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Girly Swat Goes to Sea

*Warning this Email is rather long and waffly (just for a change) and may bore anyone not interested in diving - don't say you haven't been warned!*

The story so far . . .

When I left you last I was being a very good girl and getting up early, swimming, studying - all that boring stuff. Well believe it or not, I kept it all up, and started my course having read all the required books, and being able to swim 400 metres in around nine minutes twenty seconds - much to my astonishment. OK so my early starts slipped from six to seven, but as anyone who ever had to work with me knows, that is little less than a minor miracle. I got all my other necessities done too, like applying for my tax file number, opening up a bank account and taking and passing my medical.

I managed to take a few hours off here and there to explore the immediate vicinity, stroll around the town & take a few pics and enjoy the relaxed ambience of the city. It took a wee while to get used a few of the things that epitomise Australia, such as people wandering around supermarkets and the like barefoot, strangers smiling and greeting you in the street - the general openness and friendliness of the place.

I think early evening remains my favourite time of day. The sun sets early, around 1730-1800, and the sky often glows with vibrant oranges or pinks. You may remember me mentioning numerous squawking birds in my last mail, well I've since realised that these are rainbow lorakeets, flocking to roost in some of the many tropical trees in the city centre. Noisy buggers they are, but it gives me such a kick to see them.

Anyway, having prepared myself as best as I could, I awoke on the morning of Friday 13th June (not the most auspicious of days!) filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I was picked up and driven to the Pro Dive centre, where I discovered I was one of three Dive Master Candidates doing the course in 18 days - there are a number of others doing it in bits and bobs. The first two days of the course were spent redoing the Open Water course - all the theory and the skills in the pool. Really good starting from the beginning & going over all the basic stuff, plus looking at it from a training point of view.

We had a day off after that, Sunday, that was. I went out Saturday night with John (from the middle east trip) for a couple of drinks & some food. He'd driven in, so only had a couple & then drove home around eleven. By then I'd got a taste for it - and as I had been so good since arriving here, and had not had even one big night out, I decided to go for it and headed off to the Woolshed - a well known backpackers haunt, the place where I won the bungie trip last time I was here.

I got really slaughtered, and had a bit of a messy night - after all that swotting I thought it was overdue. Had some grand plans for Sunday - John had kindly offered to drive me out and show me some of the local scenery - but I was unfortunately far too hung over to do anything other than lie on my bed, feeling crap & watching TV. Did manage to see Training Day, The Others and Harry Potter in one sitting, so it wasn't a total waste of a day! Oh well, all work and no play, eh?

By Monday the hangover had just about subsided in time to get back to it. We got a course overview followed by some time in the pool doing skills - like taking off your mask - but attempting to do them to demonstration standard. A lot to learn & practice, obviously, but not too bad either. We also had to pair up and swap all our equipment under water whilst buddy breathing - so that's sharing air, taking two breaths & then handing it to your buddy, taking off your mask, fins and BCD (the inflatable jacket thing with the tank strapped to the back of it) and swapping each item for your buddy's. We managed to do it without either of us drowning anyway, so I guess that's something.

The course continued with our time split between classroom, learning some of the technical stuff that will form our knowledge base at this level and beyond, and the pool watching instructors teaching, demonstrating skills to students and helping out where we can. All my swatting has definitely given me the edge in the classroom, so I've been able to give Vera and Ryan, my fellow trainees, a hand as we go along. I've got more dives under my belt than either of them, so that helps too.

One thing that none of us were looking forward to was the water skills requirement of the course. To demonstrate these there are four events, a tired diver tow for 100 metres, 15 minutes treading water, the last two minutes with your hands out of the water and the swim and snorkel. For each of these you get points out of five, and to do the course, you need to score 12 points or more. We did the tread and tow on one of the earlier days of the course and I scored five on the tread (as did everyone else) and three on the tow, leaving me requiring a total of four points.

On the way to the pool the three of us had an unpleasant surprise. We had all been under the impression that swimming 400 metres in ten minutes would give you the maximum five points, but on our way to the pool we were told that that time would only give us three points - we needed to swim it in under eight minutes to get the maximum score. We were all stunned - in total disbelief, all swearing that we'd seen in various places - internet, course outlines - that the slower time gave the higher score. To be honest I think I'm glad I hadn't known - at least ten minutes seemed vaguely achievable, even from the start when I was really crap. Eight would probably have had my chucking the towel in.

Well I managed my best ever time, and managed to swim the distance in 8 minutes 45 seconds, (beating the other two, not that that matters). I was pretty pleased with myself - but absolutely gutted when I found out that had I swam five seconds faster, I'd have scored four points instead of the three I got. So annoying. A bit less breakfast or a few harder kicks and I'd have got the second best score rather than just the average - which I could have got had I been a whole minute slower.

I got another three in the snorkel - which was an absolute killer - my strength is definitely in my upper body, not my legs. We all made the grade and were pleased, although all of us had hoped to do better. The course director kept saying "it doesn't matter, no one need know, as long as you passed" but to all of us it did matter - we all wanted to do well, not average. We're a competitive bunch!

As I mentioned before, having put in the book work has really helped me out when it's come to the theoretical stuff, and that and my mathematical mind have put me in a position to help out the others in class with things they've had trouble with. That's got to be good too, as I've been able to demonstrate my teaching skills (don't laugh!) - sometimes they've found stuff easier to understand when I've explained it to them than when the course director has.

It's more important really that I know all the theory, neither Vera or Ryan (my fellow students) are intending to do their instructors course straight away - and this is the course where we get all the knowledge, the IDC (instructor development course) is more about how to teach, both in and out of the water. These guys (Pro Dive) are a really professional bunch, and have a high standard of instructor, so I am trying to shine at ever opportunity in the hope that they'll employ me later on. Cairns is a very competitive work place for dive instructors - understandably.

The other day I spoke to some other companies, finding out what you get for your money if you do your IDC with them, and then sat down with Alex, the course director to see what you get with Pro Dive. A plus is that I get a discount of nearly $200 as I've done (am doing) my divemaster with them, so partly for that reason, but mainly due to the professionalism I was talking about, I formally put my name down (which means I paid them a deposit!) for the instructors course today.

Alex went through all the costs with me - both those to the company and those to PADI - and it will cost me a grand total of around $3,000 to get to the stage where I could work, (Plus equipment, of course!) and for another $1,500 I'd be qualified to teach first aid courses, legally allowed to give oxygen, and be able to teach a number of specialties - which would of course make me more employable. Not cheap, eh? Around 2,000 plus equipment.

There is good news on that score, mind. When my friend John picked me up from the airport he told me not to buy anything until I speak to him - it seems that he can get me really good deals on stuff - so whatever I do end up paying, it'll be a bargain - even if the figures make my miserly heart weep! I mentioned John's name to Alex, and he agreed I should wait until I see John before buying anything. This is good news, because I should have all my own gear before I start the next course, but Alex has said I can use company stuff if I haven't had a chance to catch up with John by that time.

Also, as I have now shown willing by coughing up dosh, Alex is going to do his best to see if he can find me paid work in the month long gap between this course and the next. In Cairns, paid work for divemasters is a rarity due to the huge amounts of divers that flock here (or do we school here? Hmmm, just what is the collective noun for divers?), but if there's any to be found, a course director should be the one to do it. I gave him this very convincing spiel (mainly convincing because it's true!) about how I want to be a good instructor, and am willing to pay what it takes to get there, but I'm not made of money, and hadn't accounted for the extra month in between courses, so a little help would be appreciated.

The alternative - which I will do if all else fails, is what is known in the trade as 'slaving' As the name suggests, it's working for nothing, and normally doing all the shitty jobs to boot. I have already approached one company about this - one of the live-aboards I did when here last. I could go on one of their trips for three nights, hopefully get six or more dives with them, do lots of fun stuff like swabbing decks and cleaning heads, and it'd only cost me 25 bucks to buy a T-shirt. If I can't get any paid work, I'll try to do a couple of these trips, and spend a couple of days a week at Pro Dive, helping out there - again for free. Fingers crossed the paid stuff comes off!

My spirits dropped somewhat when I awoke the morning before my first trip out to the reef to find I had quite a sore throat. Hoping it wasn't the onset of a cold, I mentioned it to Ben, the instructor I would be assisting on the boat. For those of you thinking I'm just being a bit of a girly wimp here, let me explain; as you make your descent under the water, pressure builds up and you have to equalise the air spaces in your ears in a similar way as to on a plane. If you have a cold and are congested, it can effect your ability to equalise. If you force it, you can do all sorts of nasty damage (though most of it temporary) from having your tubes fill up with blood & pus to rupturing your eardrum.

Ben said not to worry, that I'd probably be OK, and if not could at least get to do all the boat side of things - filling tanks, logging divers off and on the boat etc. I awoke the next morning with a bit of a head cold and blocked nose, but nothing too major, so thought I'd be fine. I was up and waiting outside my accommodation at the hideous time of 0615. After being picked up we were taken first to the dive shop to collect our gear, then to the nice boat that would be home for the next two nights.

I helped get everything loaded aboard, and felt very excited as we started off in the early morning sun. We hoped it'd be a fine few days, but alas no - this was the only time we saw the sun all trip. As we set out to sea I started to feel the discomfort of the seasickness that I constantly try to tell myself is in my mind, not my stomach - as usual I failed to convince myself that this is true. I decided to retire to my shared cabin, and lie on my back with my eyes closed - my preferred method of surviving the nausea. The advise we were given to stave off the queasiness was to go out on the back deck and look to the horizon, but you see it's not just that I get seasick, I'm also actually quite scared of being on boats! I know - what am I like?!

I have this underlying fear that the ship will capsize, and can feel the fear rising with each lurch from side to side. I try and talk myself through it, and usually - as in this instance - succeed, but it is something I need concentration for, so tend to withdraw into myself to get through it. Had I been on deck with the passengers, wearing my Pro Dive T-shirt and name badge, I would have had to be in happy, fun divemaster role - and would probably have ended up losing either the plot, my breakfast or both! Admittedly the fact that I now actually can swim to a reasonable standard, and know that I can tread water for at least fifteen minutes definitely helped subdue the fear.

This fear is not an inherited thing my dad was at sea all of his working life, my mother made two six week journeys between England and New Zealand in the sixties, and my cousin Nigel sailed around the world in the BT Global Challenge several years ago, and I think would spend his whole life at sea given the chance. Fair play to the lot of you! The events of 6th March 1997 are always at the forefront of my mind whenever I board a ship of any description, and my thoughts are with the poor souls who lost their lives on that day. Rational or otherwise it is this that is at the root of my fear.

Anyway I managed to keep it under control for the rest of the trip until it came to the journey home, when I was on the back deck filling tanks. The waves had got bigger - although it was still not what could really be called rough - and the anxiety grew and grew until it was bordering on terror. I managed to blurt out to Heike, a lovely German instructor, my fears, and she was great & said all the right things to reassure my - it was a good boat, the captain was good, we were in a busy shipping lane near to shore, and if anything happened help would arrive very quickly. It's all the stuff I'd been trying to tell myself, but I'd stopped believing me, and needed someone else to say it.

After three or so hours we arrived at the reef and geared up for our first dive. This was the first dive in the ocean for the open water students I was assisting with, and some of them were pretty nervous about it. I was being encouraging and reassuring, helping them with their gear and trying to put their minds at rest about anything they were apprehensive about. I was also really excited about it myself - my first dive in five months - the first one on the Great Barrier Reef for four years. The time came and we hopped in the water one by one, and made our way to the descent line, and started descending - and I couldn't equalise.

I tried various methods - holding my nose & blowing, waggling my jaw around, simulating yawning, moving my head from side to side - nothing worked. After ten minutes or so of trying I was only barely below the surface, and didn't want to hold up the class any longer so had to abandon the dive and make my way back to the boat - In tears of course, bug wuss! I was gutted, and had no idea where it left me with regards to my course. During the journey out to the reef I had been preoccupied, and had almost forgotten I'd even had a cold - which was only mild anyway. Being unable to equalise had come as a nasty shock.

I helped out with what I could on the back deck, and greeted the divers returning from their dives with a big smile, and got on with filling tanks. It was great to see the happy faces coming back on the boat - especially of the new divers, who had spent two days in the classroom and pool building up to this. I had thought that this would mean the end of my diving certainly for that day, but was strongly encouraged to keep trying. I was advised to snort salt water to clear the congestion, and was pointed in the direction of a passenger who had some sudafed - a big 'no no' according to the books, but there we go.

I'd be lying if I said this sorted me out, but it did enable me to slowly get down to around ten metres, with manageable levels of pain. I was definitely diving against my better judgement, but felt I was in a position where I had no choice. The biggest thing that concerned me was the knowledge (thanks to doing this very course) that I could be buggering my ears up enough to be out of the water for a couple of weeks (as I said before, it would be most unlikely that I'd cause permanent damage - even a ruptured ear drum heals itself, I now know)

All in all I managed to do six dives over the three days, missing out on only one of my evaluated dives - and all of my free dives, but with pain like that, it wouldn't have been much fun. I did feel under quite a bit of pressure to push myself further than I would have liked to - had it been up to me, I don't think I'd have dived at all that trip. Thing is it's not just passing the course, but also the fact that I'm trying to make a good impression in the hope of getting a job once I'm an instructor. As I'm writing this, I am still blocked up, and a little deaf at the moment - also it hurts when I stick my finger in my ear (and we all know what the answer to that is - "so don't stick your finger in your ear then"). I don't think I've done myself any harm, but next time around, if I'm in any doubt as to whether I'll be able to dive, I'm going to postpone my next trip to sea until I'm 100%.

It was a trip with many ups and downs - and I'm not just talking about the waves. Despite the worst timed cold ever, seasickness and phobias, I did actually have a good time, and am still set on continuing in my chosen career. I've come back battered and bruised, and knackered too - but happy. The biggest thing that made it worthwhile for me, was the looks on the faces of the newly certified divers as they surfaced, full of excitement, bursting of tales of the ray or shark or turtle they'd seen on the dive, and how they couldn't wait to get back down there. Fuck, yeah - sure beats being a customs officer!

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