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Man Overboard

An aborted dive led to a life-threatening struggle at the surface for David Hiscock – but could it have been prevented?

My wife Victoria and I had escaped the British winter and embarked on a diving holiday in Egypt over the Christmas period. It was our second day of diving, and we had joined a hardboat trip to the Straits of Tiran, one of our favourite places on the Sinai peninsula. Our first dive was an incident-free potter along Woodhouse Reef – 50 minutes of some of the most beautiful reef scenes in Egypt.

The second dive started like any other: buddy checks, giant stride entry, meet on the surface for the final check and descend. This time, however, there was a strong current running, and we found it difficult
to reach the rest of the group (five other divers and a guide) underwater. In the pre-dive briefing, we had been told about the likelihood of coming up against such a current, and that we would either descend directly over the reef or use a line to drag ourselves down to deeper water, where, in theory, the current would be less powerful.

We descended to 5m and headed after the rest of the group. It was now that the sheer force of the current became evident. We were finning as hard as we could just to stay in one spot, and the others were in the same situation. After a minute or so of extreme effort, I looked at Victoria: we both knew that it was time to abort the dive.

Descent to surfacing took no more than two minutes, but we would have longer to wait at the surface. We had drifted some way, but our boat was still in sight. After we waved and whistled for about five minutes, it seemed to us that nobody on the boat was looking for surfacing divers. Tossed around in the two-metre swells,
we were drifting away from the site; our relaxing holiday had suddenly turned into a serious predicament.

Within moments, another diver surfaced far away from us, in water that was, for some reason, much calmer. He had been diving solo using a rebreather and had also aborted the dive. The boat crew spotted the newly surfaced diver and made their way over to him. Having picked him up, they finally spotted us being tossed around in the growing swell. 

The crew threw us a line and we hauled ourselves towards the boat, which had put down some fin ladders. Victoria was the first to attempt to get up the ladder – a dangerous prospect considering the size of the swell, which caused the boat to pitch and roll violently. She tried to climb the ladder three times, only to be thrown back into the sea, despite the assistance of the boat crew. Fortunately, another diver, who was already back on the boat, realised my wife’s plight and helped by grabbing her tank valve and heaving her onto the deck. 

Clinging onto the line while watching Victoria desperately trying to climb the ladder had exhausted me, but I summoned enough strength to making my own way up. When I paused briefly to rest, the boat bucked and I was thrown off the ladder and under the vessel. This was a dire situation indeed – with the boat crashing around in the swell, I could be killed if it came down on my head. I raised my hands above my head and let the boat push me down, keeping my arms rigid and hoping they wouldn’t be broken by the impact. Amazingly, it worked.

After recomposing myself, I again tried to board the boat, this time successfully. I collapsed on the deck, exhausted and still upset at watching my wife struggle a few moments previously, but relieved to be alive.

Having escaped such a precarious situation, we both wondered what we could have done differently. An air horn may have got the attention of the boat crew quicker, resulting in an easier pickup in calmer water. Rather than trying to board in such a large swell, we should have waited for a rescue RIB or at least
for the captain to tow us to calmer water. However, there were no RIBs in sight and the language barrier meant we couldn’t shout our own instructions to the crew.

In my opinion, the dive should have been officially aborted in the first couple of minutes. Other than the captain, the boat crew all appeared to be in their teens and physically not up to the job of hauling in distressed divers. Perhaps it was the dive guide who made the fundamental mistake by putting us in to battle against a current, instead of dropping us elsewhere and simply letting us drift with it. The events of that day have taught us that experience, training and instinct should always win over blindly putting one’s faith in others. 

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