Golden West Diver Preparation Course 2013.
February was a month of challenging firsts for the 35 Diver Candidates in the Diver Preparation Course. The volunteers, many of whom had no swimming experience, let alone acquaintance with scuba diving, would be whittled down to an elite group of 10 who would go on to form Cambodia’s first Salvage Dive Team specialising in locating and recovering Un-Exploded Ordnance (UXOs) from the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.
Cambodia’s inland waterways are estimated to be home to thousands of tons of explosives; legacies of the country’s troubled history. As they are, these munitions piles pose little threat to the public, but when disturbed, they have the potential to damage infrastructure, threaten national security and most importantly, put human life into jeopardy.
The main causes of disturbance are infrastructure changes and unauthorised salvage. The construction of bridges over the Mekong and the Tonle Sap are anticipated events, bringing benefits to inhabitants either side of the river and easing the load on the current bridges. The planning of their construction involves a comprehensive survey of the river bed to ensure that foundations will not be laid on top or near munitions. At present there is no national dive team that can undertake these surveys effectively and safely.
Unauthorised salvage is often instigated when fisherman, working with nets in the Cambodian waterways, discover munitions ships. The word is then spread to scrap merchants who mount salvage attempts to recover the shells that are rich in profitable scrap metal. The makeup of the riverbed can preserve metallic objects, so that discovered UXOs are often in as good a condition as recently manufactured munitions. The salvage attempts are a threat not only to the lives of the inexperienced workers but, if successful, to the security of the country when an unregulated supply of explosives are made available.
The Diver Preparation course is the culmination of many years of planning between the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation (GWHF) and the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC), and was made possible through funding from the U.S. Department of State, Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement. The candidate pool was sourced from within CMAC on a volunteer basis. The Opening Ceremony on Monday 28th January set out the extent of the challenges that would take place over the following month.The 35 diver candidates listened intently to the opening speeches from Allen Tan (Course Director and General Manager of Golden West South-East Asia) Darren Hultman (Political/Economic Chief, US Embassy) and H.E. Oum Phumro (Deputy Director General, CMAC).
After being measured up for their dive gear and given their uniform for the next four weeks the diver candidates were introduced to a concept that would become very familiar to them: Physical Training (PT). The lead instructors of the course: Robert Rice, Tony Langer and Allen Tan, previously served with the U.S Navy, Australian Army and U.S Army respectively, meaning the course borrowed its core tenets from military training programs worldwide. An emphasis on physical fitness and mental discipline was maintained throughout the course. The reason being that these prove essential to operate effectively and safely as Salvage Divers in challenging environments.
The first PT session proved to be a demonstration of the diver candidates ever-present enthusiasm, drive and conversely, their room for improvement. Proceeding the first PT session a provocative question was posed by Allen Tan, “Who can swim the Mekong?”. Two bold members stepped forward and the rest remained firmly behind.
As the first pool session progressed, it was evident that the majority of the diver candidates had no experience of swimming and those that did, had no experience of efficient swimming strokes. This was made up for by their impressive determination, propelling them across the training pool by sheer strength and drive alone.
As Phase I progressed the diver candidates improved their swimming technique, were introduced to the fundamentals of Scuba; history, physics, equipment, hand signals and vocabulary, and showed visible improvement in physical fitness. By the end of Phase I, each diver candidate could swim four different strokes, use fins, mask and snorkel proficiently and had amassed knowledge of the foundations of Scuba Diving both in Khmer (their first language) and English.
The Phase I assessments would reduce the class size to proceed to Phase II, which would be held in Sihanoukville, on the coast of Cambodia. The diver candidates were assessed in the pool according to PADI Open Water requirements and tested on vocabulary, hand signals and scuba fundamentals. The instructors then had the difficult task of whittling down the impressive group of diver candidates to the required 20 for Phase II.
The successful diver candidates made the trip to Sihanoukville to begin their training to pass the PADI Open Water qualification; a prerequisite for a position on the Salvage Diver team. This week involved intensive pool training with full scuba gear and classroom sessions to educate them on the required knowledge for the Open Water Exam.