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Diver in GUE Recreational 1 class at the wreck of the Islander

GUE Recreational 1 student, Mario Saenz, at the wreck of The Islander

By Mario Saenz, 11/09/2013

I took the GUE Recreational 1 class with Bob Sherwood in Upstate New York in June 2013. Recreational 1 is the most basic level of Global Underwater Explorers’ certification process, the equivalent of other agencies’ open water certification. Most people begin with Fundamentals because they have some diving experience and Fundamentals serves in funneling divers to the appropriate levels in GUE’s system.

I had never dived before and had not been interested. However, my wife (Beiji on SB), who has dived for several years persuaded me to try. Since she had already done some training with Bob, and she liked GUE’s methods and philosophy, she suggested I should begin with GUE. An excellent recommendation.

I began my classes with Bob in a pool: becoming comfortable in the water, learning neutral buoyancy and trim, and practicing five basic tasks: taking the reg out of my mouth and putting it back in, exchanging the long house reg for the necklace and back to the long hose, modified S-Drill, remove water from the mask, remove mask and put it back on. Also, I swam in the pool using a very basic propulsion method.

As soon as I was in the water, I was asked by Bob to try to assume a horizontal position so that I am flat from chest to knees, arms up, head up facing forward, lower legs up and feet flat. Thus, from the beginning, all skills were to be practiced while becoming comfortable in horizontal trim. That is, I was not supposed to do any of the tasks in any but a trim position and in neutral buoyancy. It was not easy, particularly since, as I was to learn in open water, I had to also be situationally aware at all times, aware of my buddy and in close proximity to her.

We spent a lot of time also in the classroom, learning about safe diving, neutral buoyancy, gear configuration and weighting, the buddy system, the physics of diving and the water environment (Boyle’s Law, Archimedes principle, diffraction, etc.).

For all of my lessons I used a 7 mm wet suit, thin gloves that made it easier for me to clip and unclip the long hose and the SPG, a backplate and wing, and an aluminum 80 tank.

Off to the real water! After a few lessons in the pool and several hours of lectures, I met Bob in Clayton for a dip in the St. Lawrence. I was to do a giant stride from a divers’ dock. I had never done a giant stride in my life. I hesitated as the wooden dock swayed a little with the waves (for me a lot!). Bob encouraged me to stride in, especially as a large boat had just passed by and the waves produced by its wake were about to get bigger. The thought of quitting crossed my mind. The area was crowded with people and their families attending a ground breaking event for a hotel construction next to the dock. The children at the event began to crowd around us fascinated by two persons in dive gear. I was not about to refuse to go in with a bunch of young kids watching. So I “strode” (more leapt) into the water.

More lessons in open water followed in both Clayton and Alexandria Bay, both by the St. Lawrence River. In all of the lessons, except for the pool lessons and the first open water lesson, I had a buddy also taking Rec 1. Bob worked on my rig, especially the weight necessary to let me descend and ascend comfortably and safely.

It was not easy to keep neutrally buoyant and be within the trim degree limit of 30 degrees from horizontal. The effort I made descending and then trying to stay still at depth, as well as anxious concentration trying to fight my 57-year-old body to perform according to my thirty-something will, made me breathe very fast so that my SAC was horrendously high. Also, much of the time I looked like a seahorse, especially an upside down seahorse. Bob made sure I did not stay in the seahorse position. I am surprised he did not make a hole in his tank with all the clanging trying to have us pay attention. On the other hand, I would get a very good view of the Caspian gobies and the zebra mussels that carpeted the logs and rocks of the river… when I was not silting the muck up with my arms or my fins.

After many lessons with Bob, I went several times to a pool to practice with all my gear, neutral buoyancy, trim, and the safety drill. I was confident that I could do the tasks once I got trim and buoyancy under control… And it clicked! My next step was to practice SMB deployment. A night before I was to meet Bob again at the river, I got in front of my computer, and watched GUE divers in (for example, SMB Deployment – YouTube) repeatedly as I would try to mirror their SMB deployments.

This last day on the river I was cautiously optimistic that I could meet GUE standards: Within 30 degrees of horizontal and within target while doing the various tasks, including an S-Drill. I went with Lisa to the river. I didn’t know that this was going to be my evaluation dive, but I felt confident I could do all the tasks.

Lisa and I dove as buddies this time, while Bob followed us closely and recorded significant portions of the dive. (Video recording and pictures are a significant part of the lessons.) We did the S-drill proficiently and, somehow, I did the SMB deployment reasonably well for the first time under water. I was very happy with the dive. When we ascended I noticed that Bob looked excited. I wondered whether I had a bass on my head, or what. Actually, Bob loved the dive!

After this, all I had to do was a 30 plus page take home written exam–over 130 questions! It took a long time to complete but it was an excellent learning experience because I was able to review many of the concepts and theories related to diving that we studied in class. I mentioned a few already; others had to do with calculation of minimum gas, calculation of bottom time in subsequent dives, and human physiology in relation to the bends and other medical emergencies.

It was a difficult class. But, I tell you, it was one of the most significant things I have done in a long time. It was not guaranteed that I would pass, but I knew I was learning to dive safely and with a solid foundation of good and proficient muscle memories. Besides, I liked the elegance of the horizontal trim and the grace of combining it with neutral buoyancy.

My wife and I have been diving regularly since, improving on our skills, doing S-drills in almost every dive at the beginning of the dive, working on the propulsion methods and the back kick (which seems to require very good trim), and just enjoying what the dive has to offer.

I should end by stressing two important elements of what I learned in my class: Diving should be fun; don’t burden yourself with extra tasks or extra gear. Diving should be safe; the best way of making it safe is to make the effort to have buddies who share your concern with safety, plan for themselves and their buddies as well, communicate clearly with you regarding the goals and limits of the dive, and stick to those goals and limits during the dive.

[This article originally appeared on]