Friday, December 15, 2006

Did I Mention the Rescue?

I know I've mentioned that during my diving vacation I achieved a number of firsts and bests. Deepest, longest and more. But I haven't yet mentioned my first real-world use of rescue skills.

This is not the same as saying "I rescued someone". I didn't. But I applied multiple skills learned from rescue and divemaster training to help improve the outcome of a tense situation with another diver. And that felt incredible! Once it was all safely over.

I met Jos and Joke at Capt. Don's. It was my last day of diving and I had time for one more dive before having to start packing (and paying my tabs.) He was a well experienced diver and an instructor for search and recovery diving. She had just recently learned to dive with not yet a dozen open water dives to her credit. Clearly they formed a buddy pair and I tagged along as the third man; to introduce them to the reef and enjoy my last dive that trip.

Even before we hit the water the issues were clearly popping up. Joke's certification comes with an 60 foot depth limit. And the pair admitted they had already gone well past that depth earlier that day. I informed them that my previous dive had been shallower and that (to follow established safe diving practices) I shouldn't (and thus we as a group shouldn't) descend below 50 feet. Plan your dive and dive your plan should be the mantra of any diver.

During our predive discussions I also spotted a few issues. Joke's equipment wasn't fully set up yet she was ready to jump into the water. I connected her inflator hose to her BC and tightened the fin strap that looked like it was going to fall off.

In the water things started well. The pair said Joke had some troubles descending earlier and may need more lead weight. I looked at the ton already on her belt and suggested we try with that. Just before descent I passed on the advice that Joke try to cross her legs when trying to descend. Students and new divers who kick there legs while trying to descend is a common problem. Sure enough, legs crossed, getting below the surface was no problem. Indeed, as Joke began to move it was clear she was seriously overweighted.

Overweighted divers move through the water at an angle. Rather than a comfotable horizontal position, their heads are up, their legs are down, and they are constantly kicking to overcome the lead weights pulling them deeper and deeper. And deeper and deeper is just where we went. Passed 50 feet as planned. Passed 60 feet as recommended. Passed the point that made it clear something was wrong. Joke wasn't comfortable controlling herself in the water, and Jos wasn't able to communicate to her. He kept motioning to her to ascend. She kept kicking and falling downwards. So I caught up to her (at a depth I did not intend to or want to be at) and gave her the sign to put air into her BC vest. That she understood and complied with.

Joke halted her descent. But at no point was she neutrally bouyant as a diver should aim to be. She kept kicking to maintain her depth, and as a result, the pair of divers ended up making some rather severe depth changes, going at once from climbing too rapidly to falling too deep and back again.

But the escapades to this point were not unusual for a new diver. Nor was it a surprise that Joke was quickly down to half a tank and it was time to turn back. This is where the fun began!

A normal dive profile involves swimming out, reaching 1/2 a tank, ascending to a much lower depth (where air is used more slowly) and swimming back. But we didn't ascend. Or at least, Jos and Joke didn't follow me up. So I took a position slightly aboved and began to watch a drama play out. Joke showed Jos her air pressure gauge, and Jos replied okay. Then Joke would show her air pressure again, and Jos replied okay. Each exchange was clearly getting more and more tense. Ultimately Jos offered his alternate regulator and the pair began breathing from a single tank and started to ascend past me.

To this point it had been a typically bad training dive. Now a diving incident was in progress and a rescue was being affected. And my rescue training was screaming that something was wrong! In a moment of telepathic clarity, I realized the pair were going straight to the surface. And given the depths and times we'd been to, coupled with their already dangerous profile of sudden ascents and descents, surfacing without a safety stop would dramatically increase the risk of further (decompression sickness related) problems for the pair. So without really deciding, I quickly made the descision to join in and help Jos' rescue efforts.

While Joke was clearly on the edge of panic, Jos understood my frantic signs to stop and make a 3-minute stop. Before Joke understood I was holding her left arm. Jos held her by her right
arm and he and I linked our free hands. Together we held the bouyancy for the three of us while I timed the 3 minutes with my dive computer.

Thankfully Joke responded well. The firm hands, the two tanks of air now there if needed, the shallower depth, and the general calm and reassurance we tried to send her all worked and the panic was held in check. Three minutes later we finally ascended to the surface. Them more quickly than I.

What was I going to find on the surface? Just a few feet above me Joke was throwing the reg out of her mouth and gasping for the unlimited air. Her hand was on her BC's inflator but my eyes and ears told me she'd only made two short pushes of the button. Her legs were flailing beneath her and she certainly wasn't calmly resting on the surface.

Rather than coming to the surface infront of her (which divers are trained to recognize as dangerous) I swam behind Joke, reached up to her hand on the inflator, and inflated her vest (her hand sandwiched between mine and the inflator button) until it was full.

Now she was safe!

Popping out of the water behind her I inflated my BC and checked the scene. Two seriously stressed people were realizing it was now over. One with a look of joy to be still alive, the other with a look of shock brought on by the realization of all that had just happened. I grabbed the happy one's tank valve and started towing her on the long swim back to the dock. Perhaps unnecessary although it served to get Joke out of the water perhaps a minute sooner and that was to be desired.

On the way to shore I wondered if she was ever going to dive again. Was this what she was thinking too? I realized the "job" I hadn't anticipated still wasn't over. A moment later, walking down the dock to relieve ourselves of the burdonsome gear I knew what to say. My first words (aside from the few "God Verdommes" that had already escaped) were to tell her she did a great job at recovering herself underwater, holding the safety stop well, and breathing more calmly. This got a smile. Further talk of how there were multiple problems, including overweighting and poor bouyancy, but that these problems were all common to new divers, seemed to set the right ideas on the incident. Jos and Joke discussed the incident themselves, then we talked on that and other subjects while sharing lunch and signing logs.

I'm sure the pair was in the water the next day. And I'm also sure that Joke has learned a flurry of practical lessons that will make her subsequent dives much less work and much more fun.

The story ends there. But for the divers in the croud I offer the following points to think on:
1) Don't dive outside your limits, nor those of the least qualified buddy. Limit recommendations have a purpose. Don't learn that purpose the hard way.
2) Stressed, tired divers can turn into panniced divers more quickly than you think. Remember the first steps are Stop and Breath. Followed by Think. Bolting for the surface is rarely the answer.
3) Most problems can simply be avoided. For example if a buddy is having bouyancy problems, stop and correct them BEFORE they're also having exhaustion and overbreathing issues.
4) Lastly, I learned that when needed, my rescue training comes quickly to me. This will help my own confidence as a safe diver and convinces me to speak up more and work harder to prevent issues before they become problems in the future.

Safe diving to exciting places!


narcosis in paradise said...

Wow Morgan, what a story, I bet you were really pumped up after that !!! I wish I was on that dive with you. Many divers do exactly what they are not suppose to , and like you said Plan the Dive and Dive the Plan .......Kisses... W

IDiveAtNight said...

It was a total rush... once it was all done. If I'd had you or Mike there as a buddy, we'd have swum far away from this pair long before the big problems started. Bad for them then.