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February 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 30, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Just Drop It!

from the February, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

It's my belief that David Graves left the escorted group of divers he was with during the last moments of the dive and went off on his own to take one final photograph. Sadly, it was to be his last. He ran out of air and, at 60 feet deep, he struck out for the surface. The Suunto computer he was wearing did not record the time he spent between five feet and the surface, but it recorded everything else. Whether he made it to the surface or not, he dropped and drowned for sure. Graves was a recently certified diver who had made a previous dive trip to Malaysia, so he was not totally inexperienced, but why did he drop? When we recovered his body, all his equipment was still in place, including his weight belt. If he had thought to drop that, he would still be alive today.

I admit that there have been times when, distracted by an underwater photography subject, I have cut it very fine and arrived at the surface without enough pressure in my tank to inflate my BC, so I inflated it orally instead. If Graves had reached the surface, he could have done that, but I am inclined to think that by this point, he had got into a panic and might have lost all sense of reason. He might have tried to use the direct-feed control, but of course, it would not have worked if his tank were empty.

So think about dropping your weight belt in an emergency. You should not have to do this if you are correctly weighted to be neutrally buoyant to swim up to the surface, but you might need to do it once you are there. Of course, dropping your belt has the effect of making you buoyant, so you don't really want to do it at depth and enjoy an out-of-control ascent. You must also be careful not to drop it on divers who may be below you, and for this reason, practicing this act is discouraged at crowded dive sites.

Before BCs were invented, dropping the weight belt was enshrined in diver training. It was the only way to make it to the surface during an emergency. Correct use of a BC allows for neutral buoyancy at any depth, and one only has to swim up a little for the gas within the BC to expand and start to become positively buoyant. You then need to jettison some air for reasons of controlling the speed of ascent. For this reason, the teaching of dropping the weight belt tends to be glossed over.

Not only that, people are reluctant to risk losing their weight belts, understandably so. I was once in the far reaches of Indonesia and using a brand-new BC. I left the dive boat and headed down to the seabed around 40 feet below, where I injected a little air into my BC, but to my horror, the corrugated hose parted from the direct-feed control. I was not overweighted, so I swiftly headed back to the surface, only to see the dive boat speeding away, with the crew totally oblivious to my waving and unable to hear my shouts over the noise of the boat's engine. What to do? I could have dropped my belt, but in such a remote place, I knew we'd have trouble getting more lead to replace it. I couldn't keep the BC inflated. Any air I blew in through the now-exposed end of the corrugated hose simply siphoned out again as soon as I submerged. I was near a small island, so I opted to go back to the bottom and walk to its beach, rather like the pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean. Once the dive boat returned later, a couple of cable ties and a coating of "After Sun" lotion proved to be a solution.

So how to drop a weight belt? It used to be the last thing you put on in the old days. That was so that it was never fouled by other straps passing over it. Today, it's often put on before the BC and tank. It is not sufficient to simply flip the buckle and let it fall. You need to be sure it falls away cleanly from you without snagging. Think about dropping you weight belt and its ramifications. Avoid being over-weighted so that you can be neutrally buoyant at any depth, but know that you can always drop your belt once you are near the surface. Unhitch it and swing it away from you, and once it is clear, drop it! It could be a matter of life and death.

-- John Bantin

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