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Why refreshers are essential after a break from diving

Online   Jan 03, 2023

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 centers might insist that you do one before diving.

Working as a scuba 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 program – 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 centers will insist that divers take a refresher program before being allowed to dive with that center. 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 centers will use their judgement as to who should be recommended for a refresher program, 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 program, 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 program 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 programs 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 center 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 a refresher is all but essential 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 program 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 vacation?

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 program 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 vacation dive center 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 vacation – 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 program – would cover all the basic skills and knowledge of entry-level training. I think that in a typical vacation resort-type environment, however, the divemaster or instructor conducting the official agency-sanctioned program 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