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June 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 26, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Avoid the Dive Boat Propellor

dive flag do’s and don’ts

from the June, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

As summer starts, more divers are doing local trips in U.S. waters, where they're sharing the waves with jet skis, speedboats and other craft with fast propellors. The two don't mix, but we keep hearing several stories a year a divers who suffer severe - - or fatal - - wounds from fast-moving boats, spinning propellers, even dive boats.

James Shelley, 46, was surfacing from a dive a mile east of Boca Raton, FL, in January when he was hit by a commercial 23-foot boat), and the propeller severely slashed his shoulder and arm. The Sun-Sentinel says Shelley and the vessel were displaying dive flags, so we assume the vessel was a dive boat. Shelley made it to the hospital for recovery. Ulrik Pederson, 28, also had to be rushed to the hospital last April after being run over by a glass-bottom tour boat in New Zealand's Leigh Harbor. The impact sliced open Pederson's arm, broke one bone and dislocated another. He said he had an inflatable buoy and flag on a 60-foot line marking his position. The boat owners say he had a buoy but there was no proper dive flag up. The most high-profile diver killed this way was British singer and songwriter Kristy MacColl, who was killed in Cozumel waters by a speeding boat in 2004.

Lieutenant Dave Bingham, watch commander for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), says he sees too many accidents like these. Florida statistics from January 2010 through April 2011 show all federal, state and local marine patrols wrote 87 tickets for reckless boating, 798 tickets for careless boating and 315 for flag-related violations. The blame is split down the middle between speeding boats not looking closely for divers, and divers who aren't using the proper "Diver Down" flag, if they use one at all.

Even a law enforcement boat with a properly-displayed dive flag is fair game. In an experiment two years ago, Bingham displayed a dive flag on a marked FWC boat and found that other boaters still came too close. "We wrote just as many tickets with a dive flag on a patrol boat as we did on an unmarked boat." After a string of run-over-diver incidents in Florida, Bingham was successful in getting the governor to declare a Dive Flag Awareness Week in 2009. Here, he shares with Undercurrent his advice for staying alive on dives in U.S. waters.

Fly the Flag. "In Florida, a diver down flag must be 20 x 24 inches if displayed on the boat, and displayed on the highest point of the vessel and on a stiffener. If you pull a flag around while diving, that is required to be 12 x12 inches. You must stay within 100 feet of the flag if you're diving in a river, inlet or navigational channel. And boats must stay at least 100 feet away from your flag. Too many times, I've seen a weather-beaten flag with a faded, dull color."

Bring a flag on your dive. In Florida, divers finning along coastal reefs are required to stay within 300 feet of the divers down flag. "If you are going to swim far away, have a pull flag with you, in addition to the one on your boat. Make sure the rope is the adequate length so you're not pulling the flag underwater with you."

Stop, listen and look. "Underwater, you can always hear boats coming near you. The 10-foot safety stop is well underneath the range for speedboats, and it's a good time to listen, be attentive, and make sure you're not hearing any sounds around you. And the first thing you do when you pop up out of the water from a dive is do a 360-degree turn around to see if there are any approaching boats. "Do this before you pay attention to your BC, because if you tend to your vest first without a look around, you won't have much time to struggle out of it if you ignore the boat headed your way."

Bingham says with laser radar, "We can determine the distance divers stray from their flags and also the distance boats come near a dive flag -- and it's accurate give or take one inch." In Florida, "buzzing" a dive flag is a firstdegree misdemeanor and punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and/or up to six months in jail. If you violate a dive flag law as a diver, you are only subject to a noncriminal infraction, with a fine of up to $50. Of course, a greater penalty for you ignoring dive flag laws is being run over by a boater.

- - Vanessa Richardson

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