We had been diving for a couple of days and our confidence had grown; we cut corners and got away with it, so we pushed things further – to the point where it nearly cost us everything.
This post is about a near miss a buddy and I had a little while back. Our aim in posting this here is two-fold: firstly we hope that others can learn from what we did (and didn't) do and secondly, to help encourage people to talk about their 'drama' moments so that we can all benefit from the learning those moments give us.
To be clear, we did some stupid stuff - we know that - so if you'd like to post a reply about how dumb we were, please don't, we already know.
It's quite a long post: we each give our accounts of what happened and then what we think we learned from the experience. Hopefully seeing it from both perspectives paints a richer picture than just one account.
My buddy would prefer to remain anonymous so some of the location details etc. aren't given. We're both moderately experienced with a few hundred dives each (mostly in UK waters), qualified full cave and at the time had completed around 50 cave dives both in the UK and abroad.
It was the second dive of the day, the first dive resulted in one of the other divers on the boat being taken into the pot. Despite the first dive we all were still pumped to go and do the second dive.
The dive plan was to have a quick look at the rudders at the stern and then to make our way up to some blast damage and head inside the ship there.
We descended to the ship and made our way to the stern, seeing two massive rudders pointing skyward and it was really impressive. As I swam around the back of the rudders, I saw a sizeable hole in the stern that we could get into. I looked at my buddy, gave him the nod and in we went.
The first part was an open area with a few things about that we needed to go up, over and around to get into a passageway (all of which was still in the light zone). We then found a corridor-like passage running deeper into the ship’s internals, we followed this going deeper inside. We got to a point where I thought to myself, this is rather far in without a line, so I covered my torch to see if there was an exit nearby. When I covered it, I noticed about 10m in front of me there was a glow coming from a side passage. I thought it’s all ok that will be our exit, all is well.
I got up to the corner turned left to see a large hole in the ship but the ship’s ribs were running across it, making it a tight squeeze in a twin set and stage, I had a quick go but failed to get through. Then using the walls, I pushed myself out of the passage and back into the corridor. When we entered the viz was good, but by this point it had dropped to just a couple of inches (potentially caused by me trying to pass the restriction then backing up and turning). I got myself facing down what I thought to be the main corridor and then bumped into my mate, face to face (his face was lit up buy the HUD of his CCR).
I pointed behind him and said that’s the way out, to which he pointed in a different direction and said it that way. I then second guessed myself and thought I could be wrong and that I may have lost my orientation when I was turning around. We both then sat there for a moment, I guess one waiting for the other to do something.
As I thought I may have got disorientated I thought my best bet was to follow my mate. He squeezed passed me and I kept a hand on him all the way until I felt his fins (my plan was to follow him out) as I got to his fin then with one fin kick I lost him and the fin. I was then all alone in what had now become near zero viz. I felt the edge of panic start kicking in. I remember thinking to myself and saying to just calm down, slow my breathing, panic will not help (this was also mixed with you’re a f**king d**khead, you know better than this and this is a risk you said you would never take).
After a couple of deep breaths my breathing rate dropped and it felt strangely peaceful (like when you put a black out mask on and do blind exits). I then tried to come up with a plan to get myself out of the situation. I felt around in the dark (unable to see my own torch) trying to find something that I could make sense of. I luckily found a curved wall to my left hand side – on the way in I remember seeing a curved wall to my RHS that I believed was the housing to the prop shaft. Now that this was on my LHS I believed I knew where I was and what direction to be going in (obviously at this point or just before I could have put out a search reel to aid with the search - in hindsight I don’t think this would have helped and potentially would have made it worse due to lack of tie offs and the small passage, I may have become entangled in my own line). I then followed the passage keeping my hand on the LHS wall, as I progressed, I thought that if I was going across the ship in some other passage I would have hit a solid wall by now so I was confident that I was heading in the correct direction. The further I progressed the more the viz cleared and the more of a glow I could see. I ended up in an area I recognised as the area we entered and made my way out of the hole we came in through.
After making my own way out to safety my stomach sank as I was out and there was no sign of my mate, I had a quick look around the entrance area and there was no sign of him just a steady flow of slit coming from the hole. I then reached for my DSMB reel with thin technical line on, tied it off and proceeded to re-enter the ship in search for my mate.
I made my way through the entrance area and found the corridor-like passage we had followed. There weren’t any tie off points I could find in the minimal viz inside. I followed the passage feeling around in alcoves maintain the line tension up to the point where the passage turned left to the opening. At this point I could not locate my mate and thought I best leave the line in so he stood a chance of following it and getting out. I looked to find a tie off but could not find one so I locked off the reel and placed it down.
I tried to follow my line back to the exit. In my 5mm gloves I could not feel the line at all as there was no tension on it so I fumbled around in the dark looking for the reel. At this point I had the dark thought of ‘you’re an idiot, you rolled the dice and survived to just go back in to end up in the same situation’, by this point I was very aware I was clocking up deco time (I knew I had massive reserves of gas from my pre dive planning). I found the reel and started to reel myself out – at which point the reel jammed and stopped turning, knowing I couldn’t just follow the line I forced the reel round all the way to the exit. When I made it out for the second time I looked at the reel and saw that the centre pin had come lose just enough for the line to wrap around it and make reeling in difficult. I discarded my reel in frustration and started another plan to locate my mate.
I then dropped off the side of the ship and was hopping to locate him through the small openings I had seen before so that I could direct him out. I looked down the side of the ship at all these small holes with silt pouring out and didn’t hold much hope. I got about half way up the side from the entrance hole and the passage restriction and just sticking out of the silt was my mates fin. I pulled on his fin he backed up and turned around. He shouted through his loop ‘that was f**king scary’ I nodded and gave him a hug.
Both on the outside we thumbed the dive and said to go back to the shot line. On the way back I popped over to the entrance hole and retrieved my reel, we both headed up to the shot line and at the bottom of it we had a quick re-evaluation of the gas left and both decided to have a quick little swim around the top of the ship.
The most profound moment that has stuck with me and that I don’t think I will ever forget was hanging on the shot line for 20 minutes looking at my mate beneath me thinking , he could so easily not have been there and I would have had to explain to his family why he is no longer about. Equally, he could have had to explain to my family why I’m not about, or very easily our mates on the boat could be trying to explain why neither of us are there and we would have just become another statistic.
We were a few days into a week-long dive trip, wreck diving off a hard boat in UK waters. We'd been doing run times of about an hour, including a bit of deco.
This was the second dive of the day, max depth would be around 45m (in the event, max depth achieved was 38m). I was on a CCR with two 7L of 21/25 (both full to about 210 bar), buddy was on open circuit (2x12L of 25/35 full to about 220 bar) and an AL80 of 50/10 for deco (full to 200 bar).
On the boat, kitting up, the very last thing I did was pull on my right dry glove. I'd replaced the glove after the first dive that day because of a slight leak, unfortunately in replacing it I had put the glove onto the rings inside out and so in effect, I had two left gloves. Never mind I said, I'll just dive it as is and pulled it on, my right hand felt somewhat cramped but I thought it would be alright (as I recall we were not far off the shot and jumping in time).
We jumped in and descended to the wreck. On the surface and on the way down I couldn't quite reach the switch on my canister to turn on my primary light (because my glove made my hand clumsy) so I pulled out one of my backups and clipped it off on my wrist and used that instead.
We hit the wreck, mooched about a bit then found a nice big hole to have a look into. In we swam. We were in a large room with various bits of machinery hanging around making the route inside a little bit of a zig-zag. My buddy was ahead, perhaps 5-8m or so ahead, visibility was fine and I could easily see him. I referenced a large piece of curved pipework as we went in and as we swam on it briefly occurred to me that this was possibly a bit further than we'd been in on other wrecks during the week.
We weren't very far in, maybe 20m or so in a straight line, but because of the zig-zagging in the big room it felt like a lot less. I was in an area where it was getting a bit narrower and slowed up - my buddy had just turned left ahead and was now approaching an open doorway (I could easily see him - the left turn was around some broken bits of metal). I thought if he turns back it is going to be tricky for me to turn around here, perhaps I'll just wait at the corner ahead (which was a bit wider). When I looked back at him he had already turned and was coming back.
I didn't think I'd get to the corner to turn around in time to avoid bumping into him, nor could I easily turn where I was. I didn't really think about back-finning where I was as I couldn't see for sure behind me (my ccr is a chest mount and I can't simply drop my head to look behind like). So I thought if I move slightly to the side right where I am, he can pass me as he exits and I can follow him out having turned around either at the corner ahead or just where I was.
The next thing I remember is my buddy approaching and the visibility dropping to about six inches as the silt came in. I suspect me moving across was enough to disturb a big pile of silt, but don't know for sure what caused the silt-out. There followed some confusion, I half-turned at this point towards the exit and shouted through my mouthpiece, "I think it is this way", and pointed to my left. I think my buddy may have gestured but I couldn't see his hands properly. I do distinctly remember seeing his computer near my face and that he had 4 minutes of NDL time left.
Somewhat stressed, I looked away for a moment and buried my torch in silt, it came out and promptly failed. I felt that was quite disappointing and so got my second (and final) backup out and turned it on. At that point I could no longer see my buddy nor the glow from his light, which was also quite disappointing. I called through my mouthpiece but heard nothing. So I tried to work my way forward in the direction I thought the exit was, but kept bumping into bits of ship in the almost zero vis. It just so happens my first backup started working again at this point.
After a moment or two of this, it did cross my mind, "Is this how we die?"
Strangely the thought that immediately followed was, "How embarrassing. We've already had one guy get bent and now we're going to have two fatalities!" (After the first dive that day one of the divers on the boat had been sent to the chamber with a suspected minor bend.)
I paused then and thought I may have been a bit negative (hence burying my torch in silt) so I gave my wing a burst of gas and carried on looking for an exit. All the way through this the vis was about six inches or less.
I rummaged around a bit more in a not very systematic way when, looking up, I saw a slightly lighter patch. As I pulled myself further up, I saw a definite exit - not the one we came in, but definitely clear water. I pulled myself through it and felt very relieved to be outside, the exit was however not big, I didn't think my buddy would have fitted through it easily with his twinset and stage (I was in sidemount).
My next thought was for my buddy, was he still in there? I had to go in and check. I reached for my spool, to tie off and make the search, but again, my glove made me clumsy and all I managed to do was to drop the spool as I tried to unclip it. Hoping that my buddy had got out somewhere else I swam up to the top of the wreck to look around, not seeing him I went back to the hole, silt was still pouring out of the hole I'd just come through and I knew that without a line I couldn't go back in to search – I'll never forget being there holding on to the edge of that hole thinking, "I can't go back in there without a line. I can't go back in there without a line." (I did actually have an SMB tied onto a ratchet reel that I could possibly have used but it just didn't occur to me at all and in any case, the reel had thin 'technical' line on it.)
A few seconds later I felt a tug on my fin - my buddy had made it out and had found me staring back into the hole!
We composed ourselves and then finished the dive with a short swim around the outside of the wreck before ascending and completing our deco without further event.
The entire time inside the wreck was only around twelve minutes - though it felt like a great deal longer.
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
You've probably already spotted the biggest error - we didn't lay a line on the way in. If we had laid a line the exit would have been annoying, but routine. But why didn't we lay a line?
Earlier in the week we'd been looking in and swimming a short distance inside other wrecks without incident. We became complacent and got away with it until we found ourselves in a larger space with lots of silt. Neither of us had a proper wreck or cave reel with us.
Ironically, I think cave diving also had some effect - I wouldn't dream of entering a cave without a line, but here we were 'only' wreck diving so I think I unconsciously decided the wreck was less hazardous than a cave. I had also got used to just following my buddy (who is excellent at navigation) and was becoming a bit of a passenger rather than actively thinking about and managing the dive properly.
The glove was a secondary issue, when someone has a minor kit problem I'm usually the first to say don't dive with problem kit as little problems can easily lead to more and bigger problems later - why I didn't take my own advice with the glove while on the boat I'm not entirely sure, I think it was not wanting to slow us up getting into the water.
On the plus side, we did a few things well - we were both pretty calm through the whole thing and managed our breathing rates well.
While I was hunting for the exit on my own I didn't feel panicked - if I had been able to take the time to think about gas etc. a bit better I would have (perhaps) been comforted to know that on ccr I had loads of gas available and so plenty of time to find my way out - I could even have possibly just waited the silt out to see if it would settle.
What did we learn?
• Every dive should be treated with respect, we made the mistake of dismissing this as ‘just a wreck’.
• We were overconfident, largely because we had just completed a series of successful dives in similar environments.
• Listen to that little voice in your head when it says, 'is this really a good idea?'
• When there's any kind of stress situation, take a moment: breathe, think about the environment and what's happening, what resources you have, what actions you can take and what the consequences of those actions might be before taking hasty action
• Do as you were trained: always lay a line in overhead environments and always use reels with good thick line on them so you can feel the line through thick gloves.
• Don’t be a 'passenger' when you’re not leading the dive, stay aware and thinking ahead
• Have a serious think about risk before diving with kit that isn't 100%
• Wear light coloured gloves and remember to light your hand when giving a signal (it is so easy to forget the light when stressed, which makes the hand invisible)
A friend of ours who was also on the dive (in a different buddy pair) shot some video that showed the hole we had entered while we were inside. It was quite a contrast, seeing his buddy calmly swimming around, completely unaware that all that silt pouring out of the hole in the background was us, hunting for an exit.