Where Zeagles Dare: From Asthmatic to Instructor

Editor’s Note: In Part II of Where Zeagles Dare, James Neal explains how his dive education informed the way he’s approached being an instructor. 

As far as I’m concerned, Jacques Yves Cousteau has an awful lot to answer for. 

I grew up in the 1970s with our television screen filled with images of fantastic, other-worldly adventures under the waves. That, and a healthy dose of Star Trek, Star Wars and Doctor Who pretty much ensured that my fate was sealed and I was destined to become a diver (or Captain Kirk). No matter what. Or so I thought, aged eight and three-quarters.

But fate can be a cruel mistress… and it wasn’t until I turned eighteen and three-quarters that I found out that my asthma was a problem. A big problem. I was unceremoniously told, “Sonny, you can’t dive, and you never will. You’re asthmatic, it’s not safe.” 

That—back in the late 1980s and through the 1990s—was the common thinking. Fortunately, things change, medicine moves on and sometimes, opinions do, too.  

And so I found myself in the gorgeous Dominican Republic, on my honeymoon and struggling to relax. My mind was used to running at full speed all of the time and I was lost with nothing to do. 

Then, I saw it, a sign that beckoned: ‘Learn to Scuba Dive Here.’

Temptation got the better of me. I had to talk to them, explaining how I’d always wanted to learn, but never would, because of asthma. But as it turned out, that conversation was life-changing. The rules had changed, and on that day I was declared ‘fit to dive’ by the local doctor. Thus, during my honeymoon I completed my PADI Open Water course in the beautiful, warm-blue waters of the Caribbean.

Rolling off the side of the Zodiac for the first time, after my pool training, is a memory that will be forever etched in my mind. A mix of pure fear and adrenaline, combined with a heap of excitement made for a heady cocktail. 

As Alistair Maclean wrote, ‘Fear lent him wings’, and in my case it was certainly one of the most exhilarating things I had ever done up until that moment. I also completed my first wreck dive, on the Atlantic Princess. I was addicted at that moment. 

And I now know—and appreciate—that there is no cure!

What I didn’t appreciate, at that time, was just how different UK diving was and how much ‘training’ would become a part of my life. I returned to the UK and sought out my local dive centre and a local club.

As many newly qualified divers discover, it can be difficult to find a buddy that you can dive with. For this reason, I found myself on the Advanced Open Water course in order to get in the water and progress beyond the 18-meter limit. After completing that, I did even more courses in order to gain experience over the winter to train for the coming summer.

That first summer was a real baptism. Gaining experience over many different dive sites along the South Coast gave me a solid foundation on which to build. I was transformed from the naive holiday diver to a more hardened UK diver. But that transition took many hundreds of dives over several years, and I would argue that that journey and experience is still ongoing and will never truly end.

During those years I was exposed to a number of world-class instructors. Ian France, Garry Dallas, Paul Toomer, Oli Van-Overbeek, Mark Powell, Tim Clements to name but a few, I made it my mission to absorb and soak up as much as I could from them. As I was training to become an instructor myself, I drew upon a lot of tips and techniques these guys had taught me. I can’t thank them enough for sharing their expertise.

I also learned some invaluable techniques from my course director, Clive Albon. He armed me with an arsenal of teaching techniques and a great many ‘gems’ that I still use on virtually every course I instruct.

One of the most important things I was taught was to always remember my first dive when I’m teaching an Open Water course. To cast my mind back to how anxious I felt, and then tell myself: ‘that’s how my student feels right now.’ Being able to empathise with that initial trepidation and reduce anxieties with a little good humour and encouragement has proven to be very useful. As a consequence, a great many of my students have stayed in touch, done more courses, and even become good friends. 

I have also come to appreciate just how important it is to train divers with the right equipment. And more often than not, the students will look at what their instructor is using. I like to keep my courses lighthearted—it reduces the level of anxiety—so I often use a variety of sayings and repeatedly ask the same core questions to reinforce the learning, for example: ‘Rule number one of scuba diving, is…?’ and the students eventually start to come back with ‘always breathe’.

I also like to use a little humour to help get them to remember the essentials, so I tend to joke that rule number two of scuba diving is ‘always look good’! This helps them to remember the all-important rule number one. There’s a very serious message, or ‘lesson’ behind the technique. 

Having said that, it is important to look good. Don’t you think? You don’t want your kit to look like a dog’s dinner! It should most certainly fit properly and be comfortable. 

I like to train my students to dive, from the outset, with a backplate and wing. I try my hardest to get them in trim from the beginning and have them flat by end of course. The aim is to teach good diving habits from the start, so they don’t have to ‘unlearn’ bad habits later. Like overweighting! 

Granted, you can only do so much in four or five dives, and a few hours in the swimming pool, but you can build the foundation, and some students really flourish. Others may struggle, and on occasion blame everyone else apart from themselves! I like to offer those students additional dives so that we can sort out any issues. 

I like to teach the Open Water and Advanced Open Water courses in my Zeagle backplate and wing. I’ve added a crotch strap to the harness and, whilst I prefer a one-piece harness, I do find the addition of the quick releases to be particularly useful when teaching. It takes an awful lot of ‘faff’ out of things.

The harness is extremely comfortable and you ‘hang’ from it nicely. I have also added a D-ring to either side of the waist band to facilitate clipping on a bail-out cylinder and a reel with DSMB. By its very nature the buoyancy characteristics of the wing pushes you forward in the water and therefore it lends itself naturally to the delta position. It has a nice large pull toggle on the kidney dump and the simple ‘donut’ design works well. The backplate itself is  3mm stainless steel. Its simplicity is its beauty and I find it works particularly well when I also carry a bailout cylinder when teaching below 18 meters or in the winter when the water temperature is particularly cold.

The 3mm backplate has some weight to it. As do the Zeagle Recon fins. I find that the weight of the fins really helps with the trim, I also find that the weight of the 300 bar cylinder is of benefit, and I like to have the extra gas, just in case! In freshwater, this configuration allows me to dive with just 4 kilos of added lead.

The Recon Fins themselves are quite simply, superb. I particularly like the large finger hole on the straps that allows you to don and doff them with ease and the foot pockets are nice and wide and easily allow for rock boots.

Again, this is of real benefit when teaching, as I am able to kit up quickly and easily, but one of the biggest advantages of these fins is the sheer power that they offer the diver in the water. I am able to propel myself with great speed and little effort. Many of my students—especially my Divemaster candidates—have gone out and bought themselves a pair of Zeagle Recon Fins having seen for themselves what mine are like. I’m always happy to lend mine out, so if any of you want to give them a try, just shout! Now, let’s talk about some real diving…

Thanks for reading Part II of “Where Zeagles Dare,” Stay tuned for Part III, coming soon on the Zeagle Dispatch!