The third and final part of my PADI Open Water Diver course was the actual open water dives.
My open water dives took place at the National Diving and Activity Centre (NDAC) over a weekend. NDAC is a large quarry in Chepstow, Wales that at it’s deepest is 80m (which I believe is the deepest inland dive site in the UK) and has a number of objects, such as tanks, planes, buses, etc on the bottom at various places
The first day started early. Too early for me in fact as I thought I had to be there for 7:45 rather than 7:30! I was met by the instructors for the day; Lee (who runs Quest), Ray, Jo, Chris and Zani (sorry again if this is wrong!). There were 3 of us on the course, myself, Paul and Tom, who are father and son.
First task of the day was to assemble our kits. We were left to complete this on our own before they were checked by the instructors to ensure everything was correct. After this we got our wetsuits on, paid our entrance fee for the day and made our way down to the water.
Our kit was taken down to the water in minibuses, however, because Lee appears to be very much a morning person he decided we would walk down and do our site briefing on the way. Once we'd made our way down it was time to kit up.
Once we were kitted up Lee took us through what we would be doing on the first dive; what skills we would be doing, what order we would do the skills in, the hand signals he would use for each skill, etc.
The final task before entering the water for our first proper dive was to go through our buddy checks (remember Bruce Willis Ruins All Films). You're encouraged to do this between yourselves but the instructors are always keeping an eye on you and are quick to point out any mistakes or possible issues (such as a tangled regulator hose – thanks Chris!).
Once everybody was happy with their kit we entered the water with a giant stride (which we'd practiced in the confined dives section) and enjoyed the sensation of external body parts very quickly becoming internal body parts! Yes, the water was a little parky on first entering (although as I've dived more I've come to realise it was in fact positively mild).
The first skill we practiced was a taking the regulator out of our mouths and replacing it, using both of the clearing methods we'd previously learnt. This was a nice way of getting comfortable under the water, kneeling on a training platform that sits about 6m deep in the quarry. After we had successfully completed these skills we went through retrieval of a lost regulator, again building up our confidence to handle situations at the deeper depth (the pool is about 1.2m deep). All of the exercises were done at a nice slow pace and there was always one, normally 2 instructors around you whilst you were performing the skills.
We moved on to some buoyancy control exercises using a ‘fin pivot’. This basically involves lying on the platform/floor and then gradually inflating your BCD until you can move up and down in the water simply through your breathing. Once we were comfortable with this we went for our first swim. I’m pretty sure I looked like an underwater cheshire cat the whole time.
The last part of this dive was an alternate air source ascent. This is done with an instructor and involves taking their alternate air source, grabbing each others BCDs and slowly ascending to the surface, using their air. We had already practiced this in the pool so it wasn't as scary as it may sound!
On the swim back to the pontoon we practiced a couple more skills, such as re-attaching you low pressure hose and fin techniques.
That was the end of our first open water dive.
We used our surface interval to go over the last dive, ask any questions we had done and talking through the plan for the second dive of the day.
The second dive involved mask clearing exercises, a longer swim at a deeper depth - meaning a safety stop would be required - and performing a Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent. We'd finish off with a couple more surface skills.
In we jumped (it still felt pretty cold), made our way back out to the training platform buoy and descended. This time we were encouraged not to hold on to the buoy rope as we descended onto the platform.
We went through the mask clearing exercises, which are pretty simple and you will have already done all of these in the pool and then went back into a fin pivot to get our buoyancy. We then set off for a much longer swim than on our first dive. It actually turned out to be about 6 or 7 mins but you will lose track of time down there.
We reached a depth approx. 12m on this dive and passed a plane, a tank and another armoured vehicle as well as seeing a few fish.
We returned to the training platform and practised a few more skills. I found out after the dive that we had also used this time as our safety stop. It was time for the final part of this dive, the CESA.
You go over exactly what is involved in the manual and pool sessions, but none of that prepared me for what it would feel like doing it from 6m! You keep your regulator in for this, for obvious reasons, so you do always have air available should you need it. This certainly drove home to me the NEVER RUN OUT OF AIR mantra (as if it needed driving in!).
Once back on the surface we practiced towing a person and being towed before exiting the water. The last part of the day was dismantling our kit, getting warm and dry and logging our dives.
I took the opportunity to have a weekend away and stayed at the NDAC in my motorhome. They also have wooden ‘wigwams’ available to hire if you book early enough. I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon there, having a wander around, speaking to the guys in the shop about equipment, costs, etc and having a chat with a few people in the cafe.
Sunday morning followed a very similar pattern to the first, with two key differences.
Once again we assembled our kit under the watchful eye of the instructors. Before we got into our wetsuits and made our way down to the pontoon we had a practice with the compasses in the car park as this we one of the skills we would be using on our first dive of the day.
Once we were down on the pontoon, we kitted up, went through the plan for the first dive and did our buddy checks. Paul wasn’t able to make the dives today so myself and Tom became buddies for all of the exercises.
The first thing we did after entering the water was to practice swimming between points using our compasses and snorkels. After we were comfortable with that, we descended down to approx 6m. The big difference with this descent was that the platform was not directly below us, so we couldn’t simply stop when we hit it. Having it and the bottom in sight made it a lot easier though, as I found out on my second dive.
We then did some more work using our compasses, swimming along a bearing before turning back and following it in the opposite direction back to the platform to get our buoyancy. We then went on a similar swim to the second dive of the first day, again reaching approx. 12m in depth. Instead of returning to the platform this time we followed the contour of the quarry floor to slowly ascend, meaning our safety stop was taken care of by the actual ascent.
We made our way back to the pontoon to review the dive and go through the plan for final dive. Again, this time also gave us the required surface interval.
One of the important lessons I learnt is that there is often a way of making 'wasted time' useful or fun, such as practising skills at the safety stop depth or using surface intervals to review and plan.
The plan for this dive was to basically do a ‘real’ dive. Descend, swim around, make a safety stop and ascend.
We descended over a ridge in the quarry, meaning we couldn’t see the floor. As I alluded to before, I found this quite tricky as it added an extra thing to really concentrate on, your depth gauge. I will admit that at one point I did start to become quite worried, however in probably less than a second, both Chris and Ray had noticed and were by my side, guiding me through everything and making sure I didn’t go too deep.
I got myself sorted, and we started on the final swim. Unfortunately before we had made it as far was we’d planned I reached the amount of air at which point I was to notify the instructors so we could turn back. I’m sure this was due to me worrying during the descent and breathing a little deeper and faster than ideal but it was also a good experience of things not going 100% to plan and adapting.
Ray and Chris were both absolutely fantastic on the dive, always staying with me, making sure I was comfortable and relaxed. We made our way back to the training platform, waited the required time for our safety stop and made our ascent.
I'm pleased to say that I successfully passed the course and became a PADI Open Water Diver. This means that I am now able to dive to 18m with other qualified divers, although my next planned dive is with Ocean Quest on the Advanced Open Water Diver course.