Basic safety rules in diving should never be taken for granted by divers, even by people with years of diving experience, as this could lead to fatal accidents. A responsible diver should see to it that basic safety is never ignored during dives.
The day was clear and warm, the water clear and calm – a good day for diving. The group decided to visit a wreck about a half mile off the coast in 30 to 60 feet of water. There were six of us, all experienced. One of us, an ex-navy diver, had not been in the water for three years. We were impressed with his stories and knowledge but forgot that three years is a long time away from diving, even for one so experienced. We should have gone on an easier dive and been more careful. Maybe we were showing off for him.
The first sign of trouble was the pontoons leaking. We concluded we weren’t sinking but it took two flares to get anyone’s attention. The boat that finally came to help tried to tow us, hoping to shift the water in the pontoons and balance the boat. This didn’t work so, with some difficulty, we started the engine and shifted the water with movement. Fairly balanced, we were about to head home. Since we were already over the wreck site, however, we decided to dive. Our excitement clouded our thinking.
The guest spotter was left on the boat. He planned on getting some sun as the pontoon boat was comfortable and relaxing.
We knew that the wreck, a sunken navy boat, was in 40 feet of water near the edge of a coral wall. The wall dropped to 90 feet and another wreck, a plane fuselage. We dropped anchor. Visibility was less than hoped for (about 30 feet) and we could not see the bottom well from the surface.
We knew the proper length of anchorline is five to one but, in our haste and anticipation for the dive, we used less than necessary. We bid farewell to our spotter as we slipped into the water and down the anchorline.
When I reached the bottom I noticed the anchorline was almost straight up and down. It was, however, hooked on the drop-off side of the coral and, owing to the shoreward drift of the boat, tightly wedged. The rest of the group was already headed for the wreck, so I swam off to catch up.
As the dive progressed, the visibility diminished and we lost our sense of direction. Matt, our leader, motioned he was going to the surface to check our bearings. I welcomed this as it was getting hard to stay together as a group.
Matt is always a safe and careful diver. He always ascends and descends slowly. But, this day, he returned to the group swimming fast. He grabbed my pencil and slate and wrote, “I can’t find the boat!” This was naturally upsetting as we were one-quarter to one-half mile from shore, with an outgoing current. I motioned for everyone to surface and we did.
On the surface, we discovered we were farther out than expected, owing to the current. And, there were no boats in sight. The surface current was brisk, so we decided to take a bearing and submerge. This became a bad option when our ex-navy diver reported he was almost out of air.
As we floated up on the swells, we saw a white speck a mile or so away and it dawned on me what had happened. The current had changed, the poorly positioned anchor had broken free and the boat had floated away. I was curious why our spotter had not noticed and returned. Perhaps he was unable to start the engine.
Luckily for us, an 18 foot fishing vessel happened by. Owing to its high sides and small size, not all of us would fit inside. We decided to send Matt to retrieve our boat.
However, the ex-navy diver was exhausted and elected on his own to go with Matt. He tried repeatedly to board the boat, even taking off most of his equipment, but only succeeded in cutting his legs and arms on the barnacles. So, Matt went off alone.
We decided to continue our swim toward shore because we were unsure if the boat would run and, if it did, how long it would take to return for us. We seemed to be making fair progress but the exhausted ex-navy diver had trouble keeping up. We were somewhat dismayed by his lack of stamina – then he told us he had thrown his fins into the fishing boat and was swimming without them! We also noticed he was chumming the water with blood from his cuts and became concerned about sharks. We continued to encourage him – from a greater distance!
The boat was nowhere in sight and it appeared we might be swept out of the bay and into the sea with the current. Just when we were all exhausted, the boat and Matt appeared. Our embarrassed spotter admitted he had fallen asleep and was only awakened by Matt.
Our boat made it back uneventfully and was scheduled for repairs. Our friend’s cuts healed well. We were lucky enough to avoid disaster and certainly learned a few lessons:
- The date of the last dive is a better predictor of dive conditioning than total dives made.
- At the first sign of trouble, the entire dive needs to be reassessed and abandoned if safety is compromised.
- Currents change.
- If you want the boat to be there when you surface, you need to make sure it’s anchored properly.
- Spotters need to stay awake and very alert.
- Spotter or no, don’t get carried away by the moment and forget basic safety.