You have been partnered with a diver you don't know. Will it be fun? Your chances
range from bad through worse to awful, reckons Mike Ward, who recalls some buddies from hell
ALL THE MAJOR RECREATIONAL AGENCIES TRAIN THEIR DIVERS in the benefits of the buddy system. Diving, they tell you, is a team activity. Having another pair of eyes makes it easier to spot interesting and unusual things under water, and a buddy to chat with adds immeasurably to the satisfaction gained from each dive.
Most important, if the worst ever happens, a well-trained, reliable and properly briefed buddy can make the difference between living and dying.
Then you go diving with a real buddy.
If you're diving with a school or a holiday operation, that buddy will be somebody you have never seen before. By the time the dive is over, this will be somebody you never want to see again. He will be paying for the diving with his own money, so is far more interested in the fish than in your survival, let alone in you having a good time.
If you are diving with a club, you will be buddied with a more experienced diver who can look after you and teach you some of the practical things the courses don't cover, such as it being the job of the newest novice to pump up the tubes of the RIB.
These people do it for the love of the sport and because they want to pass on their enthusiasm to new divers. The fact that most of them should be forced to wear a health warning on their kit is coincidence.
Remember to put your training into practice and plan the dive.
Derek was a real diver. When he started, the BSAC ruled supreme and insisted that trainees should be able to tread water in the deep end of a pool holding an outboard motor above their heads for two days before they could even look at a snorkel.
The first theory and practical sessions of the training were on making a quarter-inch wetsuit and converting a Calor gas bottle for air. Derek had a beard, wore a knife he had won in single combat with a jungle porter, and always dived with twin-12s.
Our first and only dive together was from a chartered hardboat on a club trip. We stood side by side on the deck as the skipper briefed us on the site. Then, showing proper respect, I asked Derek what the dive plan was.
He looked me slowly up and down as if I was some kind of blithering idiot. "We jump in the water, get down to the bottom and swim round until we get low on air, get cold or get bored. Then we come up."
Steve was also a real diver, and his dive-planning was equally simple. "You swim on my left, just a couple of feet away. I don't want you above me or below me, and I don't want you out of arm's length. When we get to the wreck you go where I tell you. Get your kit on, we're in first!"
Once on the wreck, Steve would find a likely-looking hole, point to the side of it and mime holding on. Signalling his hapless buddy to stay put, he would disappear into the wreck, leaving him to wait.
And wait. Just as the buddy would be running low on air and getting close to needing more stops than he had gas to complete, out Steve would pop and back up they would go. Few novices ever asked to wreck-dive with him twice.
Like many old-school divers, Steve came late to computers. After one wreck-dive at Scapa my Suunto cleared while his Aladin still indicated stops required. We came up anyway.
Steve's computer naturally beeped in complaint, so he slung it in a bucket of water so that he couldn't hear it and did the afternoon dive the old-fashioned way, without even a watch.
If you've gone to the trouble of planning the dive, you really should dive the plan.
Jim was a BSAC Dive Leader working towards Advanced Diver. He did what were among the most thorough briefings I have ever heard when he took me on some of my first sea dives.
Our first dive together was on a wreck in around 30m. It was brilliant, my first time on a wreck with some history, and I was enjoying grubbing about for souvenirs until I saw Jim suddenly whirl around and fin away from me.
He didn't tell me he was departing, and he was going like the clappers. I managed to catch him at 6m when he paused for a safety stop.
"I was getting a bit low on air," he explained, when we were back on the boat. "I thought it was time to get back to the shotline."
Another time we were exploring an intact wreck in the Sound of Mull when I realised that Jim wasn't in sight. I gave it 360¡, waited, gave it another 360¡, waited some more, then headed for the surface. Back on the boat, no Jim.
He turned up a couple of minutes later, coughing, spluttering and really annoyed that he had had to curtail his dive.
He said he had decided to explore the engine room, thought it would be a bit small for a novice like me and didn't want me following him and kicking up silt, so he had waited until I was looking the other way and swam off.
Revenge, however, was sweet. Jim lent his suit to a friend who had just started diving and had been told that peeing in your suit was one way to warm up on cold dives. Unfortunately, nobody had told the friend that this was inappropriate in a drysuit.
Andrew was a novice doing his various skills to move on to Sports Diver in the old BSAC system. I was buddying him in the Farne Islands to run through practical SMB use, and we agreed a comprehensive dive plan.
I readily acknowledge that a plan might need modifying in the light of events, but not just because you've just seen your first lobster and been overcome by bloodlust. He dropped the reel and was under the rock like the proverbial ferret, but still didn't get the lobster.
Just under an hour towing the buoy around Beadnell Reef sorted him out.
Paying careful attention to buddy checks is an important part of the training process.
Bob kitted up for the morning dive, rolled over the side, then spent ages trying to dump air and submerge before the awful realisation hit him. He had forgotten his weightbelt.
He considered dragging himself down the line until the pressure squeezed the excess buoyancy from his suit, then swimming about clutching a big rock, but on reflection had to reject this idea as too silly.
He decided to own up, and took the ribbing as only a middle-aged bloke with a bubble perm can.
Unfortunate, but it happens. Forgetting his weightbelt on the afternoon dive was another matter.
Then there was Andy, who challenged me to make a forward-roll entry from the deck of the hardboat, and applauded my effort by banging my fins together while I was still in mid-air.
Sometimes, of course, you don't listen to your buddy. Like the diver who was so intent on getting his first Dive Leader assessment briefing spot-on that he needed a slap before his wife managed to convey that he really, really needed to close the zip on his drysuit before entering the water.
Eventually you sort yourself out. You don't stop making mistakes, you just develop a system which brings them to light before you do something stupid. Then you can start to get annoyed about how other people conduct themselves.
On holiday you need to be flexible, as you never know with whom you might be diving.
Sandra arrived with a lot of noise. She was highly qualified and had done a fair number of dives in the UK, mostly from Channel charter boats, so the signs were good.
We were diving in the Mediterranean from a hardboat anchored on a single line at the bow. It was daylight and the viz had been 20m or more all week.
Our guide explained that the site was a gully into which the anchor had been dropped. The only complicating factor was a bit of a run, so he advised us to have all our kit in place and to grab the line streamed from the anchor chain so that we could pull ourselves forward without wasting energy and air.
Sandra and I discussed the dive plan. I suggested that we swim down the anchor-line to the gully, out along one wall and turn back when our air was down to 100 bar. Sandra agreed, but suggested she clip a line to the anchor chain when we got to the bottom, in case we couldn't find it on the way back.
I pointed out that we had only to follow the wall, or simply look up and see the boat, and she reluctantly agreed.
As she started to kit up, I could only watch with awe. She solemnly climbed into a full 8mm, two-piece semi-dry, then added enough weight to challenge the load-bearing ability of the boat deck. Next came a BC with extra D-rings, onto which she clipped three torches, a reel and line, a spare reel, a delayed SMB and a small pot containing spare O-rings.
Her fins were marginally longer than the boat, and marked left and right. She put them on the wrong feet. In any other diver I would have thought this was done deliberately as a joke, but I doubt whether Sandra knows her right from her left, or her elbow from other parts of her anatomy.
She said she was warm, so would I mind if she went in first? We agreed to meet at the anchor-line. Her jacket turned out to be up to the task of floating her, and she bobbed gently along, tightening straps and adjusting kit, oblivious of now being behind the boat. A thrown line and a tow got her back to the anchor-line, and down we went.
Down I went, anyway, to 5m. Sandra bobbed up and down a few times, desperate to dump air from everything, clear her ears and adjust her mask.
Eventually we reached the bottom, and I held up my contents gauge and motioned to see hers.
One hundred bar. And I was paying for this!
My logbook records a dive time of less than 20 minutes, most of which I spent at 5m on the way down, waiting for her to descend, and 5m on the way up, doing the compulsory safety stop.
Mind you, I overheard her version of the same dive later on, and I have to say that after the sort of performance I apparently put up, I wouldn't dive with me either!
Which brings us to Peter. He and I were buddied because we were the only two singles on the liveaboard, and had to share a cabin for the same reason. We dropped in together for the first dive, and Peter finned off into the blue.
I didn't see him again until I got back on the boat. During the afternoon he started to feel unwell, and by dinner-time he was locked in our cabin being violently and repeatedly sick, something he kept up all week, effectively keeping me out of the cabin.
This performance earns him my Ultimate Buddy Award. Unreliable in the water and so sick you didn't want to stand downwind of him out of it. Is it any wonder some of us prefer to dive solo?