“You’ve just killed everyone,” said Chris Demetriou, the Ops Manager at Dive-In. We had been deep inside the Zenobia, Cyprus’s top wreck site, and sure enough the dive hadn’t gone as planned; but where had I made such a fatal mistake? This was my penultimate dive on the TDI advanced wreck course. The last 3 days had been more psychologically demanding than I had ever imagined. Chris said “I don’t have to load the course with simulated problems, they just happen for real.” He was right; pitch black with no lights and no guidelines, anything could happen – and it usually did!
The Zen is perfect for technical diver training. The 165-metre long ro-ro ferry lies in Larnaca Bay just a few minutes boat ride from the dive centre. Her demise will always be steeped in controversy and intrigue. The most plausible theory is she sank due to a malfunction with the computerised system controlling her ballast tanks. There has never been any salvage operations. Her cargo of 104 articulated lorries and other machinery still lie untouched inside the holds.
Chris has spent 3 years developing the course itinerary. Most of the training dives are performed in the Officers day room and the Captains bedroom. Although the two rooms are totally enclosed there is plenty of light coming from a row of windows above. Chris explained “you don’t need to go deep inside for the course.” The Zen lies on her port side so doorways, walls and ceilings are not where they are expected to be. Chris said “When planning any penetration dives it’s important to consider room orientation and overall wreck layout.”
Although there are some theory sessions, most of the 4-day course concentrates on practical exercises. Ex-Londoner Chris said “this is my favourite TDI course – we’ve run about 10 this year.” He much prefers to teach only two divers per course. Minimum requisites are PADI Advanced diver with the wreck specialty and 50 logged dives or any certifying agency with a wreck familiarisation certificate and the prescribed number of dives. Divers really have to be in the right mind set for this course. Chris said “we don’t have to fail anybody – they fail themselves.” He continued “this course is not for Badge Collectors. By the end of the second day I know if they are going to make it or not.”
My first dive was basically an orientation. This gave me a chance to get familiar with the wreck’s key features and my own equipment configuration. I had been partnered up with Scott Ayrey, an experienced Tri-mix diver. All participants have to wear twin sets with a stage cylinder. Chris prefers to keep his kit as streamlined and as basic as possible: “I don’t want to look like a Christmas tree diver,” he says. There are no cobra heads or cages covering the manifolds or rubber boots and nets on the cylinders. Chris said “it all ends up snagging on the wreck.”
Chris guided us to the bulkhead door that led into the Officers day room. We checked depth and time before entering. Our first task was to draw a map of the entrance and any distinguishing features inside the room. Over the next few dives Scott and I would become quite familiar with the layout. We then performed a number of gas isolation exercises simulating a fractured manifold or a dislodged regulator. A catastrophic gas leak in an enclosed, overhead environment is a real threat. Chris showed us what to do and then it was just a case of following the procedure step by step in a calm co-ordinated manner. All the skills are performed at around 25 metres. There is no need to go any deeper.
We stopped during the ascent to switch over to our 50% stage cylinders. Gas switching computers made decompression management a whole lot easier. Permanent marker buoys have been placed at the stern, amidships and bow of the Zen and there is even a trapeze set up at 5 metres to make any stops more comfortable.
The following training dives mainly focused on lost mask procedures, laying/retrieving a guideline and using Scott’s long hose in an out of air scenario. It was well worth spending the first few moments of each exercise gaining composure and thinking about logistics i.e. make sure the long hose is free of any restrictions when air sharing and remembering to keep the line placement as simple and snag free as possible. It also taught me the importance of carrying a back up mask and at least two cutting devices. As Chris had said “it’s the simple things that are life saving.”
Dive number 4 is probably the toughest of them all. I had to wear Chris’s special blacked-out mask and find my way out of the room by feel alone. It was similar to playing the party game ‘put the tail on the donkey’ but on a much grander scale. Chris spun me around and moved me up and down so I was totally disorientated. There was no guideline this time so my only hope was remembering the room layout and trying to find a familiar object to use as a reference point. My whole sense of perception was left in a severe state of chaos and confusion! I knew from my map that there was a carpet on one side and a row of pipes on the other. My gut reaction was to ascend until I bumped my head on the windows and then move across to a corner where I could hopefully find the carpet. Eventually after 10 minutes of fumbling about my fingers tips felt the familiar texture of woollen fibres. From there on I knew that this would eventually lead to the bulkhead door and freedom! Chris said that the record for escaping was 2-3 minutes but some divers had taken more than an hour to find their way out.
Our last day involved planning and implementing two relatively ‘simple’ wreck penetration dives. Scott and I would enter through the bridge and take it turns to lay the line from the laundry room to the upper car deck. On the way out we would simulate an out of air and a ‘light out’ situation. Chris told us we should always carry a primary light and two back-ups in case of any failure. As I had already found out on Dive 4 having no lights inside a wreck is a nightmare scenario.
Scott was first. He had to lay the guideline. I always thought there would be plenty of pipes, hinges and handles to wrap the line around but it’s not that easy. Chris said that on a previous course one diver had wrapped the line around a floating plastic sheet. This is obviously not a good tie off point for a guideline! Chris had already showed us snoopy loops, line arrows and suitable tie off’s so we were clued up and ready to go.
On the return I was in front using Scott’s long hose. We were in single file along a narrow passageway. It was absolutely pitch black so I slowly and methodically ran my fingers along 10 metres of thin line back to the primary tie off point. Along the way we had to negotiate a tight hatchway and go up and over a doorway. If I moved too fast the regulator would be pulled from my mouth and if I let go of the guideline I would be totally lost. I was 100% dependent on Scott and really didn’t like this feeling of helplessness. We eventually got back to our entry point and completed the training exercise.
Then it was my turn. This is where my lack of experience laying guidelines really caught me out. There was another guideline already inside the wreck leading off to a different room. I put my primary tie off on the existing line and reeled in from this point. Directional arrows are tied on the line to show the way out but I placed my arrow on the wrong line. This meant we would have got completely lost inside the wreck. Chris said “you won’t make that mistake again.” He was right and this was by far the best way to learn. The more problems we encountered on the course meant it was less likely to occur in real life.
This course gives a whole new meaning to playing around in the dark! Although it was a tough 4 days I enjoyed every moment. We started off with the basics and worked our way up to some heavy task loading exercises. Chris made sure we had a thorough de-briefing after each dive. This gave us a chance to sit down and discuss any problems and go over remedial actions. I soon realised that it’s essential to keep a cool head. It also pushed home the fact that my buddy had to be just as level headed. I was lucky to have Scott as my partner. All I can say is choose wisely! Chris said “Panic will kill you all day long; the key is to never give up.” All of the skills were performed in a ‘controlled’ environment and Chris was always close at hand if any real problems had occurred. Although I had completed all the training exercises I still couldn’t stop thinking how would I react in a real life situation? Pitch-black, deep inside the wreck, no guidelines and no buddy… what would I do?