PADI Dry Suit Classes: More Dangerous Than Technical Diving

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?”

Upside Down Ice DiverHe 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.

About Duane Johnson

Duane Johnson is the founder of Precision Diving and runs a scuba diving blog to help scuba divers improve their diving skills and enjoyment. He teaches recreational and technical scuba diving classes in the Chicago area. Learn more about him here and follow him on Twitter at @PrecisionDiving.

Comments

  1. Vincent says:

    They do go over this in the PADI dry suit course(at least mine did), you’re supposed to either roll(I think they stopped teaching that) or attempt to swim down an swoop up(never liked that, the roll tended to work better for me).

    The default location of the drysuit valves tend to make dumping air difficult too unless someone sits down and really points it out – I didn’t have that the first time around for my suit until someone pointed it out to me while I was doing my DM program.

    • One of the skills taught in the class is recovering from a feet first ascent. The problem is that by the time people try to get into that tuck and roll position, they are almost at the surface. Also by the time they try to tuck and roll, there is so much gas in the suit from air expansion, they can’t move very well. In both cases that I’ve heard, the ascents took about 30 seconds.

    • Dave says:

      Re the “default position”: I finally got that last night when out for our weekly night dive with the local GUE training group. It seems that the DUI CF200 is famous for this. Two of the guys dive CF200s and pointed out that a more aggressive roll is required to get the dump valve to a position where an arm pump will dump it. Focusing on this during our ascent gave me the most controlled ascent I’ve had to date. I wish that this had been pointed out and worked on in my dry suit “training”.

  2. Dave Tonneman says:

    I would agree. I have had a hell of a time when diving my drysuit. I was using the Padi method. I had an uncontrolled ascent from 30 ft after a short dive, thank god. I have switched to the only add enough gas to relieve excessive squeeze and have much better control.

  3. Hey Duane,

    I could not agree more. Although I did not know that PADI taught students to use their dry suit as a BC, I have heard/ read about this issue many times. The idea that you are task loading a student by requiring them to operate both a BC and Dry Suit is absurd. That is trying to fix a problem by introducing a greater problem.

    Since buoyancy control and trim are fundamental aspects of proper diving, it should be a priorty for any serious diver. Knowing how much gas to use to inflate your BC or dry suit control proper buoyancy and insulation should become second nature.

  4. I should also mention that PADI instructors have no say on how this is taught. The PADI dry suit course standards require instructors to teach this method. If an instructor does not, then he or she is in violation of PADI standards. Which is rather sad that one has to violate standards to teach a good course.

  5. Todd Vanderklooster says:

    I can understand Padi’s intent, in its old thought of one device for buoyancy. However as a DM and more than a few hundred dives in dry suits, and assisting instructors on dry suit specialties. And now diving in doubles, I am on the same side of thinking, with you, in using your BC for primary control and using a suit only to remove the suit squeeze. However we have to look at the right issue here. Proper training means conducting a proper weight check, which reduces over suit inflation (rarely done). As well, a new diver, or a new dry suit diver, is most often not comfortable being upside down. (Sometimes almost panicked) The maximum and giving a little here, is 6 feet (length of a body) is not a sufficient depth change to increase significantly the volume of air. (which we all know). Which rules out the air in the dry suit only theory being the problem, rather a combination of both, a larger volume than necessary in a suit, and an increased volume of air in the uncomfortable divers lungs from deeper breathing, causes the start of an uncontrolled feet first assent. I am sure you have taken dives for photography purposes and have been in a feet first posture to get that perfect shot that presents itself in that last minute moment. I have been there myself, before doubles when I was only using the dry suit to control buoyancy and never experienced an assent. Like I said, now being in doubles you have to use both for buoyancy. Otherwise, yes there is way to much air in the suit, let alone it is much colder having to always inflating the dry suit…

    • I agree with you Todd. If divers were properly weighted, using the suit as primary buoyancy control would make it a little safer. However, many divers are overweighted in general. Agreed, the shift of only six feet shouldn’t cause much expansion of suit gas. Like you mentioned, when someone becomes inverted and isn’t comfortable, their breathing rates change. Thus starting the initial ascent. Thanks for contributing.

  6. Dave says:

    I’m a pretty new diver.

    Prior to taking my PADI Dry Suit class I had dove a DS a few times with some tech diver friends of mine. One of the first things they taught me was exactly what you describe (i.e. inflate the suit only to alleviate squeeze). On taking my course the only thing the assistant instructor who supervised my dive said was that I had been using my BC instead of my suit for buoyancy control. I explained why and he let it go.

    What really shocked me though was that after the first dive I wanted to bleed my tank down to 400lbs and check that I was properly weighted. He claimed to have never heard of anybody doing such a thing and even challenged me as to its utility. As he stood shivering in the water, having flooded his DS by putting his wrist seals over his wet gloves, I proceeded to bleed the tank and check things out.

    That was the last PADI course I will ever take. I’m now learning from my friends and thinking of doing some GUE or UTD training.

    • Dave, was your instructor present on all of the dives? I’d be interested in what he said when you brought up the subject. I should double check, but I’m 99% certain that assistant instructors are not allowed to supervise DS students without an instructor present.

      What was the AI’s process for doing a weight check? I’m not that surprised to hear he’s never heard of the 500 psi at 10 feet approach to weight checking. Most instructors conduct weight checks at the beginning of a dive with the tank full.

      I wouldn’t rule out all PADI courses. For many of them, it’s the instructor that makes for a good class. Sounds like you’ve got a good bunch of folks to dive with.

      • Dave says:

        First off I should say that I quite like the instructor. He is patient, seems skilled and many times goes off the PADI reservation with more practical advice. I am sure that had he supervised my in-water things would have gone differently.

        That day the there were three groups in the water with the Instructor and 3 AIs. I was given an AI to myself presumably because, with all of 12 dives under my belt, I was the most experienced student and needed the least supervision. The other two groups were: two divers getting a refresher/check-out in the cold waters of Puget Sound and some divers entering AOW training who were getting DS qualified prior to the course. In retrospect, the latter seems odd as divers with as few as 4 dives were being put in dry suits.

        To answer your questions: The Instructor was in the water at all times when students were in the water but he was nowhere near the AI and me. Even if he was, viz is always an issue here and seldom extends beyond 30 feet.

        The AIs weight check was a single Fin Pivot check at the start of the first dive. Oh yeah: He never asked me to do an inversion recovery. Luckily, my tech friends had insisted that I demonstrate that to them the week prior before they would do anything with me. It has come in handy several times since.

        I was going to blow the entire issue off but my wife convinced me to inform the instructor. I did so and, to his credit, he has told me that he wants to go over all of this stuff with me when I take my next class with him. I’m not sure if there will be one but maybe.

  7. martin says:

    I remember vividly my padi drysuit course . i was taught to use your BC for buoyancy and only add air in your suit to prevent squezz. but i remember one of my friend who was an instructor telling me that PADI was saying to use your suit for buoyancy control, that was a year or so before i toke the course….

    do you think PADI have changed the way they’re teaching it?

    As a commercial diver i only use my suit for buoyancy, and never had any issue of uncontrolled ascent. for this to happened you have to be a little unaware of whats going on around you and depth changes.But i can see it being a problem for unexperienced divers!

    i do want to change my habit and start using my BC for buoyancy, since im sarting to get a little more deeper in my technical training!

  8. Ben says:

    Dont forget guys that PADI institution it’s there for recretional diver so it’s mean (one’s a while) for those who are real diver’s (no offense for the others) they will see very quickly that something does not fit. As a diver the first question you have to ask to yourself is, is it safe? If you dont feel confortable with PADI try another association it my be a good decision not because PADI is not good but it may simply save your life.