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April 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 44, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Solutions for Rescue When Lost at Sea

they are not as simple as you might presume

from the April, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Being injured or lost at sea is a problem that can occupy many discussions among divers. Internet forums are always busy with armchair experts espousing what should have been done to expedite a swift rescue whenever a diver gets lost.

But, the real-world scenarios are what counts. Today, many divers carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) and have faith that should they need to trigger it, international rescue services will come into play, and they will soon be picked up by a Search & Rescue helicopter. It may be true if they are near civilization, but many divers now visit more remote places like Cocos Island and Raja Ampat.

Avi Klapfer, the founder of the Undersea Hunter Fleet, has taken around 18,000 divers to dive Cocos Island during the last quarter of a century. Cocos is 330 nautical miles from the Costa Rican mainland and requires a 36-hour journey from the home port of Punta Arenas. His present fleet includes Sea Hunter and Argo. We asked his thoughts.

"In the case of Cocos Island, or [similar] areas, out of regular governmental search and rescue zones, it will take any team a day or more to arrive at the location. This is the best-case scenario, where rescue coordinators can actually intercept a navy ship with such capability."

"The chances of a drift-away diver being found and rescued diminish rapidly with every hour that passes, the first hour being the most crucial. Ocean currents in remote locations such as Cocos are affected by the island land mass. Just like a large rock in a river, the island forms eddies and rebound currents. The effects of these deflections can stretch for several miles."

"When a Search & Rescue team, unfamiliar with these local deflections, arrives at a location after a day or even only several hours, they might begin searching at a wrong place, which makes finding a drifting object even more difficult. In other words, in remote locations, it is the vessel operator [already there] who must prepare and perform both search and rescue. Any other ways are left to chance and pure luck."

The Undersea Hunter operation supplies a Nautilus Lifeline to every one of its passenger-divers. Each forms an electronic beacon for use in a dire emergency. Avi says that although it is an excellent device, alone, it will not suffice.

"If a diver believes he can fire any PLB at any time, anywhere and get rescued, he is in for an unpleasant surprise!"

"Like any other electronic device that communicates with another system, it should be set up or registered with another available device -- in our case, a computable GPS-ready VHF radio. We equip each of our divers with one of our PLBs, which is numbered and paired with our computable VHF radio units. When a diver fires his unit, it will alert several monitoring posts. An identification number will appear that allows us to head the nearest boat directly to a specific person. We practice it regularly and usually reach the test PLB within 20 minutes from the time it was initiated."

There are no hospitals or coastguard facilities on Cocos, and the nearest hyperbaric chamber is 350 miles away. Undercurrent asked what happens if they have a medical emergency (as they sadly had since we initiated this conversation) and how do they evacuate the casualty?

"The only way is by a boat. It is too far for any local helicopter. Typically no other boat is available, and we must use the main vessel to go back."

What About the Diver's Insurance?

We've asked about the effectiveness of insurance for divers in the past (Undercurrent March 2018) and even if a vessel has adequate cover should you get injured while aboard (Undercurrent Nov 2017).

Avi said, "Most insurance policies cover evacuation. However, evacuation from remote locations such as Cocos Island carries a tricky catch. Although medical consulting is readily available and is offered via phone at all times, our experience with physical evacuation shows that insurers have very little control over the actual rescue boat availability."

"They do 'the best they can,' which is their commitment over all. Unless they own or have their own vessel on standby (which they rarely do), they will continue to offer 'their best.' This means they have an agreement with a local, or in some cases, a regional contact that receives a call from their dispatch (somewhere else in the world). They most often know very little about conditions in the area concerned."

"They then refer the request to their liaison office, which usually goes through another local link to call a vessel owner on their list, who then alerts the crew. The captain then needs to get the boat prepared and fueled, but only after they get an advance payment through a bank. This all takes time -- usually until the next day. This is if you are lucky to have the services of such a boat at all."

So does the Undersea Hunter fleet have its own emergency rescue plan in place?

"We must, and we do! The safest way is to handle the evacuation through our local contact with various boat owners. Then we have our land crew expedite support, payment, and fuel if necessary. We claim the cost from the insurance, which is usually committed to cover it. This is considered a bargain on their behalf because of the efficient way we offer to get [their insurance liability] out from a tight corner."

What further advice does Avi offer to divers considering trips to these ever-more-remote locations?

"Ask the operator how they handle [an emergency] evacuation. If insurance is the answer, then at least, for example at Cocos, you know what your chances are going to be."

So it looks as though carrying a PLB and having fully paid-up insurance cover doesn't make a diver immune from problems?

Avi advises, "Hand-held VHF radios with built-in GPS are readily available and affordable, and these are used in conjunction with a Personal Location Beacon (PLB). My suggestion is to buy the VHF radio alongside the PLB. One such VHF can serve any number of PLBs.

The diver should set the hand-held VHF up to the right screen mode and hand it to the skiff or boat operator, together with a short explanation of what to do should the alarm sound. Be aware that the alarm signal is not constant. It is set to alternate [over a period of time] to conserve the PLB's battery power. So the would-be rescuer must know and recognize the specific intervals."

So, in most remote locations, a local and autonomous solution is the most effective. Also, every diver should carry a highly visible attention-grabbing device such as a flag on an extending pole or a safety sausage, for use at the surface. A low-tech response to getting lost at sea can often be the quickest.

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