Why All Divers Should Consider a Refresher After Time Out of the Water
If you have been out of the water for a while it's natural to feel that your scuba skills could be a little rusty and in need of a tune-up. Some dive centres might insist that you do one before diving. Former instructor Mark 'Crowley' Russell takes a look at the merits of scuba diving 'refreshers'.
Back in the days when I was working as a full-time instructor, I made the observation that '90 per cent of the divers who ask to do a refresher don't really need to do one, and 90 per cent of the divers who refuse a refresher really do.'
In the first instance, the sort of diver who knows that they are a little bit rusty and wishes to reacquaint themselves with scuba skills and knowledge is often the sort of safe, considerate diver that I would want to dive with. If they'd gone straight to the check dive then they probably would have been fine, but out of concern for themselves, their buddies, the dive team and the environment, they wanted to brush up on their skills and reduce the possibility of accidents before they occur. It's an attitude to diving that all divers should possess.
In the second instance, people who refused to do refresher programmes – even though an experienced instructor had recommended they take one – tended to create problems for everybody else. After having to be constantly assisted – even rescued – by their guide, it was not unusual for such a diver to finish a dive and, octopus between their legs, admit that they would be very grateful if they could sign up for a refresher course.
Some dive centres will insist that divers take a refresher programme before being allowed to dive with that centre. I have heard of operators insisting on refreshers regardless of experience and length of time out of the water – which is daft – but the best centres will use their judgement as to who should be recommended for a refresher programme, or for which divers it should become mandatory.
It's not always easy to judge and blanket rules don't really cover everybody, so the final decision is often left to the diver. A good diver should be able to use their own judgement to determine whether or not they would benefit from a thorough refresher programme, or just need an easy check-dive to get themselves back into the water. If you've been out of the water for any length of time then some form of refresher is eminently sensible, so let's take a look at exactly what's involved.
What Do You Mean by 'Refresher'?
A refresher is a programme where divers receive the assistance and supervision of a dive professional in a pool or shallow water environment while they review the basic skills of diving. It should also include a thorough review of equipment usage and a knowledge development session, maybe with a short quiz. This differs from a 'check dive' in which a group of divers might be asked to check their weighting and perform a few skills to demonstrate basic diving competence before heading off into deeper water to enjoy a regular dive.
Official programmes include PADI's Scuba Review (or ReActivate), the Scuba Skills Update from SSI, and BSAC's Scuba Refresher. Every agency has one and although there may be variations in how it's conducted, they all include a review of the basic dive skills and knowledge that were learned in entry-level courses. Some dive centres will do it in a short classroom session followed by a pool session, others will extend it with a second dive, some charge extra for doing so.
Personally, I think it should be two dives – one shallow/pool session and one deeper, open water dive, plus a knowledge review session. I also prefer a more flexible approach to the required skills in order to concentrate on, and remediate if necessary, the most fundamental skills associated with basic diving and dive safety. As an instructor, I would much rather have divers focus on buoyancy control, clearing flooded masks and monitoring their air supply before moving on to other, less essential skills.
When Should You Take A Refresher?
This all depends on a diver's level of experience and the length of time they have spent out of the water. If a diver was certified Open Water but made no other dives after the course, then it would be sensible to do a refresher if the next dive is anything more than a few months later. For a diver with less than 20 logged dives then 6-12 months out of the water would warrant a tune-up of some description. An absence from the water of more than two years should make even experienced divers consider a confined water or pool session before heading out into the depths.
Don't forget that not only do we, as divers, change in terms of physique and physiology and fitness, but scuba diving changes with us. Entry-level courses have changed in recent years, with new skills such as SMB inflation now part of the programme and a dedicated shift to ensure all skills are performed mid-water and not kneeling on the bottom as was the case for many years. Refresher programs don't just clear out the cobwebs, they may well add skills to a diver's repertoire that they had never learned before.
At Home or on Holiday
Ideally, getting in the pool with a local dive club before heading off to the tropics would be a good idea, but make sure you get some sort of documentation to prove that you did so. If you take an official agency programme then you'll get an official agency certificate, but if you're just tootling about in the pool with a friendly instructor then make sure you get a signed statement in your logbook, otherwise your holiday dive centre of choice may insist you take a full refresher that you don't need.
You may still be required to do a check dive once you're on holiday - the pool and the deep ocean are clearly not the same thing and most dive professionals are going to want to take a look at how a diver performs in the open water where conditions can be substantially more challenging. Having reacquainted yourself with the basics, however, you'll probably find that first dive back in the ocean a lot less nerve-wracking than it might otherwise have been.
What Should be Covered in a Refresher?
Ideally, a refresher – as with the various agency programmes – would cover all the basic skills and knowledge of entry-level training. I think that in a typical holiday resort-type environment, however, the divemaster or instructor conducting the official agency-sanctioned programmes can feel pressured into conducting all of the required skills, rather than focusing on particular problems that a diver might be having, especially when it comes to buoyancy control and mask clearing exercises. This is why I preferred to be flexible with how the refresher is conducted. If somebody has no control of their buoyancy, it is pointless to attempt to remove and replace a set of scuba gear underwater.
Poor buoyancy control is the most common problem exhibited by divers, often leading to the most dangerous situations. The most common causes are incorrect weighting and poor understanding of how to operate a BCD's inflator/deflator mechanism and quick-release valves. A thorough explanation of the physics behind correct weighting and use of breath control is essential, as is a review of the use of a BCD, before heading into the water and making a proper weight check.
Panic associated with flooded masks is another common problem, and I think it's important that a diver's buoyancy and mask clearing skills are assessed as early as possible during a refresher, and dealt with as appropriate. Neither the diver nor the dive professional should be afraid of remediation - right back to kneeling on the bottom and clearing a mask or doing fin-pivots if necessary, before moving on to conducting a mask removal drill while neutrally buoyant in the water column.
Once the most fundamental aspects of scuba diving have been covered, then out-of-air drills, regular air supply checks and SMB inflation are among some of the most important skills that divers need to review. SMB inflation may be a brand new skill for many divers to cover as it was only introduced to entry-level training in recent years.
Should Refreshers be Mandatory?
In certain circumstances, absolutely. The life of the diver themselves, other divers they might be diving with and, indeed, their guides and instructors might depend on their competence in the water. One diver's inability to perform basic dive skills can quickly lead to a dangerously unsafe set of circumstances. A diver with poor buoyancy control and mask clearing skills is an accident waiting to happen – perhaps making an out-of-control ascent in an area with heavy boat traffic, meaning the guide has to leave the group to assist the panicked diver, thereby putting both themselves and the group at risk. If the diver had been through some remediation prior to getting in the water with other divers, that scenario might have never occurred in the first place.
As mentioned earlier, some judgment should be applied by dive centres when it comes to either recommending or insisting that a diver take a refresher before joining the regular dive trips. Asking somebody with 5,000 dives and 20 years of experience to do a refresher after a 12-month absence from the water would be a bit silly, but then somebody with 5,000 dives and 20 years' experience would probably ask to do a check dive of some description before heading out to more challenging sites. Not a refresher, exactly, but a reacquaintance with the water.
Rather than place the decision in the hands of the dive centre, however, a good diver should know their limitations and seek to review their skills as necessary. It could be argued, therefore, that a good diver would make a scuba refresher a mandatory undertaking for themselves.