Regulator Misfire Rescue

By Richard Hartford

The August day was partly cloudy with a light wind. The sea was typical—choppy with three- to four-foot waves. My wife JoAnne, a friend whom we had previously met diving and his partner, and I set off to dive the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of Maine.
Upon arrival, we anchored in about 35 feet of water. My friend had remembered a deep cliff he once discovered in this area, so we suited up, set our compasses and went overboard. My wife stayed on the boat to watch the harbor seals.
Once we descended into the 30-foot visibility, my friend set a wreck line to the anchor and off we went. Eighteen minutes into the dive we were at 100 feet, my deepest ever. At this point we checked each other’s pressure gauges, and we had between 1,700 and 1,800 psi. We decided to head back to the boat. My friend handed the wreck line to his partner, started up and I followed with his partner in the rear taking in the line.
At around 75 feet, I bumped into a lobster rope and had to back up and go over the rope. I turned around and tugged on the line to warn my friend’s buddy. He looked up and I saw he noticed it, but I also realized that he was going to get his catch bag caught. I tugged on the line again to warn him and he motioned to me to come to him.
As I reached him, he suddenly flailed and lashed out at me, knocking the mask and snorkel off my face. I placed the mask back on my face, cleared it, looked into his eyes and saw absolute terror. Not till he yanked the octopus from my BC did it hit me that he was out of air! My first thought was that this guy was going to suck my tank dry, and that I better get him to the surface fast.
I looked down and saw that his bag was still caught on the lobster rope, plus the wreck line had tangled around our legs. I took out my dive knife and started cutting away. My friend appeared below us and grabbed at the wreck line to untangle us, not realizing that his partner was struggling for his life.
Once we were free, I grabbed the guy’s BC and started toward the surface. It dawned on me that we were coming up too fast, so I dumped the air out of my BC. This did no good, because the guy also had air in his BC. Before I knew it we had reached the surface. He immediately threw the regulator out of his mouth and started coughing up water. Moments later my friend surfaced. The distressed diver dropped his weightbelt and we swam back to the boat. After climbing aboard, we discussed what happened.
My friend’s buddy started getting water through his regulator. He thought that his octopus would not work correctly as well, so he chose to go for mine instead. He thought about giving me the “out of air” sign but thought that I might not understand what he meant. By the time I reached him, he was breathing nothing but water and had almost blacked out. On the surface, his gauge indicated over 1,000 psi still in his tank and his regulator appeared to work properly.
Analysis at the dive shop revealed that the reg’s first stage was not properly reassembled during the annual inspection. The nut that connects the yoke to the first stage had become loose, unseating an O-ring inside the first stage, thus allowing water to enter and flood the system.
If it were not for my training and experience I most likely would have panicked and the two of us would have drowned. I learned a very valuable lesson: recreational diving is serious business. Things can go wrong and equipment can malfunction, so you must try to prepare yourself for emergency situations. A few rules should always be followed when diving: review hand signals before entering the water; never dive without proper training; and use a redundant air supply when diving deep.