When in Doubt
By Mark Swanbeck
It was a beautiful June day, one that just cries out for diving, when my buddy and I drove to Halibut Point, Rockport, Massachusetts, to do a shore dive. Our spirits were high as we hiked the long trail down to the shore.
From the heights, you could see whitecaps on the sea, and I began to worry. We huffed down to the slabs of rock anyway and, dripping with sweat, dropped our gear in a pile. There we rested and studied the four- to five-foot waves breaking on the rocks.
My gut was telling me to abort the dive, but here we were in that previous investment trap. You know the “we came all the way out here” one. We decided this dive was doable. The problem was we left no margin for safety, a grievous error.
We stood on the edge of a rock and, on the high point of a wave, took that step of no return. Into the deep cool green we swam, down and away from the air bubbles. The water was surprisingly clear, 40-foot or more viz, as we headed to a 30-foot depth where we began looking for lobster.
But the three-foot surge was becoming uncomfortable so we headed into deeper, calmer water. The scenery was delicious with ledges and ridges. Schools of Pollock hung around and a few Codfish swam by, but no lobster. It was a blessing we didn’t catch anything as we rolled up our bags and clipped them to our belts. Our hands were now free for what was to come.
At 1,000 psi we headed back to shallow water to spend the remainder of the dive. I noticed the surge was much stronger as we were swept back and forth about five feet. Concern quickly mounted as I signaled my buddy to surface with me to look around.
When we hit the surface and looked toward the shore, I was horrified. While out diving, the wind had changed direction and the seas had risen to the 8-foot range. Large waves were now ominously rolling into the shore. Fear swelled up inside me, and panic wanted to set in. My training came back from across the years; “Stop, think and get control.”
It worked as I began to relax and form a plan.
I inflated my BC and looked at my pressure gauge. It was reassuring to see 1,000 psi. I timed the sets of big waves and began to head into the surf zone.
To body surf on the back of a wave with full scuba gear on is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. These two sports were definitely not meant to be combined. I still remember that soft green glow near the top of the wave, as light passed through from the other side, and the way the edge curled fat ahead of me with spray flying into the air. I hung there for an eternal moment then slammed into the rocks in a burst of white foam.
Because I was on the back side of the wave there was water to cushion my landing high up in the rock. I scrambled on my hands and knees for my life as I noticed my buddy doing the same about 20 feet away. He might as well have been miles away, for we both knew we were on our own.
I could see the next wave coming, and I knew we weren’t going to make it. I quickly ducked behind a rock, clutching terra firma, as the wave exploded around me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my buddy tumbling head over heels into the rocks. My impulse was to go help but I could do nothing.
I scrambled to high ground and safety, dropped my tank and rushed back to help. By then, he crawled to safety himself, only having broken his big toe. I shudder to think what might have been.
This was one of the most memorable and important lessons I’ve ever learned in thousands of dives. Sea conditions can and do change. When in doubt, opt out; your very life could depend on this pre-dive decision.