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When things go wrong underwater

Written by Agnes Milowka   
Tuesday, 07 December 2010 00:00

Where's the boatYou dive often enough and for long enough and you will find that the age old saying 'whatever can go wrong will go wrong' is not a cliché but a hard and fast reality. Some problems are difficult to avoid, sometimes dive gear ceases to cooperate and that's all there is to it. That's when having plenty of training and experience under your belt comes in handy, so you can deal with the situation and live to tell the tale.

I have had my fair share of issues underwater; regulator and scooter failures several thousand feet into a cave, suit and BC inflation issues at depth, I've been lost, tangled in line, stuck in tight places, I've been stung by creatures and nibbled by moray eels… the list goes on… and on… and on. 

None of these have been what I would deem 'close calls,' they have been minor bumps along the road and were easy enough to resolve. While small problems and minor mistakes can easily lead to some serious problems, generally speaking as long as you don't panic, you have prepared for the dive, have adequate gas reserves and have had decent training along the way, you should be able to manage the situation.

People often freak out when I start talking about cave diving and they assume that the most dangerous and scariest moments I've experienced underwater have been in caves. In fact, my scariest in water moment was not inside a cave system but in open water, incidents I loosely refer to as 'where's the boat?!'

I must admit that in hindsight we were quite clearly asking for it on some occasions and gave Murphy a bit of a helping hand. These incidents happened reasonably early in my diving career so bare with me, I might have learned a thing or two along the way. Perhaps by reading my adventures you will avoid a 'where's the boat' incident of your own.

The very first episode was due to the relative inexperience of both my buddy and myself. We were diving around some bommies at the bottom of a wall that dropped to 40m (130ft). When my buddy gave the thumbs up and we began the ascent, we didn't follow the wall back up but instead launched straight up to the surface from the top of one of the bommies. Big mistake! Unbeknown to us there was plenty of current away from the wall and we were quite swiftly swept away from the dive site. By the time we came up to the surface the boat was nowhere to be seen.

We were drifting around in sight of land but nonetheless, drifting out at sea. Eventually we managed to dig a safety sausage out of the BC pocket and blow it up. As we drifted along and the minutes passed by, we started to entertain the idea of swimming towards the shore, which while I'm sure would have been a futile exercise, gave us something to talk about and made us feel more in control of the situation. Luckily eventually someone on the boat with eagle eyes spotted a speck of orange off in the distance and the boat picked us up. I guess the moral of that story is; be aware of local currents and conditions and always carry a safety sausage when diving in open water.

The first ‘where’s the boat incident’ didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for diving or for doing foolish things. The next time I found myself drifting in the middle of an ocean buffeted by waves with no boat in sight was a lot more dramatic. Admittedly we might have been tempting fate a little by not leaving anyone on the boat while going for a dive. We had done this before on occasion and got away with it. Feeling confident after ‘setting’ the anchor off we went.

When you do stupid things eventually it seems your luck will run out. When we returned, instead of the anchor there was an empty hole and the anchor itself was nowhere to be seen. When we got back to the surface the weather had gone sour and we could just see the boat in between the waves a fair distance away from us.

The downside of having no boat sitter off course was that this time help would not be forthcoming and we had to save ourselves. Luckily my buddy was a strong swimmer and the currents weren’t against us. I held his dive gear and wearing only a wetsuit and fins he was able to make his way to the boat in reasonable time. I certainly don’t envy his exerting swim and all in all we really were lucky to get back on the boat.

Well, you’d think one learns from such mistakes, but not us, it takes time to teach old dogs new tricks. Sometime later we were at it again and on this dive we planned to penetrate into a wreck. This time we weren’t going to be fooled by the disappearing anchor act. In order to keep tabs on it we attached a line to the anchor and used the reel to penetrate the wreck. Well, the anchor dragged yet again and gave us a run for our money.

We were well inside one of the subs when suddenly the line on the reel started whizzing out. We called the dive and started swimming back towards the anchor. We were in about 35m (115ft) at the time and started chasing after this runaway fugitive. As we got closer we could see the anchor in the distance, hopping further away from us with each wave that went overhead. Eventually we caught up with it and began the ascent. You probably think, there’s no ‘where’s the boat’ incident here. Perhaps not but it could easily have been an incident.

The extra time we spent on the bottom chasing this thing meant we clocked up a fair bit of deco. At this point I was still diving on a single tank and would have run out of gas before finishing off deco had my buddy not been wearing twins. To add to the already tense situation, my buddy didn’t have a long hose so I spent most of the deco breathing off his spare reg, crammed up against his chest, unable to see anything but my computer and the deco time slowly ticking away. Not a pleasant experience and needless to say we both started using a long hose after this episode.

I think the lessons here are quite clear – don’t do stupid stuff. Even the vaguely questionable ideas should be scratched off the list, and leaving a boat unattended while diving probably belongs in that category. There are enough things that can go wrong underwater without actively courting trouble. I think it’s fair to say that floating out on a vast expanse of sea, waves crashing over your head, no boat in sight and no land to drift ashore to, is one of the scariest experiences one can have while diving. Certainly it was my scariest experience while diving and I hope that you avoid the same fate.