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Open Water weekend November 2018

I had a good weekend this last few days, and I wanted to reflect a bit about why it was so enjoyable. I dove in a place I’ve been before many times, at this point so often it feels just as much like home as home does. But yet it stood out. This weekend was special in that it highlighted why I teach in the first place, and what makes teaching SCUBA so much fun!

This class I had a young man (I’ll call him Zach, but names have been changed to protect the innocent). Zach had a physiological problem with diving I’ve only seen once or twice before in my teaching of diving- he has the physical inability to breath in through solely his nose or mouth. Simply put, if he’s breathing in through one, he’s breathing in through both at the same time, on every breath. For the overwhelming majority of people this is something that can be fixed just by working on airway control, and spazzing some water a few times generally forces some change. But in his case, he simply couldn’t do it.

Now a few years ago, I’d had a young lady in my class with the same condition (my first and only other verified case of this). She was a personal friend of me and my wife, and I really wanted her to get certified, but looking back I just didn’t know how to help someone with that condition. I kept thinking that if I just explained it differently, or was tough enough on her, she’d get it. Instead she showed me a perseverance I had never yet seen in continuing to try, and coming up coughing water to a level where I think I’d have backed down if I were her. Thankfully, I am capable of growth and learning too, so in the process of working with her, I found other ways to help people like her, and make their experiences much more capable than just spazzing for a few weeks of pool sessions.

So now, fast forward to Zach, and he’s showing me every sign of this issue, and that same tenacity I’d seen in my friend, and my divemaster and I spent the whole semester working with him to overcome, and just in time for the last few pool sessions, he mastered the skill and technique that he needed. But going in to the open water weekend, I was still a little concerned of how it would go in open water. WONDERFULLY was the answer. He made it to Washington, and not only did he succeed in each of the skills, but he mastered them in open water on the first pass for each. Each and every time he had to flood his mask, he applied what he’d learned in the pool, he kept a level head and calmly and methodically worked through. Sometimes I get students that are just naturals, but it’s truly the ones that have to work twice as hard as everyone else to get it done that bring me so much joy. People that I think might not have made it through the class if I did classes in a rush, or didn’t have some of the best divemasters in the world working with me. This isn’t to get all big-headed about ourselves, but to say that I’m thankful I get to teach for a shop and a school that really put people first. We want each student to feel like we’ve got their back, and that they learned not just how to get through the class, but how to be safe comfortable life-long divers. Watching Zach achieve that just really made me proud of what it is we do. He was never nervous or intimidated by the actual diving part, just the technique of the mask skills were a struggle, but he absolutely was a champ who persevered, and never had a bit of quit in him, and because of that he’s an excellent diver, with a lifetime of great diving opportunities ahead!

At the same time, Zach had mentioned to me that it was intimidating sitting next to his fellow students in the pool, they all seeming to get it so easy when he was struggling. We always have spare staff in the pool so that they can pair off with a student one on one if they need the time, but it’s still a little rough to be the one always riding solo with a divemaster when the rest of the class seems to be having it easy. In particular I had the privilege of teaching a fellow Linfield staffer’s son. Young Ben was 13 years old, obviously not in college yet, but because of his dad, I was able to teach him through the school. His dad is a marine biologist, with many many dives, and his son absolutely looked during every pool session like he was a chip off the ole block, and had his dad’s natural giftings in the water. Every single skill, throughout the entire semester, he nailed it first time. If we did it again just to give him extra practice, I felt like I should have recorded it and used it for training videos. During the classroom portion, when his college age counterparts didn’t know an answer, I knew I could let Ben answer and he’d save them. Truthfully I kind of enjoyed and reveled in watching a 13 year old school the college students in reading comprehension and underwater ability, it was fun to watch. But when we got to the open water weekend in the cold and darker water, Ben about lost it. On dive number one, on one of the easiest skills in the class (reg removal and replacement) he panicked and made a shot for the surface. He had done the skill 5 times over with absolute ease, the most recent time only being 3 days before in the pool with a hood and gloves on, just like he’d be doing in open water- so I had zero concern about him being able to do it, but I could see defeat in his eyes, and he looked for a minute like he might just call it quits right then.

I had a talk with him, a talk with his dad (who must get an honorable mention as the single best parent I’ve ever had that was both themselves a certified diver, and watching their kids get certified- PERFECT balance of being helpful, but not doing it for them, just amazing, anyway, I digress….) After talking with Ben and his dad, I came to the conclusion that the real issue was a combo of being cold (tiny guy, thin as a stick, just lost too much heat), as well as just first dive jitters. We made the call to split him up and have me dive with him one on one for his training dives, to cut down on any amount of time waiting for buddies to get geared up or do skills- not because he wasn’t a patient kid, but because by the time they would get done, he would be running low on warmth, because as all divers can attest, the coldest part of certification is when you’re just sitting around, because there’s nothing to distract you. So normally, I do 8 dives with each student before the end of the weekend, but with Ben we made the call to do each dive buffered by some big gaps in each direction so he’d have time to warm up. So he only got in 5 dives through the weekend, but the quality of those 5 dives was just what he needed to ignite a passion for scuba and not just “get it over with.” I’ve often wondered if my extra time in Washington is worth it. I get paid the same amount to do this extra long program that I do as every instructor who just does the 4 to get people done and ships them home. Truthfully, my buddy Keith brainstormed the idea to me back in the day, and I’ve done it this way at every shop since and I really think it’s the best way to teach that anyone has ever had. But it’s a lot of wear and tear on me- I go home at the end of a weekend wore out, for sure. Because for each dive that a student gets, I get that many times the number of groups we split it into. This weekend I’m guessing I did around 15 dives over three days in some cold water. And that’s for a super small class, the bigger classes really do send me home ready for a cold beer and a hot tub…

But seeing Ben at the end of his do-over dive once he had warmed up and went down with just me and his dad, really was a career highlight. That kid would have dropped out of any standard-rotation class. Instead, he not just got it done, but started to see himself as a diver, and was able to be just as good in the ocean as he’d grown accustomed to in the pool. His decision to get back out there and be brave, coupled with a supportive dad who really took joy in watching his son do well, made my teaching and time feel like such a worthy investment, and a good use of energy.

I feel like even this massive wall of text is just a glimpse of all that I could say about this great group of students. Being a scuba instructor is an odd hobby-job, but I really love watching people discover the other 70% of this planet is open to them, all because they put their mind to something and learned a skill set that is natural to no one at all.