Techniques on how to rescue a diving buddy are presented. The steps include problem recognition, surface actions, approach and contact and exit from the water are discussed.

Your buddy suddenly starts acting odd during a dive. He or she bicycle kicks, grabs at gear, looks wildly around, goes limp or just does something totally out of the ordinary (unless it is a jokester at work) – you may be seeing the first signs of a diver needing to be assisted or rescued. What do you do? It depends.

It would be impossible to cover all the situations that have turned into rescues and write a short to-do list to solve every problem. Plus, sitting in your armchair and reading this article isn’t enough training to make you a proficient rescue diver. While we will hit some highlights in this article, the best thing you could do is take a rescue diver specialty certification course. In two to four days of classroom, pool and open water work you can become proficient in basic assist and rescue techniques. You’ll work with an instructor, study easy to read manuals, view instructional videos, practice skills in the pool and then apply these skills to local, open water conditions.

New divers sometimes think only divemasters and instructors need worry about rescue. in reality, every diver is ultimately responsible for his/her own well-being and, when buddy diving, many people feel an implied level of care/responsibility for their partners.

How to rescue your buddy


Rescues begin with recognition of a problem. Whether you are in the water or on the shore/boat, it is usually possible to see a problem unfolding before the victim calls for help. At the surface, watch for signs such as:

* Bicycle or dog paddle kicking

* Trying to get higher and higher in the water

* Divers “losing ground” when trying to kick back to the shore or boat

* Head tilted back, chin up, trying to get nose and mouth as far out of the water as possible

* Erratic or heavy breathing

* Snorkel and mouthpiece out of the mouth

* Trashing around

* “Big” wide open eyes

* U/W look for these additional signs:

* Jerky movements, including using the arms to swim

* Rapid breathing or burst of exhalation bubbles

* Major pieces of gear out of place

* Passive panic – a diver in a trance-like state

Surface Actions

Now you recognize a diver needs help – what do you do? Your personal safety is your first responsibility. Select rescue actions consistent with your physical ability, the equipment at hand and the conditions.

On the surface, consider:

* Throwing a line or line and buoy to the victim

* Extending a boat hook to a diver near the boat

* Pushing a paddleboat, surfmat, dive flag float or buoy to the distressed diver

* Moving a small boat to the diver if there is no propeller or collision danger to other divers in the water or to the distressed diver

As you know if you have ever tried throwing a line to someone in the water, it is hard to be accurate. Give it a practice shot in a non-emergency situation. It is tough to be accurate consistently with the wind, surface currents and waves affecting your toss. Throwing an inner tube attached to a line is even trickier, although it is more helpful to a distressed diver. When casting a line to someone, throw it beyond them. It is easy to pull it in a little, versus being short of the mark and having to pull in the line and throw it again. Practice, practice, practice.

If a non-swimming rescue won’t work or is not appropriate, then you will probably be alone in the water with the distressed diver. If you need to swim out to a diver, follow these steps:

* Rescuers need a minimum of mask, fins, snorkel and exposure suit, if appropriate.

* Flotation – such as a personal BC, inner tube, surfmat, rescue buoy or an extra BC – should also be taken.

* Maintain continuous visual contact with the victim. You may need to swim with your head up using a crawl stroke to maintain visual contact.

* Try to act speedily and avoid unnecessary equipment. If the victim is on the surface, you may choose to leave your weightbelt on shore.

* Tell someone on shore what is happening so he or she can be prepared to secure additional medical support, if required.

Approach And Contact

Approach a victim with caution. Stop a few feet short of the person until you assess his/her mental and physical state. Panicked swimmers often try to climb on top of a rescuer’s head – they want to get as high out of the water as possible. Divers can react similarly so you need to anticipate, Stop short, try to visually detect the problem and offer assurance by saying “I am here to help you. What is the problem?”

You could also ask “Am you all right? Do you need my help?” If the person can answer your question, then he/she is probably still in enough control to help themselves to some extent. If the victim can’t answer with anything that makes sense, the rescuer can assume there is a deteriorating situation in which he/she must be extra alert for his/her own safety.

If you can talk to the victim and have him/her respond, you can usually work through a problem. Use simple, clear commands such as “Drop the game bag. Drop your weightbelt. Inflate your BC. Hold still while I untangle you. Grab this float.” It helps to tell the victim what you are going to do, if the explanation is simple. For example: “I’m going to untangle the kelp from your leg.” “The float line is around your neck, hold still while I unwind it.” Knowing what is happening is reassuring, plus if you move out of the line of sight, a victim will often turn to follow unless you have explained why/what you are doing. If you go out of sight, he/she assumes you are leaving without helping.

Even when approaching a rational victim, add positive buoyancy to your own BC to prevent being submerged, should the situation take a turn for the worse. Your personal safety still comes first. Also, be prepared to move away from the victim, if he/she begins grabbing at you or your equipment.

If a struggling victim should get a hold of the rescuer, one way for the rescuer to get free is to submerge. If the rescuer pushes up on the victim, it will force the rescuer down. A panicked victim won’t hold onto a submergin person.

Most buddy driving situations involve two people who know each other. They have a certain trust level and knowledge of each other’s skills. This usually means that “assists” such as helping release a leg cramp, untangling, fixing a gear problem are the most likely rescues, rather than dealing with a buddy trying to climb on your head.


If the victim is too tired or otherwise unable to get himself/herself back to shore, you may need tb transport him/her. Here are some ways to move a tired or disabled diver to the shore or boat.

Any tow that keeps the victim buoyant with his/her face out of the water and allows the rescuer to maintain control of the victim while being able to swim, is acceptable. If you can have eye contact and talk to the victim, it is even better.

Underarm push: The rescuer places the victim in a horizontal position on his/her back, grasps the victim around the upper arm and pushes the person through the water. This is a good starting position if the situation should deteriorate into a need for the do-si-do position and in-water artificial respiration.

Tank or BC Tows: You can tow a victim by his/her tank valve or the back collar of the BC. It is easy to make good speed this way but it may be disorienting or make breathing harder for the victim. When you are behind victims they have no visual frame of reference for where they are going and they can’t see you. Pulling on a tank or buoyancy control device can make the unit ride up and be tight on the victim’s chest, making breathing harder.

Float and line: Sometimes called a rescue line, any float with a short line attached allows a rescuer to push the float to the victim, then extend the line and use the length to get into a better swimming position. If there are two rescuers, one can use the float for buoyancy while holding the victim. The line is then pulled by the second rescuer.

Stern or drift line: Dive boats often trail a stern, drift or current line behind the boat. It floats on the surface (50 to 1 00 feet long is common) to assist a diver who surfaces behind the boat. If the current is running and you need help back to the boat, use the line. Either pull yourself along the line or hold on and have the boat crew pull you and the line back to the boat.


This is the hard part, At the end of an assist or rescue you may be pooped. if the victim is not alert enough to help himself/herself out of the water, you are moving a lot of weight out of the surf zone, up a shallow beach or onto a boat. Here are some ideas if the victim is conscious and can do something to help, even if he/she is weak. Hopefully, with the “free ride” back to shore the person has recuperated somewhat and may be better able to make the exit on his/her own.

If the victim is using gear, remove all the heavy items, such as the tank and weightbelt. For the transition from water to beach, instruct the victim to roll over on his/her stomach and crawl on hands and knees onto the shore. Once on shore, the rescuer helps the victim stand and holds him/her up by the arm. (Like the Boy Scout helping the little old lady across the street.) If the water is shallow and the victim can easily walk out, the rescuer can help steady him/her by placing the victim’s arm on the rescuer’s shoulders. The rescuer holds onto the victim’s hand.

Getting on board a boat can be a real problem. Depending on the size of the victim, assistance on board and the type of boat, you will have to improvise. If there is a ladder, remove as much equipment as possible from the victim before he/she tries to ascend, Crew members can be at the ladder to grab the victim by the armpits and pull him/her on board. If there is only one person on board, consider using a rope that is strung under the victim’s armpit, behind the back and out the other armpit. The person on board holds the rope’s ends and pulls to help the victim up the ladder.

If the boat has a big swim step, the rescuer can get the victim to the step, then, watching the swells, try to use the moving water to push the victim up on the swim step. This is tough to execute and, if you miss, the victim risks getting slammed by/into the boat. If you think this is an exit technique you might have to use sometime, you and your buddy may want to practice it in advance.

Getting back into a boat takes strength and improvisation. if you regularly dive from a small boat or one that is normally hard to get into, you and your buddy should have a pre-emergency plan on how to reenter the boat when one of you is disabled. This author knows of a real life emergency where an “over six foot” father was thrown from a boat and severely injured. The teenage son was able to bring the boat around, dive into the water and retrieve the unconscious father but knew he could not get him into the boat. The son used a dock line under the father’s arms to pull his head up onto the swim step, face up, then tied off the lines to the boat’s rear cleats. The father’s lower body was still in the water but his head was dry and the son slowly drove the boat back to shore for help.


Buddy rescue begins with being alert to environmental, physical and psychological challenges. Detecting a problem when a minor assist will solve it should always be a goal. But, if the situation deteriorates and a rescue is needed, you should be able to help your buddy. Your personal safety always comes first. Help the victim get high in the water and, with a dry face, give him/her a push or pull toward shore or the boat. During the free ride, the victim may recover, calm down and be able to exit under his/her own power with a lithe support.


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