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September 2001 Vol. 16, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Thoughts While Drifting at Sea

isn’t there something better than a sausage and a horn ?

from the September, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Diving off live-aboards can get extreme when the currents are rolling. Undercurrent reader Lou Radenhausen from Moriches, NY wrote to us about a harrowing experience while diving from the Palau Aggressor in December. This led us to further safety suggestions for live-aboards, upon which we followed up. Here’s Lou’s story :

The afternoon dive was Peleliu Point, which required the use of reef hooks, as the currents tend to be strong to say the least. At 80 feet, my wife Lisa, Tom, our 13-year-old junior advanced son, and I hooked into the dead part of the reef and watched the sharks, turtles and eagle rays pass our perch. Trying to take pictures was impossible, as bursts of current were strong enough to bend my strobe arms back. We hung in the current like kites in the wind. It was really cool.

After watching these creatures for 25 minutes, our divemasters motioned us to come off our reef hooks and fly over the reef. As we drifted, our divemasters instructed us to ascend as we passed over the reef to avoid possible killer downcurrents. People have been lost here and never found. We complied and eventually ascended to our 15-foot safety stop while the current swept us along.

No fresh water, sunset approaching, circling sharks like silkies and oceanic white tips made me angry that some simple back-up
plans were not in place.

We surfaced in three groups, one several hundred yards from the others. Looking back toward Peleliu Point we saw our skiff in the distance but not headed our way. The boat was going back and forth over the area where we had tied into the reef. We were now over a mile away and heading out quickly.

Safety sausages went up in all three groups and air alerts were sounded — all to no avail. The skiff became smaller and the seas became larger as we drifted quickly toward The Philippines. We managed to get down to two groups, ditching our weights and making jokes about our situation. A large shark circling our group didn’t upgrade our situation, so I took a heroic step by positioning myself within the middle of our group to instill confidence in the others. My son was not amused and as time wore on and the swells became larger, he became frightened. Land was a long way off and no boat was c‘oming.

After 35 minutes of drifting, our divemaster headed for shore to get help. We all turned on our backs and slowly headed in the direction of land, which at our speed, loaded with gear, cameras and taking turns pulling my son, would have taken two hours, landing on a very unforgiving reef.

The divemaster in the second group left them and headed in the direction of the skiff to close the gap between the boat and their group. Now we were alone in a very wild place. Thoughts of no fresh water, sunset approaching, circling sharks like silkies and oceanic white tips made me angry that some simple back-up plans were not in place. It was not much of a plan to supply divers with safety sausages and air alerts. With the winds blowing toward us, the air alerts were silenced after a short distance. The sausages were effective for a half mile and only at the top of a large swell.

While slowly swimming toward shore we talked about what could be done to prevent divers from getting lost. A smoke flare would have been much more effective, considering our distance and a steady breeze. While divers can’t bring them on airplanes, dive operators could have them shipped by container ship.

Another cheap backup we saw used in Fiji and Cozumel were floats towed by divemasters. Following bubbles from the surface doesn’t always work, and it’s easier to follow a float on drift dives.

The best back-up plan requires the use of an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). A low- frequency system will convey a diver’s location to a skiff operator. The divemaster can carry a tank-mounted transmitter and the skiff operator has the receiver.

After an hour adrift we had cut the distance to land in half. Then, far off we saw our skiff headed in our direction and eventually we were back on board. We scrapped the remaining dives of the day in favor of alcohol and reflection. My son’s fear subsided by the next day and he enjoyed diving the rest of the week. I felt bad for putting him at risk and promised him I would do whatever I could to make his diving experience safer. It was awkward for the divers and the crew. We had just begun to feel a genuine friendship between us and then circumstances that really weren’t their fault, let us down.

It is up to dive operators to upgrade safety by providing equipment and procedures that will significantly reduce the chance of losing divers. The cost is nothing compared to the bad publicity and possible lawsuits, which may occur despite signed waivers.

* * * * *

Lou Radenhausen’s letter prompted us to poll a few liveaboards about whether they would consider providing additional signaling devices. Specifically, we asked: “Would you be willing to equip divers on your boats with: 1. A smoke flare; 2. Highly visible floats to be carried by divers or divemasters; or 3. Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs)?” Here is what they told us:

Peter Hughes has begun providing divers in Papua New Guinea, Palau and the Galapagos with the ACR Personal Diver Distress and Rescue Beacons, which clip to BCs and can send signals to the boat from as far away as 75 miles. Sue Hamilton, director of marketing, said they were purchasing flares for “locations with high drifts or currents, not necessarily on every boat or on every dive. Currently, besides safety sausages and dive alerts we provide emergency light beacons to each diver.”

Matthew Armand of the Aggressor Fleet reported that operations manager Wayne Hasson had just ordered EPIRBs and accompanying direction finders for the Palau Aggressor II and Galapagos Aggressors I & II. The units will be available at no extra charge. No other boats are scheduled to get them. The Fiji, Truk and Okeanos Aggressors supply dive alerts and safety sausages as do the Galapagos and Palau Aggressors. Armand said that right now there are no plans for smoke flares or float devices.

Mike Ball, who operates liveaboards in Australia and Papua New Guinea, was responsive enough to discuss these questions with the crew of the Supersport within days after we contacted him. He reported that smoke flares were problematic as for keeping dry, and the float device is already covered by the many different safety sausages available. Ball said that EPIRBs were probably the way to go depending on cost and features. He would check on what was available .

Others were more circumspect in their consideration of supplying such gear. John Williams, co-owner of Siam Dive n’ Sail, a firm that among other things books for many liveaboards and day-trip boats in Thailand, responded with technical and logistical concerns regarding floats & EPIRBs. He did, however, find the flare idea to have potential. He went on to state, “I wonder who would be paying for them. Don’t you think that divers should have to buy or rent these items? When you go skiing, the resort does not give you free sunglasses to protect your eyes. Why should dive boats give away these safety devices?”

Also reluctant was Undersea Hunter owner Avi Klapfer. He told Undercurrent, “Yes, we would be willing to equip our divers with the three devices. Whether we actually would do it depends on many factors, such as dependability and servi ceability.” He didn’t suggest who might perform such testing, and expressed the same technical misgivings about EPIRBs as did some of the other operations. He said he already equips divers with safety sausages, storm whistles, and a small flashlight, placed in a small mesh bag that can be clipped to the BC.

All the people we spoke with did assert that safety devices are no substitute for competent and careful divers and dive crew.

So, if having a live-aboard supply you with signaling devices beyond those customarily carried is important, ask what they provide when you are discussing a possible booking. The more divers show concern for their own safety, the more boat owners will listen.

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