The Wreck Dive From Hell

By GARY P. PRICE

I recently went on a vacation after a six month hiatus from diving. On the last day of the trip I experienced a bad deep wreck dive, which I never want to repeat. I share my mistakes-and those of others-in the hope that recreational diving safety will be served. The dive occurred in the Atlantic Ocean, off Southern Florida.

I made arrangements to make the excursion without my buddies (there were four of us). One man had been injured; the other two had decided to make a morning reef dive. I decided to make the afternoon wreck dive. When we arrived at the dive site we discovered there was an odd number of divers on the boat.Mistake One: I agreed to buddy up with two other divers in a threesome. The other two were much younger, much thinner and I knew at the surface that they would use air at a much lower rate than I would. While I told them I would use air quicker, the total effects of air consumption and the physiological characteristics of a deep dive did not register in the excitement that accompanies final preparation.

In the pre-dive briefing we were told the current was running across the wreck broadside. This was absolutely wrong. At depth (100 plus feet), the current was running from the bow to the stern along the wreck.

Mistake Two: The divemaster directed a descent from a mooring line to the bow of the wreck. This meant we had to swim against the current to reach the mooring line for the ascent at the end of the dive. This violates a basic rule taught in every basic scuba course: begin your dive against the current, so you can take advantage of it when fatigue and low air arise at the end of the dive.

Complicating the wrong way dive was the strength of the current. The divemaster and captain, from their vantage on the deck, opined it was "maybe" one-half knot. However, a former Navy diver told me that the current was "at least" one knot. This means the current would carry us about 101 feet every minute. On this particular wreck that meant in three plus minutes we could be past the stern and in open water. As a result, everyone hung onto the mooring line for dear life.

I think I am a qualified diver. I had two years of experience at the time of this trip. Because I started diving at 40 plus years of age and had an obsessive-compulsive dive buddy, I had gone through a lot of training and had received my Master certification at an early stage in my diving career. But, this does not equate with experience. My previous dives had been in the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico. Swimming against a strong current at depth was a brand new experience.

Mistake Three: My dive planning was inadequate, both because of my inexperience with these conditions and the erroneous information provided in the pre-dive briefing.

At that depth, I used air quickly. When I knew it was time to make my way to the ascent line, I waited for my buddies (one of whom was a photographer) to connect up so I could indicate low air.

Mistake Four: I didn't want to ruin the dive for my two buddies, so I let them continue while I turned into the current. I quickly found that recreational divers under these conditions are wrapped up in their own dives, their own concerns and their own buddies. After a couple of attempts to get assistance in reaching handholds-to no avail-I realized I was on my own.

The physical effort of pulling against that current, struggling to reach handholds and yes, my high anxiety, caused me to use a lot of air. I had less than 100 psi when I finally reached the ascent line! I did know, however, I wanted a controlled hand over hand ascent from that depth.

Mistake Five: As I was trying to make a controlled emergency ascent, another dive boat sent divers down the line I was using.

Mistake Six: I became so fixated with the ascent it did not occur to me I was passing one air source after another-the divers going down the line! The cumulative effect of stress, exertion and anxiety had caused a narrowing of focus-just as all the literature states.

Finally, Mistake Seven: As I looked up, the water began to brighten from sunlight and I realized there was much more water below than above. I was also out of air. There was no hang bottle as there should have been at 15 feet for the three minute safety stop.

This is not what recreational diving is all about. Remember what you were taught: Plan your dive (especially a deep dive); know your buddy and stick with him/her; think and react if conditions are not what you expected; and make sure before you get on the boat that the safety factors and services you expect will be provided.

I learned:
  • Mistake One: Diving as a threesome.
  • Mistake Two: Making the dive with the current.
  • Mistake Three: Inadequate dive planning.
  • Mistake Four: Not letting my buddies know I was low on air.
  • Mistake Five: Other divers started down the line I was using.
  • Mistake Six: Not realizing I was passing air sources.
  • Mistake Seven: There was no hang bottle at 15 feet for a safety stop.