“Let’s just take it easy.” “Easy,” of course, is a bit of a sliding scale dependent on a variety of factors, both quantifiable and intangible. But “easy” is definitely the correct path when you’re diving with someone the first time. Yesterday I had the pleasure of enjoying just such a first dive with someone.
My buddy is a a friend, a local dive pro, an experienced cartographer and explorer I hold in high esteem. I’ve known him for years both by reputation and personally. I know many of his theories (which I mostly agree with or, at least, respect) and have seen him at work with students. By all oblique measures: an excellent diver. But we had never been in the water together. And that’s important. Even if he were the best diver in the entire world, there exists the possibility that we wouldn’t dive well together. Perhaps two divers will communicate poorly or at cross-purposes, or it will be difficult to understand one another. Perhaps one or the other will obstinately swim at a pace the other finds uncomfortable. Philosophical approaches like line marking or running jumps might seem counterintuitive or even dangerous to one or the other. Or any number of other things that just don’t quite click. Perhaps, on top of any one or combination of these, one or the other diver will be more aggressive than the other. And this is where things can really start running into trouble. Taking a step sideways: I am lucky to have a couple of dive buddies I trust absolutely. I’ve gotten into situations with some of them where it’s easy to communicate, “Hey, I’m totally stuck, can’t see, and can barely breath; would you push on the top of my head to get me the fuck out of here?” When in a situation like this, with a buddy one trusts that deeply, it is easy to look at it all like a good story for later. No stress. No fear. Just, “Well isn’t this another fine mess?” No doubt that your buddy will understand, comply, take the best, most predictable, possible actions to help you both. And probably be comfortingly giggling into their mouthpiece the entire time they’re doing it. If, however, one finds oneself in what is objectively a pretty serious situation with someone not so well known… someone with whom there isn’t a longstanding and long-practiced relationship… The stress of “How in tarnation are they even going to respond to this?” can be enough to turn some bad footing even shakier. Heart rates go up, breathing rates go up, thought processes start riding a tilt-a-whirl, and suddenly it’s Anything-can-Happen Day. I hate Anything-can-Happen Day. This is NOT what happened yesterday. The sketchiest possible moment was when I found myself leading into a restriction I could have ground my way through (on my back-mounted rebreather)… but it was too damned pretty to deserve grinding. The floor was covered with zillions of tiny cave pearls and popcorn which would have been gouged if I went any further. Unable, yet, to turn I blindly signalled to my buddy behind me, “It’s too tight for me, gotta go back.” If he didn’t know what I was saying it was not a catastrophe. If he had me plugged up in there, by the time I started kicking him in the face he’d have figured out to back up out of the way. But by the time I gingerly backed up and turned around I found him already facing the direction out and waiting for me to signal I was ready to move. And chuckling in the knowledge that he, in his side-mounted rebreather, could have cleanly slipped through what had jammed me up. I thought, “He’s alright.” It was a fairly advanced dive by recreational standards, but there was never a moment even within distant earshot of the borders of my comfort zone. Nor, knowing the sort of diving he does for fun, anywhere near his. Yeah, what I’m talking about is a 3-hour rebreather dive through some tight cave past a bit of navigation. But remember what I said about sliding scale? Just because you think it’s “easy” doesn’t necessarily mean it might be for your new buddy. There was a time for every one of us that swimming to the school bus at the local quarry was an intimidating challenge.
When diving with someone new there’s always the risk of letting your ego run away with you. Of needing to impress this person with your prowess and sheer, awe-inspiring amazingness. Of wanting to show them the absolute coolest, most technically-challenging site you know to demonstrate just how bad-ass you are. And that is a slippery goddamn slope. There is a site in Hawaii on the very south side of Oahu. To enter you need to scale down this sheer, jagged, volcanic rock cliff and jump into the surf as it bashes into those rocks. You exit by letting the surf driving you onto those rocks and then scrabble up before it can smash you across them like a gristmill grinding you against a wall of razors. And, for some inane reason, divers always wanted to bring people they just met there. People whose ability is completely un-assessed. “Oh, you haven’t dived China Walls?!?! Throw your stuff in my car, I’ll take you right now.” I never found that endearing or impressive. All that ever said to me was, “I’m reckless as a motherfucker.”
What impresses me: “This is our first dive together. Let’s just take it easy.”