It's the next day. My ankle still hurts. I am still worn out. I think I can type better now, though. I want to finish telling about the class, in part because I know shadowdaddy has bought the same Groupon and is going to be doing this at some point.
Some more notes about the written test: I think I got about 75%, which is rotten but considering I didn't study for a test was an accomplishment - not one I can be proud of, though. I failed a lot of the "memorize this" factoids, like what's the ultimate safe depth you can dive for, what's the maximum safe speed of ascent, how many hours do you have to wait after diving before you can get on a plane, that kind of thing. I also missed "what do you do if you've gone over your maximum safe dive time" in which you have just used the calculator to figure out how many minutes your safe diving time was. For this one I'm not sure if I did the math wrong or remembered the response incorrectly (I think it was 2 minutes over; I think I remembered the response wrong). However, I did correctly learn the six most used hand gestures, which DID include "out of air" and did NOT include "look, it's a crab." And I'd focused on the correct responses to "what to do if a diver panics" and "what do you do if a diver is non-responsive on the bottom." (I think it might be good to go over a lot of the rest of this, but I'll just say you ought to be able to pass the knowledge tests WITHOUT cribbing from the book, and do learn the right way to swin if you're starting a dive with a current.) And a lot of the other things that I got right, well, when I was reading them they just kind of nuzzled up with all of my other stash of garbage in my head, i.e. "why might water be cloudy?" No idea really what to do when you're diving at high altitude or in cold water, other than "less than you would have" and "do your freaking research beforehand and don't just rely on something you read in a book 5 years ago."
Anyway, back on to the practical part of the day, after two hours of exams and a rather tiring and chilly swimming test - funny how you're told to conserve your energy to dive well and yet the first thing we did was burn energy like mad! (I actually swam the laps quite slowly so I _didn't_ burn myself out - and as it turns out, the instructor wasn't counting how many we did, so when he came back and said, "Okay, it looks like you're all done," I decided to just go with that rather than finish my remaining laps - I knew I could do it but it was going to be at least another 5 plus minutes and I didn't want to hold everyone up.) We put on wetsuits, then were taught how to set up the tanks - which hose goes where, which side the tank valve goes in relation to the "bouyancy control device," aka the vest thing you wear that holds the tank and that you can inflate to help you float, etc., then got in the pool.
We immediately started in on a series of exercises that seemed designed to terrorize the weak or claustrophobic out of the class as soon as possible. I'd expected we'd spent some time just practicing swimming around the pool and breathing; instead, we put on our masks and practiced the ever popular "OMG I just lost my breathing device" routine (taking it in and out of your mouth), followed by "OMG I really just lost my breathing device, where did the damned thing go?" I felt it was, "Hi, you may have never breathed underwater before, how do you feel about being underwater and NOT being able to breathe?"
The tension and fear ratcheted up with our next exercise, which had the subtitle of "You are being smothered by water, how do you like THAT, scarecrow?" This was a series of exercises involving deliberately getting water in your mask and then clearing it by blowing out of your nose (all of your inhale and exhale is done through your mouth; your nose is encased by the face mask). This is obviously a very necessary exercise, but I found it terrifying. It was all worsened by the fact I'd spent all of the previous exercise struggling to stay on the bottom of the pool (albeit only in about 4 1/2 feet of water); my heart rate was up and my breathing was rapid from the effort and, I admit it, the fear. I wasn't able to breathe well; I felt like I was gasping and not getting enough air.
I was feeling panicky and miserable; suddenly my planned trip to finish the "open water" part of the course seemed like it was going to be a major failure as I would obviously never be able to make it any deeper than I was. I consoled myself by saying I could do snorkeling. Then I started to plan my escape from the class. No doubt lots of people left pretty early on, so it wasn't like the instructor hadn't dealt with it before. I'd just call a cab, head home, spend the evening blogging about it, and write off learning how to scuba as I'd obviously had no idea that I was mentally unsuited to do it due to extreme fear of breathing underwater when more than about a foot from the surface.
Oddly, two things happened around this point that helped me get through this really low point. First, I remembered that in the book it talked about how hyperventilating actually keeps you from getting enough oxygen to the lungs if you're breathing fast and shallow; I had got some extra weights from the instructor so I could stop floating off the bottom of the pool, but then, once they'd got me stabilized, I really, really focused on trying to change how I was breathing, to slow myself down, so I wasn't inadvertently starving myself of oxygen. I sat on the bottom counting my in breaths (one, two, three seconds), taking a one second pause, then exhaling in a similarly slow way. The girl who had been next to me and lent me her calculator (Grace), she was next to me in the pool, and I could see she was also focusing solely on getting her breathing right, practically frozen on the bottom, just breathing in and out.
Grace was actually having a pretty hard time. During the water treading exercise, she had looked to me like she was constantly about to go under, and I was actually kind of worried for her. Everyone else was floating around on their backs but the two of us; I was using my ultra low energy water treading technique (honed in Lake Washington), but she seemed to be paddling hard, and her mouth kept going under. She looked miserable. I found out later she'd inhaled some water while she was swimming and hadn't managed to get herself back to a good state. She'd started the class part in a pretty bad position, worn out and having already had to fight off some "OMG you have water in your lungs GET OUT GET OUT" messages from her body. Watching her next to me on the floor of the pool, fighting as hard as I was to manage our bodies long-honed evolutionary protection GET OUT OF THE WATER feelings, I thought to myself, "If this is just going to be a long day of shit that I really can't get through, she and I can go together and share money on the cab."
Appropriately enough, Grace was responsible for the second thing that helped me get through the misery baddicle and get through to a point of relative sanity (when physical discomfort from cold and tired and my fucking ankle became bigger problems for me than the mental issues). She was fighting to get through the mask exercise and explaining to the instructor why she was having a hard time dealing with it (the water in the mask made her panic), and I realized ... it was having water trapped in the space surrounding my nose that was triggering my massive primal ESCAPE WHILE YOU CAN! fear. I then focused hard on keeping my nose space empty of water as much as possible - it could be done - and then only had the "chlorine in my eyes, ow!" problem to deal with. For the "fill your mask all the way with water, then empty it" exercise, I was reminded to keep my eyes SHUT (to help with the burning), and focused on blowing as many times as I needed to to get it all out.
And then, somehow, over the next half hour or so, I was able to get away from the feeling of smothering under the water, and I stopped trying to figure out when the right time to leave was going to be. And I spent the rest of the class carefully congratulating Grace when she got through something hard, trying not to be so enthusiastic that I made her feel like I'd noticed she was struggling, but to provide her with just enough "yay" to give her the strength to make it through. She had really helped me, both deliberately and inadvertently, and now I wanted to make sure that she, too, made it through. I didn't want either of us to have to quit; I didn't want her to feel the abject failure that I knew I would be racked with if I gave up.
So we continued on through a series of exercises that, as near as I can tell, were mostly designed to simulate all of the emergencies you could have in the water. We did the "breathe from your partner's spare breathing apparatus," then "breath from their apparatus after you run out of air because the instructor has turned your tank off, being sure to make the correct hand signals for 'out of air' and 'share air;' " cleverly, I went back to using my air before he'd actually turned it back on, which wasn't as bad as the girl next to me, who breathed from my apparatus before she'd cleaned the water out of it. Ah well, better to make these mistakes in 4 feet of water than 20.
We carried on with things like "breath underwater without a mask for 60 seconds," "pull your buddy across the water by their scuba tank yoke," and "get your tank back on from the surface," then some deeper water (bottom of the pool, the 12 foot deep section) "get your tank back on when you're underwater," "take your weights off and replace them underwater" and et cetera emergencies. We finally did some fun stuff, which was learning how to set the air in your vest to the proper level so that you had neutral buoyancy, floating when you inhaled, sinking when you exhaled. This was a "my big monkey brain is taking in a lot of data" moment for me, and one of the things I discovered is that there was actually a major lag between when I exhaled and when I actually sunk. This was fun, though, and it was also enjoyable to try to read the instructors various signals about what I needed to do to try to float correctly.
The latter part of the day included a lot of "buddy" diving activities as well as changing out your tank to one with fresh air (one guy didn't turn his air off before he removed the hoses, DOH!). I was starting to get dehydrated from so many hours of having the water leached out of my body (or possibly all of the activity) and trying hard not to cough at the bottom of the pool; of course, I started drinking water and suddenly became Princess Tiny Bladder. I also started getting colder (the pool was 30 C but the room was 20 C with a lot of wind outside), and getting tired. At one point, we did an exercise where when we were done we were supposed to just swim around the pool; I got bored of this and went to the shallow end, inflated my vest, and just sat there, breathing real air and spacing out. He came up to check on me eventually; I told him I was running out of juice and trying to conserve energy until we needed to do our next exercise. He accepted this and said we'd be doing another one from the bottom of the pool in about three minutes; obviously I went back but physiologically, if we'd been doing a real dive this is the time I would have got back on the boat and called it a day.
The last few exercises, I started not hearing all of the instructions; I can't remember what all we did anymore (aside from "simulate that your air regulator is stuck open and blasting out air and breathe from the giant stream of bubbles"), only that the last real exercise was swimming across the bottom of the pool with no air, then exiting the water and filling your floatation device using your lungs rather than the tank. And that was it, after removing and cleaning our gear, changing into our clothes with our sopping wet hair, and getting our certificates and dive books (we had to pay five pounds for them, not bad really, with the taxi fare it meant my total expenses on the day was 15 pounds). One of the guys gave Grace and me a ride back to the station; appropriately enough we'd missed the train by five minutes, but we used our spare time to get some snacks at the Sainsbury's across from the station as we were STARVING and fortunately were able to wait the last ten minutes on the train, which was sitting at the platform waiting for its departure line.
So. That is the story of how I got my PADI Open Water referral course certificate. If you were in any doubt, let me assure you, I do really feel I worked for it. I do think I'll be able to manage the part I'll be doing in Egypt, but, man, I feel like to get there it was a trial by fire.
And it's odd, you know? As it turned out Grace and I did go back together, as we took the train all the way in to Clapham Junction (where I got off). We went over the day and how much we had struggled (she said I really helped her with my low key cheerleading), and congratulated each other for surviving. And we talked about Australia (where she's from) and Seattle, and when and where we were going to do the other half of the course. And I'm really happy that this was how I was able to end the course, going back in with the person who'd made it possible for me to make it through.