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April 2006 Vol. 32, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Four Cases of Divers Drifting at Sea: Mistakes Galore

from the April, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Strong currents on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef swept two British divers away from their dive boat in February. Louise Woodger, 29, and Gordon Pratley, 31, were diving on Wheeler Reef, when they became separated from their group and surfaced out of sight of the Sea-Esta, operated by Pro Dive of Townsville.

Following procedures put in place after the disappearance of an American couple that inspired the film “Open Water,” the captain conducted a head count and immediately realized the divers were missing. The Coast Guard organized an air and sea search, but the Sea-Esta found them six hours later, 10 km from where they started the dive.

A former New Zealand navy diver was found alive after surviving three days in 68º F water in February in the Cook Strait. Robert Hewitt, 38, was part of a Manawatu Dive Centre charter group, but took his last dive alone. A powerful rip took him 30km north before he was drawn back to where he began. Hewitt ate the crayfish and four sea urchins he had caught during his dive. He caught raindrops in his mouth. Hewitt, who wore a 7-mil wet suit, said he began hallucinating. “I thought yesterday I was at home. I started taking off some of my gear, here and there, floundering around like I was lost.”

A police launch eventually found Hewitt about 500 meters off Mana Island. With his black wet suit, rescue planes could have flown over the top of him, and not seen him, said a Wellington police spokesman.

In Palau, two Japanese divers drifted more than 30 hours last February. Peleliu Divers’ divemaster Masahiko Murakami, 23, and tourist Hirokomi Nakayama, 35, were not spotted by their boat captain after surfacing from a dive at Peleliu Express. While more than a dozen dive shop owners sent out boats to scour the waters, a Japanese research vessel found them. They had drifted 16 miles. They were wearing wet suits and had a camera and flotation device, but no mirror or flashlight to signal search planes.

This reminds us that several years ago, five Japanese divers missed their Palau day boat and drifted away. Low on fuel, their poorly equipped dive boat returned to shore, leaving the five novice divers to perish at sea.

In Florida, two divers treated themselves to an eight-hour swim in January when a line on a rented boat snapped. Michael Kittle and Mark Hines had tied their boat to a buoy off Key Largo and went diving. When Kittle surfaced the boat was gone.

They bobbed on a wave and spotted the roof about 700 yards off. For two hours they swam after it, but the boat kept drifting. They had on BCDs and wet suits, so they locked arms, floated on their backs, and kicked toward a small island off Rattlesnake Key. Eventually, they started hallucinating and hearing distant voices speaking to them. While boats and a helicopter swept the area, they reached the uninhabited island. Spotting a Coast Guard boat, they yelled, blew their emergency whistle, and shined their flashlight. After being rescued, they skipped hospitalization and went to a Waffle House, where they wolfed down waffles, eggs, steak, and hot chocolate — while wrapped in towels.

– Ben Davison

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