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June 2002 Vol. 28, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Drifting the Night Away

from the June, 2002 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In late March, Carlos Duarte was making his first dive off his eighteen-foot new WellCraft Sport dive boat when a strong current swept him away on an eighteen-hour adventure, drifting off the shores of Florida. The PADI master scuba diver trainer had taken his girlfriend, Paula Martin, and neighbor, George Clayton, along to tend the boat while he made a solo lobster dive out of Fort Pierce Inlet. All three had been checked out on the boat’s operation by the seller, and Carlos assumed that his passengers had absorbed all the pointers. They headed out in three to five foot waves, conditions that cause most divers to “stay home and have a party,” in Duarte’s words.

About seven miles offshore, Carlos’ fish finder found a ledge he hadn’t explored, so he dropped the anchor and went overboard. The current immediately swept him from the bow to the stern, so he told his mates to watch for his fluorescent lobster bag when he surfaced. Carlos had used this system with other buddies, who usually fished from their own boats while he dived, so he felt no need to deploy a drift flag.

Twenty minutes into the dive he surfaced and saw the boat in the distance. He submerged again to seventy- five feet and tried to swim a compass course upcurrent, but by the time he’d completed his safety stop, his boat was out of sight. Although Carlos uses a sonic alarm with his students, he doesn’t carry one on his personal dives. No safety sausage, either. So he had nothing left to do but drop his weights, inflate his horseshoestyle Mares BC and hang out until somebody came along to find him. Meanwhile, Martin and Clayton were wishing they’d paid closer attention during their checkout cruises. They didn’t realize they had to push a button to put the boat’s engine in neutral before starting it, so they couldn’t crank it over. They couldn’t operate the radio, either. So they sat marooned until 6:30 the following morning when they used a foghorn and flashlight to signal a passing research vessel, which alerted the Coast Guard.

Through the night, Carlos tried swimming against the current while waving his lobster bag, which he had tied to his spear gun. As fatigue set in, he ditched the gun and bag. Several times he fell asleep, awakening when his face hit the water. When he feared fatigue might overtake him, he breathed from the final 1000 psi of Nitrox in his tank, and the extra hit of oxygen revived him. Fortunately, he was wearing a full farmer john wetsuit, with six millimeters of protection around his torso, and a hood.

At dawn, a passing freighter honked at him. It was close enough that Carlos could see figures walking on deck. He waved his fins but the ship never stopped. Were they used to seeing solo divers miles offshore by dawn’s early light?

The Coast Guard initiated a full-scale search and recovery effort, including a cutter, a helicopter, and a C- 130 aircraft. However, eventually Duarte was picked up by two boaters out testing yet another pleasure craft, some fifteen miles offshore. They alerted the Coast Guard and Duarte was then taken ashore at the Sebastian Inlet. He was cold and dehydrated, but otherwise fine.

Duarte told Undercurrent that he now realizes that anything can happen on a dive, so it’s crucial to plan for any possibility. He proved to himself that the self-rescue skills he’s been teaching really work. He’s also become a true believer in carrying the necessary safety equipment. He credits his Henderson Gold Core hood for helping him stay warm, and says his next BC will probably be a wraparound model designed to hold a diver upright at the surface. The folks at Dive Alert read his story, and are sending him one of their sonic alarms. He and Martin are enrolled in a Coast Guard safe boating class, and he plans to outfit his boat with a flare gun and a more powerful radio.

Duarte also says, “There is a God and He does watch out for us.”

But God helps those who help themselves, which is probably the first lesson every diver should learn.

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