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September 2017    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 32, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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A Fast Trip to the Top Is Disastrous

faulty gear or lack of familiarity can kill

from the September, 2017 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

British diver Steven Slater (46) from Gateshead, UK, knew he was going to die as he accelerated toward the surface.

Slater was an accomplished technical and CCR diver who, in difficult conditions, had investigated many deep wrecks.

He and his buddy had made a long flight to the U.S. They were both fatigued when, on July 24th, they endured a rough crossing to the wreck of the SS Andrea Doria, which sank on the way to New York in 1956. It collided with the MS Stockholm, killing 46 people.

But, he went diving. On the deck of the wreck at 165 feet, (50m), he knew he had a problem with his wing inflator mechanism. He needed both hands to hold on to prevent himself from hurtling upward and could not get to his knife or reach his lower dump valve. His buddy, who tried to keep hold of him, couldn't help. She, too, was being dragged upward and had to let him go.

To slow himself, Slater would have had to battle with expanding air in his drysuit and in his CCR counter-lung, as well as the wing. A rapid and uncontrolled ascent without the mandatory deco stops would result in a massive gas embolism. When he reached the surface, he was still conscious, but he knew he wasn't going to survive. He didn't, despite the valiant efforts of those on the dive boat Ol' Salty II to save him.

The wreck of the Andria Doria continues to claim lives -- 13 since 1998. In the wake of a glut of deaths in the 13 months from 1998 to 1999, a senior aide to Congressman William Delahunt said he was considering legislation to strengthen regulations involving scuba diving. In 2000, Congress threatened to pass a diving safety law for recreational technical divers, but 30 northeastern diving boat operators voluntarily agreed to raise requirements for diving on the wreck and to conduct background checks to ensure such divers were competent. The legislation was dropped.

The Wreck of the Andrea Doria has claimed 13 lives since 1988.

Even so, some divers today are not adequately prepared, and even very experienced divers like Steven Slater have perished exploring the wreck. But it still lures divers.

Sitting at 250 feet (77m), it doesn't appear deep to experienced technical divers, at ease with going deeper. But with water temperatures as low as an icy 40°F (4°C) -- cold enough to cause some regulators to freeze -- and currents that are both fierce and unpredictable, the dive is beyond the limits of all but the most experienced divers. Even so, in July 2006, David Bright, who had dived the wreck more than hundred times, lost his life while helping to prepare the site for a 50th-anniversary dive.

Fast and uncontrolled ascents can be lethal and can happen to the most competent diver -- and just when he's not expecting it. I once had an uncontrolled ascent, but I was luckier.

My wife and I made multiple dives on the wreck of the Bianca C back in the early '90s when few were aware what a good dive she made. An Italian cruise liner, she rests just off Grand Anse beach in Grenada; towed there, she caught fire in St. John's harbor. She sits on the bottom at 165 feet (50m) -- a little too deep for recreational divers in those days.

Back then, the wreck sat on even keel, looking very much like the ocean liner she had been. It was christened The Titanic of the Caribbean, and I was one of the first to write a full-length feature about it for a diving magazine.

Long before the advent of nitrox and the popularity of mixed gas diving, we breathed only air, so our twinset dives were always concluded with lengthy decompression stops that saw us surfacing in the prevailing current some miles from the dive site. Of course, our boat driver knew exactly where we were because we always sent up a delayed surface marker buoy (DSMB) before leaving the shelter of the wreck and starting up. You don't need to put a lot of air into a DSMB at that depth because the air expands on the way to the surface. We also used a McMahon reel. It was big but simple and simply always worked.

Twenty years later we revisited the Bianca C. Her hull, its steel weakened by the intense heat of the fire, had been unable to resist the powerful seas generated by hurricane Ivan in 2004, and she had become more wreckage than wreck. That said, she still makes an exciting dive, with plenty of colorful coral and sponges now adorning the torn and twisted metal.

I'd just interrupted my decompression plan with an unplanned yet fast trip to the surface.

We made our way around the wreck, each sad that this was no longer the dream wreck we had visited in the past, but we had the convenience of faster off-gassing on the way up, thanks to carrying additional cylinders of nitrox 50 as well as the air we used as bottom gas. We both experienced a feeling of deja vu as we started our ascent after 20 minutes of stop time. We'd done this so many times before.

Once we'd left the datum of the wreckage, we were in the sensory deprivation zone of blue water, bombing along on the prevailing current. However, we deviated from our habitual ascent procedure from days gone by. I decided to send up the DSMB when we swapped to our nitrox mix at a mid-water stop at 60 feet (18m). I had a brand-new ratchet reel, a fancy stainless steel number that looked as impressive as the movement of any long case clock. I hadn't used it before.

I deftly unfurled the buoy so that it hovered above me and exhaled from my regulator into its open end just as I had done a thousand dives before. The buoy set off on its way to the surface, but the line went taut. The reel had jammed.

What to do? I hastily attempted to unjam it, but to no effect. I then had to make a quick decision. If I let the buoy go, our boat cover would follow it, leaving us to ascend to an empty ocean. I instantly decided to go with it to the surface, exhaling hard as I went and leaving my wife where she was, safely breathing nitrox at 60 feet (18m). I reached the surface rapidly.

This was not good. I quickly inverted the buoy at the surface to vent it and shot back down my wife's bubble stream. Back at 60 feet (18m), I had time to untangle the reel. It was a victim of its own sophistication, with too many bits that a line could catch on if it was not held exactly horizontal as the line was deployed.

My second attempt to send up the buoy was successful. We had plenty of gas to breathe, and the buoy made our whereabouts known to our boat cover.

I'd just interrupted my decompression plan with an unplanned yet fast trip to the surface and back -- so I reverted to an air diving profile while breathing a lower proportion of nitrogen in my deco gas. I feared what awaited me regarding ill effects once we ascended again.

We eventually made a cautious ascent to the surface, where we were picked up. I immediately put myself on 100 percent oxygen for 30 minutes as a precaution, and no symptoms of physical damage became apparent. A thoroughly relaxed dive that had once been routine was ruined by a moment of chaos and danger caused by unfamiliarity with a new and untested piece of gear.

--john@undercurrent.org

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