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August 2004 Vol. 30, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Dive Boat Strandings: Part II

will we ever learn?

from the August, 2004 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In June, we reported on every diver's nightmare -- being left in the open ocean as your dive boat moves on. In that case, it happened to Dan Carlock, who was diving in April off the Sun Diver out of Long Beach. He was left adrift on the first dive of the morning, and his absence wasn't noticed until after the second dive nine miles away from the original site. Fortunately, a Boy Scout on a tall ship training vessel spotted him, and he was rescued.

This isn't an isolated incident. Several years ago five Japanese divers on a current dive in Palau not only missed their boat but were swept past the end of the island. After searching for them until its fuel was low, their poorly equipped dive boat returned to shore, leaving the five novice divers to perish at sea. In 1998, Thomas and Eileen Lonergan from Baton Rouge disappeared and died off the day boat Outer Edge on the Great Barrier Reef. That tragic tale is the basis of this summer's blockbuster movie "Open Water."

In 2001, we reported the case of Michael and Lynda Evans, Undercurrent subscribers from California, who were left behind by the dive boat Aqua Nuts off Key Largo. They spent 26 hours cast away on a light tower before being rescued.

It's virtually certain someone else will suffer the same fate. That's because some dive boat skippers -- traditionally a highly independent bunch -- continue to resist adopting standardized procedures for checking divers in and out of the water. Not only abroad, but in the United States as well.

After the Sun Diver stranded Carlock, the Coast Guard suspended the license of the skipper, Ray Arntz. Lieutenant Commander John Fassero, chief of the Coast Guard's Investigations in Los Angeles, has been criticized by some divers for yanking the wellregarded Arntz's ticket. But Fassero says his aim is to send a message to dive boat skippers. "The captain must be expected to be situationally aware of environmental risk conditions that call for greater due diligence," he says, further recommending that every skipper set standards (hopefully universal ones) for divemasters to follow when conducting roll calls.

Fassero told Undercurrent that culpability was "spread between the divemasters and the diver himself, with weather a factor." Nevertheless, Arntz was charged because he holds Coast Guard credentials, "and someone has to have accountability," says Fassero. Captain Arntz has an "outstanding record in the dive community," according to Fassero, and as part of a plea bargain to lighten his suspension, Arntz volunteered to contact other dive boat skippers to compare notes on roll calls and other procedures.

Arntz told Undercurrent he hoped to put a skippers' meeting together, but it has yet to happen. The captain indicated that LCDR Fassero would be invited to attend but maintained that no industry organizations -- such as PADI, NAUI, DEMA, or DAN -- were involved. "This is an operator issue," he remarked saltily. Fassero indicated that PADI was investigating the divemaster involved, whose slate actually showed Carlock logged out after the first dive of the day and logged back in the water for the second dive, after he'd already been abandoned.

What changes, if any, will result from Carlock's harrowing six-hour ordeal? They may be spotty. Following the Evans' stranding, the Aqua Nuts' owners pleaded guilty to endangering human life by gross negligence. The court ordered them to operate "an effective safe-diving program," with help from industry experts, and the program was to be made available to other operators in the Keys.

Shirlee and Rick Thaler, owners of Kelly's On The Bay and two Aqua-Nuts boats, told Undercurrent that they now use a version of the DAN tag system. Before boarding, each diver places a numbered tag on his or her BCD. The tag number corresponds to the boat's manifest. During the day, roll calls are conducted after each dive, and the tags are collected and checked against the manifest when diving is done. The only flaw in the DAN system, says Shirlee, was that divers sometime lost the tags in the water because of flimsy closures on the tags. They replaced them with sturdier clips and devised a slotted Plexiglas box to store the tags, since the tags sometimes fell off the hooks on the board DAN had supplied.

The Keys commercial dive boats have a trade organization (Keys Association of Dive Operators, or KADO), whose mission is "providing safe, courteous service to their dive clientele" while protecting the marine environment through sound boating, diving, and snorkeling practices.Nevertheless, despite the Aqua Nuts experience, individual members continue to do their own thing when it comes to keeping track of customers.

Less than a dozen of 190 Florida
dive boats use the DAN tags
to keep track of divers.

Lieutenant Scott Higman, supervisor of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Attachment in the Keys, says he attended monthly KADO meetings after the Aqua Nuts stranding, "pushing hard for the adoption of the DAN system." Some skippers tried it for a while, he recalls, but then dropped it. Today he estimates that less than a dozen of the 190 commercial vessels under his jurisdiction use the DAN tags.

Bob Holston of Dive Key West, and president of KADO, says that many of his members found the DAN system too cumbersome on boats that carry up to 49 passengers, including a mix of divers and snorkelers entering and exiting the water at different times. Instead, he says, most crews conduct roll calls checking against a manifest and back that up with a tank count. (Of course, those who perform a tank count only at the end of the day may have already left someone in the water for several hours.)

Higman and Holston are unaware of any dive boat strandings in the Keys since the Evans' incident over three years ago. But as long as the industry continues to rely on self-regulation (meaning as few regulations as possible), divers can expect to find haphazard procedures on some boats. So, if the industry is negligent, then when it comes to our own safety, clearly the buck stops with us

And one might ask: Since these organizations are part of national training organizations such as PADI and NAUI and SSI, why don't these agencies enforce procedures? How can a dive operation be labeled as a Five-Star Organization when it continues to use a wimpy system to account for its divers?

Preventing Abandonment -- Or Surviving It

Before diving, check out the boat, the boat captain, the history of the motor, and the credentials of the crew. Ask about their system for counting heads, and ensure it's redundant. Find out if the boat has a functioning radio and request to see it and hear it function. Ask whom they call for assistance. Be alert to the location of the nearest land. Brett Gilliam, publisher of Fathoms Magazine, says one of the first things he does is borrow some money from the skipper. That way, he's never forgotten.

Listen carefully to the instructions and briefing. Check for current, tide, and wind conditions. Imagine yourself out of sight of the boat. Check to see if they have deployed a float line. It can be useful for pulling yourself back to the dive platform if you surface down current from the boat. Develop navigational skills. Always start your dive by swimming up current after orienting yourself. On drift dives, stay with the group. (Dan Carlock got in trouble when his ears wouldn't clear. He surfaced and then descended alone, never finding his group. When he surfaced again, he had drifted out of sight of the vessel in the fog.) Participate actively in roll calls. Insist on diligence from the crew and don't let a buddy answer for you or vice versa.

If fighting a current or being swept along in one, you can adjust your speed by maneuvering along walls or behind rocks or outcroppings. Currents are generally slower on the surface, but if you drop to the bottom you can hold on to permanent objects, often with just a finger or a dive knife. Once your exertion levels continue to rise, it's better to surface, inflate, and wait.

An inflatable safety sausage is essential equipment. The Aqua Lung SOS attaches to the BCD's right rear-dump valve and can be deployed with a simple tug of the ripcord. Also pack a flashlight (at night some sausages can be illuminated from within, creating a colorful beacon); a long-life, batterypowered flasher or strobe; a reflector mirror; a whistle or other noise maker (such as a Dive Alert, powered by your BCD inflator mechanism and much louder than a whistle); a slate; and some line. Some divers keep a float tethered to them, but this may not be practical in all situations, such as overhead environments.

If you find yourself abandoned at sea, the first thing to do is inflate your BCD (preferably by mouth, thus preserving the air in your tank). Next, drop your weights, but keep your belt if possible. It might be useful later, for tying up to other divers. Staying in a group allows stronger divers to help the others and presents a larger target for searches. Next, inflate your sausage, flash your reflector, and blow your sonic alarm -- while you may not see anyone, others may see your signals. Keep a note of the time, approximate location, and speed of the current on your slate. If you try to swim to land, swim diagonally with the current. If it rains, drink the water.

Seven Steps to Survival

Survival at sea depends on recognizing that you are in danger of losing your life. Taking seven steps to survival may make a difference in the outcome. Even an accident fairly close to shore in cold water can quickly lead to hypothermia and drowning. The seven steps to survival are: recognition, inventory, shelter, water, food, signals, and play. Of course, flotation is a prerequisite for any survival after only a short time in the water. Other factors come into play, the most important of which is unmeasurable: the will to live.

Recognize that you are in peril and that what you are wearing constitutes a form of shelter. To attract attention, use signals like mirrors; flares; colored objects; or waving your arms, suits, or objects about. Finally, "play" comes into action as you tell jokes, pray, have memories or fantasies, and vent your anger.

Most of all, keep your wits about you and keep the faith that sooner or later someone will come to rescue you.

P.S. Our thanks to Dr. Glen Egstrom, professor emeritus from UCLA, whose articles provided the basis for preventing and surviving abandonment. "Seven Steps to Survival" comes directly from his writing.

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