|The solo v buddy diving debate has fizzed and flared for many years, but recently there has been more tolerance for the view that controlled solo diving has its place. More than that, says John Bantin, it is sometimes the safest option
Charles Lindbergh, Amy Johnson, Sir Francis Chichester, Claire Francis, Sir Ranulf Fiennes, Ellen MacArthur - what do they all have in common? Each of them preferred to do what they did solo.
Buddy diving will always be my first choice. To share a rare experience with another person is to make it more permanent in the mind's eye.
You can later ask: "Remember all those years ago when...?"
Only Tony shared the experience of finding a large and torpid shark in 17m in the lee of Portland Bill some 15 years ago, but without him to remind me, I might well have forgotten all about it. We share with pleasure the memory of how I decided to prod it into life and it shot off, colliding head-on with a rock, while Tony headed to the surface so fast his mask ended up somewhere round his waist!
However, I do not see a dive-partner as someone who is there to save me if I foul up - rather the other way around.
Often, I'm diving for a purpose. I demand that my buddy is equally committed to that purpose. That's fine if we have set off with that intent, but it's no good if I'm just paired with someone to satisfy some ill-found notion that every diver must have a buddy.
So I would rather dive alone, self-contained and self-assured of my own ability, than to be partnered with someone who is a distraction, who I don't trust or who I feel is a liability.
If you always dive with the same buddy, you're lucky. I often find myself aboard a boat full of divers I don't really know. Way back in the mid-'80s I was buddied up with such a person when my hired downstream regulator failed deep inside a wreck.
I swam over to my buddy and explained the problem, expecting him to offer me his spare regulator. Instead, he swam off, leaving me to make a horizontal swim and a free ascent with what air was left in my lungs.
Back on the boat, I listened as he surfaced with the other two divers in our party and explained how I had "just disappeared". How often do we hear that from the surviving member of a buddy pair after one goes missing?
It changed the way I dived.
It made me deeply aware that I had to be able to look after myself, and it also made the material for my very first contribution to this magazine!
If you do not have a firm understanding between you and your buddy, in the same way that an instructor has a firm grip on his duty of care towards his student, you had better beware.
As a dive-guide on a liveaboard I often endured the excessive humour of other crew-members on crew dives. They would playfully swim up behind me and turn off my air, or steal my mask for a few minutes.
I suppose it was a compliment that they knew I was competent to handle it, and it was probably good training, though often very irritating at the time.
So what are the prerequisites of solo diving? It's not just a matter of carrying lots of kit. Can you cope with a lost mask or a lost fin? Can you remove and refit both as a matter of routine? Could you make a controlled ascent without a mask? Do you carry a spare?
Have you ever made a free-ascent to the surface from the depths at which you dive, or do you carry an adequate redundant air supply? This could be in the form of a second tank or a pony cylinder, but there should be enough gas to see you safely to the surface. Can you get to your tank valves without help? This might mean pulling the whole lot off and over your head or off your shoulder.
Do you carry an adequate surface marker that you can deploy without help? Have you the sort of cool, calm personality that enables you to handle complications without stress, or do unfortunate things always happen to you? Some people are just not cut out to go alone to the shops, let alone enter a life-threatening environment.
Solo diving is only for those competent enough to do it and if you want to be good at something, you have to practise a lot. Sadly, few amateur divers get to dive regularly enough to be completely proficient as a solo diver - certainly not the recently qualified Open Water or Sports Diver. Most need the buddy system, and a good buddy at that.
However, it's strange to think that someone like Olivier Isler is seen as a hero when he does a deep cave penetration alone, but would be called a fool by some if he dived in the same way on a coral reef!
So I believe it's best to dive with a buddy for the sheer pleasure of it. It's down to you to take a keen interest in the well-being of your partner, before, during and after the dive. Your buddy should be able to rely on you, but don't rely on your buddy. After all, he is not his buddy's keeper.