It happened to me
Fighting For Breath
A difficult ascent taught Ian Muirhead the importance of keeping your head in a crisis
Three of us had joined a trimix rebreather trip off Ireland’s Donegal coast. While we were there, we dived the SS Lochgarry.
As we descended the shot, it was evident that our skipper had got his sums wrong or slack water hadn’t arrived yet. The tide was running a bit, but viz was good and we were experienced divers. So down we went, hoping slack would arrive soon.
After half an hour, the tide was running even stronger, so we headed back to the shot. It was clear that our weight and the raging current would combine to make an uncomfortable trip up the line, and when we saw fishing hooks lodged in it, just waiting to skewer a misplaced hand, we decided to drift. I launched my delayed SMB, which immediately snaked off sideways instead of up, the reel spewing line at a horrendous rate. Eventually, the line stopped as the buoy finally made the surface, and that’s where it all started to go wrong.
A lot of line had fed out and both buddies stayed close as we ascended. However, as I wound the line in, I increasingly had difficulty breathing, as though something was preventing me from getting a full breath. Sometimes this can happen on a rebreather if the loop volume isn’t right, but this was different – I’d not felt like this before.
I manually added gas and checked my partial pressure of oxygen – everything was okay – but by now I was really gasping. I looked up and saw my mates’ fins disappear into the green gloom above me – I was alone gasping for air with around 20m of water between the surface and me.
I was pumping gas round the rebreather at a hell of a rate. Was it too quick for the scrubber to remove the unwanted CO2? Was that the problem? I had no idea, but I bailed off onto my sidemount. However, bailing onto open circuit didn’t make an iota of difference – I still couldn’t breathe.
I was subconsciously doing everything I’d learned over the years to make the ascent, even venting the expanding gas in the now redundant rebreather as I went. I remember thinking, ‘Maybe it’s a heart attack, but there’d be more pain.’ I couldn’t fathom what was going on.
Finally, one of my buddies came back into view. He saw the rebreather hoses floating above my head and the near-constant plume of bubbles spewing from the hard-driven regulator, but there was nothing he could do other than be there.
After what seemed an eternity, I was nearing the shallows. I fought the urge to break for the surface – once again, training and experience took over – and I went back onto the rebreather loop to breathe as much oxygen as I could for the rest of the way up. I’d been breathing gas at a horrendous rate with no idea how much nitrogen I’d absorbed, and I needed to get rid of as much of it as possible. Finally, I broke the surface – I’d never been so glad of the sight of a wet, miserable Irish day.
It took a lot of soul searching and gear checking before I dived again. Remarkably, my computer showed a clear ascent – no alarms or warnings – and physically I was none the worse, but mentally I was pretty shaken. I examined all my kit, and did several dives before I eventually tracked the problem down – it was my drysuit zip. I had a self-donning suit with the zip across the front. It was pressing into my chest, restricting my breathing. I now have a new suit and have dived with it 30 times without a problem.
Looking back, what saved me that day was the many hours of training, skills practice and experience I’d gained over the years. When you’re diving, the only person you can truly rely on to be there and deal with the problem is yourself. There are no shortcuts in learning diving skills, and once learned, these skills need to be practised until they become automatic.
My thanks go to the dive instructors and divers I have learned from over the years. Experience and the skills you taught me made the difference and probably saved my life.