I distinctly remember the thought I had as we departed on the dinghy for our second dive of the day. I remember because it was a morbid thought. Looking up at the boat we were calling home for a week, ten or so people on the deck waving goodbye. I thought to myself, “it’s like they are waving goodbye forever.”

Prior to getting in the dinghy, at the dive briefing, the owner of the boat who was our dive master, told us this is the most challenging dive of the trip. It was a cave dive, but not really a cave because a cave only has one way to enter and exit. In this case the exit was different than the entrance, so more of a long swim through. He explained that there were three exits but only one we should use. He further explained there would be surge inside the cave, but if we all kept two metres apart we would surge in tandem. We expected the surge to move us about a metre or so at a time, so we should kick a little as it moved us backwards, ensuring we were continuing to move forward through the cave.

The cave was quite tall, about 40 feet, but skinny – only about 10 feet wide. As we entered we were to look for a large spotted marble ray that is often inside the cave and, if we were lucky, a few nurse sharks down one of the corridors – one that we were not to exit through.

We rolled into the water backwards off the dinghy, dropped down to 35 feet and entered the cave as planned. You could feel the surge right away. It was powered by the waves coming in, but because of the multiple exits on the other end there was a much more powerful force than just the waves. It was like a suction pulling you in and spitting you out.

The push and a pull was hard to fight, but that was OK because it was a straight line. I was second to enter after the dive master and right away needed my flashlight. I saw the large marble ray, which spotted me and circled back, heading deeper into the cave.

Everything was going well, we were in our line, eight feet apart from each other, surging forward and then surging back, the submerged ceiling well above us and the sandy bottom just a few feet below us. As we approached a corridor on my right, I noted that was not where I was to go and I watched as the divemaster ahead of me started to make a slight left around a bend. At this exact moment the ray shoots past him and over me, moving extremely fast. The dive master disappears ahead of me and my dive buddy who was behind me shoots over me and gets sucked in around the corner following the dive master.

Let me say that again: a large ray shoots past me one way and my diving buddy shoots over me the other way. Now when I say ‘shoots’ I mean bullet speed. The forward surging pressure of the water inside the cave had gone from a gentle rocking back and forth to what felt like a tsunami. I was immediately sucked forward as were the other two divers behind me.

Let me say that again: a large ray shoots past me one way and my diving buddy shoots over me the other way. Now when I say ‘shoots’ I mean bullet speed. The forward surging pressure of the water inside the cave had gone from a gentle rocking back and forth to what felt like a tsunami. I was immediately sucked forward as were the other two divers behind me.

In total there were five of us and were now being tossed around like your laundry in a washing machine. For every surge in there was a counter surge out, but there was no passage out for us as we were in a cavern, there were only walls covered in sharp coral. We were moving so fast up and down, side to side, tanks smashing into each other, wet suits and flesh ripping as we were dragged first up and then down the cave walls. There was no ability to grasp one’s bearings or determine which direction I should try to go. All I saw were bubbles, divers upside down and walls of jagged coral. Even if I knew which way to go the power of the water wouldn’t allow me to choose my direction.

I was scared, the most scared I had ever been in my life. I was going to die. I was going to hit my head and be knocked unconscious. I was going to leave my five-year-old without a dad. I was trying to keep calm but I could feel myself hyperventilating. But then I remembered what to do, I remembered I’ve been training for this for 20 years.

In life we can be sedentary, exercise, or train. Sedentary is the art of being inactive and having little movement. Exercise is about maintenance, while training is about continual improvement in strength and endurance.

When you train you are moving up in levels of ability and strength. We often equate these terminologies with the physical, but we have the ability to choose sedentary, exercise, or train as it relates to far more than our body strength.

As my mind went from panic mode to a calmer response mode, my extensive training kicked in. My breathing slowed and I began to put one foot in front of the other (figuratively of course). I focused on protecting my source of air and located my second stage that was clipped to my vest. As I was about to smash into a wall again I turned so my feet, protected by my fins, would take the pressure of crashing into the wall. I started to look around in order to better understand what I was dealing with. My training told me that the slower I could breathe in crisis the better I could understand what was going on, allowing me to respond rather than react to the situation.

When we train, whether the body, the mind, or the spirit, we are growing and strengthening. This requires not just going through the motions – that’s exercise. Training requires progress. Probably most importantly, you know you are training when it’s uncomfortable. Hours in a classroom hurts, doing drills is monotonous, reading about under water gas mixtures is boring, but my mental muscle gets stronger.

As I continued to be tossed side to side, up and down, I spotted light and I knew based on my training, even if that was not the exit I was supposed to go to I was going to use it. As I kicked toward the surface it felt like the light stayed in one spot, I wasn’t making any progress on surfacing, so I kicked harder and I stayed calm. As I broke the surface I realized I was in the spot where we were NOT to exit, I was surrounded by rock and coral, I was in a pool of sorts. I managed to crawl across rock and coral all the while being bashed by cresting waves. As I got to the safety in the open water I realized I was alone. Luckily I had trained my mind and body for what was next.

Want to become a better problem solver? Start training for tomorrow. Take a coding course, learn a new language, or learn to paint in order to keep your mind growing and expanding. You’ll become a better problem solver in every area of your life.

Want to become a more confident person? Start training for tomorrow. Take a risk and talk to that guy you see in your elevator every day, ask for a big raise or a training budget from your boss, book a meditation retreat, all in order to strengthen your spirit. You’ll become a more confident and compassionate person.

Want to live to 100 with money to spare? Start training for tomorrow. Create a physical, mental, and spiritual training program that pushes you outside your comfort zone. Go into work later so you can go to a yoga or spin class, read everyday, eat cleaner than you ever have, ride your bike and walk more, all in order to trade body fat for lean muscle. You’ll live to 100.

After sitting on the surface for five minutes two other divers surfaced, we could barely communicate but my training reminded me I needed to make sure they were OK. Four minutes later my buddy and the dive master surfaced. They had managed to wait out the storm and searched all the corridors for us before surfacing.

My buddy’s air hose was shredded and barely still functioning, my hands were bleeding and everyone was in shock, but we were alive because we trained, we continually pushed ourselves physically and mentally in many areas of our lives preparing for this day.

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5 Comments

  1. Crazy story, Craig. Glad you were prepared for the worst and that everything worked out.

    Humanity’s struggle against laziness and the status quo is real. As you wrote, training is uncomfortable and learning can hurt.

    Looking forward to your thoughts and tips as to the best ways to overcome the inertia and adopt a growth mindset. I have a feeling you’ve got a few up your sleeve… 😉

  2. Craig, you introduced me to the sport of diving in September 1998, nineteen years ago on Mactan Island in the Philippines. After some intro lessons in the resort’s salt water pool with the local dive shop master we were off for five days of incredible wall and drift diving. I remember it as though it was yesterday and to this day think of you on all the incredible dive trips I have since been lucky enough to have gone on all around the planet. I also clearly recall your comment to me at dinner one night after the first couple of days of diving “dude you are starting with surf n turf” this is phenomenal”. It truly was and is a great memory for me!

    I have since learned that the sport cannot be taken for granted. Having nearly drowned myself while diving off the west coast of Barbados (due to a series of concurrent errors I made), I can reaffirm things can go sideways suddenly and quickly and it is the diver’s training and preparedness that will save him or her. After that harrowing narrow miss I now make a point of doing a refresher on skills when I first arrive at a new destination. In this sport practice pays and it may save your own or a dive partner’s life; a reread/refresh of the book that you studied when preparing for your the first open water tests before every trip is highly recommended. A year ago I took the advanced and nitrox course in preparation for a live aboard experience in Raja Ampat, Indonesia – they paid great dividends during 10 days of intense diving.

    Thanks for sharing your experience with those of us who are recreational divers and with those who may be contemplating the sport.

    …and, I’m mighty glad yer back to talk about it.

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