It happened to me
Diving in poor conditions, George Aitman surfaced to find himself alone. He could see the rescue party, but would they find him in time?
It was a cold February Sunday in Cornwall, with offshore winds and an outgoing spring tide, as my buddy and I headed out to find the wreck. Not the best conditions for a first dive from my new boat, but we were both experienced and used to diving solo while the other provided boat cover.
We attempted to locate the site with my GPS. After a long time searching, with my buddy becoming more and more irritable all the time, we deployed a shot in the general area and I rolled off the tubes of the RIB. As I descended, I inadvertently pulled the shot buoy below the surface and my buddy lost his reference point.
At 30m I carried out a circular search and with no wreck in sight after around five minutes of bottom time, I deployed a large SMB and moved south to explore a nearby reef. I then became aware that there was no engine sound above me.
Concerned that something may be amiss, I surfaced into what had become a very rough sea. Finning upwards to the top of the swell and rotating a full 360 degrees, there was no sight of the RIB. I quickly inflated a large SMB and activated my emergency strobe as my maximum dive time of 30 minutes had expired and hoped that my buddy had radioed for assistance.
I was now drifting out to sea at an alarming rate, but I was somewhat relieved to see the RNLI offshore lifeboat charging towards me. Waving my torch furiously I watched as the lifeboat came within 50m of me. Obviously unaware of my position, it then headed off in the opposite direction. All the time I was being carried further and further from the search and decided to concentrate my efforts on attracting the attentions of the Sea King helicopter I knew would be scrambled soon to assist.
Filling my orange lifting bag I attached it to my weights and as the Sea King approached I waved with SMB, strobe and torch. Slowing and hovering almost on top of me, I thought my rescue had arrived, but my heart sank again as the helicopter sped off. With no idea what was going on I decided the best course of action was to try and make it back to shore. Still relatively warm and confident, I released the lifting bag and began swimming shoreward with grim resolve in an effort to save myself.
Suddenly I began to feel wet and my buoyancy decreased. An underarm seam in my membrane drysuit had failed and with only a woolly bear beneath it my insulation against the cold was now virtually nil. As the freezing water began to take effect I succumbed to cramp in both legs. Swimming was now impossible and having been in the water for more than three hours my thoughts turned to my wife, my three young children and my parents.
Lying on my back I began to take stock of my predicament when I caught sight of a yacht mast in the swell. Shouting and waving I cursed under my breath that I’d forgotten to use my whistle and resigned myself to another missed rescue when the yacht’s bow pointed toward me. The yacht’s skipper, an off-duty coastguard, had declined the offer to participate in the large-scale search and had used his knowledge of tides and weather to attempt to locate my position. I had drifted four miles from my original position, and been lost on the surface for four and a half hours.
What I learned from the experience has stood me in good stead for future dives. Firstly, think twice about diving in such marginal conditions. Secondly, always check your buddy is ok with the boat’s essential equipment. Mine was unable to see the small GPS display in the poor conditions and was unfamiliar with its operation. Always check the condition of your suit – it could save your life. I’ve ditched the woolly bear in favour of a modern hollow-fibre replacement that would have kept me warmer even when wet. And finally, I always carry a large foldable flag – just in case. Thank goodness my buddy raised the alarm as soon as he realised he’d lost me.