How Realistic Are Five-Point Descents? 10


No FivesSomeone recently characterized diver training as 50 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress. That’s pretty much on the money. Dive instructors, as a group, often resist change, as it’s simply easier to keep doing things the same way they always have. Training agencies can be every bit as bad, as modernizing their training materials may mean having to reprint all those expensive textbooks.

The problem with this is that, all too often, what students are taught in entry-level training bears no resemblance to how divers dive in the real world. A perfect example of this is the so-called “Five Point Descent.” Understand, there is nothing horribly unsafe about this skill. It’s been around for nearly 40 years and, apparently hasn’t killed anybody…yet. Here is a video someone posted on You Tube that shows their interpretation of how you should demonstrate a Five Point Descent to students:

The problem is, four of the five points demonstrated no longer reflect modern dive equipment or the way divers actually dive. To better understand why, you need to know a little bit about the history of diver training.

  • Much of what constitutes “today’s” diver training is based on how divers dove off Southern California beaches in the mid-1970s. This involved surf entries and long surface swims to reach kelp beds that were generally 100 meters or more off shore.
  • Given the rather pathetic horse-collar BCs of the time, swimming on your back and breathing through your nose and mouth wasn’t an option. You pretty much had to use a snorkel or risk drowning. Even when you got to the kelp, your horse-collar BC often did not allow you to get your head far enough out of the water to carry on a conversation with your buddies.
  • Divers of the 1970s had only one option for tracking exposure to nitrogen: dive tables. The notion of dive computers was beyond comprehension.

Under these conditions, the Five Point Descent, as you most often see or hear it described, makes sense. So what has changed?

1. Agree to Descend

There is little argument that all divers in a team should agree to descend before one diver takes off and leaves his buddy or buddies behind. At issue is how you do that.

  • In the traditional Five Point Descent, the way it’s most often shown or described, divers accomplish this through hand signals — because their horse-collar BC won’t let them get their mouths far enough out of the water to comfortably talk to one another.
  • When divers are using the modern jacket- and back-flotation BCs that have been standard since the early 1980s, they can easily rest on the surface with their heads completely out of the water. This makes it easy to simply say, “Are we ready? Great! Let’s go…” This is how real divers actually agree to descend.

2. Orient Yourself to an Object on the Surface

This is actually good advice when diving off a Southern California beach, where there is no descent line and the water is shallow enough that you can often see bottom. But this is in no way typical of the conditions under which most divers actually dive.

  • Today, most divers dive from boats, and descend using the anchor line or a dedicated descent line. (Orient yourself to the boat? Duh! This line I’m holding on to is tied to it!)
  • Even when no descent line is available, divers often descend using a wall or slope for reference.
  • When divers must make a free descent, orienting to an object at the surface is of limited value if there are no visual references on the way down, and divers can easily get turned around without realizing it. That’s why we have compasses.

In the final analysis, this is a skill with only limited relevance to most of today’s divers.

3. Switch From Snorkel to Regulator

In fairness, most instructors simply teach this as Put your regulator in your mouth. That, at least, is realistic.

Unfortunately, this is frequently described as divers wordlessly switching from a snorkel to a regulator without actually talking to one another. In the video you saw, the diver is breathing from his snorkel even though his head is completely out of the water.

That’s not realistic at all.

4. Note the Time

Using what? Seriously, when was the last time you saw a diver actually using (or wearing) a dive watch? Granted, many dive computers will display the time of day — but not after you get them wet.

This “Point” is a relic of the days when divers used dive tables and wore watches. How many people do that any more?

Okay, many new divers don’t have dive computers — but they are as equally unlikely to have watches or bottom timers. Entry-level dive computers have reached a price point of US$200 or less. That’s less than the price of a decent dive watch. Given this, what diver can afford not to have a computer?

Although dive computers and bottom timers can fail or be misused, they are more likely to accurately track a diver’s bottom time than a diver is to remember his or her precise time of descent. “Then they should write it down,’ you say. C’mon! These are human beings we’re talking about here. Get real.

5. Deflate Your BC and Equalize on the Way Down

This is the one realistic “Point” among the five — except, of course, that it’s two steps, not one.

And Then…

Even if you update the Five Points to reflect modern equipment and procedures, it is still not applicable in all situations, such as:

  • Diving in a freshwater spring, lake, quarry or similar environment: Divers may simply walk into waist-deep water, agree verbally to submerge, then swim off.
  • Drift diving: Divers hit the water with BCs deflated and descend immediately. Fiddle-farting around with something like a Five Point Descent just ensures they become separated from the group.
  • Boat diving in general: Many captains want divers to keep their regulators in their mouths from the time they step off the boat until the time they are back on deck. Divers on boats are also often following a divemaster, who will take care of navigation for them.

Traditional diver training is rife with “skills” like this which are neither realistic nor relevant. Be an agent of change. Teach your divers how to dive in the real world, not the fantasy world of far too many “helpful” You Tube videos.


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10 thoughts on “How Realistic Are Five-Point Descents?

    • Admin Post author

      Thank you…I think. That has to be one of the oddest compliments ever (not that I’m complaining). Nevertheless, if you do disagree, on what points?

      Bear in mind, I never said it was a bad idea to teach descent procedures, or even that what any particular agency is teaching is wrong. I’m more concerned with what we see posted in so many self-made You Tube videos. These are often out-of-date, and do not even reflect current training agency recommendations.

      • Tom Nelson

        Harry,
        per most of your stuff I love it. I think the snorkel point needs to go, but the orientation could just be reworded to “orient to a known entity” or something of the sort. Your dive buddy, the down line, a point on the bottom, wall, piece of kelp, etc etc. I still note the time on my slate, but it was beaten into me, and use it just as a reference, luckily my computer *petrel* still displays clock time during the whole dive, but I always rotate the ring on my watch to bottom time as I loosely follow the 120 Rule in case my computer fails, same reason I always calculate EAD for important depths if diving non-standard mixes and have the rest memorized, just something that was beaten into me. I think it’s still has validity, just not any relevance because almost no one would ever consider using it.

        • Admin Post author

          I focused in on the “orient to an object on the surface,” even though many of the “how-to” videos I’ve come across say, “to an object on the surface, the boat or your buddy.” This still doesn’t work smoothly or address everything it needs to. Keeping on eye on your buddy is important; however, this applies to more than just descents. Nowhere have I seen any mention of a descent or anchor line, even though one is present on most boat dives. “Orienting to an object on the surface” is irrelevant if you can’t see the bottom. And, if diving on a wreck or a distinct reef line, you need to establish how you will return to the line. In all, it’s a classic example of trying to pigeonhole modern procedures into a relic of the 1970s.

  • Michael MacDonald

    I just finished a PADI Deep Course where they are still teaching a feet first (or head up) descent “so you remain oriented”. I find this to be a spectacular way to crash into the bottom. The first few meters (or feet) this is realistic. But once you descend a bit I like to see where I am headed and the bottom approaching. Your thoughts about still teaching this heads up method for descent?

    • Admin Post author

      Logically, if you have no difficulty maintaining orientation while swimming horizontal, you should be able to do the same while descending horizontal. I have read that some people can equalize more easily in a head-up position; however, that would be an issue only in the first few meters of descent.

      I’m curious, was the recommendation for a feet-down descent in the current course materials, or something your instructor said?

        • Admin Post author

          Interesting. I wonder what they based that opinion on. Then again, if divers are spending the majority of their time underwater in a vertical position, that would be the easiest way to maintain orientation. (Insert cruel snicker here,)

          • Tim

            Great post; an update of this stuff is way overdue IMO. As written, the rules force me as an instructor to either have my students fill their heads with yet another largely meaningless procedure or (technically) break a standard. Instead of the song-and-dance on the surface, I think the focus when teaching descents should be on maintaining proper buoyancy throughout the underwater portion of the endeavor.

            As for the feet-down thing, I’m kind of on the fence about that. Besides (allegedly?) easier equalization, I was taught that feet-down is for safety, so that you are able to arrest your descent by swimming upwards in the event of a failure. When teaching or guiding, a vertical position may be useful because it enables you to turn around rather quickly and maintain a 360° field of vision for better group control.

            In my own diving, I use feet-down only when I want to descend fast and deep, going horizontal just before reaching the target depth. That however is not something I would encourage an OW student to do in the first place.

            I would appreciate some more discussion on the subject.

          • MCP

            Thanks for this discussion. This is probably the one skill I most often see experienced instuctors “forget.” It’s plainly silly, as noone dives that way outside of pro-courses or entry-level courses.

            Alas, the times I’ve seen DMTs decend with the snorkel in their mouth, because they’re trying so hard to remember an acronym and the handsigns that goes along with it, to busy to actually apply any brains, and decend perfectly normally and safe like they use to.

            Also students looking at empty wrist, “because that’s where the watch SHOULD be.” etc.

            Frustrating skill. Thanks for bringing it up.