FIRST DIVE OF THE SEASON coming up, and its time to get ready! Of course, some of you will have dived throughout the winter, and will now be contemplating the approach of warmer spring waters with a feeling of smug self-satisfaction the rest of us find truly nauseating.
Our only consolation is that, while your in-water skills may be better than ours, youll find it a lot harder to kit up without the fingers you lost to frostbite.
Just think of it as another part of the price you must pay if you want to be a rufty-tufty diver.
For the rest of us, we need to consider personal fitness to dive, the state of our kit, where to dive and the in-water conduct of that all-important first dive.
If we get it wrong so early in the season, it could leave us with problems throughout the year, so its worth taking a little time to make sure things go well.
Its important to remember that one of the key contributing factors to any diving incident is anxiety, so if you dont manage to follow these suggestions, dont worry about it. Everything will probably be fine, and if it isnt, worrying about it wont help.

Tuning up the cardiovascular system is the first priority. Light to moderate daily exercise is the key here, starting ideally four weeks out from Dive Day. Remember that the reason most exercise plans fail is that theyre too much too soon, so take it steady.
During week one, try parking a bit further away from wherever youre going and walking the extra distance. No need to go mad, parking in a mother and child space instead of a disabled spot should do it.
In week two, try walking upstairs instead of using the lift, or at least walk up to the first floor and take the lift from there.
Week three, combine both these measures, and if you feel youre ready, take the stairs two at a time on the final Friday.
Week four is for rest and recovery, to allow your system to heal itself and repair the stresses and strains caused by the activities of the previous weeks. Like all elite athletes, youll find that adequate recovery is vital.
Diet is equally important. Eat lots of healthy foods, and remember that frequent small meals are better than one large one. Current recommendation is to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. This sounds tough, but in practice it can be easier than you think.
Crisps, for example, are made of potatoes, a vegetable, and are usually fried in vegetable oil these days, making two of your five in one go.
Buy cheese and onion flavour and you add a third portion - onions are vegetables as well!
Two packets of crisps and the jobs done. Or, if youd prefer, one packet of cheese and onion crisps and a bag of chips, provided theyre also done in vegetable oil.
Just to make things more difficult, however, the advice also suggests fruit and vegetables of different colours, but here again, the thinking diver can get ahead.
Fruit Pastilles are made with real fruit and come in a range of colours, which is obvious, but you might not be aware that Jelly Babies are also made with real fruit juice, so there are lots of options.
Finally, cut back on the booze. Im not going to lay down any hard-and-fast rules, just remind you that no less a person than Genghis Khan allowed his horde to get drunk only twice a month.
Allowing for the fact that Genghis wasnt a diver, and therefore couldnt be expected to understand the stresses and strains imposed by limited vis, or the long walk from the top car park, getting drunk just once a week is probably achievable by most of us.

hspace=5 THE DIVE
When Dive Day arrives, try to approach it slowly and methodically. Youre a diver and you love to dive, so try to make the experience last as long as possible. Youre also less likely to provoke a heart attack, an important consideration as the paramedics will already be busy. Youre also less likely to forget an important piece of kit.
Take your time over the buddy check, and remember that youll both find it more comfortable if you remove your cylinders as you wait to borrow whatever it is youve forgotten from another diver.
Dont get annoyed if it was your buddy who forgot the weightbelt. Next time, it could be you.
If youve forgotten your buddy, think of it as an opportunity to make new friends, or a message to take up another sport. If the forgotten item was something less important, play it by ear.
If the back-up to your back-up torch fails it probably wont matter very much, and given the amount of silt kicked up by divers already in the water, neither will forgetting your mask.
Make your way slowly to the water once ready. Given the queues of divers ahead this shouldnt be a problem. Your only real concern is that your bladder capacity is adequate for the wait to get in the water plus the duration of the dive.
At the waters edge, smartly fit your fins, adjust your mask and in you go.
Get away from the entry point while you wait for the sudden pain, like someone inserting nails into your eyes, to subside. Its only the cold, and hardier divers than you have been enduring this all winter without complaint. You can tell these hardy souls - theyre the divers whimpering softly as they giant-stride forward.
When youre both comfortable, exchange OK signals and submerge. Keep the dive simple, just wander around and look at stuff - if there is any stuff, and if the vis is good enough to see it.
Concentrate on breathing out - youll remember to breathe in - and maybe try a few basic skills when youre ready.
A good one is buoyancy control. Try swimming a foot or two above the bottom instead of crawling. Youll find it useful for those rare times that you manage to hit slack correctly.

hspace=5 IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL, try a bit of mask-clearing or a DV removal and refit drill. People sometimes ask why they ought to remove a mask that isnt leaking, or a DV thats delivering a perfectly good breathe, but sooner or later (sooner, if you dive with my mate Alf) one or the other will be knocked from your face or pulled from your mouth, and you really need to know how to recover and re-fit whichever it was.
It might not be fun - Ive never met a diver who would admit to pausing mid-coitus, for example, and say theyd rather be mask-clearing - but they are important skills.
Most of all, dont let yourself get chilled, or push yourself into doing things outside your comfort zone. Remember, its the first dive of the year and all you really want to do is make sure youre comfortable.
Ten minutes in the water should be plenty, then you can get yourself a well-deserved cup of hot chocolate (which is, incidentally, made from cocoa beans, which are a vegetable and brown, an unusual combination, and therefore a useful addition to your healthy-eating regime), while planning your next diving trip.

Allow yourself some time before the dive to check your kit thoroughly. First, be aware that it isnt where you thought you left it. It never is.
The Kit Fairy comes along some time mid-winter and moves stuff around, though sometimes, inexplicably, only one glove of a pair.
Once youve located your kit, youll find it helpful to examine it in a sensible order to reduce the chance of overlooking something.
A good trick is to imagine yourself standing naked in the car park of your chosen dive site, then mentally dressing ready for the dive.
If you struggle with this, do it for real. Dont worry about standing out in the freezing rain stark naked while rummaging around in your dive bag, visit any quarry in the country and youll see dozens of otherwise normal people doing the same thing every Sunday of the year.
Or you could do it in the privacy of your own bedroom. Depending on how well you get on with your neighbours, you may like to draw the curtains first.
First item on will be your underwear, then your undersuit. This is the point at which youll realise how much weight youve put on over winter.
Theres no point deluding yourself about this, you will have gained weight. The important thing is, how much.
If you cant zip up your undersuit, its too much. Your options are to go on a diet and lose weight, or to buy a bigger undersuit.
When the new undersuit arrives, try it under your drysuit. If the drysuit wont zip up, you have a real problem, because the delay caused by needing to buy a new undersuit means that youre diving in the morning and dont have a suit that fits.
First, dont worry about it. Worrying wont help, and just means that youll be entering the water with a mind distracted by concerns other than being focused on surviving hypothermia because youre diving in a 3mm shortie, the only suit you own that you can still get into.

THE REST OF YOUR GEAR needs to be checked as well. Regulators are quite important and should be regularly serviced to ensure optimum performance.
Dont confuse regular and frequent. Regular means at defined regular intervals, frequent means expensive and unnecessary.
If your regulators are delivering more air than water theyre probably fine, and servicing can be delayed for another year. Which is a good thing, given the amount youve just spent on a new undersuit and will have to spend on a new drysuit.
Direct-feed connections really need to be checked. Spending all day, including the four-hour drive home, wearing your drysuit and cylinder because you cant get the corroded connector disconnected is a real pain, especially when you need to pee.
If youre of a certain age, you may find that your spectacle prescription has changed and that the corrective lenses in your mask need to be replaced.
Go for reading lenses. UK vis is rarely good enough to need more, and youll at least be able to see the figures on your stylish full-function computer-watch.
When you finally locate your other glove, youre all ready to go.

Inland sites have obvious benefits. All the reputable places have excellent safety cover provided by medically trained personnel, and can be reached by ambulance quite easily.
If it does all go nipples skyward, youll have much less to worry about, and reducing anxiety is the name of the game.
On the other hand, we all know that real divers do it in the sea, and youre going to want to be there sooner or later, so you may as well go for it now - except that this means you also need to check that the boat is ready to go, and you dont have time.
So, a quarry it is, then. Stoney, Capernwray, Vobster, Eccy Delph and more are names youll hear regularly on the traffic reports around Easter. To avoid the rush and get a parking space near the water, set off now. Right now! Go!