Had recreational diving been an option when Charles Darwin set out aboard ‘HMS Beagle’ on his ground-breaking scientific voyage of discovery, then there’s a very real possibility that he may have scrapped the whole notion of natural selection and the survival of the fittest.
In Darwin’s day just going to sea was a risky business and the supposed reason that many early sailors never bothered about learning how to swim – mainly on the grounds that if their vessel foundered then it was better to drown quickly than to drift around in the vain hope of rescue; a piece of trivia that gives new meaning to that old saying about the days of, “wooden ships and iron men”.
Even taking to the ship’s boats or cobbling together a raft from bits of flotsam was, they maintained, just a stopgap measure. Unless the survivors were close to land, then there was little likelihood of chance rescue by a passing ship – and almost certain death from exposure, dehydration and starvation.
Not that all shipwrecked mariners were quite so fatalistic about their chances of survival. Then, as now, tales of the sea were filled with incredible accounts of people who were rescued after spending months adrift at sea in a boat or raft; and who managed to survive on nothing more than rainwater collected in a sail, supplemented by a diet of raw fish and the odd morsel sliced from the fatted calf of a hapless cabin-boy.
In modern times, being lost at sea isn’t necessarily the same ordeal that it once was. (Not least for the fact that ration-packs are far more appetising and easier to digest than a well-fed cabin boy.)
Take, for example, the situation of a Frenchman who, several years ago, attempted to row single-handedly across the Atlantic, from Newfoundland to Europe. He was seven-days out from land when his small craft capsized. Unable to right the upturned boat, he used a satellite phone to call his mother in France. She called the French coastguard, who contacted the American coastguard, who subsequently rescued the distressed rower.
Now, thanks to communications satellites, Global Positioning Systems and sophisticated, long-range, search-and-rescue craft, the chances of finding a person missing at sea have improved considerably.
That’s not to suggest that the experience is any the less terrifying for those concerned. It still is. It’s just a long-winded way of getting round to the fact that many people planning adventure activities place far too much faith in technology and overlook the simple, common-sense approaches towards safely surviving what should be an otherwise enjoyable experience.
Consider recreational and technical diving. Because everyone’s had it drummed into them that diving is an, ‘equipment intensive activity’, there’s a tendency to concentrate on the hardware and to relegate to second place those vitally important considerations like planning, health, fitness, training and technique.
My mate, Krabbmann – who has strong views about everything – is one of those who place their faith in technology.
“Science and engineering is what diving’s all about.” He said, perched on his usual stool in the front bar of, ‘The Sozzled Cod’, and already two-and-a-half sheets into the wind after several glasses from his private stock of ‘Old Cobblers’. “You can argue all you like about fitness, attitude and skill proficiency, but they’re no substitute for soundly engineered equipment items specifically designed for the most extreme diving conditions.
“Technology”, he continued, “has opened up a whole new world and made it possible for almost anyone who’s able to breathe in and out unassisted to go diving in perfect safety. And you can forget all of those doubts and concerns about decompression illness. Thanks to sophisticated dive computers capable of calculating every aspect of the dive – and that tell the diver what to do and when to do it – DCS is no longer an issue. Just follow the advice of your computer and it’s impossible to come to harm.”
“What?” I spluttered. “But … but …”
Ignoring my attempted interruption, Krabbmann carried on down the slippery slope. “You’ve got to start facing up to the facts; survival in diving now depends on technology.”
“… but things can still go wrong and equipment can always fail.” I managed to blurt out.
“That’s what buddies are for.” Said Krabbmann – who’s been experiencing great difficulty of late in finding anybody prepared to go diving with him. “If you do run into any sort of difficulty, their job is to bail you out of the mess and ensure your safety. Not that it should ever be necessary with the new developments in equipment design.”
Darwin might have been inclined to disagree. In his day, technology was a tool, not an article of faith – and the substitute for aptitude, water-confidence, training and mental attitude – that, for some divers, it subsequently seems to have become.