SO YOU’VE LOST YOUR BOAT
Florida is one of the top states in the nation for boat related activities, not the least of which is diving.
There is a popular bumper sticker that says, “ If you can read this, I have lost my boat”. Pretty funny, except - what if you are on a dive, or fishing, off the coast, and you really have lost your boat? What would you do? The movie – “Open Water” – based on a true story of a couple left at sea by their dive boat – brought back memories over 30 years ago, of my own experience when, as a newly certified diver, I was left behind at sea.
It changed how I dove forever.
After doing a deep dive on a wreck, our captain decided the second dive would be a drift dive over a shallow reef. The current, heading north, was not particularly strong. My husband and I and another couple were the first to jump in. I am a photographer and I wanted to be ahead of the group for the best visibility. Little did we know, that, after we all entered the water, the captain decided that the current was really not that bad and he would anchor the boat - the rest of the dozen or so divers would make their dives around the boat. Ignorant of the captain’s change in dive plan, we continued our drift dive before surfacing several miles down current from where we had been dropped in. We immediately became alarmed when we could not see our boat! We also did not see any of the other divers from the boat. The other couple that had jumped in with us surfaced 165’/50 meters to the north and we could not reach them. I remember the waves were about 3’, and at first I thought the boat was just over the next crest. Upon inflating our Buoyancy Compensators, we scanned the ocean and saw nothing. At first, disbelief and then the reality of our predicament sunk in as the time went by. First, we were over a mile offshore, drifting north in a current, in the shipping lanes, and darkness was quickly coming upon us. We had no safety gear, except whistles, some air in the tanks, and we knew the most dangerous place to be was on the surface at dusk, when sharks start feeding. We talked of dumping the tanks – we already had dumped our weight belts - and swimming for shore. We did not know if we had the energy for what we knew would be a several mile swim, with the current trying to take us out to sea. My husband and I were only open water certified, with probably 50 dives under our belts, and had no advanced, rescue or CPR training.
Just as darkness fell, and we had decided to make the swim to shore, we saw the dive boat coming from the south. We were elated, except they still could not seem to see us! We waved, whistled, flashed the strobes, while they made wide sweeps oh, so close…. but finally, someone did see us and we were picked up. The boat had already found the other couple. We had been adrift for over 3 hours...
Did that experience scare us away from diving? No, it did the opposite. It made us aware that we were totally responsible for our own safety and we were totally unprepared. We could not anticipate the decision to anchor the boat after we were
already in the water drifting – our captain was fired because of this bad decision – but we could do a better job of being able to save ourselves in case this happened again. The first thing we promised each other while drifting was to take Advanced, Rescue and CPR classes. I even went on to become a Master Scuba Diver Trainer and a CPR instructor! Our second decision was to acquire every safety device we could – many of the items were not available on the market then as they are now. Currently, we will not dive without whistles, an air horn that can be heard for more than a mile or two, small reflector mirrors, safety sausages (bright yellow tubes that inflate up to 12’ – visible above the waves), and a “deco bag” – a lift bag that inflates on the surface, and can support several divers on a line underwater. When you do a safety stop in a current, it will allow the boat to see where you are drifting. It also gives you something to hold on to if you get tired, and you can tie divers together. In some areas of the world, dive boats issue EPIRBS to divers – devices that transmit your location via satellite if you are lost. These are the same devices that sailors and boaters use around the world.
Whether they are diving off their own boat or a commercial dive boat, all divers should make sure they are fit, have their gear serviced and in good working order, and have kept up their diving and rescue skills. If you are diving from your own boat, never dive without someone left in the boat – someone who knows how to operate boats, and use the radio! Assume when you are diving, you are diving alone, even if you are with a buddy, and be prepared for self rescue (redundant air tanks or pony bottles are the best way to go if you have equipment failure). Always make sure the captain and crew have a reliable head count method, not just someone yelling “YO!” when your name is called, without a visual of that person. Some boats are now using a method of numbered plastic tags that are given to you when you enter the water, and hung back on a board on your return, in addition to the visual head count. Make sure the crew knows who you are and what your dive plan is, then stick to that plan! If our Captain had stuck to his original dive plan, none of this would have happened and he would have kept his job. We were very lucky to have kept our lives…
So, you’ve lost your boat…. Whether you are diving, fishing, or just cruising, the same rules apply – just imagine the worst thing that can happen, and have a plan. Submit dive /float plans to someone; make sure you have all the safety gear for you and your boat -including radios that work, life vests out and worn and not stored, EPIRBS, life rafts, sea anchors, flares, horns – and USE THEM! Have a plan if your engine fails, if you go overboard, or if you come up from a dive and your boat passes you going down! It has happened!
I am a USGC Captain, running my own eco, photo, snorkel and dive tours, so now I have seen this issue from both sides of the coin. You can run into trouble within sight of shore, or at the mouth of the river and be swept out to sea, so don’t assume it can’t happen to you.
We have so much to enjoy and appreciate on and in our Florida waters, but no endeavor on the water is without risk. Just using common sense and a little planning will make it a pleasant and enjoyable experience.
MINIMAL SAFETY EQUIPMENT FOR BOATERS
MINIMAL SAFETY EQUIPMENT FOR DIVERS
- Life vests for everyone, plus a few cushions or ring float. Children 12 and under are required to wear one at all times. On sailboats, using a life vest with harness is prudent.
- Marine radio, GPS coordinates and a cell phone
- Flares, horns, signal mirrors
- Several anchors, and a sea anchor (don’t go offshore without one)
- A 'kicker' (usually smaller than your main engine) or spare engine, and spare gas. Oars can be very useful, too.
- Fire extinguisher
- First aid kit – and if you have divers on board, oxygen/ mask. Learn CPR!
- Enough water on board for several days – or a water maker that makes drinkable water from the sea
- For larger boats, a life raft with EPIRB distress signal – that activates upon hitting the water
- Charts, compass, GPS for navigation
- File a float plan with someone, so they know when you should return
I am sure you can think of other things to make your trip on or in the water safe – think of the worst thing that can happen and plan for it – it is cheap insurance…
- Safety sausage
- Air horn, whistle
- Reflective mirror
- Scissors for cutting fishing line (works better than a knife)
- Where heavy currents are known, use a personal EPIRB distress signal locator
- Lift bag for use in making safety stops in currents – and as a locator for the Captain as to which direction you are drifting.
- As a diver on someone else’s boat – locate the oxygen bottle – make sure it is full and workable. Know the recall method in case of emergency.
- Locate and know how to work the marine radio. Ask the method they use for head counts. LISTEN to the dive master as to the dive plan and stick to it.Make sure people on board will remember you were there!!
- Use redundant systems – pony bottles with their own 1st and 2nd stages
- Get Rescue training and learn CPR!
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