Attitude and Awareness: Honing The Survival Edge

Rarely does everything go exactly the way we want it to in life: business, diving and especially take-out food. That’s okay, because the serendipitous events of the unexpected can sometimes be a great learning experience. Or they can be yet another episode in natural selection.

Anticipation is, of course, a first line of awareness that conditions the diver to expect things to go wrong and be constantly adjusting a mental to-do list when circumstances find him “circling the drain” in a bad situation. Mental preparation and skills conditioning are the first elements of survival. But it helps to have the extra edge of knowing you can beat the situation simply based on will and attitude. Remarkably, the only difference between some survivors and those who perished was the attitude of each individual.

In diving, preparation for contingencies can ease your  eventual encounter with them. But almost as important is developing an “attitude” of confidence that allows you the edge in dealing with stressful and dangerous scenarios. My first dive was in the late 1950’s and since then I’ve managed to step into the world of contingencies with both feet firmly planted on more than few occasions. Several brushes with mortality were thwarted, perhaps  simply by refusing to accept that my number was up. And although scared, I was still running through the checklist of options instead of giving up.

Consider this quotation from How to Survive on Land and Sea originally published in a U.S. Navy publication in 1943:

Life’s battles do not always go

To the stronger or faster man,

But sooner or later the man who wins

Is the man who thinks he can.

There are accounts of WWII seamen who managed to escape death in sunken convoy vessels, only to lose hope in lifeboats and simply decide to die. Their shipmates who marshaled courage to cope with the fear  were able to “decide to live”  in exactly the same circumstance and were rescued.

There are similar accounts in diving. Consider the oft-told story of the individual who became lost in a cave system and spent the final 20 minutes of his life writing a lengthy message to his family on his dive slate. When his body was found several days later, he was within 100 feet of the exit. Now I don’t know about you, but I think he might have better used that time and his remaining air supply to take a more proactive role in seeking a way out.

A few years ago, three divers got separated from their dive boat and drifted away in the dark Gulf  Stream. In spite of being similarly equipped and in warm water, two died and one survived. The survivor later recounted discussions between his partners as to the utter hopelessness of their situation. “Will we drown, die of thirst, or be eaten by sharks?” Not exactly the power of positive thinking. “The hell with door #3, Monty, I’ll take what Carol’s got on her table,” pretty much summed up the survivor’s attitude, and he finally swam away rather than listen to more of the grim dialogue that seemed to be measuring him for a coffin already. He was retrieved on the third day.

Underwater, our most serious contingencies come down sooner or later to air supply. When that’s gone, in most cases, so are you. There are endless lists of ways to avoid running out of air, and with modern submersible pressure gauges, no diver should face that situation unless he has become unexpectedly trapped without an egress to the surface. This happens in caves, wrecks, ice and other overhead environments. But even then, if you keep your cool, there is every fighting chance that the situation can be overcome with a bit of luck and some creative thinking.

I’m sure everyone who read about the divers lost in Palau on a drift dive in 1994 had to shudder. A combination of mistakes ultimately led to their marooning but the biggest problem ultimately was that they could not be seen by rescuers looking for them. There have been millions of words written on how to survive the unexpected underwater, but little devoted to surviving a bad situation once the diver makes it back to surface. And that’s where we should be able to muster a fairly strong argument that it’s not our week to be fish food if some common sense is applied to supplementing our gear packages.

Surface signaling apparatus should be a part of every diver’s standard equipment for every dive. We have the economical tools to provide at least a fighting chance for rescue if an inflatable “sausage” and a flasher are carried. These items are small enough to be carried without intrusion and cheap enough to remove a financial obstacle.

I have spent far too many occasions in my career being abandoned by Third World boat drivers (through a variety of scenarios). If you have not experienced the singular pleasures of watching the sun set over the Yucatan as you drift north at four knots past Cozumel while your boat steams anxiously in the opposite direction…well, you really haven’t appreciated the island as has someone who watched the lights of Carlos & Charlie’s fade between wave crests. After my last thrill-packed drift into Mexican oblivion in 1989 that lasted nearly four hours, I went out and bought a carton of “safety sausage” floats, and gave them out like cigars from a proud dad. Now I also carry the Helix strobe for possible night situations, and some orange smoke flares for the daytime when my schedule has me in real or potential drift situations, or if I don’t know the boat operator. And I’ve used them every year when Mr. Murphy inevitably strikes.

I’m also a firm believer in borrowing money from the captain at the beginning of the trip. Funny how that bond seems to keep them alert. “There’s a diver missing? Yeah, call me if you don’t find them in an hour or so. Oh Christ, it may be Gilliam and he owes me 50 bucks!” Now the choppers are scrambled.

But all kidding aside, there are a variety of excellent products that can dramatically increase your odds of being detected in a dark, rough ocean., and the investment is probably less than your New Year’s Eve bar bill. Consider the following:

1. Some variety of inflatable “safety sausage”
2. A long life battery powered flasher or strobe
3. A small signaling mirror
4. Smoke for day and flares for night
5. A folding compact radar reflector
6. A Dive Alert sonic alert (this device has saved countless lives)
7. A modern submersible EPRIB device

All these items can be stored in a BC pocket or in a tank-mounted fanny pack. They can be the difference between being found and rescued or a Donner party scenario. After all, it would really be a bummer to effect a magnificent free ascent from 200 feet or some other life-threatening scenario only to expire because you drifted away in the fog and no one could find you.

Regardless of the circumstance, remember that your will to survive may very well be the only edge you have on others who toss their chips in early. Fear is a potent adversary but the human species has a remarkable ability to endure what might seem impossible. It all comes down to confidence. And attitude.

You can start by wearing your ballcap backwards and an old Raiders football tee shirt under your wetsuit. Al Davis was right: “Just win, baby!”

Bret Gilliam is a 38-year veteran of professional diving and an indusry consultant on safety and operations protocols. He was the founder of TDI and SDI training agencies and has logged over 18,000 dives. More about Bret »

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3 thoughts on “Attitude and Awareness: Honing The Survival Edge”

  1. There’s something with the attitude and sheer will to live that can really change a man’s life and survival. I think there’s certain thruths the article is pointing out that make a good point. Choosing to die is not really gonna help you in any way as an individual. Made me think. Thanks!

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  2. Bret is right on the mark. Last week after surfacing from a 55 minute dive at Burracuta reef in Cozumel the boat was no where to be found. There were just two divers, the dive master and myself. I inflated my sausage and used it for water wings for over two hours. We spotted a sail boat coming in our direction. As he began to pass about 400 feet from us I realized he was not looking in our direction. I sounded my Dive Alert horn and I saw his head turn in our direction. We were rescued my the sail boat. The safty items I carried and used on this event were sausage, pocket snorkle, DAN mirror Dive Alert horn and most important cool head.

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  3. Great article. As one of those traveling divers, I too can attest to the need for safety equipment. My experience has shown that you occasionally need that equipment even in the best locations. I have had my air turned off by well meaning buddies and been lost from the group while getting the last best photo. Buddy diving is nice, but don’t rely on it for your safety. So far I have never been left for hours like some. At age 72 (with over 50 years diving experience) I have had a lot of the unfortunate experiences and that positive attitude plus good physical conditioning, and reading the experiences of others from time to time, has helped me out of most of the diving problems.

    Again, great article!

    Harry Ivey

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