it happened to me
Taking A Hit
Mike Porteous finds out the painful way that a surface marker buoy doesn’t always protect you from boat traffic
I’m a PADI staff instructor, and while I was teaching in Thailand two years ago I was asked to take out two inexperienced divers – a Discover Scuba student and an open water diver who hadn’t dived for ten years. A divemaster trainee, a South African guy called Ewald Cronje, joined us on the dive. We were diving at Koh Rinn (Gnat Island), which is visited daily by several dive operators, and there was some boat traffic around on the day.
The island is approximately five nautical miles southeast of Pattaya. It’s actually prohibited to land on the island, as it’s owned by the Thai military, but over the preceding six months or so, more and more boats had been taking day trippers there, ferrying them to shore in small speedboats. There was an unwritten rule that these speedboats would stay to the north of the bay and the dive boats to the south.
I took the divers into the water and deployed a surface marker buoy (SMB) and we started to swim out a bit deeper and towards some coral.
I had instructed Ewald to buddy up with the qualified diver, and I would buddy the Discover Scuba diving student, but the plan was to all to stick together as a group. We were pretty much at the surface, 1m deep, when I suddenly heard and at the same time saw, a speedboat about 4m away. It was heading straight for my buddy’s head, who at this point was ascending.
I grabbed him and pushed him down as hard as I could, away from the propeller. But every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so I went up. I remember hearing and feeling a thud. Then there were lots of bubbles and the sound of the propeller hitting metal (my tank) and then hitting my hip. The engine of the boat struggled as the neoprene of my wetsuit wrapped around it.
I quickly established buoyancy for my buddy and, within a second, Ewald was at my side doing the same for me. I told him I was okay and that he should stick close to his buddy.
I looked under the water expecting to see blood, but there was none. A large section of my wetsuit had been ripped away, exposing my flesh, but apart from three long welts where the propeller had hit me, no other damage was apparent.
The boat that had hit me stopped. An elderly Thai gentleman was driving it. He looked concerned and was saying something in Thai, which I’m guessing was: ‘Are you okay?’
We all swam back to the boat. The boat that had hit me came alongside and the elderly man in it spoke to our boat’s skipper, who translated. He said the driver hadn’t seen me, because he was the only one in the boat at the time and the bow was riding high, like a wheelie, and reducing forward vision.
After a surface interval and some lively chat, I asked if the two students wanted to do the second dive. They did, so we moved the boat to a different location, about 1,000m north of Koh Rinn, and completed a nice and uneventful second dive – with me in a borrowed wetsuit.
I was out of the water for about two weeks after the accident. Once the adrenaline had worn off it was quite painful, but I, and everyone who knows about the incident, still can’t believe how lucky I was. The outcome could have been a lot worse.
Also, I think the training I had received went some way towards me keeping my head, while those around me (my inexperienced buddy in this case) nearly lost theirs... I really don’t think he knows how close he came!
What have I learned from this experience? Well, for one, you can’t beat a good divemaster – Ewald was at my side within seconds. Also, don’t presume you’re safe even if you’re towing an SMB or a float – not everyone knows what they are or takes notice of them. I’ve even seen guys on jet skis use SMBs as a slalom course.
Now, whenever I dive with inexperienced divers in such shallow water, I choose sites where the dive area is cordoned off, to keep boats and divers separate.