Instructors share knowledge on training disabled divers

Founder of Handicapped Scuba Association leads local conference

Hubert Chretien, left, and Mel Pasley help diabled diver Daryl Rock, seated, prepare to enter the water for a dive. - Photo: Mark Muckenfuss

A group of scuba instructors who focus on teaching disabled people to dive were in Cayman this week, sharing information on the specialized avenue of the sport and the techniques they use.

Jim Gatacre, of San Clemente, California, who founded the Handicapped Scuba Association in 1981, headed the small conference of six instructors who came from the US, Canada and Brazil.

“I wanted to catch all this knowledge before it disappears,” Gatacre said of his fellow instructors. “I wanted to come to Sunset House because I felt it was appropriate.”

Gatacre trained Sunset House’s general manager Mike Pinnington as an instructor for the disabled in 1992.

The service Gatacre and his association provide is “absolutely critical,” Pinnington said.

Sunset House hosts a group of young disabled divers from the US, called Stay Focused, once a year. Beyond that, Pinnington said, the hotel and dive operation only gets an occasional handicapped diver. He thinks there is potential for more.

Right now, he said, Sunset House does not have handicapped accessible rooms, but he intends such rooms to be part of a current renovation project.

“When I know how many handicapped accessible rooms we have, we would target that market,” he said. “There is a tremendous amount of handicapped divers out thee and they want to travel. We want everybody to get in the water, whether able bodied or not.”

Gatacre started teaching disabled people to dive in 1975 when he was a student at UC Irvine in California. He was studying the importance of self-image and as a research project, he put five paraplegics through a scuba training course along with some able-bodied divers. He was amazed at the results on both groups.

“It changed my direction,” he said.

Gatacre, whose right arm is partially paralized from a somewhat freak accident when he was 30, formed his association a few years later and quickly got support from other diving organisations. There are now 4,000 members of the association in 45 countries.

Conference attendee Mel Pasley, of Lakewood, California, has been teaching disabled veterans to dive since 2008. A soldier with the US Army for 36 years, Pasley did combat tours in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. He is disabled himself and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I got certified strictly to teach disabled veterans,” he said.

The conference is a benefit because of the shared knowledge, he said. He said he has been trying to devise a harness for disabled divers for several years. One of the other attendees, he said, showed him one he developed that Pasley thinks he’ll be able to use with his divers. It’s a benefit of the conference.

“You meet new people and you learn new things,” he said.

Those things benefit divers such as Daryl Rock, of Ottowa, Canada. Rock is a quadaraplegic and came to Sunset House with the dive instructor that certified him years ago.

The Handicapped Diving Association, he said as he prepared for a shore dive Thursday morning, opened a new world for him.

“It’s allowed me to engage in a sport I thought I’d never be able to do,” he said. “I was quite passionate about learning to dive. It’s about being able to explore a part of the world not a lot of people get to explore. I love that I can get underwater and engage with that world.”