IT HAPPENED TO ME
Underwater Weight Loss
When confronted with a distressed diver struggling with a slipping weight belt and low on air, Peter Batchelour faced a race against time to save his life
It was a wet, overcast summer’s evening in Falmouth, Cornwall, with slack high-water predicted for our planned dive at the Carrick Roads. We travelled down the River Fal to reach the site. Aware that diving must not conflict with shipping movements, we radioed both the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and Falmouth Docks before we began diving.
Our group consisted of both advanced and sports divers. I am a former Navy diver of 27 years, a BSAC Advanced Diver and a PADI Divemaster, and my buddy was experienced and clearly able. I waited with her until the initial wave of divers descended. We decided to initially dive to 25m and then use the sea bed’s sloping contours to slowly ascend and maximise our time within a safe profile.
We reached our intended depth by finning along the steep wall of the East Narrows, and, as briefed, used the gentle sand gradients to slowly ascend. However, towards the end of the dive, we unexpectedly found a lone diver at about 18m who was clearly distressed. As we approached him, it became obvious that his weight belt had slipped and he was unable to reposition it.
While my buddy held and calmed the diver, I tried to secure the belt. The visibility was low and we were drifting into deeper water. The diver was becoming more anxious and the situation was worsening – the weight belt had slipped down and was at risk of being lost.
I signalled that we must surface. Determined to avoid an uncontrolled ascent, I managed to remove the weight belt and place it in the diver’s hand. As we moved upwards, the now hyperventilating diver signalled that he was out of air, so my buddy passed her octopus to him.
When we surfaced, I signalled to the dive boat that there was a problem. But when I turned to the distressed diver, I was astounded to see that he hadn’t ditched the weight belt. I ripped it away it from his grip, but then he suddenly rotated and was face down and unconscious in the water.
He was a large man, and I found it difficult to turn him over. I managed to float him on his back and tried to give two rescue breaths. We then hauled the casualty face outwards up and over the RIB tube, and I gave two more rescue breaths. After stripping off both the casualty’s and my own dive kit, I got on board to help the coxswain to resuscitate him.
Once in the dive boat, I attempted further rescue breaths, but the diver remained unconscious with pronounced cyanosis. We sent a ‘mayday’ call to the MCA, who alerted the RNLI and initiated a Royal Navy Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopter. Fortunately, the inshore lifeboat was on exercise on the Fal and quickly arrived on the scene. Then, just before I started chest compressions, the casualty vomited seawater and began to breathe.
After a brief discussion with the RNLI crew, we agreed that the casualty and I should transfer to their RIB for a rapid transit to the Falmouth Lifeboat slipway. During the journey, the casualty received pure oxygen. He continued to vomit occasionally, and his pallor and his breathing became stronger.
The SAR helicopter was now overhead, ready to airlift the casualty to the Diving Disease Research Centre (DDRC) in Plymouth for treatment and probable recompression. He was strapped into a lightweight stretcher while remaining on oxygen, having become more responsive. It had become a team effort and we had thankfully won. The diver had survived.
The reaction of my buddy in the water was exemplary. She remained calm throughout and correctly donated her octopus to the distressed diver, reflecting excellent training and drills. Divers should regularly practise such lifesaving skills.
In-water rescues are not easy. My attempt to save the diver was not polished, but was ultimately effective. Divers’ first-aid skills must be maintained and practised, and each dive boat must carry medical and oxygen administration kits. Don’t be complacent by believing that diving incidents happen to others.
A contributory factor to this incident was a poorly fitted weight belt. The importance of a secure and easily located weight belt cannot be understated and is included in pre-dive checks for good reasons.
The situation posed other questions, such as whether the diver was fit to dive. Diving requires individual integrity and honesty. If you are not truly in good shape, you may place yourself or other divers in danger. Stop smoking, lose weight or simply don’t dive until you are fit.
The incident also highlighted the value of my naval training, as it resulted in a successful resuscitation under testing conditions. But most importantly, a human life had been saved.