Solo Diving and Risk Management

The fact is that the traditional buddy system is not the magic solution it has been sold as. In many cases it simply encourages dominant and passive role alignment to the point that one diver's ability to help the other is negated by separation anxiety or other forms of stress induced inattention. Statistics point to the breakdown of the system because few buddies have the experience or skills to actually offer help to another diver in the sudden onset of equipment failure, panic, or an out-of-air situation without compromising their own safety. This is yet another reason to undertake solo diver training; solo training under the guidance of an SDI Solo Diving Instructor teaches self-reliance. In a dominant/passive buddy pair, the dominant diver with solo skills does not have to rely on the less skilled buddy for assistance, yet the passive buddy is operating within the traditional buddy system.

Effective dive planning - independent or team-based - starts with a structured examination of the risks associated with diving. Solo divers take that analysis and factor in the additional risks associated with solo diving specifically.

Let's look at general risks and think about how they relate to solo divers. Let's start with the biggest risk of them all:

Risk # 1: Running out of air or nitrox. Since there's no way we can breathe water and water is where most diving takes place, this risk is very real and very present on every dive. We need to modify our thinking to account for it. With traditional buddy diving, our buddy carries spare gas to help us, at least in theory, in an Out Of Air (OOA) situation. With no buddy to fall back on, we have to come up with an alternative plan. The risk remains the same - compelling - but the solution has to be different.

Risk #2: Equipment failure. This covers everything from a broken mask strap to a ruptured low-pressure hose. There is a favorite saying among experienced divers that goes something like: "When divers get hurt by equipment failure, it's not the equipment failure that hurts them... it's their reaction to it." The same is true in recreational diving: equipment failure should not present such a huge challenge that we can’t work around it. As solo divers, we deal with this sort of risk in two ways: we carry back-up equipment and we practice and practice and practice some more on how best to react to common - and less common - sorts of failure. We are striving to build appropriate automatic reactions and muscle memory so that equipment failure is met with an immediate and correct remedy.

Risk #3: Rapid or run-away ascents. The default reaction to an in-water emergency for many divers is instant flight to the surface, buddy at hand or otherwise. This type of ascent is much faster than the recommended 30 feet a minute ascent and does not include a three to five-minute safety stop at 15 feet. The unfortunate results of a rapid or runaway ascent can be Decompression Illness of one sort or another. Decompression Illness or DCI is an umbrella term for both decompression sickness (DCS) and Lung Over-expansion Injury including Cerebral Arterial Gas Embolism (CAGE).

Since both forms of DCI can have serious long-term effects - in fact both may be fatal - we need to work at overcoming the natural urge to flee when something goes pear-shaped during a dive. As a solo diver, this modification of our natural behavior becomes extremely important. We have to learn how to deal with "challenges" at depth, on our own, without panic. One of the important gear and behavioral modifications we are going to discuss as part of this course is how to avoid an emergency OOA situation.

Risk #4: Inattention or unawareness of time and depth. These are the collection of challenges that should fall into the life threatening category - going too deep and staying too long! We categorize this as emergency decompression tactics.

Risk #5: Getting lost; either at depth - losing the ascent line for example - or on the surface - expecting to see a dive boat and finding a small spec on the horizon and getting trapped or tangled. Of course this type of risk is equally likely with or without a buddy, but being alone and lost is much more stressful and extricating oneself from a mess of fishing line is a challenge. Therefore navigation skills, effective cutting, and signaling tools - and the skills to use them correctly - are part of an independent diver's gear arsenal.

Without a buddy to help us get dressed and without that extra pair of eyes to give us a final pre-splash check, we have to be especially meticulous in our gear assembly, checks for wear and tear, air tests, and donning our kit correctly. And without a buddy to wake us up from our daydreams or to remind us that it’s time to head back to the surface, we have to be particularly careful to stay focused if we want to dive alone.

Risk #6: Overestimating our abilities to successfully complete a dive; essentially, going beyond our comfort zone and beyond the scope of our training, thus overstaying our NDL and requiring decompression. When we plan a dive with a good buddy - one who is on par with us in regards to skill and experience, and one who shares our regard for safe procedures - we have a second pair of eyes and second serving of common sense to check the plan over. During a dive with an attentive buddy, also have someone close at hand to make sure you stick to the plan and don’t wander outside the comfort zone by venturing deeper or by pushing the operational limits of the gear and gas. Responsible and safe independent divers have a very clear appreciation of their abilities, understand the limits of their gear, function within firm gas management guidelines, and operate within the walls of their comfort zone. ALWAYS.

Buddy System Has Basic Flaws
Solo Diving and Risk Management
Solo Divers Make Better Buddies
When Not to Dive Solo