Adrift and Dreaming of Survival

Our dive group had come to Tobago for the drift diving and, hopefully, a glimpse of the resident Manta Rays. I had never done a drift dive before, and I was particularly uncomfortable with the conditions, which were rough and choppy. But as my equipment was already set up, I opted to stick it out. The decision turned out to be a bad one.

Although our profile was for 30 minutes, I was down to 800 pounds of air after 25 minutes. I signaled the divemaster that I was surfacing, and he signaled OK. At the surface, I was not surprised to see the boat quite a distance away. I waved and shouted but could not tell if anyone on the boat could see me.

After half an hour, the boat still had not come, and I was quickly being pulled away by the current. Soon, I was swept around the end of the island, out of sight of the boat. I began to panic.

I began kicking, something I would not stop for the next 25 hours, and concentrated on getting close to shore. But despite my efforts, the currents carried me parallel to the island, and it was almost four hours before I was able to draw closer to land.

At dusk, I approached the coastline, which looked calm from a distance. However, up-close I could see that it was ringed with large boulders and sharp rocks. As I tried to climb out, my feet slipped on the slimy boulders, and razor-like barnacles cut my fingers. All the while, the surf kept smashing me against the rocks. I had no choice but to go back to the sea to find a better exit site.

By this time, I was mostly kicking on my back. Although I was wearing a full wetsuit in 80°F water, I was getting cold. I hugged myself and kicked harder to keep warm. It was getting dark. I spent the night hallucinating about fish, fishnets and even a BigMac. The night seemed to last forever, but at last dawn arrived.

I saw a bay where the coast seemed to be a little more hospitable—there were people! I kicked harder and was able to get into the bay just before the current could sweep me past the entrance. The bay itself was like a giant washing machine with choppy churning waves pounding against the rock cliffs. There was no way I could get onto land without injury. I was dead tired and had been in the water for about 22 hours. The current caught me again and carried me out to sea once more.

Two hours later, I was on my back kicking when I saw a large semicircular sandy beach with a village behind it. At first, I thought I was hallucinating, but I put my head down and kicked for all I was worth until I saw the sandy bottom of the bay.

My mask was itching unbearably. I had been wearing it for the entire ordeal and just couldn’t stand it on my face one more minute. I pulled it off and lost it in the surf along with my fins. I was exhausted and could not stand, so I took off my BC and crawled up the beach dragging it and my tank behind me. I collapsed, and when I opened my eyes, I found myself looking up into the kind face of a local fisherman.

As a result of my experience, the Tobago dive shop has changed a number of its procedures, and today requires all divers to carry whistles and “safety sausages.”

Will I dive again? I will and I have. You can never fully prepare yourself for such a trying situation, but we are all tougher than we think we are, and we will do what we have to in order to survive. If it happens to you, try not to panic or let emotion take over. Focus on surviving, and you will.