I recently got an email from a Chicago area diver about his first Lake Michigan dive. While he wrote about how much he loved the shipwreck they visited, he didn’t like his ascent from the second dive. Why? As he was nearing the end of his dive, he turned around to look for his buddy. Somehow he accidentally became inverted (i.e. feet first). The gas in his dry suit shifted completely to his feet and started an uncontrolled ascent, feet first by the way, from a depth of 80 feet. A few hours after the dive, he started feeling tingling and discomfort in his left shoulder and elbow. Not taking any chances, he called DAN and went to the local hyperbaric chamber. Where he spent the next 10 hours being treated for DCS. After his story he had only one question for me? “How could I have prevented this?”
He did take the PADI dry suit course and had a few dry suit dives under his belt. So you can’t say he wasn’t trained and didn’t have experience diving dry suits. To answer his question is simple. Don’t take PADI’s dry suit course!!!!! You see, PADI’s dry suit class requires the student to use the suit as the primary BCD while underwater. Divers only use their BCD to rest comfortably on the surface. This has to be the most dangerous idea since the j-valve.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first story I’ve heard about uncontrolled ascents with dry suits. One of my previous students (not a dry suit student that is) had the same thing happen to him. Except he was at 130 feet when he got inverted and rocketed to the surface. He also got bent and spent time in the chamber. In both of these stories, the divers were overweighted and had a large volume of gas in their suits because they were taught to add gas to the suit for buoyancy control.
PADI’s approach for teaching buoyancy control with a dry suit has to be one of the most eff’d up methods I have ever heard of. While I have never heard PADI’s official word on why it is taught that way, I’m truly amazed people haven’t been killed using this. Why does PADI teach it? In my opinion, they feel it lessens task loading for new divers. This way they only have to maintain one buoyancy control device versus managing a dry suit and a BCD at the same time. You see, PADI instructors can put OW students into dry suits during their open water course. PADI doesn’t feel that a new diver can manage both a BCD and a dry suit during their open water class. PADI must not believe that you can walk and chew gum at the same time.
The interesting thing is the hypocrisy of PADI. You see, for the recreational dry suit course, PADI requires students to use the suit as the primary BCD. But if you take a look at their technical diving course materials, you’ll notice that PADI tells technical diving students they should put only enough air in their suit to prevent suit squeeze and keep warm. Then use their BCD/wing as a primary buoyancy device. This is the way you should do it, BTW. Why the two methods, PADI? Why not have the students learn the right way from the beginning? Why run the risk of hurting divers?
I’m a PADI dry suit instructor. I’m contractually required to support PADI. But I’ve had a hard time with this. I don’t think I could ever dive again if one of my students got hurt as a result of something that I specifically taught them. Especially if I knew it was risky. Regardless if PADI holds the liability and not me, I just couldn’t live with myself. So starting in 2011, I will no longer be offering the PADI dry suit course. Since I am a SDI dry suit instructor, I will be running all of my dry suit courses under the SDI banner. SDI does not teach using the suit as a primary BCD. Other than that, the classes are mostly identical. For all of the requests for dry suit classes, everyone wants a PADI class. Little do they realize that the PADI class is dangerous, in my opinion. People who continue to dive in dry suits eventually realize that the way PADI teaches it is wrong. They switch to the safer way of using a dry suit and use the suit for what it was made for, keeping you warm.
Image courtesy of The Hidden Ocean, Arctic 2005 Exploration, NOAA-OE.