The A Team

Who is your favourite dive buddy? Why? Is it because they know the best super-secret dive sites? Because they always let you borrow their scooter? Because they always bring the beer? Because you communicate well, easily, clearly, and always feel like you have one another’s backs no matter what sort of failures might present during the dive? Which of those do you figure is actually the most valuable?

The merits or detriments of solo diving set completely aside for now, I’m wondering about team dynamics. The vast majority of diving across all levels is performed as either buddy or team diving. Nominally, anyway. So I’m wondering about what makes a good team and how a good team is made.

Let’s take a hypothetical insta-buddy pairing:

It’s a calm, warm morning at a tropical resort. A dozen or so people are loading their gear down the house dock onto the morning boat, unloading mesh bags, finding the tanks labeled with their names on white electrical tape, and assembling their BCs and regs. The DM is making their way around the deck when they stop next to two adjacent divers. “Mike, says here you’re a rescue diver with 200 dives under your belt. You’re going to be diving with Ike who just finished Open Water last week. Look after him, OK? It’s going to be a super-short ride out to the reef, so as soon as everyone is set up we’ll start the briefing!”

Two people who have never met in their lives. Wildly disparate experience levels. Almost certainly different training. To say nothing of gear. With almost no time at all to get to know one another as people or as divers before they’re supposed to jump in the water and assume responsibility for one another’s lives. And just how capable is Ike, in his relative inexperience, of looking after Mike anyway; Mike is damn-near solo diving. Not going to be the most effective dive team if something goes catastrophically wrong. Which components need to be changed? Well, in that scenario… pretty much all of them. But in the real world, how many of them really are? How frequently do buddy teams who have been diving together for years - or decades - swim around each of them with a camera in their hand? How frequently do folks who are close friends socially, but only have the opportunity to dive together infrequently, just assume that their closeness will automatically translate into the ability to communicate underwater? How often do people actually review hand signals beyond “turtle” and “octopus?” In training I put a lot of emphasis on team problem solving. Granted, the vast majority of what I do is overhead training, where “let’s go to the surface” is not an option and the problems need to be sorted out here and now. So the need for clear communication combined with shared knowledge of equipment and procedure is far more essential.

Sometimes, during my classes, getting the team to come together can take a bit of effort. Even when students know each other well. Even when students have spent years diving together. Sometimes BECAUSE students have spent years diving together and have fallen into a comfort-zone they need to unlearn. Even couples can have their difficulties.

Some people are just on different wavelengths. People will have different ideas of what the “obvious” solution to a problem might be. Certainly during training there can be some misunderstanding of the nature of a failure and what the appropriate response might be… but think of just how much more chaotic and crucial everything becomes during an actual failure. It’s in those moments when it is critical that divers think of themselves as part of a team. The team needs to respond to the issue, not two or three individual divers each applying their own individual solutions. When the former happens, problems tend to get sorted calmly, deliberately, effectively, and quickly. When the latter happens it’s like watching the Keystone Cops stepping on each other’s toes and running full-speed into one another over and over again. It’s time-consuming, ineffective, and (during advanced dives) it can be lethal. So what is it that makes an effective team? One spiffy trick during training is to apply a team name. Anyone with passing familiarity with any fantasy movie ever knows that a witch will tell you that names have power; if you know the name of a thing you have control over it. This really is a sort of magical thinking, but it works to some extent. It gets people thinking not of themselves as individual divers, but as that team; since the team has a name, then the team is a thing, it exists.

This is, of course, is not the end of it. It’s all well and good that the team exists, but the team still needs to get their shit together. Like the Washington Generals.

(It's a trick, by the by, I can't bring myself to use. I've tried it on before, but it just feels wrong. Awkward and forced. So if you've got a class with me on the calendar you don't need to start listing name ideas.)

Let’s get back to that sunny deck where Mike & Ike are just finishing assembling their kit. Mike, being the more experienced and having taken a couple of classes with some really solid mentors, sees that Ike is a little nervous about the whole situation and remembers some of the things he’s seen over his years diving. “Why don’t you show me around your equipment real quick, talk me through what you’ve got in your BC pockets and such and then I’ll show you everything with mine." That done, they actually double-check one another’s assembly, then sit down and review some of the basic hand signals with one another, particularly reviewing how they communicate tank pressure. They briefly discuss SAC rate, which Ike has never heard of, so they decide on a dive plan where Ike will actually be slightly in the lead so Mike can literally keep an eye on him and that they’ll communicate when they hit certain pressure benchmarks with one another. The above takes less than five minutes. And now they’re a team. I mean… they’re probably still the Washington Generals… but a team nonetheless. They know each other’s gear. They know how to communicate. They have some rudimentary safety plans in order. They have some hope of knowing how the other might respond to a problem. They’re in pretty solid shape. Probably far better prepared to deal with, at least, the most likely possible failures than most divers on a day-boat. As divers reach more and more advanced levels of the sport, the team needs to be more dialled in. And each of those components needs to be more refined. Very different scenario:

After that day on the boat Mike & Ike became BFFs and have been training and diving together for 10 years. They’re now 10K feet back in a cave when Mike’s primary light fails so they call the dive. As they’re scootering home, the first stage on Ike’s right (long hose) sidemount bottle fails completely. And, because it’s just that kind of day, when they finally limp back to their stage bottles they find they both missed that Ike had forgotten to close his valve and the stage is now purged to empty, the bubbles having destroyed visibility in this portion of the cave. It’s right about now that you want to make damn sure everyone is on the same page about what needs to happen next. Because the only way Ike is going to make it out of that cave alive is with Mike’s help. The team needs to be able to clearly communicate. They need some expectation of how their buddies are going to respond and what they are going to do. They need to know one another’s gear backwards and forwards so they can help diagnose and attend. They need to be able to make decisions and move quickly, but effectively. And, above all, they need to trust all of that exists both ways between them.

You ever get the sense that a first dive together is much like a first date? It’s flooded with that same kinda nervous excitement of feeling someone out and, hopefully, sharing a passion. I’m always impressed when I first go diving with someone and they suggest we do something very simple. Even if the both of us might be super-fancy-qualified, even if the person I’m diving with has some super-fancy reputation as a hot-shit badass. The suggestion, “Why don’t we just dive mainline through power-cave,” comes as very welcome. As an opportunity to see how they predive, how they swim, how their light communication (or lack thereof) might be, how they interact with the cave and with their team, how they debrief, and any million other factors where we may or may not “click” as a team. I figure it’s the first date equivalent of meeting for coffee or a drink. It’s the folks that say, “We’ve never been diving together before, but let’s do a double-stage scooter back to this really tight, silty area where I’ve been looking for leads” that make me a little edgy. I figure that’s the first date equivalent of… well… yeah… It’s not like I have any sort of metric for when we work up to that… but we should probably get to know each other a little better first.

And how do you get to know each other better? Communication. Below and above water. That is almost always what it comes back to in my classes. Concise, effective communication. Thorough predive before and an informal debrief after. During the dive, a shared vocabulary of hand signals deployed slowly between the entire team to ensure everyone understands what everyone else is thinking. It’s all well and good to have that dive buddy that it feels like you don’t even need to communicate, you just know each other that well. But sometimes you really, really do need to communicate. Honestly, during most of my dives, the only hand signal used is a thumb when it’s time to turn around and then back to good old passive light communication (the later deserving, perhaps, a topic for its own entire article at some point). There’s not a lot that needs to be communicated when it’s all going well. But when the shit hits the fan and suddenly our team resources need to be inventoried and distributed appropriately that you don’t want three people doing hand signals like the 3 Stooges at one another for five minutes. Gear familiarity? It can be communicated. How to respond to failures? Communication. Dive planning? Communication. What went wrong and how to avoid it in the future?

When to assume the lead or when to step back from the action? I’m sure you’re seeing the trend here. It’s like the cliche of couples counselling: you need to communicate. And more than just, “Look at the manta ray!” You need to be able to communicate your way through worst-case scenarios. The one X-factor that can’t be simply communicated (because it’s hard to know) is how a person deals under stress. That is, in the last scenario above when the whole world goes pear-shaped, is Mike’s fight-or-flight going to kick in and just abandon Ike to hope and luck?

Let’s hope not. Let’s hope the two of them have applied lots of focused training and practice, had lots of conversations, and done lots of dives working up to that place so that both of them can communicate, “Well isn’t this a bitch of a day,” and make their way out of the cave thinking, unflustered, to themselves, “This is going to be one hell of a story,” the whole way home.

The odds of that happening with two people on their first dive together are vanishingly slim. A team that effective, able to intuit decisions and actions, able to respond as a single unit instead of as a couple of individual divers gets built with communication plus time helping each other push safely and progressively past comfort-zones.

I guess… or there’s wetnotes? Or a wrist slate? But my handwriting is illegible, so no real help there.


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