It may sound like an overly simplistic thing to say, but after completing a SCUBA dive, one of the most important things to do is to get back onto the boat. Unfortunately, it’s not always quite as easy as it sounds.
Over 40 years ago, John O’Rourke was teaching basic SCUBA classes to students at Wilmington College. Later, he expanded the program to include students from the YMCA, and eventually, anyone who wanted to experience the thrill and adventure of underwater diving could sign up for one of John’s classes.
It was not your typical physical education class. John’s program involved extensive classroom time to teach the physics that affect gas under pressure and the physiology that explains how increased atmospheric pressure affects the movement of gas in the lungs and in the blood. The gas laws and physiological impact of SCUBA diving are complex and, if not understood and respected, can result in permanent injury or even death.
John always did a great job. The classes would be fun, but John insisted that every student respect the dangers involved in sport diving
Also around 40 years ago, as the director of respiratory therapy at the hospital, I was teaching resuscitation classes with an emphasis on special techniques used to revive people who had drowned in cold water. John attended one of my lectures and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. If I joined John’s team and taught the cold-water drowning resuscitation techniques as part of his SCUBA search and recovery (SAR) course, he would allow me to take the basic and open-water SCUBA certification classes for free. It was a deal.
Over the years, John has certified people in practically every aspect of SCUBA — basic, advanced, open-water, rescue diver, SAR, wreck diving and master-diver. After about 10 years of working with John, I became a dive master. We dove locally searching for everything from wrecked boats, cars, stolen property, weapons and bodies. We also worked together to lead groups of sport divers to the remote waters of the southern Bahamas for the adventure of exploring remote reefs, wrecks and isolated sea walls that start near the surface and drop over a thousand feet to the sea floor.
John would emphasize diver safety on nearly every dive, by reminding us, “Plan your dive and dive your plan.”
It’s no surprise that the ocean is full of little things that bite and big things that bite, but the thing that causes most divers injuries is not the sea critters, but is when a diver does not pay attention to their situation; loses track of bottom-time; does not keep an eye on their pressure gauge; or (and this can be real scary) loses track of their dive boat.
In the ocean, there is almost always a current near the surface of the water. Surface current is caused by the wind and varies with wind speed and direction. It is usually strongest within five to ten feet of the surface and can extend down as much as thirty feet. Even though the boat is well anchor with a 12-foot chain and 150 feet of rope, it can drift with the wind in a huge arc. One minute the boat will be directly above you. The next minute it is gone. In a short time, the dive boat can drift on a wide arc and, instead of being above you, it might be hundreds of feet away.
At the end of a dive, if you start your ascent with the boat directly above you and slowly ascend, as you approach the safety of the dive platform you might find yourself swept away by the surface current. Suddenly, you find yourself twenty feet behind the boat and drifting further away.
Swimming back to the boat and getting on the dive platform, while wearing full dive gear and a 35-pound SCUBA tank is hard, exhausting work. It’s usually easier to descend back down below the surface current and to swim underwater to the boat. To be safe, you should then try to surface near the front of the boat, so when you’re hit by the surface current you will actually pop out of the water near the dive platform. If you miscalculate … you have to start over again.
If a rookie diver is having trouble getting to the dive platform and is running out of air, it can get very scary.
I always loved to take rookie divers on their first dive. The look in their eyes as they discover the grandeur of the ocean reef and the abundance of life that lives on the reef was an absolute joy; everything from the tiny, delicate reef shrimp to trumpet fish, barracuda, moray eels, grouper and sharks. It was a joy for me to see the thrill in their eyes.
As a routine, I would always explain that, after stepping off the dive platform, we would drop down about a dozen feet and swim beneath the boat to the anchor rope. Then we would descend along the rope to the boat’s anchor.
It was important to always know where the anchor was. The boat would drift and move. The anchor would not.
When the dive was over, we would go back to the anchor and follow the rope up to the bow of the boat. From there, we would easily drift alongside the side of the boat and grab the dive platform. A crew member would grab your SCUBA tank. After undoing a few buckles, you were safely onboard.
Safety started with finding the anchor.
Life can be much like SCUBA diving. There are dangers all along the way. My anchor in life has been my faith, my family and my friends.
When life becomes overwhelming or scary, I go to my anchor. From there, using the strength that comes from absolute faith and the love of family and friends, I can always find my way back to safety.
It’s important to always know where your anchor is.
Randy Riley is President of Council of Wilmington.