More on British Cave Diving


B Schofield. January 2002

(RJM) Following some discussion, some heated, on the aquanaut tech-diver mailing list (at the time of writing available at Scoff composed the following article to clarify and expand on his previous essay.

Well, where do I start???

Firstly, the article "Cave Diving in Britain" was written two years ago with a specific 'target' audience in mind - namely a number of 'technical divers' who were starting to take an interest in diving in caves in the UK. These divers were trained outside the UK often by people with no experience of diving in UK caves. The article was intended to educate people in the obstacles they faced, and the techniques developed by the Cave Diving Group of Great Britain for this particular type of diving over the last sixty-five years.

Of course the Cave Diving Group has had some incidents - some seventeen members suffering fatalities in the UK during those sixty-five years. But each time we have learned something from the mistakes that were made, and revised our equipment/ techniques to try and ensure no more deaths occur. The article in question tried to explain the ways in which we sought to minimise risk, in our own particular environment. I happen to believe that giving a reasoned (and reasonable) explanation to most sensible people will have more influence than shouting, bullying and insulting them.

The article was intended very much to restrict its advice to UK cave diving, an area where we consider we have some expertise.

If you read the article carefully you will see that it states:

"Many divers have come across the 'Hogarthian'/ 'Doing It Right' philosophies promoted by the WKPP, GUE, etc.. No argument - these principles are perfect for the large, deep, easy-access springs, and the open-water sites they dive. The value of the techniques and gear configuration is reflected in the amazing explorations they have carried out with few accidents. As the old saying goes: the proof of the pudding (is in the eating).."

In other words, we have tremendous admiration and respect for your achievements - all of which have only been possible due to the abilities of the divers involved and the way you conduct your dives. Yes, you do make it look easy, but that is the hallmark of experts.

I'm puzzled as to how anyone can consider this to be "bad-mouthing" the WKPP.

With respect to your views on British cave-diving, you ask us to tell you about it so you can have a bigger laugh.

First, you ask if limestone is different, the water is different, etc. etc. in the UK.

Well, yes, George, it is! Any caver who knows anything about speleology will tell you that no two areas have identical limestone (either structurally or chemically) and that different materials carried by the water in a region will affect how a cave is formed. Thus there are no identical caves. True some areas will have caves with similar physical characteristics, because the conditions leading to the formation of caves will be similar. Thus in Wales they have long, gently sloping systems, on Mendip they have shorter, steeply sloping caves, and in Yorkshire they have horizontal systems with linking vertical shafts.

The typical characteristics of underwater caves in the UK is that they are small in passage cross-section, with water containing heavy organic & sedimentary contamination, usually with a temperature between forty and forty-three degrees Fahrenheit (five to eight degrees Celsius) and relatively shallow (rarely deeper than 100 feet).

But then, I presume you know all that, and you must have dived in our caves in order for you to be able to tell us what we should and shouldn't be doing.

You also ask what we (the Brits) have done for the sport of cave diving. Good question. Except for, in 1963, extending the world's deepest cave - France's Gouffre Berger (-3680 feet). Oh, and in Britain in 1978, Kingsdale Master Cave/ Keld Head - the then world's longest through dive (of 5990 feet), and again in 1991 the world record traverse from King Pot to Keld Head (10,150 feet), apart from these we have done very little, but at least they show what has been achieved in spite of our "stroke" gear & techniques..

Of course, these cannot compare with the internationally renowned achievements of (amongst others) Hassenmeyer, Exley, Isler, Gomes, and, of course, you & JJ.

Nevertheless, British divers persevere in our own squalid little caves..and of course, what could we expect to achieve in Wakulla?? That's a bit like asking Manchester United to play in the Superbowl.

But let's just go back to what I wrote about - diving in caves in the UK.

Every single foot of underwater cave passage in Britain has been explored by cavers who learned to dive. As a caver, I can understand why solo diving is an anathema to everyone from a diving background, as all diver training agencies promote buddy diving as the only way to do it - the panacea for all underwater problems.

Your phrase "every man for himself" is an emotive expression suggesting selfish motives. In truth, anyone claiming to dive as a "buddy" who then abandons them would fulfil description perfectly.

But we do not claim to dive as a "buddy", we dive solo and therefore have no-one to abandon!

I remember years ago (probably 1984?) when Messrs Exley & Fulghum had their problems in Atlantida, and just got out sharing gas. There was discussion in the CDG Newsletter about this. Vital seconds were lost because one of the divers thought the leak was coming from the other diver. We agreed that a solo diver would have known it was his own leak - partly because with side-mounted tanks he would have seen it, and partly it couldn't have been anyone else's leak - and would have closed the tap down straight away, thereby saving a lot of gas. Assuming 'thirds' rules were properly maintained, he would have had enough gas of his own to have got out, and perhaps could have manually operated the faulty tap/ tank to use some of that gas besides. Instead, both Messrs Exley & Fulghum did the perfect buddy thing, and made it out - but only just.

Again I have to say that if the passage is so restricted, and visibility so poor that a diver behind can see the tips of my fins, how is he going to know I have problem? Perhaps by kicking him in the face. And where is he going to put his long hose regulator to help me???

But, hey, in the article we were not promoting solo diving, or suggesting it should be used anywhere else but here - we were just explaining why we did it our way.

Throughout the article we were at pains to point out that what is right for one dive may not be right for the next - horses for courses, as they say - so every diver should consider what is right for the dive he is about to do. His equipment choices should be decided upon after he has thought it all through carefully. He should not do it the way someone tells him to do it, without understanding why first. And we are the first to take on a dive only what is absolutely necessary.

So to everyone else in the world, I will still say look at DIR - diving safe and simple is the best way. Consider how DIR is applied, and how it works for the dive in question. And I will apply that philosophy in deciding what I need for my dives.

So, going back to the question that started all this - helmets, what's the deal?

Every caver knows the value of a helmet. Sorry, George, but the main purpose of wearing a helmet down a cave is not to protect you against falling rocks. It is to carry your light on to leave your hands free to climb, crawls, etc, and to stop you banging your head when the roof gets low. It may also help if you fall off while climbing.

So is it really so hard to understand, why these cavers like to wear helmets underwater for the same reasons? - to protect their heads when the roof gets low & to leave their hands free.

Again your assertion that bashing your head equates with having zero technique or diving ability shows you to have no understanding of our caves. How do you avoid coming in contact with a roof in a passage which is so small divers have to wear oversuits to stop their drysuit zips getting filed away on the roof? Haven't you ever explored any low passages (i.e. 18 inches or less) over there???

I wear a helmet because my skull isn't as thick as some people's must be. I put lights on my helmet so that there is light where my face is pointing. Sure, in some conditions, I will hand hold a light. But as we nearly always have to hold onto guidelines with one hand in the poor visibility over here, I prefer to suffer backscatter than risk tangling a handheld on the line. And as for blinding someone with my lights? Well, I don't face them directly when I look at them - that's why eyes are designed to move from side to side! And if I wanted to blind them, I could just as easily do it with a thoughtless move of my hand held light, couldn't I?

So finally - helmets, what is the deal?

Simon, please think about it for yourself, and consider the caves you are diving in. Don't compromise your safety for anyone. If the caves are big, clear and you are unlikely to be anywhere near the roof, keep it simple and keep gear to a minimum. If on the other hand you find yourself in an eighteen inch high passage with sharp flakes in the roof...


Dive safely & live long.

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