Tie offs should never put anyone at risk — including you!

Tie offsThe other day I observed a DPV diver exiting Devil’s Ear. He had made his primary tie off on the log and his secondary tie off just below above the start of the chimney floor. As he exited, he severely jammed his reel and had 15 feet of slack line he was trying to get under control to keep himself and my group from becoming entangled. He was lucky he did not entangle himself and others.

Unfortunately, this is typical of poor line-running decisions divers frequently make at Devil’s Ear and elsewhere. The Ear being a high flow, high traffic entrance used by new cave divers and student divers presents challenges for installing a primary reel. Frankly put, using the log or any spot that high up in the entrance as location for a primary tie off is a bad idea.

A good friend of mine once had to cut his class out of an entanglement with a line that was started at the log and blocked the exit of the cave. Why would anyone do that? One reason might be ease and convenience. There is not as much flow that high up in the entrance, making it much easier to make a tie off there than lower in the chimney. While this may be convenient for the person installing the reel, it is not convenient for other divers exiting in high flow. A guideline you install in a cave should never put others at risk or block access to the cave

Another reason a team may choose to start their reel at the log or high position is the claim that “we have to make the primary tie off in open water.” In answer to that, there are good tie offs located lower in the chimney that meet the definition of open water.

Devil’s Ear

Several training agencies (IANTD, NASE, NSS-CDS among them) use the principle of a “safe exit” when it comes to the location of the primary tie off in lieu of a narrow definition of open water. A “safe exit” means anywhere team members will be able to reach the surface in diminished visibility.

In Devil’s Ear, there are many places low in the chimney and against either the left or right wall as well as ones located at the bottom of the chimney at the start of the floor of the cave. What makes them safe is the fact that if you reach your primary tie off here, you are close enough to the exit hole that the current helps ensure you will go through the exit hole and heading for open water whether you like or not.

If you use these locations, your line will be running low and near the floor and not be an entanglement risk for every diver entering or exiting the cave. True, some of these lower tie offs may be a little more difficult to install, because there will be higher flow there. But with practice you will find that it isn’t that difficult to do this. You may have to install your primary tie off in flow but if you are smart, you don’t install the secondary tie off in flow.

Here’s another example

Another circumstance that requires special care when making primary tie offs is during Suwannee River floods. Little River is one of the first sites to turn tannic and then start to siphon. For a day or two after the monsoon starts, there may be tannic water at the surface, but the cave may still be clear.

During these times, teams can tie off at the steps (meaning at the surface) and run a reel into the entrance. They may find clear water inside the cave (and no flow to boot) and have a great dive. Tying off off at the surface enables you to swim through the zero-vis tannic water, with the line leading you out of the cave and to the surface with no guess work.

The point here is that, sometimes, simply tying off “in open water” is not sufficient. If the basin has zero vis — or there is a possibility of the visibility zeroing out while you are in the cave — the only way to ensure you return to the surface is to tie off at the surface. You can use stairs, rails, rocks or cypress knees. Just don’t assume that by tying off at the bottom of the basin you can go straight up. You may not be tying off where you think you are, and there may be obstructions over head.

Do you need to tie off in actual open water?

While lack of visibility in the basin (or the possibility of it happening during the dive) may require that prudent divers tie off at the surface, it’s more common that the reverse is true. That is, there is good visibility in the basin and virtually no possibility of finding zero vis upon your return. Under such conditions, is it necessary to tie off in actual open water — or can you get away with following the “safe exit” rule as taught by IANTD, NASE, NSS-CDS and others?

When diving Peacock, I often see reels tied off in the basin and run little more than a body length to one of the gold lines. I find myself asking why? This cave has a large entrance. If you swim uphill just a short distance from either gold line, you will be out of the cave. So why run a reel when doing so is unnecessary, may create an entanglement hazard for others and interferes with the ability of student divers to practice running their reels?

If you want to practice running your reel, that’s great. But running the reel all of six feet isn’t “practice.” The only achievement, here, is that your line and reel are in the way of divers that legitimately want to practice running a primary reel — the difference being that they are running their lines into the cave, sometimes to the warning sign.

Before the permanent lines at Peacock I came all the way to the entrance, there was a large log positioned crosswise of the entrance, a dozen feet in from open water. For decades, cave divers used this log as their primary tie off. If this made sense back then, what changed? Nothing, really.

Some years ago, the state decided the permanent lines needed to run to the entrance. This was in the interests of safety and cave conservation. The state wanted less reel traffic in the cave in order to reduce stress on the environment. The fact so many divers ignore this has lead to continued damage to the entrance and a situation in which few, if any, truly secure tie off points are left.

Given normal visibility, the only divers who have any need to be running reels in Peacock I are students. If you think you need the practice as well, at least run your reel some distance. Running only six feet so that you can say your adhered to a rule is ridiculous. If you want to do the right thing and help reduce the damage to Peacock I, there are plenty of nearby sites, such as Peacock III and Orange Grove Sink that not only afford more realistic reel practice, running reels there is essential for safety.

Secondary tie offs are just as important

It would be remiss at this point not to discuss secondary tie offs. When selecting secondary tie offs, I follow three principles.

  • First, if you install or wrap the tie off and it doesn’t hold, try it a second time. If it still does not hold, look for a different tie-off point. Don’t waste time trying to make something work that clearly won’t. One reason that your tie offs aren’t gripping the rock may be that you have a wreck diving reel with #36 line on it instead of a cave diving reel with #24 line. The thinner #24 line grips the rock much better than thicker, stiffer #36 line.
  • Second, try not to tie off on anything bigger than a football (baseball or softball would be better). Two reasons here: It will take longer to negotiate a tie off the size of a coffee table in a zero-vis, follow-the- line scenario. When you “pop” the tie off when reeling out, you will have to reel up a lot more slack (hence, greater chance of reel jam) than you would with a small tie off.
  • Finally, install your secondary tie off out of or beyond the flow.

The problem that arises is not so much installing the tie off as it is dealing with slack line when exiting. The flow may be trying to spit you out “like a watermelon seed.” You are already reeling as fast as humanly possible to minimize slack. Now you are adding to your task load by trying to manage all the slack line coming off a coffee-table-size tie off. It doesn’t work. On the other hand, if you follow the principles just outlined, you will find installing and especially retrieving your reel much easier — especially in flow.

I sometimes see guidelines that have considerably more tie offs than just the primary and secondary. If you genuinely need a tie off to secure the line away from a line trap, then by all means do so. This is rare, however. In fact, I have never run a reel where just a primary and secondary tie off did not suffice.

If you add more tie offs than are truly necessary, you will significantly slow your exit in a zero-vis situation. You should use all the placements you need but refrain from installing more than two tie offs.

When it comes to selecting primary and secondary tie offs, you need to consider the unique characteristics of every single cave. More importantly, you need to think carefully about what you are doing. Don’t just blindly follow the same procedure that may work elsewhere. Use your head.


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