When things go bad……
Palau – August 2018
It only takes a minute or two to go from a great dive to what could be a serious problem that could end in disaster!!!!!
First dive Sandy point, everyone that has been to Palau will know where this is. The dive started with lots of small eels protruding from the sand then moving on to a depth of 25 metres. There was an abundance of coral, barracudas and various other fish. The dive finished on a high note with a shark feeding frenzy with about 10 – 15 sharks chasing a red snapper (who got away). What a great dive, with visibility at around 30 metres we ended with the obligatory safety stop and hit the surface to see that it had got very rough all of a sudden. Into the boat we get with Sharon (dive guide and instructor at Sam’s Diving) and Ford (boat captain) and ourselves; how privileged were we to have a boat to ourselves????
So off we go to drop anchor and eat our lunch. As we were nearing the end of the surface interval we noticed the wind had picked up and the water was getting rougher but we were all OK as it didn’t look too bad. Sharon has spent the past two years diving here and decided that we should look at diving Sais Corner (we did this dive last time we were here and had to use the reef hooks due to the current then). When we arrived at the dive site it’s around 1 to 1.5 metre seas with waves crashing on top of the reef. Ford assessed the conditions and advised that in his opinion this spot was not safe to dive; we were all ok with his call as the skipper knows best, so we head off for a new dive site.
After discussions between Sharon and Ford it was decided that we would dive Ulong channel, but due to it being an outgoing tide we had to dive this site in the opposite direction that we have always done before. So instead of heading into the channel and surfacing in the shallows, we were going to end up at the other much deeper end. We thought that would be OK as it doesn’t really matter what end you finished at.
Sharon gives her brief and advises that we need to follow her into the channel and stay low as the current is very strong (above 4 metres) and watch closely to where she is going as it takes a bit of navigation to get to the channel. So all good and ready for the dive, we all roll in and head to the bottom which was around 15 metres. I noticed that the viz on this dive is nowhere as good as the last dive and is only around 5-6 metres and the current is very strong. The dive was going well and we had been in the water for around 25 minutes when I start to think “man we are moving pretty quick” and hope that Ford is keeping a close eye on us.
As the title says, things can go wrong very quickly. I look to my left and notice that Sharon is nearly out of my sight then I look to the right and notice that my buddy is having some trouble with her inflator. At this point I thought that was ok as I could grab the reef and wait for my buddy to catch up. WRONG, as soon as I grabbed the reef the current spun me around and I was now back in the channel. At this point all I could think of was that the current was way stronger and I didn’t know if I would be able to swim against it. I now look around and can’t see either my buddy or Sharon. I kept going for a couple of minutes and then made the call that as I didn’t know where anyone was that I should head for the surface. What I didn’t know at the time was that my buddy and Sharon had now ended up together again.
So in line with our training, I had done what we were taught to do in this type of situation, which is to slowly ascend and head for the surface, including doing the safety stop on my way up. I was not aware that Sharon and my buddy had seen me surfacing and that Sharon had deployed her safety sausage. When I hit the surface, there would have easily been 100 metres between us. I look around and see the sea is raging and I can’t see the boat. While sitting on the surface your mind starts thinking “ok extend your arm so Ford can see you” but I should have thought to use my safety sausage (for clarification, we didn’t use safety sausages when we learnt to dive so therefore it wasn’t my first instinct). A minute or so goes by and I can still not see the boat, but I still had my mask on and regulator in my mouth at this stage. At this point I still think that it is all ok and I’m not in a serious situation. Finally I catch a glimpse of the boat in the distance and think to myself “holy shit, he is so far away I can hardly see him”. This is where I made my mistakes which were…
Mistake one: I should have inflated my safety sausage and held it high so the boat could see me;
Mistake two: I thought to myself “If I yell hey FORD I AM OVER HERE” he may hear me BUT that would have been very unlikely; and
Mistake three: I took my mask off and took the reg out of my mouth to yell to Ford. No sooner had I yelled out to Ford than I got hit in the face with a huge wave and took in a mouthful of water and this happened again and again while I was waiting to be picked up, if you don’t think this gets to you, you need to think again.
At this stage a lot of things start going through your mind: what will happen if he doesn’t see me; I am being swept out to sea… will they be able to find me (remember we did this dive in reverse to normal), I should have packed my laser flare or my Nautilus 27mg radio but I didn’t. Now I needed to put my mask back on and reg back in as I knew that I still had plenty of air in the tanks. I can see how in the above situation people can panic especially if you are being constantly hit in the face with wave action and swallowing water. At this point I am now considering dropping my weights or deploying my safety sausage. I started to deploy the sausage when the boat pulled up alongside of me., I don’t think I have ever been so happy to see the pickup boat! Now I start trying to get into the boat and that’s when I realized how rough it was. I couldn’t get my unit off and one thing I hate doing is taking my fins off before I have removed my unit but it was the only option so I climbed into the boat with my unit on.
Ford’ s focus now was to locate and pick up my buddy and Sharon; so he powered up the engines and we travelled for a few minutes before we got to them. This was when I realized how far apart we had drifted. We got the girls into the boat and we do our debrief and decide that the issues arose due to low visibility and the big currents, and that we all acted appropriately based on the emerging situation.
Two points that I would like to make are that no matter how experienced you are, things can go wrong but you need to ensure that you don’t panic and always think before you act and even though we trust our guides when we are diving new sites, if you do not feel comfortable with any situation you should never be scared to call the dive off.
Experience matters. If you end up in a bad situation, you want your training to take over and not panic. Just remember that practice makes perfect, especially with your skills and can be a life saver if things turn bad.
We later found out that on the same day another dive operator chose to dive the site that Ford declared unsafe to dive, and the consequences of this were that of the 2 guides and 8 divers, 1 guide and 2 divers became lost. A search ensued and after 3 hours they were found approximately 4kms from the dive site. Maybe they should have had a skipper like Ford who wasn’t scared to call it.
CWDC Club Member