I’ve had to switch gears in between diving modes quite a bit as of late, so am re-hashing this post (originally from 2013) to keep some fresh perspective out there on the subject of dive team composition…
The overwhelming majority of dives I have made have been alone – or at least I’m alone in the water. I first started solo diving at age 16, very soon after first learning to dive, and out of necessity as I was quickly cast into a summer job cleaning boats, recovering lost items, changing chains, and so on. These light commercial activities don’t warrant a major OSHA compliant diving operation – though of course we wharf rats are working completely under the radar. This is cash and carry, no standards of practice, insurance, risk managers, and so on.
Needless to say, just a small handful of hairy situations were cause for learning very quickly. Being alone out on and in the water and having to fend for oneself provides an unparalleled education in self rescue, self reliance, and self discipline – all critical skills for a working diver.
As my dive career evolved and I began to partake in more formal commercial diving work, I was part of a 3 man team per OSHA regulations, and sometimes a 4 or 5 man team depending on the tasks and environment. While alone in the water, I am physically connected to topside with an umbilical providing a minimum of air and two-way voice communications – both of which are cause for a degree of team dependence…for better, or worse. While the diver is dependent on the team for life support and interfacing with other key people at the work site, be it heavy equipment operators, engineers, client representatives, or the like, those early skills acquired in self reliance remained critical. I am convinced that no profession on Earth requires a more acute sense of self and situational awareness than as a working diver.
This awareness only comes from time in the water. From observing new working divers thrust into the commercial sector, my observation is that there is a false sense of security that comes with being at the end of a rope with a topside team in place. In my experience, both the skilled diver, AND an attentive team are absolutely necessary to perform well underwater.
It’s also very important to consider that the number of people on a dive team do not dictate whether or not the project will be successful, nor does any defined manning level in some standard of practice dictate what the task may or may not be. We divers have to think critically to define the problem, engineer a solution, and mitigate risks. This critical thinking is consistent through and among fields of practice, be it ‘commercial diving’, ‘scientific diving’, ‘public safety diving’, or just being a wharf rat. At the root of it all, it’s logical deduction that gets the work done safely and efficiently. A key part of this logic is also choosing the right people for the respective roles within the operation. That said, the person orchestrating any given diving project may or may not be the best person in the water, and in some cases is better topside to coordinate top-down. On the other hand, I’ve done many jobs where its better for that key man to be in the water since they’ve engineered a very specific solution to a problem over many, many months, or even years.
So, while many will argue that you “need” X number of people for Y type of diving, I argue to use your head, and think through the risks. Structure the team (quantity and quality) to meet those risk mitigating steps and that will maximize chances of success.
In all cases, working underwater is an honorable trade, and a privilege. When done well, there is nothing more rewarding. In the end however, whether it be an in-water dive partner, a collaborator, a dive supervisor, tender, or work group – it is the collective effort of many that result in successful projects. Assembling the right teams for the right jobs takes time, patience, and massaging relationships and skills. It’s about people. Period.
That is among the long list of what I love the most about the diving profession – while one can have all the tools in the toolbox, it takes a very special type of person, not too proud to ask questions, be persistent, think outside the box, and ask for help to do something really great beneath the waves – and safely.