Sunday, August 2, 2015

GUE Fundamentals 1

A and I did GUE Fundamentals 1 with Beto Nava over the last couple of weeks. I’ll try to make this a little more than a play-by-play course report but more about why we picked this particular class, what we wanted out of it and how it ended up working for us.

Fair warning - the post is going to be long, rambling, with run-on sentences, lots of digressions and hop in and out of a stream of consciousness narrative mode. At some points, it will seem like I’m not talking about Fundies at all and that’s probably going to be true.

In case you’re not interested in a wall of text that might actually be visible from space, here’s the TL;DR version -
Did Fundies 1. Pool sessions sucked. Almost gave up on the whole thing. Lots of encouragement from dive forums and miscellaneous friends. Ocean dives were awesome. A got a recreational pass, I got a provisional. kthxbye.

Still here? Alrighty then.

It’s not gooey, it’s G-U-E
Monterey, 20ft below, 2nd dive of the drysuit class, career dive #7 (for me) and #15 for A. I had just cratered in the sand and was trying to un-turtle myself, she was doing handstands while inflating her drysuit and trying to initiate a feet first ascent. In the middle of all of this I noticed a few hazy lumps next to me, a few inches off the bottom, which I assumed was a bunch of kelp because it wasn’t moving like a fish or marine mammal would. I got an OK signal from said kelp which I didn’t return - because telling kelp I was doing OK didn’t quite seem necessary. I got the OK again and this time I returned it - it was the courteous thing to do and I was, in fact, doing OK. The sand I had so spectacularly roiled up had settled a bit and I could now see there were actually 3 divers in front of me. Once they figured out I wasn’t going to kill myself in front of them, they backed off (literally reversed away) and I spent the next 15 minutes or so, completely gobsmacked, watching them do a bunch of drills a foot off the bottom (I now know they were doing the basic 5, S drill, valve drill, etc). What amazed me beyond belief was how much control they had in the water, how they maintained position relative to each other and how easy and effortless they made it look. We followed them out of the water and I chased them up the beach to find out where they learned to do all that stuff. “It’s all part of the GUE fundies class. It’s awesome, do it!”

Fun Ds does sound awesome! We might need to do the As, Bs and Cs first
Feverish Googling commenced that evening and I was suitably impressed by all the articles, videos and forum posts that turned up. More digging resulted in finding out about DIR (hoo boy, was that a rabbit hole!!) and the equipment that entails. I immediately wanted to do Fundies but I don’t think I would have done very well - my buoyancy control is terrible and, from what I’ve read/heard/been told since, you need to have at least some ability to stay off the bottom to get the most out of this class. A was not keen on a 6 day class either (even if it was broken up into 2 weekends) even though I think she would have done swimmingly and gotten even better than she is now. That’s when we started looking at the Primer instead - it was short enough for her and had the important bits that I felt I needed (at the very least) to bring my diving up to what I consider a bare minimum acceptable level. 

I should note that all this decision making was a year ago when Primer still existed. We had already registered for it and a week before the class found out that it had been deprecated in favor of the split Fundies parts 1 and 2. A few days and some emails with Beto later, our class was officially changed to Fundamentals 1. I can’t confirm this other than the GUE calendar but my tiny little claim to fame will be that I was part of the first buddy team that did Fundies 1 :P

I also looked at TDI Intro to Tech and UTD Essentials. Those would have worked for us as well but we had already had so many great experiences with the local GUE divers as well as the instructors that we decided to go with that.

Show me whatcha got
Coming in, we both had about 15 dives in a BP/W setup (neither of our harnesses were properly adjusted) and 5 with the longhose+bungee backup+clipped off SPG (which had given us far less problems than I had thought). After an exhausting, frustrating and confidence-destroying drysuit dive during the DUI demo day, both of us had retreated to the relative comfort of our wetsuits for our most recent dives and were going to do the same in Fundies 1. I went back and forth about this with Beto a lot and he was extremely supportive during the entire process. Starting with the minimum base and building up from there made sense to us.
I didn’t have any expectations or concerns about pass/fail but my initial prediction was that I would provisional and my wife would get the recreational pass.

Day 1 - We spent the first morning and afternoon going over the classroom materials and gear configuration+setup. No major changes in terms of swapping anything out but all the straps were re-adjusted and and some bolt snaps needed to be re-tied. That evening we spent 2 hours swimming in the pool doing a propulsion clinic. Both of us were doing the kicks like you would swimming .i.e. moving the entire leg, and correcting this took some time to get used to. The other thing we noticed was that we were arching our backs a lot to keep our knees up instead of using the glutes - this came back to bite us hard in the next few days.

Day 2 - First pool session with all SCUBA gear, about 90min under water. The first 10-15min of futzing around felt OK as both of us experimented with the kicks and body positioning. That was the first time Beto’s camera came out and my train wreck began. 

I could blame my 8mm wetsuit and say that a 10ft deep pool is going to make things harder than in the ocean, but the main thing was that I was a total spaz. On top of ignoring the obvious things like clenching the glutes and keeping the chin up, I added a whole bunch of other stuff that made things worse. Both of my legs decided they wanted to be on my left side and my right fin wanted to be on the wrong side of my left fin. Since I could feel myself rolling to that side because of this, I tried to use my upper body to compensate and go the other way, which only resulted in my body being twisted around and remaining that way for most of the dive. And instead of relaxing to fix the problem, my brain decided that simulating rigor mortis was the way to go. Keeping every muscle in my body clenched wreaked havoc on my breathing as well. My breathing control, or lack thereof, was a known issue even before this class and was something I wanted to work on/figure out during. Even knowing this, I was shocked to see and hear exactly how bad it was during the video review - if I came across a diver breathing like this, I would have assumed they were in a full blown panic.
A fared a little bit better than I did. Her buoyancy control was already pretty good but she was having a lot of trouble with keeping her body flat and maintaining trim. This took a toll on her lower back and neck as she was using the wrong muscles to fix the problem. Her fins didn’t help with the problems either - she has an old, beat up pair of US Divers’ Blades that she’s extremely attached to. She got them used when she was first OW certified when she was 16 and they weren’t new even when she got them. They look old enough that I’m fairly certain the only person who saw them brand new must have been St Peter or one of his buddies. Despite their potentially divine nature, the one major drawback was their lack of weight. Coupled with her floaty legs and feet, achieving trim was a lot harder than it needed to be.
The saving grace in the video review was that we were in decent trim while practicing the kicks although I did have a tendency to float up a bit because of my extremely deep breathing cycle. Basic 5 was OK in terms of doing the skills, as long as you ignored the fact that we were either vertical or on the pool bottom. We did a weight check and skipped the second pool dive on that day because of an OW group doing their skills in it and the fact that we were completely drained.
Blistering barnacles, that was rough.

Day 3 - Second pool session on SCUBA, 90min under water. If anything, this session was even harder because we were already tired out and sore. In the previous session, my LPI hose was a little too long and kept looping in front of my mask. I swapped it out with a shorter one I had lying around but that ended up being too short and pulled my entire rig off center - this only served to exacerbate the twisting, rolling and clenching from the previous day. A was convinced to try out Jet fins and we got her fitted out with a pair with spring straps. They felt fine at the LDS but 15min in the water and she was in tears from the pain in her foot. I’m think she tried to tough it out but that only made it worse. We did the kicks, basic 5 and another weight check, but our bodies, minds and hearts had checked out by then.

Point break (almost)
The evenings after the SCUBA pool sessions were extremely hard. Our initial reactions were to immediately quit the class as it felt like it wasn’t helping at all and we weren’t getting any of the things we wanted out of it. I even considered giving up diving altogether and taking on something a little easier, like bingo. This may sound extreme but we were both mentally and physically shattered and, most importantly, hadn’t had any fun in the last 2 days of diving.
A day or two of licking our wounds and we were ready to face this again. We talked about what we wanted our diving to be like and why my “minimum acceptable level of diving” was so important to me. In spite of how hard the last couple of days had been, both of us agreed that we did see improvements over our earlier diving skills and felt like we had the tools to improve more. A spent a couple of days at our local pool with a few different pairs of fins to figure out what the problem was (turned out to be a too tight spring strap). I swapped out my LPI for one that was appropriately sized.

Out in the blue (technically, the ocean was green that day)
We had a couple of weeks before our ocean dives which gave us a bit of a break and worked really well for us. On the first dive, A did really well, I think she earned her rec pass right there. Her weighting was perfect and her trim and buoyancy were terrific. I was still flopping around in the sand even after a weight check and at that point, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do any of the skills that day. A switch flicked in my brain and I had my “screw it, let’s just have some fun while we’re here” moment. Almost instantly, I felt my entire body relax and my breathing get a lot slower. Beto did another weight check and 11lb came off me. Eleven!!! Considering this was our 3rd weight check, neither of us could believe what was happening. That’s how much my erratic breathing and overall stress+tension+anxiety was throwing me off.
-> 53min, 34ft, 53F

Between the dives, we decided to just do a fun dive for the last dive of the class instead of trying to do more skills for me. That turned out to be an excellent decision as the combination of not caring about the class and the new weighting was exactly what I needed. For the first time ever, I was neutrally buoyant in the water - it was an absolutely amazing feeling and really did feel effortless. It was also a little disconcerting as it felt like I was about to float up and away at any moment. The video of this dive showed two divers with decent buoyancy control, trim and kicks - I could hardly believe it was us. In hindsight, I guess I could have signaled Beto to re-do my basic 5 then and would have probably got it good enough for a rec pass, but I was having too much fun just hanging out. Wouldn’t you know it - after 4 days and 6 in-water hours, the last 30min was when I got my shizzle together :p

-> 45min, 39ft, 53F

Final results - A got a recreational pass, I got a provisional (which was exactly what I was expecting before we started this rollercoaster)
Where to next, kiddo?
Fundies 1 was hard - I had never thought it would be easy but I didn’t imagine it would be this stressful either. Having said that, I’m extremely glad we did it and I know my future dives will be done with a little more confidence+skill and a lot less frustration. My understanding of what neutrally buoyant feels like has completely changed and I’m confident that with any change in equipment, I’ll be able to get close to the right weighting. I would have never been able to get it right on my own before, no matter how many weight checks I did simply because what I thought was neutral was actually quite a bit overweighted. Same goes for the harness, instead of trying to set it up based on where things should be, I know what it should feel like, how tight it needs to be, where you can give yourself a little wiggle room, etc. The fact that our non-certification Primer got converted to this class was an added bonus but I would have been happy with the experience even if it had not been changed.

Now we’re just going to go diving. A lot. Getting more comfortable with our gear and ourselves in the water. See pretty things and have fun. Hopefully, getting better and safer along the way. We’re now looking at getting drysuits for our local diving - thick wetsuits are out. Once we’re a little bit comfortable in those, we’re going to go for Fundies 2. I do need to convert my provisional pass first but I’m not going to overthink or practice for this too much. I’ll probably put aside a few minutes at the end of our dives to practice basic 5 but the fun dive itself will be the experience I need.
I came into Fundies with 25 dives, A had 28. Did that make it harder for us? Maybe. For me, there were some critical things I was doing that were incorrect and I don’t think adding another 30-40 diving the same way would have made any difference. Don’t get me wrong, I had read a lot of articles and watched a ton of videos about breathing, weighting, buoyancy, trim, propulsion, etc but having someone give live feedback and then almost immediately feeling that change yourself was absolutely critical for me.
Fundies is extremely challenging; it’s really easy to get discouraged and doubt your own abilities and reasons for wanting to dive. In the end, it’s worth it - it really is. 
I’ll end with what I was told over a year ago - “It’s all part of the GUE fundies class. It’s awesome, do it!”

-  U