IT HAPPENED TO ME
A big day for instructor John Howard made him realise that having enough assistance can save a life
It was my 26th dive as an instructor and I had a big day ahead of me. One group had just completed their Enriched Air theory and were completing the practical. Another group of three were about to complete their Advanced Open Water dive. I had lots of assistance organised: two dive masters, two trainee dive masters - one ashore and one on the boat with me - plus the staff of the dive centre if necessary.
It was a typical January in the Arabian Gulf. Warm sunshine, calm sea and a water temperature of 22C. All but one of our group were on 32% nitrox. Eric, the least experienced of the group, was on air.
I conducted a safety brief and allocated dive teams and buddies. Everyone was in good spirits as we loaded our equipment and set off on the five-minute boat ride to our first site, the wreck of a service boat lying at 30m.
As we moored up it was obvious we had a significant current. Eric looked a little nervous but said he was okay.
The first team kitted up and started their descent without any issues. I organised our group and went in first to wait at the mooring line followed by Andy, Eric, Simon and then Clair. We descended down the line resembling flags on a flag pole in the current as I stopped to check every 5m.
With 15m visibility the wreck soon came into view. At 25m I was just above the deck of the wreck. I turned around and signalled everyone to follow me to the sandy bottom in the lea of the wreck. At this depth the current had dropped and swimming against it was possible.
I reached the sand and paused to check everyone was following me before reaching into my BCD pocket for my torch and coloured stick for the first exercise. I felt a thud on my shoulder. In front of me was Eric signalling out of air and looking very distressed. I grabbed my alternate air supply and rammed it into his mouth, purging it at the same time. Eric was still nervous and appeared to be coughing. His eyes were wide open and panic was written all over his face as he signalled to ascend.
I gestured the group to follow me as I took Eric to the line. I attempted to calm Eric down but he started to pull both himself and me up the line. I wrapped one arm and leg round the line and held onto Eric with the other hand to keep his ascent rate down. I stopped him at 15m to see if he was calmer but he was still coughing and trying to pull himself to the surface. I released air from his BCD and continued to try and control his ascent rate as the current got stronger. I made a snap decision to miss the safety stop. Then, at about 2m below the surface Eric’s regulator came out of his mouth and he stopped moving.
I pushed him to the surface as I followed shouting to the boat driver for help. The shocked face of Alfie appeared over the side. He quickly radioed the dive centre for help and came back to assist me. Eric was on the surface on his back. I removed his kit and he appeared to be breathing as I struggled to loosenhis fingers from the bow line which he must have grabbed. With Alfie’s help I freed Eric and the current swiftly took us along the boat to the stern from here we hauled Eric into the boat. Within minutes a speed boat from the dive centre had arrived and Eric was swiftly transported back to the shore, already on oxygen. Minutes later he was in the ambulance for the 10-minute drive to the hospital.
Luckily it all ended well. After my own precautionary 30 minutes on oxygen, I visited Eric and found him already chatting to a couple of nurses. The doctor was treating the incident as a near-drowning and Eric was kept in overnight. When we checked his equipment and all was in order, there were even 150 bar of air left in his tank.
Piecing the events together the incident might have started when Eric’s mask was dislodged by Andy’s fin as they started their descent or did Eric inhale some water due to the strong current pushing against his regulator? We will never know for sure. What I do know is that all those involved acted professionally and decisively and the cumulative effort ensured a successful outcome. Since that day I always check that I have adequate assistance and competent safety cover. You never know when you are going to need it!