Thursday, February 23, 2012

Arctic diving training 'a bit of a mind mess'

Diving into the darkness under one metre of ice is a lesson in panic.

One out of 10 experienced divers get to the Canadian North and can’t hack it. They come back to the surface, take off their mask and say never again, said Sgt. Scott Campbell, who is supervising the Canadian Forces dive team.

“You can imagine, it’s a bit of a mind mess,” he said, standing near the two-metre hole cut with chainsaws through the ice of Long Lake near Yellowknife.

“These guys are used to diving in open water. If there’s an emergency, you can shoot to the surface. Under the ice, it’s the prime condition for claustrophobia.”

Both army and navy divers are here this month as part of Arctic Ram, a northern training exercise lead by Edmonton-based army troops. The army divers are all engineers who defused roadside bombs in the arid desert of Afghanistan. Now that the Canadians’ combat role in that war has ended, the engineers are upgrading their diving skills in the north, where their most likely task is recovering vehicles, rifles or any person that falls through the ice.

Master Cpl. Tyler Thom and navy diver Leading Seaman Sebastien Guay got a thumbs down from a dive supervisor and slipped under the water Wednesday morning to practice.

The lake is four metres deep and the bottom is full of silt that clouds the water as the divers skim over. All they can hear is their own breathing through a line that smells like rubber and connects them to the surface. Occasionally, their ears pick up muffled commands coming through the surface radio.

Guay runs an emergency drill underwater. He slips off his mask and breathing equipment and recoils against the flood of cold water up his nose. When he gets his backup tank connected, he returns to the surface to readjust.

The shock of the cold water is the biggest adjustment, Campbell said. “Your body just wants to stop breathing and shut down,” he said. “We prepare for that in case we have to do it in an emergency.”

“We try to train as realistically as possible,” said Master Seaman Keith Bruce, also supervising the dive. “It allows the individual to react like it’s second nature. Sort of like firefighters; if they get caught on fire they drop and roll.”

Guay submerges again, and the two divers set out, swimming face up and bodies horizontal along the ice to find the emergency holes.

Looking up, they can see the brightened lines of a pinwheel shovelled clear of snow beforehand, the 200-metre circle and spokes centring on the main dive hole to help orient the divers to the above-world.

To find the exit holes, they divers simply find the circle and follow the bright lines until they get to the hole.

Clear of snow that blocks the light, the water is bright, said Thom after the dive. “You can see people walking across the ice and in some places (where the ice is clear), you can see almost right to the sky.”

During this dive, Guay and Thom stay on a fixed compressed air line to the surface. If that line were to be severed, the divers would switch to breathing with the emergency air tanks on their backs. They are then trained to grab an ice screw clipped to their gear, and screw it into the bottom of the ice to hold themselves in place. The air would last them an hour or so as a backup diver searches for them through their trail of bubbles.

The army divers are all specialized members of 1 Combat Engineer Regiment, all in top physical condition and able to handle stressful tasks with a methodical approach. The navy troops are clearance divers, trained to dive to 300 metres and capable of fixing ships at anchor without putting them in dry dock.

In the north, if a diver is feeling claustrophobic or stressed, they are trained to stop swimming and put both hands on the bottom of the ice, Campbell said.

“Close your eyes. Count to your number. Collect your thoughts,” he said. “Think about your safety (measures) in place and trust your buddy.”

Similar advice applies to anyone who struggles with panic and anxiety, he added.

“It’s about exposure,” Campbell said. “Learn in an controlled environment and have a good coach beside you.

“Know your plan, practice your plan and stay calm.”

Thanks to the Edmonton Journal

Picture is of Leading seaman Sebastien Guay with Fleet Diving Unit Pacific

Kathy Dowsett

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