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August 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 42, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Six Hours Adrift Alone

a stirring tale of Australian true grit

from the August, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

As Nietzsche said, "That which does not kill us, makes us stronger." Jacob Childs, a 30-year-old PADI instructor and course director from Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia, who considers himself a relatively experienced diver, would agree. He demonstrated his true Australian unflappability when Undercurrent asked him about his six-hour ordeal drifting afloat, alone in the open ocean after he became separated from his dive boat and his dive buddies.

"July 6th started like any other day of diving; an early rise, prepping, making sure everything was functioning, spares. It was 8.30 a.m. when our group left Bundaberg in the club's boat, heading out 30 miles to the wreck site of the Althea, arguably my favorite local dive site. We each agreed on all the normal things involved in any dive planning: signals, lost buddy separation procedures, buddy pairs, emergency procedures, etc. This also included what was to happen if a diver surfaced away from the anchor line. The procedure that was to be followed was, if a diver were to surface away from the rest of the group, or away from the line, the boat skipper was to disconnect from the anchor line, leaving a buoy in place in case any other divers surfaced, collect the separated diver, and return to the buoy. We were also ensured that every diver had an SMB/DSMB and whistle."

It took a long time to anchor the vessel securely, thanks to the hard rock seafloor and the heavy swell. Divers were in various states of readiness, and there was a gap of around 15 minutes between the first and last diver entering the water.

"I had ensured before entering that a line was run from the fore to the aft to allow divers to pull themselves to the bow of the vessel and the anchor line. I had also made sure that a trail/tag line was attached to the rear of the vessel. This was helpful, as all the divers were hanging onto this line while we waited for the last diver to enter the water."

They all descended, but Childs surfaced prematurely after losing his grip on a descent line in the strong current, then realizing that the tag line had been hauled in. He quickly drifted past the vessel before the skipper could find it and throw it out again, but it was too late. At the same time, the others divers had started the descent to 120 feet.

Childs said, "I can only surmise that the skipper had seen bubbles coming back onto the anchor line, and opted to stay and wait for the other divers to surface, rather than sticking to the agreed plan. I lost sight of the boat within about 15 minutes. I inflated my marker buoy and waited."

It was midday

"After an hour and a half, I decided to ditch the weights stored in my Hollis harness-style BCD. I assumed I'd soon be found." Two hours later he saw a helicopter approaching and thought, "Bugger me, these guys are good, found me already." However, it was not to be. It flew within 500 yards of him before it veered away.

"Later I saw the Customs plane come in. It flew right over my head, and it also started to search an area that didn't contain me. At this point, I began to ask myself if the dive boat had also gotten into trouble. The plane's sweeps where getting larger, and as darkness began to set in, I was still confident that the people in the plane would spot me."

Childs had the presence of mind to record himself on his little digital POV camera, capturing his vocalized thoughts, as time passed and the light began to fail. This footage has since gone viral.

His hope of being found faded when search crews failed to find him in the water despite his large orange surface marker buoy.

He had dumped his tank, but said he was nice and warm in his Hollis wetsuit and not over-tired because he was floating. He could have done with a drink of water.

"So that's it. The sun goes down they won't do nothing. That's a wrap on old Jakey," he recorded on his GoPro. He was eventually rescued just after sunset.

"I guess the most disheartening thing from the whole experience was seeing the plane leave. I found out later that it went to a higher altitude." A water police vessel found Childs at 6 p.m.

"It's a long time to spend by yourself," he said a day after being rescued. Apparently, there were a lot of boats out there, but I didn't see any of those ... all I saw and heard was a trawler, which I tried swimming towards," he said.

When hauled from the sea just after sundown, he said all he wanted was a cup of tea. What did he most regret about the experience?

"Missing a $15 T-bone steak at the club hotel."

In 2004, a boatload of divers was swept past their vessel, the Oyster, at Little Brother Island in the Red Sea, and they were left adrift in the open ocean for more than 13 hours, covering 45 miles from where they surfaced. It was not until night fell that thosesearching for them finally saw their bright dive lights. Carrying a fully charged diving flashlight on every dive is a safety measure few divers consider. It could save your life.

- John Bantin

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