An Overloaded Boat

By John Hartrey

I had met my new dive buddy, Shawn, through a co-worker. Even though we had never been diving together, we agreed to go one Saturday last summer. We met at my boat for a dive off the Boston Harbor Islands. Shawn's brother, Patrick, also a diver, and Jennifer, his girlfriend, would be joining us.

As we loaded the boat I spotted the first signs of potential trouble. Although I've had three people on my 19 foot Grady White in the past for fishing, I'd never had three divers and a spotter on it. It was so weighted down I was afraid a wake from a passing boat could sink us.

I drove the boat slowly and cautiously to Boston Harbor Island. We found a spot that seemed to have all the makings of a good dive site. Although lobsters were on the minds of my co-divers, I was just happy to have made it to our dive site without capsizing.

Before donning my gear, I gave Jennifer my cell phone and showed her how to use it. Since she would stay on the boat as the spotter, I wanted her to be able to call for help if necessary. I felt I had exercised due diligence-it would become painfully obvious later that I had not!

Our first dive was pretty good despite the poor visibility. We got back on board (with 10 lobsters) without any problems.

Our next dive was about 250 yards from our first spot. Patrick jumped in first. As Shawn and I were getting ready, he yelled that he was going to start the dive alone. Before I could react, he disappeared. I should have aborted my dive at this point, but I reluctantly continued.

I jumped in and drifted about 30 yards from the boat in the blink of an eye. How could this be? There was no current at our last site and we hadn't traveled that far. I struggled against the current while waiting for Shawn. When he finally reached me, I warned him of the current and wondered if we should abort the dive. We decided to continue and descended. Despite the poor visibility and strong current, Shawn motioned for us to spread out in order to cover more area in our quest for lobsters. I mistakenly agreed. It took about 30 seconds for me to lose sight of him in the murky water. After looking for him for about a minute, I surfaced to look for our dive flag. However, Shawn had not let out enough line and our dive flag was underwater.

Back on the boat, Jennifer was oblivious: 1) Shawn was diving alone; 2) the dive flag was not visible; and 3) I was adrift in a current and on my way to England.Despite this, I remained surprisingly calm. I figured either my dive buddies would surface soon, Jennifer would come and get me in the boat or a passing boat would pick me up. As it turned out, a lobster boat noticed my predicament from afar and came to my assistance.

The lobster boat dropped me off up-current from my boat. As I floated to the back of the boat and grabbed the motor, my octopus regulator began to freeflow, releasing a torrent of bubbles. I thought Jennifer, who was sitting in the captain's seat, had started the engine. I instinctively pushed away from the motor to avoid being chopped to pieces. Only then did I notice the bubbles were following me.

Once again, I was caught in the current and unable to get back to the boat. No problem, I thought, Jennifer could pick me up. She pulled up the anchor and tried to start the boat. Unfortunately, I had not told her how to prime the gas line and use the choke. Even with me yelling instructions, she could not get the engine started. The boat was drifting toward the rocky shoreline. I yelled to her to throw the anchor overboard, which she did. Although the boat was now secure, I was still caught in the current and had no idea where my two dive partners were. Jennifer continued to try to start the engine to no avail. Things did not look good.

Suddenly, Patrick appeared on the surface upcurrents of the boat. Jennifer, on the verge of panic, helped him aboard. Between the two of them they were able to start the boat, pull up the anchor and pick up me and Shawn, who had surfaced in the distance.

With all of us safely on board, I replayed the potential disaster in my mind. These were my mistakes: 1) I started the dive even though I didn't feel comfortable with the overloaded boat; 2) I did not follow my instinct to abort the dive on at least three occasions; and 3) I did not sufficiently prepare Jennifer for all possible contingencies.

One cannot assume a person on the boat is capable of handling a crisis. I thought I had done my job by giving Jennifer my cell phone. I had not. I should have told her the dive signals and procedures to follow when a diver is in trouble. I also should have taught her how to operate the boat. This whole predicament could have been avoided if I had prepared Jennifer properly.

I learned:
  • "I started the dive even though I didn't feel comfortable with the overloaded boat."
  • "I did not follow my instinct to abort the dive on at least three occasions."
  • "I did not prepare the spotter for all possible contingencies."