Drysuit Difficulty

Trying something new with diving is exciting but requires preparation. Photo by Andy Sallmon

I’ve been diving on and off for 20 years, with most of my 70 dives occurring in warm tropical waters.* Living in Seattle, Washington, however, I realized that restricting my diving to warm waters meant diving only on vacations — usually once a year at best. With great Pacific diving spots nearby, I decided to learn cold-water diving.

I got certified for drysuit, nitrox and advanced open-water diving last year through the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). During the drysuit course’s pool training, another diver got air in the legs of his suit, flipped upside-down and surfaced completely out of control. I practiced flipping and releasing air until I felt confident.

While waiting for my new drysuit and other gear to arrive, I completed two drysuit dives locally using rental gear. With 33 pounds integrated in the buoyancy compensator, I felt a bit too buoyant during those dives, but it was manageable. After I received my new trilaminate drysuit, I went diving with two experienced members of my dive club at a local beach with no current. It was supposed to be an easy dive to about 60 feet with a shore entry into a flat sea. I geared up with 33 pounds of weight from a local shop, thinking I might be a little heavier with my new suit but not expecting a drastic difference from the rental gear I had used. We entered the water, repeated our buddy checks and started the dive without a buoyancy check. 

Before you dive, familiarize yourself with any new gear that you plan to use, try it first in a controlled environment, and be even more diligent with your preparation than usual when diving with it for the first time.

Throughout the dive I had trouble maintaining buoyancy and had to nudge air in and out of the drysuit. I also had some trouble keeping my legs down, so I adjusted by releasing air a few times. The buoyancy issues cost me a lot of air; about 15 minutes into the dive I noticed that I was already low on air. I signaled to my buddies that I needed to start going back, so we began following the bottom gradient back toward the beach.

I suddenly felt that I was losing my fins, so I curved to catch the back strap and secure them. That turned me feet-up, and a few seconds later I found myself at the surface from 49 feet. It happened instantly. I was shocked but otherwise felt fine: clear-minded without tingling or pain. As I swam toward the beach, one of the other divers came up and asked if I was OK, so I signaled back that I was fine.

On the drive home, I called a professional diver friend who insisted that I immediately call DAN®. The DAN medic told me to monitor my condition and to go to the hyperbaric center at nearby Virginia Mason Hospital if I felt anything unusual. I was fine until that evening, when I felt unusually exhausted and went to bed early. The next day I woke up normally and went to work, but again I felt overly tired in the evening and went to sleep early. The following day, about 45 hours after the dive, I called the hyperbaric center. The nurse took a summary of my story, and the consulting physician told me to come in for an assessment.

After a full evaluation, blood tests, chest X-ray and interview, everything appeared normal. The doctor was concerned about my dive profile (19 minutes at a maximum depth of 89 feet), the overexhaustion and a faint muscle soreness in my arms as if I had worked out a few days prior, however, and recommended a U.S. Navy Treatment Table 6 hyperbaric treatment. I considered declining the treatment since my only problems were persistent exhaustion and pain in both arms, but the doctor told me that even if most of the bubbles were gone, an inflammatory condition in the muscles and nerve tissues could have a long-term effect. With the window for effective treatment closing, I went into the chamber after agreeing that it was better to be safe than sorry.

After completing the treatment, I felt better, and the residual soreness was gone. I’m thankful to DAN and the hyperbaric center at Virginia Mason for guiding and caring for me. I’ve scheduled my 30-day follow-up appointment with the head of the hyperbaric center to get approval to return to diving, and I plan to dive at the earliest opportunity after I am cleared.

Next time I will go to a familiar site, stay in shallow waters with a good buddy and some ankle weights, and perfect my buoyancy. When I’m certain that my drysuit skills are at the level of my warm-water dive skills, I will gradually progress to more advanced dives.

Divers who are new to drysuits need to take time to get comfortable with their gear in a safe environment. If you are uncomfortable, stay in the shallows or find a buddy with the same objectives so you don’t feel pressured by someone else’s dive plan. Don’t overlook any element of the dive: If you suspect you are overweighted or if you are uncertain about any of your gear, make sure you address these issues. Practice how to operate every piece of your equipment, especially if it’s new or unfamiliar, and respect the complexity of drysuit diving.

I was not careless or reckless, but I did not sufficiently prepare, and I rushed some details. Accidents are unintentional and unplanned, but proper diligence can help increase the likelihood of a safe and successful dive.

*NOTE: The author of this article wishes to remain anonymous.

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2019