I consider myself to be very lucky to have the opportunity to regularly visit Florida to teach Cave Diver classes. My trips are often a few months apart and so I notice changes as soon as I see them. It might be different if I dived the caves every day or every week. Familiarity might make me miss subtle changes until they become more profound.
Over the last couple of years one of the changes (and not for the better) that has become very noticeable is the standard of line laying. Now, don’t get me wrong, this article is not trying to point fingers and say ‘he or she did this wrong’, but just to discuss why this might be the case, what the problems are and maybe even offer some pointers that might help the next time you lay a line.
As a Cave Instructor Trainer not only do I want to ensure that cave students get well rounded training but also that new Cave Instructor candidates continue to pass on these skills and their importance.
Years ago I was a Trainer in a Fire Department. It might surprise you to know that, at least in the UK, fire-fighters use guidelines! They are a bit thicker than cave lines and have tactile markings on them, indicating direction, in or out, which can be felt whilst wearing thick fire-fighting gloves but they are deployed to help Fire-fighters safely enter, search and exit a smoke filled building. They are not necessarily used in smaller domestic properties but in larger commercial and industrial premises. I am sure that we can all understand the hazards of getting lost in a smoke-filled building that is on fire. I used to teach the procedures and protocols for laying these guidelines and the important role they play in Fire-fighter safety. I stress the same things to my cave diving students and perhaps this background is the origin of why I feel that line laying is such an important part of a cave diver’s skills. So, back to the caves. It would be difficult to accurately pin-point a particular reason for the decline in line laying skills but I think there are a few factors that have contributed. I am not going to say whether I think any of these are good or bad, but just highlight some changes that have had an impact on this particular skill.
The first, and to me most obvious, is that in a number of caves some divers believe we don’t strictly need to run our own primary line in to the cave to get to the permanent line. A number of cave sites have seen the ‘gold line’ (a term used a lot in Florida for the permanent main line in a cave due to their colour) move progressively closer and closer to the cave entrance. Whilst they may not be quite out to open water, their proximity does mean that fewer and fewer divers bother to run their own primary line. Whether we like this or not it does mean, for most cave divers, less practice aying lines.
Next, there are more participants in the sport. More cave divers means busier systems and regardless of where a permanent line might be inside the cave, a great many cave divers choose not to lay their own line. This decision might be because there does not appear to be enough space to lay their own, or they think they know the cave well enough not to need one, or they want to leave space for others to lay a line, for example a team of experienced divers choose not to lay a line in order to leave space for an Instructor with students to lay a line.
Dare I say it, but Instructors might also be contributing toward the decline of line laying skills. Lines nearer to open water means that students might only have to lay a few feet of line to the ‘gold line’. Instructors don’t need to take the time to teach good line laying skills and can get their students further back much quicker and so the students get more ‘instant gratification’ of longer penetrations on their cave course without the boring bit of having to lay a long and difficult line
So why lay a line if we don’t think we need to? The golden rules of cave diving are as relevant today as they always have been. ‘Always maintain a continuous guideline to open water/the surface/a safe area (choose which ever you think is best) is not just an old adage. Choosing any one of these, preferably one of the first two options, so that there is little room for confusion, sounds like a good idea to me, even if you think you know the cave really well.
I recall exiting from the upstream side of Cow Spring one sunny afternoon to see another diver very obviously ‘lost’ and somewhat stuck where he had taken a wrong turn, just a few feet from open water and found himself in amongst the boulders from where he couldn’t figure out an exit route….
Just a few weeks ago, whilst cave diving in France, a solo diver swam past us on his way out of the cave. He was less than 10m/30ft from being in the head pool and that included 6m/20ft of vertical ascent through a boulder chimney. As he swam past us (we were busy assembling our under water habitat at the time) he gave us a cheery wave and then looked up, banged his head on the ceiling and realised he couldn’t remember his route through the boulders to open water. We were filming our ‘construction site’ at the time and the look on his face, captured on video, is an absolute picture! Needless to say we pointed to our line and exit route and he went happily on his way. (I did the same for the chap a bit stuck in Cow Spring, so happy endings all round).
I can’t think of a better reason to have that bit of string in place, even if it’s just for piece of mind. You might think know your way around really well but do the rest of your team? Are they happy that they don’t have a primary line to the outside world? It only takes a few minutes.
So why else? It does also let other divers know roughly in which direction you have headed. A god-send if you are hoping someone might come looking should you get a little lost further back. From an Instructor’s view point, it does the same. I know there are divers ahead of me and if I am planning some drills, skills and fun and games I can go somewhere else so that I don’t interfere with their pleasure dive. If I do head your way then I will have an expectation of meeting another team and can use this as a learning exercise for my students.
Is there anything you can do to improve your line laying skill? Well for a start, if you see me in North Central Florida, France or anywhere else for that matter and want some hints or tips, just ask. Or even jump in on a dive with me. Just come and ask, you would be very welcome. There is always a fair amount of line laying done on most of my teaching dives. I am pretty sure that there are a number of other Instructors who would do the same.
On top of that, when you do lay your line, just stop for a second and look into the cave to see where (if there are any) the other lines have been laid. This gives you the chance to pick the best spot for you own primary tie-off. Be honest, how many times have you made a primary then secondary tie-off, then headed in to the cave and thought **%%*^&, I wish I had tied off on this/that side instead! (Of course we always go back out and start again, don’t we?)
Try to remember some of the rules and protocols that your Instructor taught you. Trying, where possible, not to parallel another line too closely, not using the same tie-off point as another line, not using another line as a tie-off point(!) I have this seen quite a few times recently– nowhere to tie-off, just make a few tie-offs on other lines in the cave!. I also recently saw a line zig-zagging through the cavern zone at Peacock 1 tied alternatively between points on the main line and the opposite side of the cave! Not only do poor lines like these cause potential entanglements but put stress on the gold line and make it very difficult for other divers to lay their lines! The only time we should be tying our line onto another is to secure our spool or reel onto the line we are now going to follow.
Keep your line tight and out of the way of other divers’ lines. This will make it easier for you when you turn and reel out of the cave, and will help to keep the others away from your own line, making it less likely that any of your tie-off points will be accidentally kicked or pulled off.
Take your time and look ahead. Try and plan the route you will take and look for possible tie-off points well in advance. This will also make buoyancy control whilst tying-off much easier as you will have anticipated your actions.
Don’t forget the team work aspect. The second divers should be helping to illuminate possible tie off points then lighting the one you choose if the cave configuration allows and checking for line traps.
Safety should be the paramount thought for any cave diver. I would encourage all of us to think about this before you decide whether or not to lay a line, be it a primary line or a jump or gap. Just for a second also think about the signals you send out to newer cave divers. ‘Our Instructor made us lay a line all the time, but once you get a bit more experienced you don’t need to, because, hey, take a look, none of these guys do and they are really experienced’.
Of course this experience won’t prevent them becoming a statistic!
Have fun, but most of all, be safe.
Oh, and lay a line!