It's great to dive with friends, but, warns John Bantin, don't be fooled into thinking that clubs can offer more than they do
In the early '80s, I decided I wanted to go diving. I saw a sign saying "Learn To Dive" and I enrolled on a course. At the end of it I received an "internationally recognised" certificate of training. It bore the legend "Verband Deutcher Taucher Lehren".
I went diving with this certificate anywhere in the world but Britain, where I was scolded for not being "a proper diver". What did foreigners know about diving?
My critics, of course, were conveniently forgetting about the likes of Jacques Cousteau, Hans Hass...
When I lived in Majorca there was no diving centre nearby, so I bought my own compreor. I had everything else I needed. I soon spotted the tell-tale hum of other air-cooled Bauers and identified a few dive buddies.
We went diving in small, informal groups. It was a club, but we didn't train anybody. We were of different nationalities. We were all certified, though by many different training agencies. We needed no further association with an agency to make us feel that we were legitimate.
However, leisure diving is subject to statute in many parts of the world, so we had to join the local FEDAS club to make our diving legal. Once European law came in to line regarding leisure diving, we found it convenient to make our club a branch of the BSAC.
Many people join diving clubs because it allows them both to share costs and to get in touch with others who have the expertise they are looking for.
PADI blew the lid off the activities of many of these clubs by providing training for those who simply wanted to pay and get on with it.
But diving is certainly more fun when you do it with like-minded folk, and clubs can provide that sociability. Whether yours is affiliated to some larger organisation is a matter of choice. But if it is, don't expect that organisation to exercise any authority over its members' activities outside the club environment.
Even the UK's "governing body", the BSAC, is fooling itself if it expects to do that. Many sporting organisations can control their members by denying them entry to competitions or recognised record attempts, but diving isn't like that - it's not a competitive sport.
Nor does membership of one club disbar you from joining another. You have only to stick to one club's rules when participating in events run under the auspices of that organisation. So a PADI instructor can dive to 50m but not during a PADI training course (where the final limit is 40m), while a BSAC member can take to the water with a closed-circuit rebreather, but not during a club-organised dive.
Diving can be hazardous, and the various clubs and training agencies seek to limit risk as best they can. Having said that, there will always be those who "push the envelope" - a smart phrase for flouting rules laid down by others. Others pay lip-service to those rules in public but break them in private.
Certain simple souls need to live their lives ruled by tribalism and authority. They are the ones who contact me in outrage when I suggest that there might be ways of doing things other than by the gospels laid down in their diving organisation's bible.
But these club members might be shocked to know that those who lay down the law to them don't necessarily practise what they preach. For example, I could name many well-respected senior officials of the BSAC who have regularly dived to depths on air which would be out of bounds to the rank-and-file.
What those divers do in their own time is their own business. No rules are broken as long as they are not diving under BSAC auspices. But if club rules are so often unenforceable, why bother to join a club?
PADI members (the instructors) join because they can then buy PADI products and sell them with the training and certification to their customers. Those customers are given the option to join PADI-run Chapters, which gives them a chance to interact and gives PADI future sales opportunities.
BSAC members believe that the additional benefits the association brings to their branches are worth paying for. They like to feel part of a bigger organisation, though few are passionate enough about it to use their vote in club elections.
SAA (Sub-Aqua Association) members clearly feel the same about being part of something bigger, though they pay substantially less for the privilege.
But there are still many independent diving clubs that feel no need for affiliations, and save the expense. Like me and my friends in Majorca, they just get together to go diving.
Most people still start by wanting to learn to dive. They know training is necessary and they want a certificate everyone will recognise. But it is the diving that comes first. The rest is mere distraction.
Appeared in DIVER - August 1999