Deep cave diving is dangerous! There is simply no way around that fact, other than training and planning. Only that wouldn’t explain why some divers live and some don’t when things go wrong underwater (and it is ‘when’, not ‘if’ things go wrong because sooner or later something always goes wrong). What makes the difference between living and dying underwater and how does that apply to you in the world above water ?

I have three rules that one dive that almost killed me revealed – what you focus on matters, don’t stay stuck on what has always worked and plan for the unexpected so that you have time to deal with what is.

It all starts with one of my most frightening (and cherished) dives. The plan was dive to get to 152 meters (well actually the plan was for 165 meters) I just never got there. Part of my strategy for diving deeper was to do a ‘practice’ deep dive before the main dive to clear out any issues that I may not have discovered yet. Obviously you can’t practice going to the actual depth, so a good alternative was to do a dive that was deep and long so that the total time I had to spend in the water decompressing was the same as my planned deep dive. This would  then remove the ‘unknown’ of whether or not I could handle the effects of depth physically. To do this I didn’t do my normal drop down to depth and then come up – a dive that requires little exertion as you are always in a ‘rested’ state. To do this I dived in an abandoned asbestos mine called Badgat.

To get to 165 meters required a bit of effort. First an 8 minute swim at 18 meters, through a narrow blast door (can fit one diver ….just ), then down the main shaft to 110 meters, then another swim for about 3, maybe 4 minutes, then the incline shaft (well, actually a decline shaft from my direction as it went down). The decline was narrow – if I stopped and rested on the bottom kneeling I could easily touch the roof and it would only fit two divers side by side with little room to spare. You can only see about 4 meters ahead of you  because of the angle and it has thick silt, every divers nightmare as an errant fin will kick the silt up obscuring visibility and so the way out. Now in diving your life is measured in breathes and the number of breathes you can take is dependant on how many cylinders you take with you. Being slightly paraniod (a good thing underwater), I was carrying 4 extra cylinders, so had enough air to take me there and back, a return trip of around ten, 15 minutes tops.

So far, so good. At 140 meters the incline narrows again and this had been the spot I had turned around at twice already in an attempt to make this dive. At this point everything gets smaller, a lot smaller. Now I could quite easily touch each side and there was barely enough space to swim without hitting the roof or floor. I was following a thin white line that lay on top of the floor beams to my right, resting gently on top of the silt. Rather than turn back from fear, I shut my mind down and started to go faster, keen to just get there and out again as quickly as possible and then I just stopped. Dead in the water. One moment I was swimming the next not.

At this point the thoughts in your head get chaotic. I didn’t want to be stationary because of the silt and as that thought flashed into my head clouds of fine red silt billowed around me. I had planned for a silt out however, so my mind relaxed as the plan over rode the panic. That left the fact that my right leg was hooked on something. This happens, so still not realising this was one of ‘those’ dives, I reached back to unhook my fin from the line and couldn’t. At that point my heart was racing and my breathing was continuous, wasting precious air and moments of life in unreasoning panic. We think about these situations a lot diving, so I forced myself to take a minute of precious time to stop and get my breathing under control. I then stopped actively managing my time and how much air I had left to breathe (two things I continually monitor as I can not stay longer at depth than I planned because then my decompression schedule is insufficient which means I can’t get rid of the gas I am absorbing deep, which will mean I will bend on my way up and a bend underwater can be a death sentence).

Bringing this back to the real world

So there I was, stuck at 152 meters, at least 5 minutes away from a another diver who could not get to me ( I would have to get to him), with about ten minutes max air to breathe. Now what ?

1)      What you focus on matters!

A part of me watched in fascination as my ‘normal’ mind did what it would do on land, worry about the implications of this moment and how it affected everything else, so running out of gas on the long swum out.

“What will you I do ? “, it kept on asking me.

Then it started to ask about staying too long because that created its own problem and now my decompression plan was redundant as I was deep for too long so had absorbed more gas but hadn’t planned for this, so could not release it all properly so would bend which at the very least would be painful, the worst, kill me before I even got out. On and on my mind went presenting every problem that now existed because I was stuck . I realised that it would be really easy to just stay in that mind space. I also realised that to do so was death. Yes, all those were problems that could kill me, the highlight on the word ‘could’. I would need to get to them though because right now the problem was not being able to move and if I didn’t get moving, it wouldn’t matter because I would never get to my decompression, I would simply run out of air right here and now.

It was fascinating to see how my mind focused on everything but what really needed to be solved, how to get moving.

Realising that the only problem I had to solve was the immediate one, I found an unexpected moment of peace. Actually, I suddenly realised that other than a racing heart, the paralysing fear of this dive was nowhere to be found. I let go of what could be and found myself  in the present moment for the first time.

2)      Don’t stay stuck on one answer

That was when I noticed that my mind had fixated on one solution and one solution only, unhooking my fin. In fact, I realised that one of the outcomes of this moment was me spending my last breathe still trying to reach backwards to my stuck fin so I could unhook it. That was an appropriate response and it had always worked before. It just wasn’t working now. So now what ? I tried one more time, same result and then let go of that answer. I had two options , cut the line that had be trapped or leave the fin behind. Both were not ideal but both would get me moving. I chose to leave my fin behind and pay the price of swimming with heavy gear for 4 minutes at depth with one fin (an exhausting option I might add).

It doesn’t really matter what option I took or why, what matter is I didn’t waste any more time than I needed on something that wasn’t working.

3)      Plan for the unexpected

Needless to say I managed to get moving after overstaying by 5 minutes and breathing practically every tank (5 of them) dry. All the problems my brain had been warning about me were now a reality but my plan had been padded. I had extra’s built in for just a situation like this. Because of that planning I had been able to put off worrying about the other implications and focus on the one at hand. Because of that plan I had some extra time, some extra decompression,  some extra gas, all of which I used up and all of which contributed to me surviving the dive.

The Life Lessons you Need

–          What are you focusing on ?

Focus on the immediate problem and let go of the ones behind it

What may happen, what could  happen or what is happening now ? You need to plan for what could happen but now, in this moment, you have to manage the immediate issues and allow your plan to ‘hold’ problems behind it

–          How much ‘give’ is in your strategy ?

Did you plan for the unexpected ?

You should and as you don’t know what the unexpected is, your plan should buy you time so that you can properly engage with what is happening and not be worrying about the problems queuing behind this one.

–          Don’t rely on what worked in the past to work now

Are you even able to pick up that your solution isn’t working or do you just stick to it hoping that somehow through repetition you will get a different result ?

Diving was just the story I found myself in. Your story is different but the life lessons are the same. Focus on now and you may find that the problems you are worrying about may never happen. Plan for problems and you may find the next problem wasn’t so difficult to solve, you already had a plan. Don’t do what isn’t working just because it always has, move on, try different answers. Life isn’t like diving where making a mistake can kill you. In life, mistakes are mostly harmless, so embrace them as a challenge and rise to the occasion.