The ascent is just another part of the dive. It’s not full of anticipation like the descent, nor the wonder of seeing the wreck or reef at the bottom. It’s just the journey home, and yet people worry about it. To me, this means something is missing from their skill set. Here are three techniques that will allow you to push the easy button when ascending from a recreational dive and take the fear and stress out of ascents.
Step 1: Break the ascent into chunks
Climbers scaling the Eiger north face in Switzerland don’t think about the whole climb. It’s too daunting. They think about the first pitch, and then they think about the next move. It’s an old psychological trick to overcome fear and the feeling of being overwhelmed and you see it everywhere. A runner focuses on the first mile, not the marathon. So instead of thinking about that 100-foot ascent, just think about ascending 10 feet at a time. You can probably see at least 10 feet above you. So just go to 88 feet and pause. Then go to 78 feet and pause. And so on. With a bit of practice, you can travel up 10 feet in about 15 seconds, adjust your buoyancy and pause for 5 seconds. Pause and repeat and, hey, presto, you are ascending at around 30 feet per minute, which mimics the rate that most computers base their calculations on, as well as most planning tools.
This technique has a couple of benefits, first, the psychological one. You are only moving 10 feet at a time, and pausing between each segment. That’s a lot less daunting that trying to ascend at the same rate all the way up to your safety stop. This also means you can use your computer to guide you. It’s just 10 feet every 15 seconds, and then a pause. The most important benefit of this technique, though, is that it means that your ascent is very unlikely to get out of control. Remember that runaway ascents start slowly and then get faster and faster. If you pause every 10 feet, you’re both keeping your computer happy and ensuring that your buoyancy never gets out of control. If your last pause is at 10 feet, then you’ll find it quite difficult to have a rapid ascent. All of a sudden, ascents are the gentle ride to the surface they should always have been.
Step 2: Use what you have
It’s challenging to control an ascent on a gauge or computer. You adjust your buoyancy, or rate of ascent, based on what your computer is telling you. Unfortunately, by the time the computer reports the change and you see it, it’s way too late to adjust your buoyancy. There is a delay between your changing ascent rate and the technology telling you about it; the deeper you are, the more pronounced the delay. So forget about those rate indicators, because what they’re telling you is in the past. If you are going to use technology to manage your ascent rate, use the numbers. Using the technique in step 1 you can simply move 10 feet as fast as you like, then wait until the seconds tick past 20. Then move as fast as you like 10 more feet and wait until the second hand goes past 40. This way you are moving at 30 feet per minute and using your technology to effectively manage your ascent rate.
Even better, however, is to use visual references, which have no lag and allow you to maintain far more control over your ascent. Watching a shot line go past is a great technique for maintaining a steady ascent rate. Watching a wall is even better. An SMB works well too, but avoid the temptation to “hang” negatively buoyant off the reel. Even if you are in open water with no SMB, there is likely to be a visual reference. Allow your eyes to defocus slightly. Except in the very clearest of waters, you will notice particulate matter in the water. These particles drift around in currents, and so do not tend to ascend or descend rapidly. For all intents and purposes this makes them a stable reference in the water. If you see them relatively static in front of you, you are holding a nice safety stop. If they start going down, you are ascending. If they are rushing up past your head, you are descending. You can see this far more quickly than using your technology, so settle into your safety stop, and watch what’s going on around you, just checking the gauge every 10 seconds or so to confirm your depth.
Step 3: Stop using your lungs
Your body has evolved to be an extremely effective mechanism for distilling oxygen from the air we breathe and, critically, expelling the carbon dioxide we create as a result. At normal levels, all CO2 does is make you anxious enough to breathe. In fact, it’s CO2 that triggers the breathing response in the first place, not the lack of oxygen. At elevated levels, and under pressure, CO2 is a stressor that causes your breathing rate to skyrocket, your heart to race and your anxiety levels to go through the roof. Ever hit the surface out of breath? That’s CO2. Ever become dizzy underwater? CO2. Ever found yourself puffing and panting underwater even though you are not working? Have a splitting headache during the ascent or at the surface? CO2. The very best thing you can do to avoid a build up of CO2 is to just breathe normally. That’s why divers tend to be more stressed on the descent and ascent, and relaxed on the bottom, because it’s only on the bottom that divers tend to breathe normally. So here’s the big secret. Use your buoyancy device. Don’t try to accelerate or decelerate an ascent with your lungs. Don’t try to maintain a safety stop with your lungs. All that will happen is that the CO2 levels in your body will rise, your body will become stressed and your breathing will become erratic. Once you are in that cycle it can be difficult to stop it. So let’s avoid all that unpleasantness. Use your buoyancy device and resist the temptation to use your lungs to control your ascent or any safety stops. Mentally check in now and again and make a note of your breathing. If it’s elevated, focus on breathing normally. You will have been consciously or unconsciously compensating for a buoyancy issue. Once you breathe normally the issue will reveal itself and you can address it with your BCD.
So that’s my 3-step program for making ascents easy. Break the ascent into manageable chunks; create a visual reference if you can; and stay calm and relaxed by avoiding using your lungs for buoyancy control. As a final note, it’s probably worth pointing out that the single best thing you can do to feel better after a dive is slow the ascent down in the shallows. Once you have completed your safety stop, don’t rush to the surface. This is where the pressure gradient is greatest, so you want to take your time. The difference in how you feel, and how tired you are, will be dramatic if you go from 20 feet to the surface at 3.2 feet per minute. This is also a fantastic drill for improving your buoyancy control.