Cave Diving, Cave Exploration and Cave Mapping in Yucatan, Mexico
Casa Cenote near Tulum Mexico

Hitting the Wall.

Advanced Cave – Stage / Multi-Stage Course with Steve Bogaerts

In October, I wrote a story about the DPV course I completed; I brazenly stated that the course was less stressful and difficult then previous courses. I felt great when I wrote that story, all that was going to change in the next two days. I had elected to do the DPV and Stage courses back to back in 5 consecutive days.

In the past, I had never made it past three days of training with Steve. By the third day I was exhausted and had absorbed all my body and brain could. On two occasions we had 4 or 5 days scheduled, and I bagged the extra days. Since I live in Mexico it was never a big deal. We would just reschedule those days in the future and Steve would enjoy his time off. Each time we ended training, I was at a natural stopping point. Any further and I would reach the point of diminishing returns.

The Stage Course was surprisingly challenging. I had done a pretty good job handling the scooter and integrating it with my diving. On Thursday, we headed to Ponderosa for some open water skills with a single stage and then the stage and the scooter. I did pretty well and executed all the required skills. I did discover that my regulators were not optimally setup and that I must have a long torso. We drilled on attaching the stage to the crotch d-ring and towing it with the scooter behind us. My 40 inch hose just wasn’t long enough. We also performed a cavern dive and drilled staging the scooter and a single bottle. I had a little trouble remembering to stop breathing the stage when we hit the scooter 1/3rds. That definitely should have been a warning. The day ended early because I was worn out.

Thursday night I had spent some time re-arranging regulators and filching my wife’s Scuba Pro MK25/S600, I needed one more turret first stage. In return she got an Apeks ATX 200. I think it was a fair trade. A little more wrangling and I ended up with two sets of left and right delivery regulators on turret first stages. I was happy with the outcome. I had wanted to find this combination for a while.

Friday dawned and I met Steve at his place. We got the DPV’s together and headed to Chac Mool. I rigged my sidemount tanks and my two stage tanks. As I started walking all this gear to the water’s edge I felt apprehensive. When I was nearly done ferrying gear to the water, I said to myself, “I can’t believe this is a two day course, I can’t imagine how anyone could do this in two days.” I was subconsciously aware that I was emotionally, physically and intellectually fatigued. In retrospect it is clear that was my gut talking and I wasn’t really listening, if I were I would have been able to prevent the coming mistakes.

The plan for Friday was to make two cavern dives and a long cave dive. The first cavern dive would drill handling one stage and the scooter. I needed to stage both and continue on. Then turn the dive and return in zero visibility and pick up them up. The drill started with us scootering. He signaled that I should drop my scooter. I staged the scooter and swam on. I believe I was still breathing the stage which was a protocol violation, however, I corrected quickly. I prepared to drop the stage. I decided to drop it at a 90degree turn in the line. I thought it would be easy to maintain orientation on my return. I dropped the stage on the wrong side of the line and continued. Steve called the dive and started the zero visibility drill. I reached the stage and immediately picked it up. I had to lift it over the line to the correct side of my body. While doing this, I actually got my body over the 90 bend and I had the line between me and the tank and in both arms. Right before I clipped the tank in, I realized the issue and corrected it. However, it wasn’t pretty and could have made things difficult if I hadn’t recognized the issue. I referenced the tie off twice more to confirm and then proceeded on. I picked up the DPV and called the drill.

In the debrief Steve pointed out some of my mistakes and how I could improve:

  1. I should have dropped the bottle on the right side of the line as I was entering. This way when I returned, I could immediately mount it on the left. I wouldn’t have to cross the line with it.
  2. When I reached the bottle, I should have picked it up and swam down the line a body length or so. This is for two reasons: A. so I wouldn’t be over the tie off and interfere with it or risk getting entangled in it like I did. B. By hovering over the tie off, I was preventing my dive buddy behind me from referencing it while I mounted the stage bottle.
  3. I need to stop breathing the stage as soon as I decided it is time to drop it or the DPV.

The second dive went better. This was my first dive with two stages and the DPV. My job was to scooter the line until I was instructed to stage. At that point I staged the scooter, and the two tanks. The drill went pretty well. We turned the dive and I picked up all my gear with visibility and we surfaced. The debrief wasn’t remarkable.

I was completely exhausted emotionally and intellectually by this time. However, I decided to go on and didn’t say anything to Steve. We ate some lunch and returned to the water. I started to put on all my tanks and I was really struggling with them. Steve could see I was stressed. I went though my pre-dive check and only gave Steve my stage turn pressures. Actually, I gave Steve the amount of gas I could use out of each stage. When I told him I was done, he asked me what my turn pressures were for my sidemount tanks. I looked the gauges and rattled off 700psi each. And this is where things really went down hill. I was over tired and worn out. I had 4 tanks with 4 different starting pressures. And I was using 2 different amounts out of each set of tanks. I only said and processed how much I could use out of each tank. I decided I could remember the starting pressures. I never processed the turn pressure. I didn’t write anything down and Steve allowed me to start the dive. I was already a train wreck. Some lessons are best taught by a big blunder.

We started to scooter up stream. I was only supposed to breathe 1/6 from of my stages and burn the scooter for 20 minutes. Within 15 minutes I had already over breathed my first stage by a couple of hundred PSI, to be honest I am not sure how much I over breathed it. Steve knew there was a problem, he knows my SAC rate and he knew how much gas I had. He let me continue the dive. When I realized I had overshot the mark, I switched to my second stage. I figured I could recover by breathing the second stage short. However, I wasn’t sure how much I should short it and a seed of uncertainty and doubt started to creep in. I wasn’t sure of my gas situation. I knew I had plenty of gas with nearly full sidemount tanks. But I wasn’t rock solid sure. I staged my tank and continued scootering.

Within 5-6 minutes, I hit 20 minutes on the scooter. It was time to stage the scooter and then the second stage tank. I dropped both and placed a cookie on the line at an arrow pointing into the cave confirming my exit. We started to swim up stream on the sidemount tanks. Like a complete moron, I didn’t check my starting pressures for the sidemount tanks and so I had no idea when to turn! The further I swam, the more intense the sense of impending doom grew! Finally, after 20 minutes I had had enough and I called the dive. I was sufficiently freaked out about my uncertainty around my gas volumes. I was in 50ft of water and 2800ft from the entrance. We swam for 5 minutes or less and Steve called lights out. I got on the line and extinguished my light.

At this point the anxiety grew big ugly horns and was breathing fire! I felt doomed. I know the reality is that I had enough gas in my cylinders to get back, however we had departed from reality and had entered the realm of guessing and uncertainty. The longer we swam in the dark the worse the feeling got. I started to slowly unwind in the dark, but I still made good progress.

When I finally reached my stage bottle an overwhelming sense of relief flooded me. It is like popping out of a nasty silty restriction back into clear water, I felt like I could make it home. I struggled to clip the stage on in the dark on the line. I had chosen a really ugly spot to drop the bottle. I finally got it on and we proceed. I decided to breathe from the stage. I reckoned that I could breathe the tank dry and ditch it if I needed. That would provide some reference as to how far I had traveled and give me some definitely information about my gas volumes.

Five minutes later, I think, we came to the scooter, mind you this is all in the dark, and I clipped the scooter to my crotch D-ring and started to make headway. I held the scooter out in front of me and dropped in to a nice steady pace. I came upon my cookie and started to remove it from the line. Half way through the process, I decided to leave it. I thought, if I get turned around in the dark, this cookie will point me to the right way out.

After what seemed like an interminably long time, we reached my first dropped stage. I really struggled putting it back on. Two stages and a scooter in the dark on the line were tremendously difficult for me. I am not sure if it was the rigging or all the gear. I nearly lost the line a couple of times and I definitely stressed the line. Finally, I got sorted and started swimming.

I think this a good time to talk about the dark, real dark. The kind you find 2000 feet back in a cave. It is the loneliest and most baffling experience I have ever been through. In the dark time seems to follow a completely different pace. If you eyes are open your brain starts filling in the gaps to try and stay sane. It is hard to keep it focused, there is no reference. To be honest, I have no idea how long any of the stuff I am describing took. All I knew was that I had to keep hacking at it and make progress. This dive was the longest I had been in the dark to date and it seemed like a long time.

Imagine me lumbering down the line with all this gear. I didn’t know the cave very well and I had no idea where I was or how far I had traveled. After some time, my scooter got stuck in the wall. I thought it was strange. I could feel the wall on my right shoulder. I was holding the line with my left hand. I pulled the scooter back towards me and away from the way. It was pretty stuck. The line was in my palm with no real pressure. I started to struggle with the scooter. I finally yanked on it and it came free. I decided to change the line from left to right hand and swap the scooter. I put my right hand under my left and I cupped the line. The scooter was floating free. I left go of the line with my left and the line pulled through my right hand and disappeared. I gasp deeply. Fuck! I am off the line, in the dark, with 2 stages and a scooter in a cave I don’t really know. This is really bad!

Steve had felt the line being pulled up behind him and turned around. He saw my gauges on the ceiling of the cave. He told me he knew something bad was about to happen. He heard my gasp and then the line went slack in his hand returning to its normal position. He saw I was off the line and could hear my breathing had quickened. He thought about the fact that I was in a large bore cave with a DPV, lots of gear, 2000ft from the entrance, in 50ft of water and lost off the line. He feared I might trigger the scooter in my struggle and really make things worse. This had the makings of a bad situation. He expected me to turn on my lights and call the drill.

I quickly thought about the situation and blindly swept my arms below me looking for the line. I didn’t find it. I considered turning on my lights and then decided that in real life I wouldn’t have that option. I had to stay with it. I was momentarily overcome with fear.

I regained a little composure, thought again and decided the line had to be below me. I hadn’t felt any tension before it snapped free. I put my right hand on the wall, stretched my arms out and descended. I figured I would land on the line. A few moments later, I found the line. I hovered motionless with it in my hand feeling relieved. I spent some time breathing. I needed to get that under control. I regained composure and I was relieved I had found the line. The thought of a lost line search with a DPV was no fun.

I swam up the line and met Steve. We continued in the dark for a short time and then turned the lighting on. He signaled his DPV was broken and I towed him to the entrance.

On the surface we debriefed the dive. It was an intense experience. I had hit the wall in so many ways. I discovered that I can’t track 4 different tank volumes and turn pressures in my head. I also learned that I need to call dives earlier, especially on the surface if I am in over my head, which I was. In the end, I didn’t pass the course. I was sent away with instructions to practice with one stage and a scooter or two stages and no scooter. I was unable to safely conduct a multi-stage DPV cave dive. Whether it was because I was over tired or too task loaded, I made some bad decisions on the surface and really suffered during the dive.

I don’t believe I was ever in mortal danger on the dive. I do believe that I learned a huge amount about myself and my capabilities. Since the DPV course I have gotten an N-19. I have been hesitating to use it. The multi-stage portion of the course really made me trigger shy. I had sunk into some sort of compliancy around gas management and the course really rattled me. I have been much more diligent with my gas management, including writing down my turn pressures. Lately, I have been using a single stage regularly and I find it useful to process the turn pressures by writing them down and saying them. I have also incorporated a 5 minute meditation on the surface before starting the dive. I completely kit up including pre-dive check. Then I float on the surface for 5 minutes taking deep breathes. The idea is to center myself and visualize the dive. I want to lower my heart rate and dissipate the anxiety that is built up as I struggle to kit up.

I think I am going to schedule another day with Steve in January or February 2009 to finish the course. Hopefully, by then I will have a handful of single stage DPV cave dives under my belt. I already have a handful of single stage cave dives and they are becoming easier to execute.


1 Shirley { 12.23.08 at 7:37 am }

Wow, great report! Thanks for sharing.

2 Paul aka Hammerhead { 12.23.08 at 8:57 am }

Excellent report. Reminded me of the physical, mental and psychological exhaustion I encountered during the 8 consecutive days of my full cave course last year. Your lessons learned are quite apropos as well: Listen to your gut when it tells you that all is not well. And complacency is a mortal enemy.

3 Ross { 12.23.08 at 4:08 pm }

Finally! It has been almost a month since the last update. Great reading!

4 Hans { 12.23.08 at 7:24 pm }

Ross, your right it has been a LONG time. To be honest, I didn’t have the energy to publish over the last month. My in-laws came to town for a week, then a friend came to dive for a week and then work got crazy. I have just been completely spent.

Finally, last night I sat down and edited an article by Patrick and this one. I just dug in and got it done. I felt relieved to be back on the horse.

In any event, the last couple of weeks has been spent working on a resurvey project with Alain. It has been pretty exciting. Yesterday, I got to explore some virgin cave north of Playa Del Carmen with Nando from Protec. Overall, it has been a great month to be a cave diving in Mexico.


5 Lynne { 12.23.08 at 9:05 pm }

Thank you very much for sharing an experience like this; I know this kind of thing is difficult to make public.

My Cave 1 class was my second lesson in how fatigue affects one’s diving. The first one was cave diving in Florida with an instructor/friend, who told me halfway through the third day that she could tell I was tired because I was screwing up things I’d been doing perfectly well the day before. I called the afternoon’s dives that day. In C1, I had the experience of having the third day go really WELL — we began to think we were getting this cave diving thing under control. Well, Thursday was a mess, as we lost focus and made bad decisions under stress. Message to all of us: Tired is bad. I sometimes think the instructors run these classes to fatigue you, so you can teach yourself that lesson, because you won’t learn it properly if you are simply told. How tired, after all, is tired?

I have also learned, luckily through mistakes that were only embarrassing and not dangerous, that it is not good to cave dive when you are upset or unfocused, even if it’s from something unrelated.

So many lessons . . . We can only hope to make our errors when someone like Steve is there to salvage the situation, if we can’t.

6 Randy Thornton { 12.23.08 at 9:14 pm }


Thank you very much for sharing your experience. Sounds like it was quite a learning experience. I guess it just goes to show you that no matter how much experience we all have, there is always somewhere or something that can take us out of our comfort zone. Keep up the good work.