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February 2007 Vol. 33, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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When Bad Things Happen to Good Divers

what do you do if you’re lost at sea?

from the February, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

You come up from a dive to find your boat has motored off without you. Or, your boat capsizes and it’s all hands down with the ship. These are just a few nightmares that no diver wants to face in real life, though both have occurred in the past few months. However, thanks to real-life disasters such as these that got widespread attention (remember the movie Open Water based on the Australian incident where two American divers disappeared?) many dive operators have tightened up their safety procedures and keep closer tabs on their divers. Yet some continue to be lax in diver safety and even in boat maintenance.

Australia is one country that is more safetyconscious,
although accidents still do happen

Because the Open Water event happened off its coast, Australia is one country that is more safety-conscious, although accidents still do happen. One occurred last September, when a married American couple failed to surface from a drift dive in northern Queensland on the liveaboard Nimrod Explorer, one of the Explorer Ventures fleet that owns the Turks and Caicos Explorer, among others. The boat immediately contacted emergency services after the pair, both experience divers, failed to resurface from their fourth dive of the day. They were spotted in the waters near Lizard Island by a Cairns rescue helicopter three hours after being reported missing.

The divers were at fault, as they went ahead of their dive leader and lost contact. By the time they surfaced, they realized they had drifted away from the boat, and the current was still too strong for them to get back to the boat. The couple had glow sticks to help rescue crew spot them, and told their rescuers afterwards that they were confident they would be seen and picked up.

Divers overboard

Their tale shows the importance of having proper safety- and-rescue gear on during dives, but what can you do if problems start before you even step foot into the ocean? Milt and Sharon Panas of Boulder, Colorado, had just finished their first dive with Swiss Fiji Divers in the waters of Taveuni last summer when the boat, an aluminum half-cabin boat, suddenly tipped, taking on a lot of water, and throwing everyone to the listing side of the boat. It listed again, taking on more water, and then capsized, turning completely over. “Luckily we were able to grab our BCD’s when they came off the boat so we did have a floatation device, but we did not have any fins or masks,” Sharon wrote. “The captain and others did retrieve life vests and passed them out to us. We were able to grab onto the other divers still in the water so we could make our way back to where the boat was floating and hold on.” Fortunately, no one was seriously injured and everyone was rescued within an hour.

But the Panas decided to cut their time with Swiss Fiji short due to the lack of safety measures on the boat. The seas were not extremely rough, but the couple found out that the boat’s design makes it take on water and it was equipped only with a manual pump. It was also not equipped with many standard safety devices. “It did have a radio, which was now underwater, but it had no dry box with flares, cell phone or beckon device,” said Sharon. “The only means of signaling for help was for someone to stand on top of the capsized boat and wave a life preserver. Luckily the boat did not sink immediately, otherwise who knows how far we could have drifted before help arrived.”

The boat eventually sunk that evening and the Swiss Fiji owners, Dominique and Evi Ergerter, arranged to retrieve the boat from the bottom of the ocean the next day, a Wednesday. “We were appalled when the boat again went out on Sunday with eight divers…and the boat sat higher in the water than when we had only six divers.” The Panas requested a refund, but the Ergeters refused. “Their response was to request us to ‘go through your insurance company,’ and that they had already lost enough money that day. They also promised us a letter for our insurance company before we left Fiji which has yet to arrive.”

Sharon contacted PADI and told them about what happened, but PADI replied that they had previously expelled Swiss Fiji from their organization (for other reasons), so they had no jurisdiction to investigate.

Prepare yourself

A fluke current was the reason for Don Roesler spending 10 hours last December in the Gulf of Mexico, half of it in a rainstorm. On a Sunday morning, he and five other divers decided to explore C-58, a sunken naval ship off the coast of Cancun. Sunday was the day of rest for most dive boats, so the waters were deserted, but Roesler had explored the ship dozens of times and was familiar with the area. As soon he descended, a powerful current unlike anything he had ever experienced pulled Roesler a half-mile away from the other divers. “I inflated my safety sausage and tried my dive horn to signal them, but I was downwind so they couldn’t hear me,” Roesler told Undercurrent. (He wouldn’t disclose the name of the dive operator, saying it had done nothing wrong.)

Roesler kept his wits about him in the four-foot swells, inflating his BC to double as a life jacket and dumping his weights because he didn’t know how long he would drift. He tried to use his compass but it was too overcast to see the sun or any cloud formation. He held his sausage up for seven hours straight, knowing the crew would alert rescue services. Indeed, they had 10 boats and 80 people looking for him by noon, but they were looking in the wrong area. “I figured I would head for the snorkeling site Garafon on Isla Mujeres, but the current was taking me further south of the island and pushing me out to sea.”

The situation got worse when the storm came around 2:30, and Roesler was uncertain whether search boats would keep looking. Meanwhile his wife, Julie, had rented a search helicopter and it flew over Roesler but did not see him waving his safety sausage due to the heavy rain. Day quickly turned into night. “I told myself to stay calm if I was going to survive, so I put my BC back on, used my mask to catch rainwater, and strapped everything down real tight.” After the sun went down, he could see lights five or six miles away and started paddling toward shore. “I grabbed onto a rock and pulled myself up and I saw somebody on a wall and I yelled for help,” said Roesler. “Two or three people jumped in and pulled me up.” He had landed at the Avalon Grand Resort on the northern side of Isla Mujeres.

Roesler suffered from dehydration but not hypothermia. “I had gloves and my dive suit on, so I didn’t feel cold. I think the kicking and adrenalin and determination also kept me warm.” In fact, Roesler went diving two days later, although he has now added dye marker to spread in the water to his safety kit. He calls his experience a total fluke, but says it shows that having safety equipment, like lights, horns and a dive sausage—and ensuring it all works—is essential.

”Have a dive plan and stick to it,” he advises. “If there’s a lot of current, stay with your dive partner. And always keep a calm head.”

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