Two is Company, Three’s a Crowd?

Two scuba divers underwater.

From the first days of our Open Water Diver course, we are told to always dive with a buddy. Sound advice. Furthermore, we are told that a buddy team should consist of two divers. We are specifically cautioned against diving in a three person buddy team. It’s simply too difficult to keep track of two other people while underwater. Invariably, the third person will be ignored and either get lost or be left to their own devices should they have a problem. But how sound is this theory? Is it possible a three person team is just as safe as a two person team? Perhaps a three person team is even preferable to a traditional two person team.

Undertaking the task of breathing underwater is no small thing. For the past 40 years or so, SCUBA has been marketed as an activity everyone can enjoy. It’s easy and fun. The risks associated with diving have been, in large part, downplayed. While basically true, it is also an oversimplification. In order to keep the Open Water Diver course manageable, we tend to oversimplify lots of concepts. For instance, we tell students not to exceed no-stop times because decompression diving is dangerous and complicated, and should be avoided. What we should be telling them is that they should stick to no-stop dives unless they decide to further their training and learn how to extend their dives times safely. I believe the buddy team concept is also oversimplified during initial training. Students are told that while it’s easy enough to coordinate the dive with one other person, it’s beyond their capability to keep track of two other individuals. Certainly novice divers can feel task loaded and overwhelmed. Perhaps a third person may be more a liability than an asset at this point. But as the diver gains comfort and experience, a third person may be beneficial.

So why bother with a third person? Some forms of diving, technical diving and cave diving for instance, prefer a three person team. During pre-dive planning, the third person offers another point of view. They may make suggestions or come up with ideas the others don’t think of. The third team member may also bring strengths to the team the other two don’t possess. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. In the water, the third team member may provide many benefits. First, the duties of the team can be spread over three people rather than just two. When assigning tasks such as dive leader, reel person, deco leader, SMB deployment, etc., three people may be better able to handle the jobs. In case of emergency, there are two rescuers instead of just one. This means we have more contingency gas on hand in case of an out of air emergency. If a diver is physically incapacitated due to oxygen toxicity, heart attack, etc., two people can move the victim more efficiently than one. On a night dive or in an overhead environment, an extra person means more back up lighting in case of a failure. In general, it seems preferable to have an extra set of eyes, ears and hands along on a dive. Most importantly, it helps to have an extra brain!

If you’re one of those who had the notion that the only “safe” buddy team was a two person team drummed into them during class, I hope I’ve disabused you of that gross oversimplification. A well structured three person team can be as effective as, and even preferable to a two person buddy team.