Hello Darkness my Old Friend

You’re blind. Underwater. The surface is hundreds of feet away. Through craggily rock tunnels. Some of which you can barely fit through. You’ve also run out of air so are sharing with a buddy.


Your life hangs by a thread… literally… There’s a piece of string that can lead you to safety. If you do everything just right.


My job is to turn this nightmare scenario into little more than a temporary nuisance for you. To drill “just right” so deeply into your head that should you ever be faced with this relatively unlikely set of circumstances, you have that training to draw on to get you home safe and sound.


That’s part of the job, anyway. Just as important is to shape a mindset and skillset that is capable of completely avoiding this confluence of events in the first place. Would you believe that armed with such a mindset and skillset, most people wind up finding the above scenario a little bit of fun to manage?


At first exposure, even when we build up to such a complete shit-show slowly, most people (rationally) are pretty intimidated and stressed by the circumstances. They freeze up, or rush, or try to do everything they’ve learned over the past few days all at the same time, or completely forget everything they’ve ever known about scuba diving.


And what they especially do, to a person, is tense up their entire body when some evil cave demon appears out of the darkness… suddenly grabbing their hand and their elbow and starts shaking them around.


You know that story about how a mother can lift a car to save her child? Yeah, I dunno about all that, but adrenaline is an undeniably powerful force. And trying to straighten the arm of stressed 80lbs nerd might as well require the jaws of life.


(And this after I have briefed, “If you feel me grab your arm or your leg, just go limp and I will move you to remind you of a better position.”)


Imagine this:

Sitting where you are, right now, I tell you,” Stand up, cover your right eye with your left hand, put your right hand in your pocket, and walk to the bathroom. If you don’t do exactly that - you will die in 20 minutes.”


It sounds sort of convoluted and weird. But you’d read the instructions a couple of times, picture it in your mind. And then pull it off perfectly, saving your life, in just a minute or two.

But if you didn’t… you were halfway there and you uncovered your eye…


And suddenly I appear out of nowhere and point “loudly” at your eye… I’m not angry. I’m trying to save your life.


Such is communication underwater as an instructor. If you’re blindfolded, and I squeeze your hand like crazy on the line it’s probably because you have let go of the line and I’m saying, “Do NOT let go of this line.”


There is only so much you can communicate underwater in the first place. Through the fog of anxiety that capacity is even further reduced.


“I am not yelling at you,” I need to remind my students over and over, “My hand signals in the water (both when you can see and even more so when you can’t) are going to be forceful.”


Which I suppose is yelling after a manner. It’s saying simple things “loudly.” But I’m still not yelling AT you; I’m yelling TO you.


For all divers, as buddies, communication can be a challenge. How frequently have you asked your buddy, or been asked yourself, ”What the hell were you trying to tell me?”


Somehow we all forget that we have a limited vocabulary underwater. We also forget that random, three-stooges-like hand motions that make perfect sense to us are complete gibberish to someone else.


(And before anyone brings up ASL… you need two hands to sign. As a cave diver all signs are one-handed. The other hand is lighting up the signing hand. So ASL would be like speaking using only even-numbered letters.)


The moral of this story then… yell more.


Short, direct, concise hand-signals.


If it’s anything more than two or three words that aren’t in the established dive “lexicon” that’s what wetnotes are for.


Alternate moral: if you’re in one of my classes and I try to manipulate something into or out of your hand in the dark… all I’m trying to do is communicate, one at a time, order of critical importance. And get you to a place where it’s all so easy that even the most complicated failure cascades become a bit of fun.


Please don’t fight me with your crazed, fight-or-flight strength.


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