PADI Course Director Gerard Leenen, from Scuba Nation Diving Centre, Cambodia who was recently conferred Knight of the Royal Order of Sahametrei for his hard work and commitment to the local community in Cambodia, explains his involvement and the development of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre/ Golden West Diver Preparation course. The course will lead to the formation of the first underwater UXO (unexploded ordnance) salvage team in Asia.
In 2006 Len Austin from Golden West Humanitarian Foundation Cambodia walked into our Scuba Nation office in Phnom Penh and spoke to us about setting up a Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) underwater unexploded ordnance (UXO) Salvage Divers team program to be supervised by Golden West. We talked about things and sent a quote but heard no more about it.
Skip forward 6 years. In 2012 Allen Tan, the General Manager from Golden West, approached us again about this. It was to be funded by the US Department of State and the Office of Weapons Removal & Abatement and was now a GO project.
The basic structure of the program was for one month of training. We started with 40 volunteers from CMAC for Phase 1. After two weeks of training by Golden West Instructors and staff, mainly involving physical fitness, swimming, discipline and some academic work, the 40 candidates would be whittled down to 20 for the two weeks of Phase 2. Phase 2 was teaching the PADI Open Water Diver course and overseeing the subsequent dives, where Golden West staff with salvage divers from the US Army and Navy would take over the training. I was to be present all through Phase 1 in Phnom Penh for consultation and during Phase 2 off the coast of Sihanoukville.
On the first day of Phase 1 there was an introduction to the program and the guys were straight into the pool. It was obvious that this was going to be an experience all on its own: most of these guys couldn’t swim and due to their lack of body fat, almost none could float! Fortunately, they had an extremely competent Cambodian swim teacher who trained in Australia and she was great. Within a week, she had them all floating, swimming front crawl and snorkelling.
After the cut to 20 candidates to start Phase 2, the training moved to the coast. I had to design
power-point presentations with many illustrations as most of the 20 cannot read or write English, but we had 2 excellent translators who managed to translate on the spot as I did the lectures. It became quickly apparent that the academics were going to be a big challenge for a lot of the guys, some of whom had very little formal education and had barely been in a classroom up to that point. We quickly adjusted the schedule to allow more time to be spent on the academics. Soon, I began to see the strong ones helping and explaining to the weaker ones, which was great – and for me – this was the start of them becoming a team.
At the same time, the guys were still doing physical training and also experiencing their first breaths underwater with the confined exercises. We split them into teams of 4-5 and all were allocated buddies to bring home to them the teamwork concept, something the Army and Navy guys really wanted to emphasise. It was very different from training during our normal courses and it was funny to see that if the guys did something wrong after being told several times how to do it, the Army guys would make them do press-ups. We’re still thinking about trying it out with our usual students!!
By the end of the 3rd week we moved our whole operation to Koh Rong Island for the final PADI Open Water dives and then on to the special training. The 4 open water dives were great and the students loved it; we worked on buoyancy and did the PADI Open Water skills. For Dives 3 & 4, we took them to the reefs and showed them the corals and marine life; all the students came up with big smiles on their faces.
We certified 15 Cambodian CMAC staff for the PADI Open Water course and handed them over to Golden West to continue 4 extra days of diver training. Joining us then were 3 US military salvage divers who observed the students, and advised the Golden West instructors who took over from Scuba Nation. They were assessing if the candidates were ready to go on to further salvage training over the next few years.
We were acting as safety divers for these dives and it was incredible to see the candidates doing exercises with black-out masks, low visibility and entanglements. These are divers who had just passed the PADI Open Water course 3 days ago and some of whom could barely swim 3 weeks ago. Absolutely amazing!
To qualify as a success, Golden West needed four divers to qualify for the Salvage team. We are extremely proud that ten candidates achieved the first level of Basic Salvage diver and the US military Salvage divers will take those ten to be trained as the first ever Cambodian Salvage diver team, and in fact the first in the world of its kind. Due to the success of this program, the US State Department are now looking at repeating it elsewhere in Asia and in Africa, which is a great tribute to the hard work and teamwork, of Scuba Nation and Golden West.
As a complete surprise that blew me away, at the closing ceremony, I and the lead instructors were presented with a knighthood of The Royal Order of Sahametrei by H.E. Prak Sokhon on behalf of the Cambodian Government in recognition of our services over the past months to the development of the CMAC/ Golden West Diver Preparation course.
As a PADI Course Director and Scuba Nation owner, it was an honour to be selected as the PADI Dive Centre to run the program with Golden West, The US Department of State, The Office of Weapons Removal & Abatement and CMAC. For me personally, it was a pleasure and privilege to work with the teams of people involved. The biggest satisfaction was to see Cambodian CMAC people, some of whom had never been to school and could not swim 4 weeks ago, change into a great team of PADI Open Water divers and go on to bigger and better things. I am so proud that I and Scuba Nation were a part of that. It has changed my life forever and I have learned so much over the last 4 weeks that will stay with me to make me a better PADI Instructor and Course Director.
Gerard Leenen – PADI Course Director
Click here to view a short video of the Cambodians during their diver preparation course.
To contact Scuba Nation Diving Centre, a PADI 5 Star Instructor Development Centre in Phnom Penh, Cambodia,