Lots of people asked me why, at 56, having been consistently diving for 30 years, I decided to take my GUE Fundamentals. After all, I'd been preparing for my big trip ... I'd done over eight dives in the new drysuit, I'd chosen my underwear, I'd organised my weights. I ought to be feeling comfortable right? I should be ready.
Well, yes, but there is always room to learn more. The GUE Fundamentals course is all about preparation; teamwork, buoyancy, trim, task loading - the fundamental skills required to go further, to explore. I've got a lot of GUE friends and I'd had my eye on the course for a while. Now seemed like the perfect opportunity to discover what all the fuss was about.
Indeed, on day one, we were asked to state our course objectives/goals.
Mine were very simple:
- Discover for myself what GUE was about;
- Perfect buoyancy, weight, equipment and trim in my new drysuit BEFORE heading off to complete my absolute bucket-list top slot - diving the Antarctic; and, most importantly;
- Have fun and learn new stuff
I had only pride to dent and nothing to lose.
Truth be told, I was apprehensive. I hadn’t taken a dive course for years, either as an instructor or a student. And I had amassed a degree of assumption about my own ability. Most of the time, I felt I could hold my own around divers.
I know my limitations and for the most part, stick rigidly to them. But were my assumptions correct? I was about to find out and reality it isn’t always pretty.
Ironically, the week before starting the course, I’d been diving in New Zealand with some extremely experienced rebreather friends (I was on standard single cylinder diving) - with borrowed equipment and some borrowed fins to try.
The diving was amazing but for the first couple of days I struggled. The fins were too big - they flopped around on the ends of my legs, making it difficult to control the air in my feet (in my dry suit). Weirdly, it wasn’t until the third day, I gave up using them and borrowed a standard pair of fins and felt like I finally got everything under control and my mojo back.
Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to buck the system when it doesn’t feel right.
Immediately following the NZ lesson, I smashed straight into GUE Fundamentals. My confidence was not high. It was tough walking into the dive shop knowing I was going to be taught - and judged!
Ming, my classmate, was doing her Tech pass. More pressure!
Note: Essentially, the expected fundamental skills are the same for both the Rec and the Tech pass. Notable exceptions being:
* Double vs. single cylinders (altho' sometimes rec-only students do it in doubles). Every student completes valve drills but, IMHO, doubles are, as you'd expect, more complicated.
* Tech hopefuls complete an additional unconscious diver recovery, along with their backup light deployment.
* Same control is expected in either rig, however, for Tech hopefuls tighter tolerances on buoyancy and trim apply – and kicks must work.
Many things are said about GUE (Global Underwater Explorers) - not all of them kind (one comment heard repeatedly was “GUE - where fun goes to die!")
BUT there is no denying the effectiveness of the training nor the philosophy moving forward if you have exploration in your sights. The essential philosophy is a simplified but big step up on general training agencies. GUE's standard equipment setup and standard gases are the biggest distinguishing features (along with standardised techniques, student quality assurance program, and a no smoking policy):
- Equipment comprises a backplate and wing BC system and long-hose regulator configuration where divers donate their primary regulator in a gas sharing scenario. (Note: The primary donated is on the long hose)
- The entire system is minimalistic and has evolved to suit all types of diving – learner to expert, deep or shallow; reef, wreck or cave.
- Familiarity with standard equipment helps divers build proficiency and increase safety.
- GUE divers use standard gases which simplifies dive planning and team diving, particularly on more complex dives or projects.
Another BIG difference is the high level of skill taught and expected. Plus, there is absolutely no guarantee you will pass. Something stated very clearly at the beginning of the course. I found it extremely reassuring. I didn't want a certificate of participation. I wanted to deserve my card.
GUE Fundamentals is exactly what it says “teaching the basic fundamental skills required to be competent and comfortably dive underwater”. It is the groundwork from which to build on.
(For more details on the actual philosophy and structure of courses available in GUE click here)
GUE boasts an impressively high level of Instructor competency, with every GUE instructor annually required to pass a fitness test and demonstrate both teaching and diving currency at the highest levels of their qualification. I like that - especially as you go further into more advanced levels of training and finally, exploration, deep wreck and cave.
I respect, and value, the idea of high level expedition teams all being on the same page, with similar diving skills, being able to react without thinking. Makes good sense.
But did I have what it takes?
I chose Dive Centre Bondi (DCB) because of their reputation, along with the reputation of Duncan Paterson (instructor & owner). To be fair, both Dive Centre Bondi & Dive Centre Manly (in Sydney) have excellent credentials but I had never dived with DCB. They didn’t know me very well. If I was going to do this, I might as well take myself completely out of my comfort zone!!
And out of my comfort zone I went…
Weekend 1 was a shock. (The course is 4 days, 6 dives (minimum) - usually, but not necessarily, taken over two weekends)
Day 1. Theory:
Our GUE introduction; philosophy and background. A series of new fin kicks to learn, briefings on what to expect over the coming days, the video skills demonstrations (impressive).
A hilarious (although invaluable) walkthrough of skills in the carpark, and then, with our brains buzzing, off to the iconic Bondi Icebergs ocean pool - home of Sydney’s beautiful people (yikes!) to complete a swim competency test. 15 metres underwater in one breath, plus a further 275 metres in under 14 mins.
I was glad to get in the water. As a regular, and strong, swimmer, the worst part was walking onto the swim deck surrounded by young, gorgeous bodies (including my very lovely erstwhile fellow student, Ming, looking spectacular in a bikini), next to my very middle-aged black, sensible swimsuit!! (A picture of which I have NOT included!) Ho hum!
Six minutes later, I was relieved to be back in the changing rooms. First trial. Tick.
Day 2: Diving
The real stuff.
After the usual faffing - we were in the water, briefed and ready to rock by 10am. Buoyancy was OK but I found after 30 years finning quietly my own way, mastering the flutter kick, modified flutter kick and modified frog, a complete anathema. I was hopeless, nor were my muscles very happy.
It is very annoying to watch Duncan glide effortlessly through the water only to discover your legs simply don’t want to cooperate. Thank goodness for the frog kick. One small saving grace. I loved the day, enjoyed learning the new kicks but was extremely frustrated in my own inability to get it right.
Grist to the mill, to truly bring it home your efforts are videoed. We all returned to the classroom for a full debrief. I braced myself, not expecting it to be pretty.
Watching yourself on screen, the struggle is obvious (not to mention hilarious). You can literally see, in graphic detail, your mistakes. It’s a brilliant training tool, allowing Duncan to explain exactly what was working, what wasn’t and to supply helpful tips and ideas to facilitate improvement.
In comparison to the kicks, the Basic Five (Reg replacement / Reg Swap / Long hose deployment for sharing air / partial mask clear / full mask removal and recovery) were bliss! I relished this. I did forget a few of the steps (clipping off the first stage etc. not pulling the long hose out until my buddy was calm etc.), but it was great to simply be with like-minded divers and practice.
Drastic action was needed, however, on my kicking prowess!
After the amusing, but sobering, reality of my kicking expertise! We tackled the math of surface consumption rates, minimum gas (AKA Dive planning & Gas management). I went home determined and exhausted. I had 5 days before we were back in the water!
For some inexplicable reason, Ming and I chose to take our Fundies on the two weekends prior to Christmas! Go figure. My week was chaotic. No leisurely dive practice for me. I was left with the carpet!! After all, logic told me, if it works in a carpark, why not on the carpet??
Trust me, when attempting to keep your knees together, and up, the carpet made perfect sense (not to mention far more comfortable than asphalt). It’s physically impossible to drop your knees while lying face down on something solid! (Keeping them shut is more challenging). I simply concentrated on the motion and proved to my own legs it WAS physically possible. Much to my husband’s amusement, I practiced everyday - even if it was a quick 5 minutes!
Five days later I returned feeling optimistic but unsure how good my carpet skills would translate to open water.
After the usual friendly greetings, a quick brief, gear analysed, checked and loaded, it was straight back to the divesite for an onsite briefing, a practise session prior to the official class, and then, the real McCoy. Apart from practicing our fin kicks (ALOT), we covered S-drills, ascents (with stops) / descents and more Basic Five - all with the GUE mantra in mind:
- Team (where are your team members/situational awareness etc)
- Skill (the skill being the least important if all the others go to pot)
Carpet practice rocks!
Day 3 was a vast improvement. Definitely not perfect, but both Ming and I felt better about our performances. There was less self-deprecating laughter (an invaluable skill in any situation), more determination, more accomplished smiling and a light at the end of the tunnel was clearly visible. I really started to enjoy myself.
After two practice sessions and two class dives - we spent over 4 hours underwater. It was great. Reviewing the video was easier too. In fact, we were eager to see it and the difference was obvious. Very gratifying. Despite small errors, we were on the way.
A long day - 4 hours underwater, a de-brief followed by a classroom session on partial pressures and gas planning (yes, there is an exam at the end!). I dragged myself home and fell into bed dreaming of the perfect flutter kick.
Day 4: Our final day
There it was on the board - our final reminders! Keep those knees together! I grin.
After the success of Day 3, Ming and I were raring to go. We’d agreed to kick off early, today was a big, final day. With tea and coffee assistance (plus a deliciously indulgent cinnamon bun), we nailed the final theory lecture on Gas Dynamics and took off.
As well as finalising all the skills to date underwater, with ascents and descents etc. - today heralded the anticipated (and very specific) SMB deployment, along with an unconscious diver recovery! Our no mask swim would be unpleasant (especially with my contact lenses) but it’s one of those exercises which needs to be done. An especially valuable one if your mask does happen to get dislodged.
Note to contact wearers:
In the ocean, opening your eyes underwater is NO problem. Don’t, however, try it in a swimming pool or freshwater. Contacts do not like it and nor will you!
A lovely day at Camp Cove, our SMB deployment and land practice prior to trying it underwater was a joy. Both Ming and I improved again. Ming’s valve drill was impressive to watch. I was quietly pleased with my Basic 5, not forgetting anything this time. The hours in the water flew by.
Debunk back to the shop, more video debriefing and the final exam.
Because of the GUE policy of keeping any videos taken during classes private, and even though we already had some practice video, we all agreed to do a fun dive on the Monday morning, simply to enjoy our new skills and take some video footage for me to use in this story. (Thank you team!)
It wasn’t quite over yet but I’d spent four intensive days with Duncan and Ming. We’d had loads of laughs, shared the lows and the wins. I felt sad it was coming to an end.
I loved every minute. I laughed a lot. My teammate was awesome. Duncan was great; immeasurably patient, good fun and nothing was too much trouble. It was obvious he genuinely wanted both of us to improve, learn and prevail.
I’m sure a lot depends on the individual instructor, in diving it always has. However, GUE does consistently test and stretch its instructors and the bar is very high to become one. Certainly the scope and skill level on the course was excellent grounding for any diver. It is an intimate experience with a minimum of 2, maximum of 3, students in each class.
This is NOT learn to dive. Ming and I were a good combo - she is a PADI Rescue diver and I’m a PADI OWSI with over 30 years in the water. The atmosphere was open and honest. We were encouraged to admit if things weren't working as expected - given feedback and advice. It was a safe, no-blame environment which we both responded well to.
After such a long time out of the classroom, as either an instructor or student, I had forgotten what a joy it is to learn. I’m still working on the perfect flutter and backward kick but my course objectives were well and truly met. To top it off, I made two new friends.
Forget a 20 minute refresher course if you want to get back into diving or want to feel more confident - go and tackle the GUE Fundamentals. A truly welcoming friendly environment where it is safe, and you're encouraged to learn. Any diver - no matter how ‘skilled’ - or how long diving - would benefit from this course.
Apart from Antarctica - I’m determined to complete my GUE doubles primer and nail that Tech Pass within 6 months!! The ocean is a big place - plenty of room for expansion, including mine. Maybe this, as some have suggested, is my own private middle-aged crisis, but I'm proof it’s never too late :-). And, despite all the raised eyebrows, I certainly don’t intend to stop learning new things anytime soon.
Important note: GUE has a policy not to allow any class video footage to be used for anything other than training purposes. ALL footage used in this article was taken in practice sessions prior to or after ‘official training’ with an additional day diving after the course, for the specific purpose of shooting video.
Any shots shown have the express consent of all participants.
99% of the underwater footage was taken by Duncan Paterson, topside stuff by me and 'Duncan doing Demos', me too.