Dive Master Training: Equipment Exchange

There’s nothing on the list of DMT requirements that scared me more than the equipment exchange, unless it’s the prospect of leading my first dive.

The Equipment Exchange goes as follows: in water too deep to stand, two people descend and exchange fins, mask and BCDs and then take a short swim together all the while buddy breathing.

Buddy breathing is an emergency technique where two divers share one regulator. One diver takes a breath and passes the regulator to the other. The second diver takes a breath and passes it back etc.

I did some buddy breathing during my Rescue Diver course and it was awful to be under water without a regulator in your mouth waiting for someone else to take a breath. Just a short swim around confined water passing the regulator back and forth made me anxious to the point where I wanted to rip it out of his mouth. And that was a non-emergent swim with nothing else going on.

Buddy breathing during the equipment exchange makes it a stress test pure and simple, because there’s no realistic scenario in which two people will exchange all their equipment under water. However, DMs and Rescue divers need to be able to handle stress and nothing gives you stress like not having an air source.

Additionally stressful is the fact that DMTs are only supposed to get 5 minutes to discuss strategy before undergoing equipment exchange so all important information like how many breaths each person will take, what’s the signal for “GIVE ME THE REG,” the order of the exchange and what to do if problems occur has to be agreed upon in 5 minutes.

I did this exchange with my fellow DMT, a European girl I call Betty Blue. We definitely got more than 5 minutes worth of strategy largely because it’s impossible to be in a shop full of DMs and former DMTs without hearing stories of their equipment exchanges and gleaning advice from their experience. We also needed more time to talk because Betty Blue doesn’t speak English as a first language so all verbal communication takes a little longer.

Here’s the advice we got from DMs that I’ll pass on to any future DMTs reading this post:

1. Go into the water wearing each other’s equipment so that you exchange into own gear. It makes the exchange much more comfortable.
2. Go down heavily overweighted. It will keep you stable in any current and keep you from getting knocked around as much.
3. Go as slowly as possible. This isn’t a timed test.

I was terrified of the prospect of this test and no amount of thinking about it or planning for it made it any better. When Betty Blue and I finally got into the water and got our 5 minutes to discuss strategy, we decided to exchange fins, then mask, then BCDs and we established a signal for “STOP” that either one of us would use if we were stressed. When the STOP signal was used, the other person had to immediately stop and we’d pass the regulator back and forth until we’d gotten enough air to be calm.

Despite our hopeful strategy, the first round was awful.

All I thought about was air. I started by sucking in two big breaths and handing the regulator to Betty Blue and then tried to take my fins off while exhaling. We got our fins exchanged but the pace got more and more frantic and I got more and more fixated on air. I breathed slower and deeper than Betty Blue so she’d already be tapping my hand for the reg before I even got my second breath. Then I’d started to panic a little and even as I handed it to her, I just wanted to snatch it away.

About 20 seconds in, Betty Blue got frazzled and passed me the regulator after exhaling. That meant she had no air in her lungs so she immediately wanted the reg back before I’d even gotten a chance to take a breath. I took half a breath and then she pulled the reg out of my hand and it was downhill from there. She took a breath, I needed the reg, she started freaking out, she handed the reg back to me, she tried to take her mask off and then shook her head and shot to the surface.

So, I sat on the bottom and waited. I couldn’t surface because if I surfaced and then we came back down and continued, the best score we could get was a 2. I had to sit there and wait and see if she came back down. But she didn’t. Finally, the Seal surfaced to check on her and she was crying and saying she couldn’t do it. The Seal tried to reason with her to no avail so he came down and motioned for me to come up to the surface.

I spent 5 minutes convincing Betty Blue that she could do this. I did think she could do it but I also needed her to do it because if she couldn’t complete this exchange today, I’d have to go back into the water at some future point and do this all over again. And I wanted it over with.

Betty Blue agreed to try again and I emphasized that we had to go even slower and we had to stop whenever there was even a little bit of stress. Nothing was as important as air and if it took us all day to complete this exchange, then that was fine as long as we were both getting enough air.

So, we started over from the beginning.

The second round was much better. We stopped after every exchange and just breathed. Once we got into the rhythm of passing the reg back and forth, it was easy. Inhale deep, pass the reg, exhale slow and take something off. Pass pieces back and forth, get the reg, inhale really deep, pass the reg, exhale slow, stop, breathe, take off something else. Once we got it, we had no trouble. The last piece of the puzzle was figuring out how to get Betty Blue’s BCD on her while keeping our shared reg from tangling around her and then we went for a short swim and then we were done and we got a 5.

There’s no elation like passing this test, I’ll just tell you that. It’s a pure adrenaline rush to finish and have done well.

Skills and Stamina Tests: Completed.

3 thoughts on “Dive Master Training: Equipment Exchange

  1. Pingback: Becoming a Divemaster - Chasing the Unknown

  2. My comment is a bit late, but what are your thoughts on additional stress tests you can do after the official test? In these tests, you are submitted to the equipment exchange test with a twist: instructors pull your mask off, turn off your air, inflate your bcd, throw sand in your face, pull off fins, entangled hoses, etc.
    I’ve seen this and I find it highly irresponsible, even if it’s only “a fun performance” you can chose to do or not afterwards. If I knew an instructor who offers this, I would NEVER want to learn anything from him/her.

  3. Hey Jo, I agree that that kind of testing is unnecessary and dangerous. I understand why instructors would want their students prepared for an emergency but I would never describe it as a “fun performance” nor should it be an option. Being a dive master is a serious job and people get good at it by dealing with real life emergencies. Knowing that it’s not a real emergency makes that kind of stress testing just irresponsible. I think.

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