Let me start off by thanking, yes you guessed it, my instructors. However, I would also like to thank some unlikely recipients, my students. My instructors taught me the information I needed to utilize during this emergency situation and by telling me that on every dive I should practice/review a skill or two. Now for the unlikely group, my students, you all forced me to follow my instructors’ guidance. Every class, every student forced me to practice the skill required to allow me to survive and write this article. For that my sincere thanks and appreciation go out to you all. Now let’s break down the incident.
This past Saturday I was diving at North Park with my rebreather. My dive buddy and I completed our dive briefing and planned a two hour dive. We planned on going open circuit and deploy our surface marker buoys (SMB) at the two hour mark to review our skills. Since we had only been dive buddies once or twice before, we went over our hand signals and other pertinent information. We even joked that with our normal dive buddies, we would be on the same page and would be able to tell what our buddy would be thinking. We hit the water with no issues. I let him take lead and I followed along following the ledge about 30 feet.
Everything was going fine until about an hour and a half into the dive. He got my attention and signaled that he was out of air (oxygen for his rebreather). He then went to his bailout (open circuit) with no issues. Since the plan was to deploy buoys at this point, I also switched to open circuit and got my SMB ready to deploy. When I made the switch from my rebreather, I closed the mouthpiece and made the switch. I must have been in a slight head down position because my regulator began free flowing. Since this is one of the first things that I teach, I simply removed the regulator from my mouth and flipped it upside down so the ambient pressure at the mouth piece was greater than on the front. It stopped free flowing so I cleared the regulator and took another breath. Guess what happened…it started free flowing again. So I completed the same process and ensured I was in a level position. I took a breath and it started free flowing again. Still not too concerned, I simply reverted back to my rebreather for the ascent. Another problem, apparently when I closed the mouth piece, it was not fully closed. Every breath was labored because the counter lung was flooded. I was able to breathe enough to deploy my SMB, however it was too hard to continue breathing so I switched back to the regulator and would take a breath causing it to free flow and then put it upside down. Trying to maneuver the regulator and ascend with the buoy became task saturation. Since both my life support systems were inoperable, I decided the best course of action was to perform a controlled emergency swimming ascent (remember doing that in your open water class?) Fortunately, doing this countless times with all my students allowed me to perform this correctly and breathe out the entire ascent. I got to the surface safely because my all my training kicked in.
During this process, I was not paying attention to my buddy and drifted away from him. Since we were at Canyon Lake, the visibility decreased when things went downhill. He followed the dive plan went up a few feet and looked for bubbles, not seeing any; he completed his safety stop and came to the surface as planned. If I did not have the level of training that I had, things could have turned out very differently. I could have easily become fixated on the buoy or the fact that the regulator was free flowing with every breath or trying to get the water out of the counter lung or the fact that everything was going wrong. One of the stories John Duggan told me came to my mind during this event. He talks about when he was in a wreck and a door shifted and closed behind him. His buddy, and the way out, was on the other side of the door. As he told the story I said “I would have freaked out. What did you do?” His response is what I thought of as all of this went on. He said, “I could have freaked out, but that wasn’t going to fix the problem. I took a deep breath and began problem solving. The only thing I could do was find another way out.” One of the things in training that I focused on was to fix the problem where you are.
Some key takeaways from this event.
Planning and Communication: Make sure you have a plan in place with your dive buddy; whether it’s your first dive together or your hundredth. Communicate that plan and don’t let assumptions rule the plan; discuss it.
Review and practice your basic skills: This cannot be over emphasized enough. If the last time I performed a Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent was when I took the basic Open Water course, I would have been in big trouble since that was almost 25 years ago. Regulators get bumped and you need to be able to locate it and clear it without thinking about it. If you plan on practicing a Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent, go to Platform 1 at Canyon Lake at the beginning of the dive (don’t do it at the end of the dive and blow through your Safety Stop). If you can’t remember what it is, ask someone, it could easily save your life.
Solve your problem underwater: As John pointed out, freaking (stressing) out isn’t going to solve anything. Remain calm, use your training, and think through the situation. In this case, my regulator was free flowing, just like if it happened at the surface, turn it upside down, it stops the free flow.
It’s worth the cost: Yes, those advanced classes cost money but the skills that you take away are very much worth the cost. When I was on the surface, I thought about the amount of money that I had invested into this hobby and thanked God that I spent every dollar because it save my life!