swimming underwater while holding your breath and, most fun, swimming backwards. It’s fair to say the regulars doing lengths were not amused by our exploits, but by the end of day one we were all feeling ready to jump in that quarry.

Training at Stoney Cove

The quarry that had been selected was Stoney Cove, one of the UK’s inland scuba diving centres. And here’s a thing – it’s all too easy for Martin and I take it for granted that, at the drop of a hat, we can fill up our air and head off to dive in places that are truly stunning. Then you come to a place like Stoney Cove and people are literally queuing up at the gates to see various bits of old boat and a submerged bus. It makes you appreciate things just that little bit more.

We spent three days at Stoney Cove; doing two videoed dives per day, then going through the recorded footage with the instructors. It’s amazing how convinced you can be you are doing something perfectly correctly, only to see the footage and realise you’re actually a total klutz. The camera never lies! Every little detail of your diving is analysed, even your’ demeanour’  which is something I haven’t been taken to task for since I was a schoolkid. However, I have to be clear that at no point were we made to feel like kids. Our instructor and his interns were patient, humorous, and universally kind. Nobody cried.

Our first dives focussed on swimming; or should I say finning as propelling yourself with diving gear underwater has very little relation to swimming at the surface. This might seem very basic, but it’s essential to get it right.  The ideal is a point where your body is perfectly flat, straight and motionless apart from some small, graceful movements from your calves and fins. When you watch someone doing it properly it looks like they are lying flat on a moving conveyor belt. Once you’ve got to grips with that, you then learn to stop the conveyor belt effect without using your hands. Using your hands for swimming and maneuvering is a no-no and absolutely everything is done with your fins. Then you can move on to turning on the spot like a helicoptor and moving up and down like an elevator. 

All of this needs practise and excellent ‘trim’. Martin and and have become somewhat obsessed with ‘trim’. It means being perfectly balanced in the water. Our instructors ability to hang motionless at any depth was a constant source of wonder. Meanwhile, hapless students were bobbing up and down like corks and doing their best impersonations of a seahorse. These things take time. You’re aiming for a point when total control is second nature. Our instructor, John, had some very interesting things to say about the psychology of diving and they runs along the lines of whatever brain cells you have working at the surface will already be significantly depleted on entering the water. If some of those are then used up with basic tasks, there can quickly be none left if something unexpected occurs. Consequently, just like driving a car, there are some things you just have to be able to do automatically in order to be safe.

Oh yes, there were lots of drills. Drills commencing a dive; drills for helping a buddy who had run out of air; drills for fixing problems that arise with your equipment. The good thing with these kinds of courses is that they also have mnemonics to hep you remember stuff. However, like PIN numbers, it’s easy to get them mixed up, especially if you’ve trained with another organisation that does things differently! The biggie with GUE are valve drills; that is the ability to contort your arm around the back of your head and turn your air cylinder on and off. This is not as easy as it looks, despite several months of Martin and I working at home on our shoulder flexibility. Ironically, John came to the conclusion that our inability to reach was due to the kind of neoprene drysuit we were wearing. The guy from dive shop was starting to look interested again. 

Our final hurdle was the safe and successful deployment of a surface marker buoy, or SMB. This is a handy inflatable sausage you can send to the surface on a string to let folk know that there is a diver lurking below. As Martin and I tend not to dive from, or anywhere near boats, we don’t always use them and my previous experience with these has been chequered. The best way of describing it is like flying a kite. Just like kites, SMBs have the habit of being frustratingly difficult to launch, and even once they’re up, they can pull you around, tie you in knots or get tangled up in stuff. Even our instructor admitted they’re horrible (and this is a man who dives in caves for a living). John demonstrated the proper way to blow them up underwater while maintaining perfect poise and trim. We watched carefully, and then failed abysmally to launch them correctly.

At this point all three of us pretty much realised the game was a bogey, and we were unlikely to finish Fundies with a pass. Martin and I had predicted this might happen! No hard feelings, though – GUE Fundamentals is a reassuringly challenging course and our aim was for someone to take a good hard look at our diving and set us on the right path, rather than a means to an end. And to tell the truth, by the end of four solid days training we were knackered – no just a bit tired but totally spent.

How did we do?

After battling through the final written test, we sat down with John and discussed how we all got on individually, and what we need to be seriously looking at. Despite the obvious issues, we all received a Provisional Pass, which means if we address them and go back to GUE within six months for a review by an instructor, we can be officially qualified. Students are encouraged to assess their own performance, as well as the performance of GUE. In fact, completing a feedback form is a prerequisite to passing a course. They want students to be involved from the beginning and feel they have a personal stake in the organisation. It has a culture of continual learning and development. When we heard how many training dives our instructor had to complete each year at his high level, diving some of the deepest caves around the world, we wondered how on earth he made living.

It’s all about passion. And, passion rekindled, Martin and I have returned to the snowy highlands to keep on learning how to get better. Luckily, there’s no better place to do it.