Class started on Sunday the 18th at EE, with Meredith Tanguay as our instructor. We did the normal morning lectures followed by some gear inspection. There are some slight gear changes for cave diving that we hadn’t done prior to class, but Mer got us all fixed up. Really not much changes but you will see once you take the class. Since this was our second GUE class we were pretty familiar with how the class schedules go. After having gone through fundamentals, the format is basically the same. We start with lecture, land drills, and then move to in-water skills followed by more lectures and land drills. Rinse and repeat.
The good thing about GUE is that there is no shortage of information that they are willing to give you (provided it makes sense for the context of class). Everything has a place or a reason based on some past lesson learned, so you can be sure that what you are getting has been well thought out. When you take a GUE class, you are getting shared experiences of thousands of dives from some of the top divers in the world. They have structured approaches to gear configuration and team diving because it’s the safest way to dive. All the information given to students in class is tried and true. We may not quite understand the reason behind it but trust me there is a reason and a good one.
After the morning lecture we did some field drills. We learned about line navigation and went over how to exit the cave in zero visibility using touch contact. These were pretty fun to do but certainly highlighted the dangers of cave diving. We had a chance to run the reel and learn some tricks about tying in.
This was new to us even though we had done some open water reel practice. We both found that our knuckles were getting torn up on the Halcyon Focus goodman handle while trying to run the reel. It was more a matter of us holding it wrong and finding that balance of hand position and reel position. The day ended with more lectures and we were feeling pretty good about the class so far.
The next morning we got up and drove to Blue Grotto in Williston. This is about an hour south of High Springs. We have about a dozen or so dives in Blue Grotto counting fundies and fun dives since moving to Florida. We like this place. It has nice covered shelters and easy access to the water.
Blue Grotto is a private facility which was recently upgraded with a very nice deck and steps leading to the water. The gentleman that runs the place is super nice. And although it’s really expensive to dive there, it has it’s perks of being a nice facility. The Grotto is a karst window that has a legitimate cave on one side under the dock and a huge cavern on the other. The cavern in blue grotto starts at about 45ft of depth and leads back over a debris field or breakdown to about 65ft. From there it drops pretty quickly and gets real dark down to about 100ft. Make no mistake, at the bottom of blue grotto you are cave diving. And if you aren’t trained to cave dive, or at least cavern dive, do your self a favor and stay out of it. The site actually allows open water divers on single tanks to dive the entire cavern. I personally witnessed a “near miss” by an unknown open water diver, on a single AL80, last year while diving there. And it reinforced my already healthy respect for any overhead environment. None the less, Blue Grotto is a perfect cave training environment.
Blue Grotto and I have a love hate relationship ever since fundies. So when we got there, I was pretty excited/anxious and didn’t quite know what to expect honestly. Mer did a good job setting expectations for the day and we were going to start by going over our fundamental skills, and then slowly building more experience with the skills we did on land the day before.
Our first dive was a shake out, and man were we rusty on the S-drill and valve drills. It was somewhat embarrassing. Truth be told, we hadn’t gotten as much in-water time as we wanted over the last few months. We had a few things going on that prevented us from diving every weekend and we also unexpectedly lost our beloved golden retriever of 12 years in August, due to a brain tumor. It was like losing a family member, which was hard to deal with. We just needed a break from things to reset and diving took a back seat for a few months. We still dove at least once a month but we really didn’t make it a priority even though we knew we had cave 1 coming up.
When we did get back into the water after losing our pup, we made it a point to not make every dive a training dive. Since fundies we spent a great deal of time doing drills to fill the time of the dives. We were getting burned out with it, because we couldn’t do anything else. You can only swim around the springs or Texas lakes so many times before you get bored. We found ourselves constantly evaluating our skills, “how’s my trim”, “lets do valve and s-drills for the first 20 minutes on every dive”, “you film me doing flutter kicks” etc etc. We had to find the fun in diving again. Maybe we should have done a few more s-drills and valve drills prior to class but like all things in life..balance is the key. Fortunately the theme of cave class is safety and repetition, so we would have plenty of chances to do valve drills and to clean up our skills.
After a few open water drills we finally had a chance to go into the cavern at Blue Grotto. The first few cavern dives were pretty awesome but, both My dive buddy and I hadn’t really settled down much. It was new, a little spooky and there were a lot of new skills to remember. We were having fun because we were mainly just doing easy cavern dives, but each dive got a little more challenging. Part of the challenge for us on the first few dives was to find our mojo. Just relax and chill. It’s like what my very first scuba instructor told me once. Scuba is not a sport to go fast in. Slow down and enjoy the moment.
Once we got a few cavern dives in, and had practice running the reel, we did some more open water skills at a higher intensity with more task loading. This is when we discovered a critical weakness of mine. My dive buddy also struggled with a couple of skills and We had to fix this stuff before we cold go any further in training.
My issue was that I was still running too much gas in my suit. I had gotten lazy diving open water and I wasn’t dumping my suit enough. If you’ve read the fundies blog, you’ll know that the drysuit has been my nemesis for a long time. Running more gas in the suit may not be so critical with open water diving when you aren’t task loaded, but it becomes a major issue when cave diving. First, there is a lot more going on in a cave, and the buoyancy has to be spot on. Second you have to learn to be comfortable in heads down positions because in some cases the cave demands it. Being comfortable in a heads down position in a drysuit, while task loaded, I was not.
Another part of my issue was that I’ve never really known when too much is too much. And I really wasn’t doing enough of a trim break to get the gas out of my feet on the ascents. Some of this was because I was too focused on the skill and basically forgot to dump the suit. Yes, it should have been automatic but I guess my brain was reaching capacity with all the other stuff going on. Well lets just say we found my deficiency in big way on the last dive of the day. It scared the crap out of me and it really made me wonder if I was ready to cave dive. All this time I had confidence that I was good to go and suddenly I had the rug pulled form under me. There was some real doubt that I could handle the level of task loading required to cave dive. I thought to myself: “Damn if I can’t handle Blue Grotto on day one how the hell am I going to get to day 6 or 7 when the task loading is much much higher in a real cave”
We finished our day of diving at almost 5pm and it was getting dark. We were the last people out of the water. I still needed to get all of our tanks filled and switch out one of the sets of rental tanks that I was using. The left post valve was extremely difficult to turn and Mer thought I should get another set. I’m not making excuses on the valve. It was so tight that even she had to crank on it to get it to fully close. This made valve drills somewhat difficult. On the way back I dropped My dive buddy off at the EE house and she started making mac and cheese. I switched out the rental tanks and got fills then followed Mer back to the house.
That evening we all had a good talk. My dive buddy and I were feeling pretty down and we were considering just chucking in the towel right then and there. Cave 1 was maybe harder then we expected. We went into class with essentially an open ended schedule but we didn’t consider that we would struggle on day one. We live in Florida, so we can come back if we need to. None-the-less, I think we both felt like we let Mer down. However; as always she found the positive in the situations and was super encouraging. She said we would take it one day at a time, and we promised to give her 120%. That being said, if we decided cave diving was not for us then so be it.
We went to bed that night and I thought a lot about my goals in diving. My dive buddy and I talked and agreed it was ok to quit as long as we gave Mer the chance to work her magic. Mer wanted us to go back to Blue Grotto the next day to find the mojo again; and we agreed to give it a shot.