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Divers' rule No. 1: Never leave your buddy behind


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 10, 1999

It is a simple rule every scuba diver learns on the first day of class: Never dive alone.

Yet a year doesn't go by when at least one diver disappears in local waters. Friends and relatives usually are quick to point out that the victim was "a good diver."

Ed Cody loved the sport. He set out from John's Pass by himself July 3, 1998, after telling a friend he was going spearfishing. He dived near the Madeira Beach artificial reef. The current was strong, and the boat might have gotten away from him.

His mask, snorkel and fins never turned up, but his spear gun, air tank and buoyancy compensator did. The vest's strap was loosened, giving his family hope he stripped down and swam for land. He hasn't been seen since.

Scuba diving instructors stress the "buddy system" from Day 1. When something goes wrong -- and sooner or later it will -- it is good to have somebody there to help.

The buddy system is the foundation upon which safe diving is built. If you have an equipment failure at 100 feet, chances are you won't make it to the surface without help.

Yet many experienced divers, especially those who spearfish, dive alone, or at least out of sight of buddies.

Why? The answer is always the same.

"It won't happen to me."

But equipment fails. That is when a friend can save a life. And if the situation reverses, you owe it to your buddy to keep your equipment in order. The winter, when weekly cold fronts and cool water keep many divers in port, is a good time to take gear in for maintenance.

There are other things you can do to increase your chances for survival.

Dive within your limits. Basic diving certification is just that, basic. Don't undertake a dive beyond your training level. Think of your open water certification card (C-card) as a learners permit. Plan your dive; dive your plan. Before you go, do a little research and check the weather. The winter provides some excellent opportunities. The fish are closer to shore and because there are no algae in the water column, there is often top to bottom visibility.

Dive within the tables. Avoid decompression diving unless you first receive the proper training. Buy a dive computer. It will increase your bottom time and your margin of safety.

Get a well-fitting wet suit. Wear a hood, gloves and booties. Cold water increases your chances of hypothermia and decompression sickness. Stay warm between dives. In the water, practice buoyancy control. Stay calm. Relax. Watch your air. Do a five-minute safety stop at 15 feet. It doesn't matter if you've been under for five or 50 minutes, chill out for a few minutes before you surface. Try to finish every dive with 500 PSI in your tank.

Stay in shape. Being overweight and unfit increases your chances of decompression sickness. If you smoke, stop. Don't drink alcohol before you dive. Get plenty of sleep. Drink plenty of water before and after.

Keep in mind that several small things can cause one big problem. Cold water, dehydration, heavy current, lack of sleep, stress, even a hangover, can be contributing factors for a trip to the decompression chamber.

But perhaps the greatest thing a diver can do to increase chances for survival is to follow the golden rule: Dive with a buddy.

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