A Shot In The Dark

IHTM Shot in the dark

When he lost his shot-line in the gloom of a British wreck dive, Carl Howell recalled some sage advice that helped him to safety

I had already logged more than 200 dives off the coast of Dover, so I had no reason to think that this dive on a wreck in the English Channel would be any different. 

My problems started on the surface when I felt cold water running down my arm. My drysuit had a leak, but I decided I wasn’t going to let it ruin my dive. I normally wear a wetsuit, so the cold was nothing new to me. 

As my buddy and I moved down the shot-line, the visibility was, at best, about 20cm, and it became darker as we descended further. I reached the sea bed and my torch picked out the shot next to the wreck. I knew that the ship was proud of the sea bed, so I wasn’t concerned about the conditions.

However, I lost my buddy on the way down and was now in the dark on my own. I snapped my glowstick, and its green glow was almost completely swallowed by the gloom. I connected
the torch to the end of my reel and clipped this to the bottom of the shot-line, which we would need to return to in order to surface safely in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. 

I looked for my buddy but couldn’t see him, so I proceeded alone to look around the wreck. I moved up the giant structure and onto its corroded decks. I could make out the masts and winching gears in my torchlight, and the odd fish darted out of the darkness. I passed over another diver’s line, and was happy that I wasn’t the only one down there. 

Looking at my computer and contents gauge, I decided that I’d reached the limit of my dive and that it was time to return to the shot-line. On the way back, I passed the other diver’s line, only to see him also reeling in. It was my buddy – his line went in a different direction so I waved and continued on my way, as did he. But as I reached the edge of the wreck, my line dropped down the side of the ship, into the gloom below. 

Rather than trying to follow and reel in the line, which would have led me into a fierce current, I decided to try finning out to the shot directly, as I thought I knew where it was positioned. 

My breathing rate shot up and I felt my fins slipping off with the frantic leg action. At this point, I let out some line and returned to the shelter of the wreck. My breathing was out of control and I started to panic. I grabbed for my torch so that I could check my gauges in the dark. My other hand reached for my contents gauge, but instead I grabbed a regulator that appeared to be caught in the wreck. Panic shot through me as I saw that it was not my octopus – was there a diver right next to me who had no mouthpiece in? 

My torch followed the hose into the dark – it was actually my stage-bottle regulator, which had come loose. However, this discovery did nothing to ease my fear. I wanted out of the water with every fibre of my being, but I had 25 minutes of decompression left.

The words of my first instructor rang through my brain: ‘If you’ve got air, there is no panic.’ I stared at my contents gauge: 80 bar in my main 15-litre cylinder, with a full seven-litre side-slung and a three-litre pony. I had more than enough air if I calmed my breathing down. 

Logic started to take over. I couldn’t see the shot-line but I could work out roughly where it would be in the water, given my position from it and the way the current was running. I moved along the wreck and ascended several metres. To my relief, I saw the shot-line. I realised that holding the reel was a waste of a hand, so clipped it onto the shot-line and left it. My computer beeped that my ascent was too quick and then, at 23m, I suddenly calmed down. The fear disappeared and my desperate need to escape was gone. 

Slowly, I ascended towards 6m and started my decompression stop. It gave me time to reflect on what had happened and what I should have done. I should never have attempted to dive solo and I should have aborted the dive earlier, as I didn’t know the wreck site at all. 

More importantly, I realised the magnitude of a simple phrase I had heard in a diving lecture that I had attended several years previously, ‘Not today’ – I wasn’t going in the chamber
and I wasn’t going to die. By the afternoon, I was diving again and hadn’t been freaked out by the incident. My reel was never recovered, though – all I had left were the two clips that were still attached to the shot-line.  

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