Appeared in DIVER April 2007

Cold water, hot advice
Spring is coming, but its still chilly in the water, and your coldwater skills may be a tad rusty. Mark Ellyatt offers some timely advice and useful tips to bear in mind before you hit the water

BY THE TIME THIS ARTICLE APPEARS, the country will be thawing out. Scuba equipment will still be tucked away in cupboards and lofts, and dive skills will have eroded as surely as waist sizes remain swollen, even now, from earlier excesses of mince pie and turkey.
As the weather improves and divers grow more optimistic about an early spring, perhaps emboldened by a winter trip to Egypt, equipment will start to meet dusters and neoprene will be dragged screaming across stretch-marked torsos throughout the land.
The sun may peek, but the water remains frigid right up until, well, until global warming fulfils the hype. Despite some early-season fleeting sunshine, the wind will still be blowing its botox off, putting the sea out of bounds for many until June.
Inland, quarries will see thousands of divers make their pilgrimage for packed car parks and watery hot chocolate.
Diving, sadly, is a diminishing skill. Its a bit like flying, but PADI and BSAC are not the FAA, so divers are left to decide for themselves whether to brave the depths of a frigid gravel pit on a bank holiday rather than seek a scuba tune-up in a grubby swimming pool.
April and May will see the most casualties, as a result of free-flowing regulators and runaway feet-first ascents in drysuits, or just your common-or-garden buoyancy faux-pas by divers clad solely in wetsuits and perhaps hampered by over-tight BCs.

IT NEEDNT BE THIS WAY, so lets look at how to minimise potential dramas on those first shivery dives of the season.
Drysuit use and buoyancy control in general seem fairly elusive skills at the best of times, but never more so than after the winter lay-off. Divers seem to pop up to the surface like moles on trampolines, filling recompression chambers at alarming rates.
Drysuits need practice and lots of it, ideally in a swimming pool and then in shallow open water until mastery, or at least half an idea, is gained.
Many of the inland dive sites have permanent lines, either from the edge or from mooring buoys, all the way to the bottom. These ropes make excellent reference points, especially in murky water, when practising with drysuit valves. If it all goes Pete Tong, a timely grab will halt the ascent.
When practising, if your suit has a variable dump valve, leave it fully closed by turning it clockwise (righty-tighty, lefty-loosey). This way you control the amount of air venting, rather than leaving it to spill willy-nilly with any change of body position. This will give you the upper hand in controlling it.
Using the drysuit manually in this way needs concentration and a softly-softly approach, but the rewards will be obvious. The drysuit should be used as your sole means of buoyancy control if possible, but it is still prudent to make sure that your BC is empty on ascent. You dont need the surprise a leaking low-pressure inflator hose can provide.
As with equalising ears, drysuit-control requires pre-emptive attention to avoid unwanted drama. Making sure that the dump valve can be depressed properly when wearing thick gloves is as important as proper body positioning.
Practise ascending vertically for as many dives as necessary before moving on to 45 body inclination. It may take all season before the much harder horizontal ascent style is safely doable.
Perfect your drysuit skills before combining this discipline with deploying delayed SMBs. When you see a drysuited rebreather diver sending up his or her SMB without drama, you will appreciate what practice can achieve.

Thoughts of cold water and regulator free-flows fill many a novice diver with dread. This is not surprising. When a high-performance regulator free-flows, its like a tornado on your tongue, and few can be prepared for that. Student divers kneeling in a warm pool lamely press their regulator purge button for a few seconds to pretend that they have a free-flow. This is barely preparation for clearing second stages of water, let alone dealing with a free-flow.
Free-flows can have several causes. Malfunction is the usual chestnut, followed by diving in cold water. I just saw a training agency website which stated that divers should simply avoid breathing from regulators at the surface to avoid freezing problems under water... no wonder there are dramas!
Most free-flows occur at the second stage due to freezing. Cold, expanding breathing mixtures in plastic second stages do cause free-flows occasionally, but nine times out of 10 it is inappropriate second-stage handling and use of second-stage features that causes them.

IN THE PICTURES you will see a yellow lever called a venturi assist. Many manufacturers supply them as an extra feature to justify extra cost.
Their real function is to supply more air to divers as they get deeper, which they do by allowing gas to flow through the second stage uninterrupted when the lever is in the plus position.
Set like this, the second stage will often free-flow for the slightest reason. Left free-flowing for more than a few seconds, the mechanism will ice up, causing catastrophic free-flows that cannot be stopped.
How often do you see divers having short-lived free-flows at the surface or even in the car park These are usually dealt with by whacking the second stage against something hard... perfect.
The lever should always be in the minus or negative position until absolutely necessary. When the lever is pushed towards minus, flowing air is directed back towards the inhalation diaphragm, helping to stop the flow, but even this will not work if the regulator has gushed for more than five seconds.
Divers should study their second stages and make sure that any levers with plus and minus markings are turned to the latter position until that unlikely time when more gas is needed under water. If the venturi lever seems loose, or wont stay where you put it, the regulator needs servicing.
Sport divers should place their extra second stages in devices that minimise free-flow, such as scumballs or octopus clips with a mouthpiece block built in.
Technical divers cannot do this, as the extra second stage needs to be fashionably closer to the mouth - as if technical divers problems occur faster than recreational ones!
Often a tech divers extra second stage is placed in a bungee necklace and worn under the chin, though if I could choose where to place a free-flowing regulator it probably wouldnt be under my chin! Also, suspending second stages by their mouthpieces makes them incredibly likely to free-flow, because the inhalation diaphragm is lower than the mouthpiece. Tradition has a lot to answer for.
Adding a breakaway clip to the second stage and clipping it mouthpiece-down to the right hand D-ring on your harness will help cure two problems. For starters, a free-flow could be avoided by having the mouthpiece facing down.
Secondly, even if it does free-flow, it wont be in your face!

IF A FREE-FLOW OCCURS, try to stop it as quickly as possible. Push any venturi levers to minus, and if you dont have one, continue to breathe by letting the bubbles expand from your mouth while starting to ascend in control.
After a few seconds, this will be extremely uncomfortable and very cold.
Some regulators with upstream second stages are impossible to breathe from during free-flow. If your buddy is nearby, he or she should hear the drama and swim towards you to offer assistance with an extra second stage.
Your octopus is unlikely to be free-flowing at the same time, so locate and breathe from this. If you have a redundant scuba system, such as a pony bottle, use this to minimise the drama and potential disorientation of the extra bubbles while ascending.
If both your second stages are free-flowing (unlikely), this indicates a first-stage failure. Breathe what you can, but remember to ascend slowly.
Technical divers often use redundant first and second stages on twin tanks. If they have a free-flow, they should close the valve attached to the offending regulator immediately. Once a valve is shut down, a prudent diver will abort the dive or else reopen the valve a minute or so later to see if the free-flow is fixed or curable. The dive is on hold until both regulators are functioning properly.
During training and, I hope, afterwards, all technical divers are drilled and then practise to react properly and in a timely manner to a free-flow. If they cant, they either werent listening in class or had bad instruction.
If you havent been in the water for a while, or are thinking of diving in cold water for the first time, take it slowly.
Avoid taking camera or video equipment with you on the first few dives until your buoyancy control and comfort levels are where they should be.
Dry gloves can be a credible solution to icy fingers but again need plenty of practice. They can provide warm hands but often at the expense of dexterity.
If you cannot tighten a loosening weightbelt or reach a manifold, or even equalise properly because of them, you have simply swapped one problem for potentially many others. Safe diving.

Practise drysuit skills on a line in shallow open water and make sure that dump valves can be operated properly while wearing thick gloves.
Regulator venturi control...
...keep the switch set to minus unless you really feel you need to boost air flow. This will lower the chances of a free-flow.
If a free-flow does occur, you need to be ready to handle it - how you do so depends on your set-up.
Leave that camera behind on the first few dives - you know it makes sense!
1 Hone those drysuit skills.
2 Keep variable dump valves closed while youre honing.
3 Check that your BC is empty on ascent.
4 Make sure you can operate controls with gloves on.
5 Keep venturi +/- control on second stage set on minus.
6 Stow octopus to minimise chances of a free-flow.
7 Dont take cameras on your first few dives.