Scuba diving has traditionally been regarded as an extension or continuation of other water sports, especially swimming and free diving. In the past, before people were permitted to dive, they were expected to have strong swimming skills, be competent snorkelers, and be comfortable in the water. In fact, many programs used very stringent swimming tests to evaluate diving course candidates with a view to screening out all but a fraction of those wishing to enroll.

Such tests had their purposes at that time. Diving equipment was still relatively primitive. Regulator performance was lower. There were no low pressure inflators on buoyancy compensators. In fact, there were no buoyancy compensators. Alternate air sources were non-existent. And boats catering to divers with specially designed gear donning and doffing areas, entry and exit points, and actively assisting divemasters were rarely available. Physically, diving has become much less demanding since that time.

It has been argued in the industry that since improvements in equipment have made it easier to dive, the swimming skills demanded of divers should be adjusted accordingly. It was to get the opinions of our membership on this issue that this month's question was posed.

Nearly everyone responding is favor of some minimum swimming competency. However, the degree of what should be required varies. Typical skills and the range of minimum requirements include: surface swim of 100 to 400 yards (200 yard average), underwater swim of 25 to 75 feet, treading water for 5 to 20 minutes, and a free dive to 10 to 15 feet depth.

Those supporting stringent swimming skills felt that scuba diving is still a physically demanding activity, especially when adverse environmental conditions like surf and currents are considered. Because of that, the belief is that divers must have the stamina and skills to cope with those circumstances. It was also stated that swim skills are valuable confidence builders, and lead to greater student comfort in the water. Finally, without a strong swimming ability, it was felt that the divers would be unable to extract themselves from marginal situations, ie. would not be able to perform a self rescue if needed.

Conversely, a smaller group of instructors felt that rigorous swim tests were not necessary. While comfort in the water is important for all divers, they did not believe that a strong swimming ability was necessary for divers to be comfortable. Several stated they had taught poor or non-swimmers to dive, and that so long as the divers dove within their personal limitations, they were both at ease in the water and safe. In short, the judgement of the diver was much more important than their physical abilities.

An interesting point arose concerning when to evaluate the swim skills. Most of those polled stated the swim requirements must be met by the end of the course. However, the point was made that if the purpose of the skills is to evaluate students for comfort in the water, then having students complete the swimming requirements at the end of the course was pointless. The reasoning is that by the time the course is nearly completed, the instructor already knows exactly who is comfortable in the water, and who is not.

Another associated opinion expressed dealt with the issue of swimming skills and diving professionals. The concern was voiced that once instructors, assistant instructors, or divemasters are certified, they never again have to demonstrate swimming competency. The view expressed was that diving leaders should perform their swim skills regularly, to maintain personal fitness and set an example for divers in all levels of training. This was especially important in light of the fact that strong swimming skills and physical stamina are important in performing a rescue of a diver, for which leadership members have responsibility.

NAUI's standards are continually in review. An important part of this process is the examination of the basis and rationale for the implementation of the standards. It is to this end that reviewing the need for standards related questions such as minimum swimming skills remains necessary.

On another note, I have received a request from one of our foreign members to include more responses from outside the United States. Well, how about it?? I invite our international members to submit their comments for the column. A response can only be included if it is first written down and sent in for publication. In an effort to make it easier, I have included the questions for several additional issues to allow time for the mail to reach me in a timely manner. So, break out your pens and pencils, and compose your opinions!

QUESTION: "What are the minimum swimming skills which should be required of a person involved in dive training?"

A. Some of the cheapest insurance that any diver can have is associated with good watermanship. A good waterman is an individual who is comfortable to the point where they are able to solve the many small problems that are associated with diving and enjoy themselves at the same time. as a result there appears to be a need for good basic watermanship skills prior to engaging in the instructional phase for scuba. As we have learned, stress interferes with comfort and consequently learning. Stress is produced under the introduction of many variables which are associated with beginning diver instruction. This stress establishes a disequilibrium in the comfort level of the diver and will, more often than not, interfere with the learning process. As the psychologic and physiologic mechanisms of the body work toward the re-establishment of equilibrium and a new level of comfort for the individual the interference with the learning process may result in lost or misunderstood information and imperfect skills. We owe it to our students to make it clear that they will be safer, more effective divers if they develop good watermanship skills upon which the instructor can build solid diving behavior.

The traditional swim test for beginning diver training at UCLA requires that the would be trainee be able to swim 1000 feet in under 10 minutes, 75 feet underwater on a single breath, 150 feet underwater surfacing three times for a single breath, and the performance of a survival swim for 10 minutes using various simple survival strokes. A comfortable demonstration of these simple skills has consistently been associated with individuals who are able to hear, understand, and execute the directions given by the instructional team.

Today, we frequently hear the cry "back to basics" with regard to many of the risk activities. The advice is sound and is readily applied to diver training. There has been a steady trend away from basic watermanship skills with a greater reliance on equipment capabilities for the resolution of problems encountered during instruction as well as recreational diving. In my opinion this trend should be reversed!

--Dr. Glen Egstrom, NAUI 937L; Los Angeles, CA (Dive Officer for University of California , Los Angeles. Member NAUI Board of Advisors. Past President NAUI. Has taught all levels from Entry level to ITCs. Has authored many textbooks and articles on diving safety, and has lectured extensively. Recipient NAUI Outstanding Service Awards.)

A. Years ago, when I took over the management of a dive operation in the eastern Caribbean, I discovered that, despite the fact my local employees were excellent divers, physically fit, comfortable and relaxed in the water, and are more than capable of surviving in adverse conditions, they had difficulty with what has become the "industry standard" watermanship evaluation. This suggests that swimming should not be the sole means of assessing a person's suitability for diving--and that, in fact, it may discriminate against many physically fit individuals whose genetic, ethnic, or socio-economic heritage does not enable them to become strong lap swimmers.

While it may be true that most strong swimmers have the potential to be good divers, it is not necessarily true that all so-called "weak" swimmers lack the stamina, comfort in the water, and level-headedness required to make safe students. And, given the fact that many such individuals come from less-advantaged social and ethnic groups, having a watermanship assessment that favors only those who grew up with access to swimming pools does not make us look very open-minded or socially responsible.

--Harry Averill, NAUI ????; High Springs, FL (President of The Idea Factory, a consulting firm specializing in work in the dive industry; staff at Pro Dive; and Editor of DEMA publications. Past NAUI Special Projects Director, Past PADI Managing Editor. Has taught all levels of diving from introductory to ITCs.)

A. The minimum skills should include a 100 yard swim with no skin diving equipment, a 500 yard swim with skin diving equipment, the ability to tread water and retrieve mask and fins from approximately 15 foot depth. Some students have trouble swimming because they have never been taught proper swimming techniques. As long as they can satisfactorily perform a short swim without equipment, and a longer swim with mask, fins, snorkel, this should be adequate.

--Lamar Hires, NAUI 7684; Lake City, FL (National Marketing Manager for Dive Rite Manufacturing. Teaches primarily cavern and cave diving specialties. Recipient of the Abe Davis Award for safe cave diving.)

A. The minimum skills should include a 220 yard swim, the ability to recover a weight from the bottom, and be comfortable floating and treading water on the surface. With fins and mask they should be able to free dive to 15 feet, and able to swim 25 feet underwater on a single breath.

These are the minimum skills which would allow a person to recover a piece of equipment should they drop it. They also need to be able to do these things comfortably, as we expect them to be able to handle adverse openwater conditions like surf when they complete the course. If they are not able to do these simple skills, then how can we expect them to dive comfortably when they get to open water?

--Alvaro "Blondie" Mena, NAUI 9265; Cozumel, Mexico (Resort Dive Guide and Instructor for Aqua Safari, a NAUI Pro Facility; taught levels from Introductory through Advanced.)

A. Anyone who wishes to dive must feel comfortable in the water; and that usually means that they be a strong swimmer, though I do not know that it may be quite so clearly defined.

There are many potential divers who, while not exceptional swimmers, are quite content to "splash around" a bit; very different from those "swimming" types who will think nothing of taking off across the lake for a refreshing dip. At first examination, the swimmer is obviously the candidate with the propensity for diving instruction. In real life, though, we have all seen many swimmers find "open water" quite terrifying, what with all that green water, and those fish, and... stuff! The "splasher," on the other hand, may find the underwater world a fascinating place -- feeling completely at ease and more than happy while diving. Can we say "No" to this person because they cannot swim a half mile in twelve minutes or swim seven underwater lengths of the pool on a single breath? Of course not! We must remember that a diver is well equipped to "live" in the water -- s/he's warm and buoyant at the surface (after dropping the weight belt), so why the need to "swim" great distances? I still think the minimum skills should be evaluated, but I question the need for Herculean aquatic feats of endurance.

--Struther MacFarlane, NAUI 6676; Toronto, Ontario, Canada (As a private professional educator, has taught all levels from introductory to serving as ITC Director. Recipient of the NAUI Canada Gold Pin and Special Recognition Awards.)

A. Candidates should be comfortable in the water and with basic swimming skills as a minimum. This should include fundamentals of resting strokes and survival swimming, a performance stroke (overhand crawl or breaststroke), ability to swim short distances underwater while breath holding, and be of sufficient physical condition to deal with the rigors of normal entry level diving.

Snorkeling skills and drownproofing can be instructed in the content of scuba class but there is insufficient time in most class structures to teach swimming. If a candidate presents with inadequate skills, then they should be referred to swimming instruction. It is never acceptable to attempt to include an unqualified swimmer in a scuba class and hope to overcome lack of swimming skills and conditioning with equipment.

In many ways, scuba diving is far less demanding than swimming or snorkeling. If divers are taught to dive within their limitations and to recognize these confines, then the sport can easily accommodate a wide variety of age groups and strength levels. The minimum standard should not be compromised, but many divers can improve their skills if counseled to limit their diving activities initially to those easily within their limitations. That may be different for each individual such as an older diver seeking open water training in a tropical resort area where beach or boat diving is easier. As experience is gained and watermanship and scuba skills develop, he can progress to more rigorous conditions.

Watermanship is a vital part of the diving experience. It can be learned through experience and it requires a conscientious and sensitive instructor to appraise them of their skill level and ways to refine and improve performance. To simply graduate students because they reach a minimum standards is to cheat them of the full potential of our sport.

--Bret Gilliam, NAUI 3234; Brunswick, Maine (President of Ocean Tech, Captain of a liveaboard dive vessel. Ex-Director of Diving Operations for Ocean Quest International. 20 years experience as a resort dive operator. Has taught all levels including ITC staff experience.)

A. Most dive courses include students who are strangers to the instructor. Therefore, we must have a means to ascertain their watermanship. In the past we have erected "hurdles" that they must accomplish, such as distance and underwater swims, treading water, floating, etc. A person may be a competitive swimmer on the surface but would "freak out" underwater with their face enclosed in a mask. Likewise there are slow swimmers who are barely able to pass the test but who are so in tune with the sea that they will become outstanding divers.

While the swim test is taking place their instructor should be more interested in how relaxed and comfortable students are rather than how fast and how far they can swim.

--Roy Damron, NAUI 207; Kona, Hawaii (Diving Instructor, current NAUI Board of Advisors member. Past NAUI Director, Chapter Leader, West Pacific Branch Manager, and ITC Director. Recipient of NAUI Outstanding Service Award.)

A. The establishment of minimum swimming skills is not the important issue. I do not think we need to have any minimum swimming skills.

Of greater importance is the student's comfort. So long as the scuba student is relaxed and untroubled in the water, their ability to swim several hundred yards, tread water, or retrieve weights from the bottom is immaterial. In past classes I have had poor swimmers and non-swimmers who became competent divers. The important issue was their ability to proficiently use their equipment, dive within their limitations, and enjoy the water. However, I would recommend that they enroll in a swimming course to improve their skills, and thus be able to experience a greater variety of diving environments.

--Lisa Pergament, NAUI Z4761, PADI OWSI 26341; Zephyrhills, FL (Teach entry level through Divemaster classes, including specialties for Aquatic Adventures. Has worked as a Divemaster aboard Caribbean dive charter boats.)

A. I have always been under the assumption that if I cannot do it, why should I require my students to do it? When during Openwater I the students have to do a 220-yard swim, I am right out there with them swimming and my Divemasters (DMs) and Assistant Instructors (AIs) are counting laps. I feel just as strongly about leadership level courses. When the DMs and AIs in training are doing their skills we as their leaders and instructors should be demonstrating those same skills to them before they do them. It is not a matter of showing off, it is the difference between an in-water instructor versus an on-the-deck teacher.

Too many times I have seen someone try and try to make a skill happen, and when it does happen they stop doing that skill because they will not ever have to do it again. A good example of this is the number of DMs, AIs, and even Instructors out there right now who would not be able to pass the swim evaluation for the certification level they hold. Most of the time it is because they let themselves get out of shape and fat. "Sure, now I am a Divemaster, and I never have to go through that swimming part again."

I feel we all need to at least be able to do the swim evaluation for the Assistant Instructor level and should do it yearly. Once you get to your certification level keep those skills current. I am not one for a mandatory test every year. We should at the very least be able to swim out in open water to rescue someone and to be able to get them back to shore without us having a heart while doing it. Get to your current certification level skills, and keep those skills as you move onward and upward. Just because you cleared your mask once does not mean you can do it repeatedly. The same goes for swimming skills.

--Edwin Benzel, NAUI 10073; Erie PA (Independent Instructor teaching OW I through Divemaster and Specialty courses. Teaches University and semi-private classes. Training coordinator and member of three search and rescue teams.)

A. The content of the swimming test should be left somewhat at the instructor's discretion. A person should be comfortable in the water. A normal swim assessment should include swimming several laps of a normal size pool, maintain buoyancy (without fins, wetsuits, etc.), and swimming underwater a short distance. These skills can be done while teaching fin kicks and other skills the first night in confined water instead of a formal swimming test.

--Wayne H. Scott, NAUI 9422; Seffner, FL (Has taught OW I to Advanced as a Private Professional and for Brandon Scuba.)

A. I believe that the swimming skills currently required for diving should not be diluted. Swim skills are valuable confidence building tools. Before I did the swim skills required for the Divemaster rating, I was unsure of my abilities to perform relatively simple physical tasks. Requiring the swimming tests forced me to accomplish certain goals, improving my confidence both as a diver and as a dive leader.

--Dinah Drago, PADI Divemaster; Puerto Morales, Mexico

A. All scuba students/divers should be comfortable in the water with basic swimming skills. I recommend as a minimum test: swim 25 feet underwater (face submerged); swim 200 yards, any style, no time limit; tread water for five minutes at the end of the 200 yard swim; dive and recover an object from 10 feet of depth.

We should not limit scuba diving to competition or power swimmers, but cannot have students who: (1) cannot handle themselves in the water without support (e.g. BC, fins); (2) do not have a minimal level of stamina; and (3) might not be able to rescue themselves (physical or psychological readiness) if in trouble. Specifically, I have seen too many rescue students (certified, often at Openwater II or above) who are very weak swimmers despite their prior scuba training and experience.

--Dr. Robert Clemons, NAUI 10551; Garland, TX (Teaches privately and at Divers World in Richardson, TX. In addition to open water instruction teaches Diving Rescue, Marine Geology, and Archeological Diving specialties and leadership courses.)

A. An entry level student is about to engage in a sport wherein one of the primary activities being done is swim. Therefore, a student should have sufficient swimming skills to be able to swim a relatively long distance (400 yards). He should be able to tread water for an appropriate amount of time (20 minutes). I do not think there is a need for an underwater breath hold swim of 60 feet.

I do not think that it is necessary to be an Olympic swimmer to enter the sport of scuba diving. But an entry level diver has enough to learn during their course without having to be concerned about his swimming skills.

--William Macfarlane, NAUI 12415; St. Petersburg, FL (Teaches OW I at Bill Jackson's, a NAUI Pro Facility.)

NOTE: The views expressed in this column are opinions held by the individual members referenced, and are not those of NAUI or the editors of NDA News.]Questions for the next issues:

Questions for the next issues:

For the May/June issue: "Should diving instructors and divemasters be required to submit to a program of preemployment and routine drug testing? Why/why not?"

For the July/August issue: "When using an alternate second stage, should the alternate regulator or the primary (from the mouth) be passed? Why?"

For the September/October issue: "Given the worldwide AIDS epidemic, should scuba course curriculums continue to include the teaching of mouth to mouth resuscitation? Why/Why not?"

For the November/December issue: "Should the scuba industry lobby for or promote reasonable governmental legislation covering diving? Why/Why not?"

All members are encouraged to respond. This column is for you, the membership, to develop. Answers should be kept fairly brief, preferably no more than two or three paragraphs. Responses to each question will be collated by the editor, condensed if necessary, and printed in this section. New questions may also be posed for discussion. Questions should be concise, and should stimulate a wide cross‑section of the membership. Include with your responses or questions the following information: your name, address, phone number, NAUI membership number, dive‑related employment, past diving accomplishments, and a review of your dive teaching experience. Send your materials to Jeffrey Bozanic, c/o NDA News, P.O. Box 14650, Montclair, CA 91763‑1150.

Compiled and Edited by Jeffrey Bozanic, NAUI 5334L

Sources, Mar/Apr 1991, (3:2), pp. 9-14.
Swim Skills for Scuba Diving

NAUI Members' Forum #22

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