C&OE Course

Review of the Farrworld Cavern & Overhead Environment course

My partner and I both attended this course in September 2007. I'd initially made enquiries about it at least 6 years ago but quietly put it on the back burner (lack of folding). A visit to the Dan-yr-Ogof showcaves around Easter got the fire rekindled and the booking was made.

Why did we choose Martyn Farr / Farrworld? Quite simply the guys huge reputation precedes him. Being taught by someone who has been cave diving since 1971, written numerous entertaining and informative books on the subject, published in just about every diving and cave magazine under the sun, prominently featured in just about every British caving and cave diving resource, pioneered extensive exploration of some of the largest systems in the world and is still around to tell the tale speaks volumes and is an opportunity not to be sniffed at.
Added to that, you do your training in the conditions afforded by the UK, which in my opinion, will prepare you far better than doing the wetsuited, gloveless, warm water equivalent found in more favourable locations.

First and foremost, the C&OE course is NOT a cave diving course. That is covered by, perhaps unsurprisingly, the cave courses also run by Martyn Farr at Farrworld. The course does introduce you to the cave diving techniques of line laying, following and retrieval, planning and seriously gets you thinking about kit configuration, whilst still using back mounted gas on regular open water kit.

I won't go through the full course details here. That is not fair either on Martyn or yourself in knowing 'exactly' what is coming up. What I will do is to give an overview and some hints on making life a little easier. If you do want to find the full details, a simple google will soon put the info in your hands. although in my not so humble opinion, if you know the full details beforehand you won't get as much from the course.

Sorry, no pics. I may get back up there and take some retrospective shots to add to this page.

The 2 day course is pretty full on, starting at 9am on the saturday with a powerpoint delivered theory session, including a few poignant reminders. After that, it's off to the garage to go through equipment selection and use, practice line laying and retrieval, dole out the special equipment required for the course - snoopy loops (these are SO useful it's unreal!), safety reels, helmets, reg necklaces etc.
Then it's time to assemble your gear which Martyn will critique and encourage you to think of the solution. Thankfully our hose routing was relatively neat having been 'honed' over 16 years of diving. Since the course, I have now completely changed the config of the hoses on the first stage into a much neater solution, and gone is the Hogarthian long hose looped around the neck.
Finally, attention is paid to the ancillary bits and bobs which you may end up reconfiguring there and then. The trick is to have an open mind.
Now is a good time to grab a bite to eat from your packed lunch. We found that fruit, cereal bars and sports size bottles of water were ideal as there is no formal lunch break - you're far too busy to stop for something as trivial as food!

The gear is then packed into the car and you head off for the training dives. Ours were completed in the river alongside the car park at Dinas Rock in Pontneddfechan (about 25 miles from Martyn's). It's then a short walk with the gear to the waters edge.
There are a few steep bits to negotiate, so getting some appropriate walking experience in beforehand is a wise idea. Due to the really short walk involved, this part is easily done in 2 carries. First to get your diving rig and weigh belt to the river. The 2nd to get suited up, leaving clothes locked in car, and take the rest of the gear - reels, snoopy loops, flippers, goggles ;-) etc. Hiking boots are recommended, especially if you're blessed with 2007's 'moist' summer.

If you've been rushing before the dive (my hand goes up here), take the first few minutes of the dive (where you check weighting etc) to calm your breathing and heart rate down. It soon pays dividends when you start the learning process.

The dives consist of line laying, line following in blacked out conditions (a piece of black felt placed inside your mask), OOG scenarios, line retrieval etc. For all of the above, Martyn will allow you to make mistakes and will not intervene unless the situation becomes dangerous. This is a superb approach as it means you need to recognise and rectify problems as they arise and you learn far more from this than having someone sort out the problems as that someone isn't necessarily going to be around when you f*ck up for real.
You'll learn, from your mistakes... how not to lay line, how not to retrieve line and how not to pull on the line. After we'd 'finished' I asked if we could put out and retrieve another few belays as there were some things I wanted to check / try out. Martyn was more than happy for us to do this. Top man!
All too quickly the dive is over, although what seems like 30 mins actually turns out to be close on 1.5 hrs!

After that, it's a debrief and discussion of how things went, what went wrong, what could be done to alleviate the issues, what worked, what didn't. Finally, back to Farrworld for a rundown of the mine dive planned for the 2nd day ;-)

Late in the afternoon, you get to break for a few hours, giving you chance to check into your digs (the Old Six Bells is highly recommended...you'll soon work off the huge breakfast on the Sunday) and grab some pub grub before reconvening at a local pub for more theory and a few much appreciated pints of falling down water.
Keep an eye out for the Lesser Conscious Helen R who may have a pint of Magners mysteriously evaporate whilst checking the eyelids for leaks. ;-) If you're really fortunate, there'll be a wedding party in the pub and in the inimitable words of Chris, the visiting Aussie cave instructor, "That's just how you want to remember your big day: Olivia Neutron Bomb and red and green flashing lights. Classy."

Day 2 - back to Martyn's at 9am for another run through of the mine dive and kit check, before heading off to Dinas Rock for the dives in the Silica Mine.
Now, you've probably read a few articles about the stroll up the hill to the mine. If you've not prepared for it, it will come as a shock. You'll get loads of looks from ramblers etc wondering just why the hell you're walking up that slope with dive gear.
Oh yeah, the stroll. The worst bit is just after the start. If you have a mountain goat mode, now's the time to engage it. If you haven't then do some serious training beforehand to at least prep your body for the shock. You will need to be able to walk up a relatively steep slope made from well trodden stepped boulders and gravel. If you have a high fitness level (pounding a treadmill in the gym isn't going to help much with this walk) then you'll have no probs. A moderate fitness level should also be fine, if a little taxing. Poor or no fitness and you're not going to have a good time of the walk.
If you can, find a flight of stairs that's about 4 stories high and take them 1 to 2 at a time. Repeat with weight belt. Repeat with weight belt, BCD and bottle. If you can do that in relative comfort, the walk up Dinas Rock will be a breeze.

I can hear you saying "Oh my God!". This is not meant to scare you or to give you a reason for backing out. This is meant to kick start proper preparations to make the day much easier and benefit your diving with an increased fitness level.
What you learn will far outweigh any pain you go through in getting to the site. Honest!

You may have also read some stuff relating to Helen. It's all true! She is an absolute star taking all manner of gear off you if you're finding the going tough. If I were to ever climb Everest then quite simply, Helen would be lead Sherpa.

If you can, try to do the journey in a single carry. In the long run, it's less taxing than doing a double trip. Wear your BCD / wing with the bottle attached. Wear your weight belt. Sling all the rest of your kit in a carry sack (a dive bag is too big and cumbersome), put your head down and go for it. Don't even consider wearing your drybag for the walk as you'll probably be hyperthermic before even reaching the mine. You can console yourself in the knowledge that the walk to the mine is at least twice as difficult as the walk back.

What about food? Don't worry abut that. Leave it all in the car and grab a snack when you get back. Take at least a bottle of water with you though as you'll be needing some fluid to pour down your neck after arriving at the mine.

I'll specifically not say too much about the dives in the mine as that would spoil what you'll cover there, but one thing I would say is do not become fixated on the line. Look around. Watch the bubbles rolling across the ceiling. Watch the flakes of stone zig zagging their way to the floor of the mine after being dislodged from the roof by exhaled gas. Peer down the interconnecting passages. Touch the mine cart on your way past. E-n-j-o-y the dive. It's all too easy to spend 100% of the time staring at the line and nothing else. If you do this, you've totally missed the point of cavern diving.
The water temp is 8c and the visibility is easily 30m+. The former you can prepare for, the latter is a shock.
By the end of the 2 dives (about 75 mins worth), the chances are you'll be getting cold. No worries there, as the walk back to the car park will soon sort that out!

It's easy to dwell on the walk and bitch about it. It's a means to an end and can be made easier by getting fit and doing suitable prep work beforehand although mother nature wields a large nasty spanner and may just hurl it in your direction.

Another debrief / review in a local pub before once again heading back to Llangattock to hand back borrowed bits of kit, get your fill-in-at-home exam paper and say farewells.

Recommended reading for the course is Martyn's book Diving into Darkness. I would say this is essential reading as it will save lots of time during the course as points only need be re-affirmed rather than learnt for the first time. It'll help with the exam paper too.

Exam paper? Yes. At the end of the course, you have the chance of gaining your PSA Cavern Diver qualification. This qualification is earned and not just handed out. Poor technique on the dives in the mine and you may fail. Do badly on the exam paper and you will fail.
I'll be honest and embarrassed to say that I'd never heard of PSA, but they are the daddy of all the tech agencies, having been around since 1962.

Martyn is a supremely knowledgeable, highly approachable, patient instructor and will answer any questions, queries or concerns you may have, be them before, during or after the course. At no time are you rushed or pressurised....even after the stroll to the mine. Any flapping is purely down to you.
This may read as a touch of hero worship, it's not, but you honestly couldn't ask for a nicer person to give you that first footing in the world of semi-darkness (or in the case of the silica mine, pitch black) and to encourage you to take it further.

The course is not the cheapest, however the level and quality of training you receive from someone who is, arguably, the best in the business, makes it worth every penny, represents superb value for money and is unhesitatingly recommended. If you're tempted to choose something else purely on cost, I'd seriously advise you to consider saving the extra and splurging on the Farrworld course.
You will come away from the weekend with your brain swimming with ideas but, importantly, will have learned valuable skills that will surely improve your survivability chances when utilised in overhead environments in future.

Now it's just a case of getting lots more practice in, getting back to the mine or some simple caves and then getting our butts booked onto Martyn's intro cave diving course!

Last updated 1st November 2007
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