it happened to me

IHTM Buoys Propeller main

As a nervous, newly qualified sports diver, Rebecca Stewart had an unusual problem with a delayed SMB…

Following a holiday in Tenerife – where my partner Dan and I took an exciting trip beneath the waves on an underwater scooter – we decided to join our local BSAC club and learn to scuba dive. With the Sports Diver exam and a few dives under our belts, we began to feel more confident. We mentioned to our instructors that we might be ready to dive on our own, and our first dive without an instructor was organised off Brixham beach.

Having achieved our little swim round Brixham without incident, and following a couple of nice, easy dives on the Scylla, it was time to try something more challenging. We agreed with the instructors to dive the Black Hawk near Weymouth on our own.

This was a big thing for me, as I was rather nervous about descents and ascents – they weren’t, and still aren’t, my favourite aspect of diving. I struggle to equalise my ears and I like to have a fixed line to return to. On the Scylla, we had been able to use pre-fixed shot-lines for our descent and ascent. But on the Black Hawk, we were dropped onto a shot-line, but then we would have to use a delayed surface marker buoy (SMB) to surface when we were ready. 

We had only done this before under the supervision of an instructor, and not on our own. I had visions of the line getting tangled, or of me not putting enough air in and the stupid thing sinking back down to meet me, which had happened once or twice before.

We dropped off the boat and had a lovely dive on the Black Hawk; a few years on, it’s still one of my favourite dives. The sun was out and the visibility was brilliant. We swam around for a bit, and shone our torch into a couple of holes – we had to beat a hasty retreat when several pairs of conger eel eyes shone back at us. 

As our air got towards the 70-bar mark, I signalled to Dan that we ought to be making a move back to the surface. I got out the SMB and nervously inflated it. I put some air in and it disappeared towards the surface with the line reeling out correctly, then the line went slack. Triumphantly, I turned to Dan and signalled that all was well and we could make our ascent.

As I did so, I felt a tug on the line and my feet rapidly left the sea bed. Dan has excellent reflexes, I’m pleased to say. He reached forward and grabbed my weight belt in one hand, while his other hand grabbed a bit of the wreck. We must have looked like something out of the flying scene in Mary Poppins, strung out as we were between the sea bed and the surface. The reel wasn’t attached to me – my training had made it clear not to do that. But I was so shocked that instead of letting go of the reel, which is of course what I should have done, I hung on to it. My reel was a pinch clip reel and it took me a few seconds (but it felt like ages) to pinch the clip and release the line so I could get back down to the sea bed. 

Dan and I sat on the bottom, looking at each other and wondering what had just happened. I was sure the SMB had got to the surface, and the pull on it was extremely strong. Anyway, we needed to ascend, so we took a deep breath and sent up Dan’s SMB. We waited, but nothing strange happened, so we started our ascent. We completed our safety stop and returned to the surface. 

While we waited to be picked up by the boat, we found the remains of my SMB floating on the surface. It had clearly been chewed in half by the propeller of one of the boats that was providing cover on the surface. Of course, nobody would admit to having run it over.

In the years that followed, this has never happened to me since and I don’t know of anyone else whose SMB has been run over by a boat. I guess it was just bad timing: my SMB must have reached the surface at the precise moment the boat went overhead. However, the experience did highlight the importance of the training we had been given: never have the line attached to your person when sending up the SMB. 


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