It happened to me
Lost In The Dark
A dive on a shotted wreck proved a salutary experience for diver Martin Baker
I was a recently qualified divemaster with around 100 dives under my belt. A group of us had planned a trip to the South Coast and booked a local skipper and his boat for a day’s diving. The weather had been touch-and-go up to the last minute, but we decided it was worth the journey.
We had been promised a great dive on a U-boat near the Isle of Wight. That was the only information we had been given by the group leader; nevertheless, it was enough to whet our diving appetites.
For some of us it would be a first wreck, but even for the most experienced members of the group, a U-boat was going to be something special. However, it was a dark, wet morning and the sea conditions did not look favourable. As soon as we arrived at the harbour and saw the expression on the skipper’s face, we knew the weather would not allow us to dive the U-boat. However, we were offered the chance to dive on a Second World War cargo ship at a maximum depth of 20m. It sounded like an easy dive, and although disappointed about the U-boat, we were all keen to investigate. I was happy to be buddied up with a divemaster trainee for the day.
We both went down the shot-line and the first sign of trouble was at 15m. Being a UK-trained diver, I was used to low visibility, but these conditions were something else. It was not just low visibility – it was as if the lights had been turned out. No light, just blackness.
We switched on our torches and carried on the last few metres of the descent until touchdown. We landed right next to a metre-long metal spike. I remember thinking: ‘How did I miss seeing that?’.
Undeterred, the two of us headed off to explore. In the torchlight we saw a few crabs, the odd tyre, and lots of metal. I spotted a crate of some sort and went to swim over it. Suddenly, there was a bang. My head had hit a ceiling. We had swum an unknown distance into an overhead environment and we didn’t even know it!
In our excitement, we had forgotten the most important rule of diving in wrecks in low visibility – neither of us had tied off a reel to the shot-line! We had no idea where we were. At first, I was angry with myself for being the more experienced of the two and leading us into such a dangerous situation. Then the fear and panic started to set in. I could feel my heart pounding and my air consumption increasing. I screamed at myself through the regulator.
I knew that with the crate in front, I had to turn 180 degrees to get back out. I slowly turned us around, but on the way in we had kicked up the silt. The torch illuminated only around 18 inches (45cm) of water at a time. I had my arm outstretched in front, trying to feel my way out through the silt. The visibility was 50cm – I couldn’t see my free hand.
After what seemed like an eternity, I spotted a faint light in the distance, which I knew must have been a diver’s torch. It quickly disappeared, but it was enough. I thought maybe they had used reels and we could follow them out. We made our way over to where we thought we last saw them. The shot-line then came into view. We grabbed hold of it, calmed down for a minute and then started our ascent. Again at 15m, we went from darkness to light. However, visibility was still low. It then dawned on me – the shot didn’t land beside the wreck, it had gone into the wreck. We had blindly followed it.
We surfaced after a safety stop to find the boat waiting. We were both on around 30 bar at the surface. We had been in the water less than 20 minutes and used up the gas in our panic. The group leader was already on board. It turned out that both he and his buddy had aborted the dive during the descent when they realised the shot had gone into the hold.
With hindsight, the errors are obvious. The moment we descended into darkness, I should have aborted the dive. The metal spike was yet another warning sign that I should abort. I allowed my excitement to pressure me into continuing a dive that I should have aborted and which would prove to be one I was not trained for – a dive in an overhead environment.
That excitement caused what could have been my final mistake: not attaching the reel to the shot-line to allow myself a way out in low visibility. Today, as a trimix instructor, if I am standing on the boat deck in full kit and tell the guys ‘This one’s not for me’, they accept it without question and let me walk away. The most important dive skill we should all master is the ability to say ‘no’ – if it doesn’t feel right, you have the choice of walking away.