Enjoying diving with a full face mask in cold environment (Happurger Baggersee, BY/D).

Know the Drill

Good information about safety-aware handling of full face masks may not easily be found. There are some drill anecdotes floating around, but are these sufficient? What I've found and read usually covers the simple basics where you typically train in a confined environment, kind of «tile certification». But what about real-world situations? Do we need to bring our own tiles then...?
ATTENTION! I'm no instructor and thus cannot give any official/authoritative drill instructions. The following description of a set of drill exercises is the result of my own experience and is not in any way official dive organization drill. You have to decide for yourself and on your own risk whether you want to exercise my drill. I'm taking no liability that the descriptions or the exercises are correct and safe. Under no circumstances does my drill supersede any training under certified instructor supervision according to daily dive organisation guidelines.
At this time the typical training structure, as taught by dive training organizations, roughly follows a tripartition. However, for our purposes here we focus on the wet drill parts, that is, list items #2 and #3:
  1. full face mask theory and handling,
  2. training exercises in a pool or confined water,
  3. certification dives in open water finally complete the drill.
In the following, when I'm reasoning on an extended safety-aware drill concept, I may sound somehow slightly like the tough boys from C*M*A*S*H, the only real «dive tricking organization» (the others are just, well, cheap copycats). Things seem to have come to a pretty pass, oh well. However, my intend is not to impress others with impressive (dog) tricks, but instead to raise the bar when it comes to safely SCUBA diving with full face masks.

The Drill Rounds Concept

A simple concept: a set of drill exercises is done in multiple rounds under increasingly difficult conditions. The number of rounds may differ as follows:

round drill focus commercial SCUBA training:
TheDiveO drill
11 pool yes, training yes
2 pool hovering yes
3 pool hood and gloves yes
4 4 pool hood and gloves hovering yes
5 5 open water hood and gloves yes, certification yes
6 6 open water hood and gloves hovering yes

In the end, today's commercial training offers for full face diving specialties consist of only rounds #1 and #5. Of course, there are many good reasons for this design. Such as the (somehow limited) expenses that can be spent on training, limits in students' motivation, as well as time available for training. Of course, these problems are not specific to full face mask training, but apply as well to other SCUBA training topics.
From My Experience: And these problems do not only apply to SCUBA diver training, but also to SCUBA instructor training as well ... as I unfortunately had to witness already. Not long ago, I had the limited pleasure to meet an instructor that could not properly hover, clinged to an underwater tree in order to take photos of a catfish ... into which she nearly crashed at the same time ... and all this while she totally forgot about her two students. Those were obviously into open water for their first time (at least I hope so, because otherwise their training would have been money spent on nothing).
Despite this, I'm the opinion that full face mask training is still special to some extend, as this mask type is also responsible for your breathing gas supply. Something you should not neglect. This is quite different from, say, a photograph specialty.
In My Opinion: Quite some divers decline diving with full face masks in general on the argument of an alleged large number of diving accidents caused by full face masks. Maybe a good buster to such unqualified myths is to simply show an excellent training and command of full face masks. This is also to our own good: our own safety.
Please note that round #2 is an alternative to a kind of combined round #3 plus #4. In the end, if a student shows good command, then maybe you can immediately go to #4 and skip #2 and #3. However, make sure that a student really has good command hovering (and thus at least good buoyancy control) while, for instance, shooting a buoy waring gloves and hood. This experience helps quite a lot with the difficult full face mask drill under free buoyancy.
Note: «Hovering with hood» does not refer to the situation where you use your hood for buoyance because the jacket is broken and your dry suit flooded. We leave this situation up to C*M*A*S*H five star training.
As far as I know, the available commercial training in form of full face mask specialties so far is limited to only rounds #1 and #4. In consequence, these certified SCUBA divers need to always bring a platform or a set of pool tiles with them when diving with a full face mask in open water.
From My Experience: Rounds #3 and #4 are neither easy nor appealing, in part due to the rather warm temperatures in diving pools (at least over here). I did my drill in 23°C warm water wearing 5mm neoprene gloves and a 5mm neoprene hood. I sweated quite a lot after the first round of removing the mask and donning it again under water and in free buoyancy.

Future Training?

Round #4: donning the full face mask, hovering.
(Sauerkraut Aufkirchen, BY/D)
The underlying training problem is not specific to full face masks. Both instructors and students need to seriously ask themselves: «how much safety-aware do I need to be for the conditions in which I'm diving?» Of course, the answer is dead simple: enough. But how much, exactly, is enough?

It should be obvious that the drill should not become combat diver training. At the same time it should not end up in teaching a diving dog just tricks to impress the diving audience. And finally the drill should not kill any further delight in diving.

But any drill should also not cause a false sense of safety when typical problems are not trained properly (as this may not always be fun, and time is tight, and so on, et cetera, ...). The goal behind the drill should be to teach students respect for diving and make students' aware of the (and their) limits, but at the same time give them confidence in their skills.

On the basis of our cold inshore waters, as well as the often bad ranges of sight, I would suggest the previously described interpretation of «safety-aware» as expressed in the drill table above.

This is probably the most pleasant strategy for students: the rounds could be arranged as #1, #3, and #5 for certification, followed by the finishing drill with rounds #2, #4, and #6 (mastery). I'm enough down-to-earth accepting that this arrangement is currently not commercially feasible, not least due to the lack of the students' interest in extensive safety-aware full face mask training. Unfortunately, some training schemes seem to rather focus just on the fun side of things than on excellent safety. Well, always look on the bright side of life...

From my own experience I would have liked to had such a drill and help under supervision of a professional instructor, and I would have paid for it. Because there wasn't any such offer for an extended drill, I did rounds #1 and #3 for myself, then #1 and #5 in form of the usual commercial certification specialty. For fun, I did #2 without any prior training during the specialty. After certification I continued on my own initiative with round #4. Finally, some time afterwards, I also managed to complete even round #6: switching masks forth and back hovering in 10°C «warm» water in 8-9m depth. Urgh.
From My Experience: Of course, this drill takes some time to complete, but it is worth the hassle (at least in my opinion). Besides the time it takes, you have to add expenses for the trips to indoor diving centers as well as entrance fees so you can do your drill by yourself. For me one round consisted of only one third of real full face mask drill with repeated exercises. I then used the remaining diving time for relaxing and other training, such as slow ascends and buoy shooting and handling.
In total, I allowed myself around four hours of pool time with rounds #1 and #3. This included mask flooding and cleaning, mask switching, et cetera. For rounds #4 and #6 I trained for approximately six hours to get a reasonable command. Finally add three quarters of an hour for rounds #5 and #6 with the (repeated) drill in open water (after the certification dives).
I also later trained in open water a slow ascended from -7m after changing to my backup half mask and with the Dräger P connector of the reg in my mouth to simulate a severe failure situation where I need to directly breathe from the reg. It is feasible, but you need to have a big mouth. Better get second and independent regs, one with P connector and one without. Of course, this won't work with other full face masks, as only Dräger offers the P connector system. 

Why this Drill?

So why such an elaborate drill just for learning diving with a full face mask? Even in danger of sounding like the aforementioned C*M*A*S*H parody: because diving conditions are not easy inshore, in cold water, and bad sight ... so full face mask divers should be properly trained to handle really unpleasant situations gracefully without getting into distress. This is not like diving in a pool.

To me, an important skill here is to safely handle a full face mask while freely hovering (and in controlled buoyancy) while wearing thick gloves and a hood.

Some say that (re)donning a full face mask under water is an unnecessary show or trick ... but I for myself don't care about the show effect. Instead, for me, it's about the safety coming from proper body control, safe equipment handling, and calm action in unpleasent and problematic situations. Yet, I can understand that one may regard such training as freestyle rather than short program.

More Details

And now for something different ... err, details about drill rounds and exercises. Those who rather like to watch colorful moving pictures instead of boring text surely want to watch my drill videos instead. Have fun watching me making a fool of myself.

Related Posts

You will find even more blog posts on this topic following this tag: full face mask. Likewise, I've put some impressions from diving with full face masks online.


PS: Many thanks to Jörg Lucinski. Additional photos are from my own photo stills stock.