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Thursday, 29 May 2003 00:00

When Good Dives Go Bad

By Steve James

This article is about a cave diving incident that I was involved in that happened in November 2002.

I was lead diver followed by Paul 1, Paul 2 and Craig. Visibility was about 1 m. The dive was progressing well and I got to the end of the fixed line and I turned around. Someone had mentioned a side chamber so I tied off to run a jump line in there to have a look. About 2 m on I noticed Paul 1 had tied off a jump line to look in the side chamber as well. Visibility had deteriorated and I passed Craig and turned right behind him to exit. I got back to the main line untied my jump line and proceeded to follow the fixed line the final 20m or so to the exit. As best as I can estimate my run time at this stage was about 10-15 minutes. There were line arrows on the main line but I was unable to locate the one that was next to where I tied off. For some reason my reasoning told me to follow the line to the left. This was incorrect and I reached the end of the line in short order. I turned around and in doing so stirred up the silt further and visibility was reduced to zero. My light could only be seen as a very faint glow when held up to my mask. I retraced the line to exit and the line was very slack in my hand. I was feeling very alone and was seeking a quick resolution and was keen to catch up to the others. The main line, should have been heading to the left but with the zero visibility and the slack line, I was convinced the line seemed to be returning me to the side chamber.

Had Paul 1 undone the correct line? Was I stuck on a loop between the side chamber and the end of the line? I found the end of the line and it was tied off on a stalactite . It was the one I had just left. My mind was racing as was my heart. How the hell had this happened? I had followed the line and returned right back to where I had started my escape plan. OK then try again. The line was quite loose and in turning around I wrapped the line around my leg and it caught on my reel. It took me what seemed like an eternity to untangle myself. Where were my mates? I could hear nothing. Apart from the groan of my bubbles working their way through the cracks in the rocks. The images I had seen of cave diving fatalities tangled in their own lines were foremost in my mind. I calmed myself and untangled my self from the line. After a couple of moments of chaos and fear I thought I should rise up to the cave ceiling to see if the visibility was any better there. Sadly no. I tried to read my SPG but could see nothing. How much air do I have? Where is every one? Please come and help me. Please.

I followed the line a second time and again my mind told me it was taking me the wrong way. To the right not the left. I retraced my steps. I started my exit . I followed along the line again and yet again it seemed to be tracking to the right. I followed it to the end but could not find the end as it appeared to disappear into the wall of the cave. I felt around and could not learn a thing. The line was ascending. That was correct. But it just pinched out and lead nowhere. The fear and panic was like punches from a boxer. I was alone and scared in front of a very formidable opponent and was **** scared and when I reached another failed attempt it hit me like a knockout blow. Bang...... "what have I done?" bang....... "I have got my self into a whole heap of trouble and nothing is working". Where is the exit?

The cold had taken its toll. Normally I can resist the urge to go for ages but I didn't care any more about pissing in my drysuit. I gave in to the pain in my belly and let go. I had enough on my plate without dealing with a full bladder. I concluded that the line was not leading me out and I had to try something else. I tied a jump line on to the limp and loose main line and proceeded to feel my way around the sides looking for a way out. How much air do I have? I started to cry. Nothing was working. I was going to die. I could feel death behind me and there was nothing I could do to get away. It was slowly getting closer I could smell and taste it. The rocks were mocking me with their unrelenting grip. Bang...... Please come and help me. PLEASE.

I got nowhere with searching on my jump line and wound it back in. I tried rising up to the ceiling again in a different part of the cave. I seemed to go up further than I remembered would be possible. I kept going. This is it I'm in the exit tunnel. Crack.... Nope. I had found a small bubble pocket with just enough room for two heads to fit in. The air was not really breathable but the ability to see something was a sweet relief. I looked at my SPG. 55 bar. I had the loose line in my hand, I wasn't letting go, it was all I had. I shouted for help. I didn't believe it would help but I was willing to try anything.

Death felt like it was very close and I knew my air was not going to last much longer and here was a better place to die than in the water straining to see through the tan silt. I could at least re breath my air in here and hold on a bit longer. Someone will be coming soon.....won't they? I was convinced the line in my hand did not lead to the exit and somehow I was on a loop between two room in the back of the cave. I thought I had better keep it so when the cavalry arrived they would find this loop and follow it to me. 45 bar, I pulled out my slate. "Dearest Amanda, I am so sorry what have I done? I love you very much and would give anything to be able to give you a hug right now." I started crying again. I remembered a story told to me about an American lady trapped in a side pocket in a cave and waited for some time for help to arrive. It took help 2 hours to come and she had breathed her tanks down to bugger all. I will make it. Won't I? I thought. " Please tell every one I am sorry and I wish things" A tug on the line. THANK ****. I tugged back. Nothing happened. I felt sick to the very bottom of my stomach. Another tug. I tugged back oh so gently I was worried I would pull the line out of their hand. The tugs went back and forth for a minute or so then I was hit in the face by exhalation bubbles. I had to grab the diver by the BC and pull them up into my tiny air pocket as the space was quite small. "Are you OK? " it was Paul 1. I cant begin to describe how I felt at that moment. I really don't know how I felt. I was so scared, so happy to see him, so everything. I can't remember what we said to each other at first but I remember asking if this line could get me out. I was told it could and we started to descend.

The line went slack in my hand and I freaked out and ascended into my air pocket. Paul 1 ascended again and asked if I was all right. I needed to know which side of the line to follow before I was going back into the chamber below. He told me to hang on to him and we would get out that way. I grabbed his SPG and dropped back down into the darkness. We followed the line back and after about a minute or so we stopped. I was not worried for some reason. I'm not sure why. I just believed Paul 1 had it all in control. A few minutes later we moved on. I got up to where we had stopped and the line seemed to have moved its self up into two line traps in close proximity to each other and then down about 1 metre to the tie off that I had been unable to find. We were on our way out. I surfaced soon after Paul 1 . I cant remember what was said up to the point where I looked at my watch . 73 minutes. I looked at my SPG 40 bar. Someone said that they were out in 19 minutes. The sun stung my face and I loved it.


The wash up
This dive gave me a bloody good fright. I went diving the next day in another cave. I called that dive after 15 minutes or so as my head was still playing tricks on me and I wasn't too keen on freaking out deeper into the cave. I went for an hour long ocean dive about a week later and didn't even think about what happened until I was back on the boat.

I did some things well and some could have been done a lot better. I spoke with divers and people whose opinions are valued by me and a few things were learned. The divers that did the dive have talked about it a fair bit and we know how to improve our diving. Thankfully some lessons were learned and hopefully I'm a better diver for it. In a few ways it wasn't my worst dive at all. A kick in the pants every now and then is a helpful thing to remove the complacency that creeps in over time.


Lessons learned
Communication is paramount. We did not set a time that we all had to be on the surface by. We followed and discussed 1/3s and the like, but a clear everyone out of the pool time would have saved me a lot of heart ache.

Following on from the last point. The dive is not over until it is over. Stay focused until you no longer need life support equipment. Near enough is not good enough.

As a pilot would say; trust your gauges rather than your nose. My feelings quite probably clouded my actions, but I'm not sure about this and probably never will be.

2 people should have come in to look for me. In their defence they thought I was being a pain in the ass and was just looking at something just in the cave. It wasn't a rescue but rather an annoyed hurry up you tosser.

No matter how much experience a diver has, never forget the first point. I talked with a very experienced cave diver after that dive that regularly dives with the same partner. They admitted that if their buddy was 5, 10, 15 minutes later out of a cave than them, if they happened to be separated, they would not necessarily think something was wrong. Their buddy knows what they are doing, after all. After a bit of discussion, we agreed that it should be assumed there is something wrong if a diver is 1 minute late out of the water. Experience should count for nothing. If you flaunt an agreed end time, then your credibility can be questioned.

As far as the post dive wash up is concerned. Don't be surprised when people don't act as you would like them to. There is no such thing as private. Nor is there any shortage of people who will tell you how it was, who were not there. Not necessarily to your face either.

Be very surprised how amazingly supportive and wise people can be. Some people really know how to read a person, what they are feeling and make them feel a lot better even if they didn't realise it at the time. Cheers Trev, Kylie and Bear. Some people can save your life and don't seem to think they did much apart from a favour. Thanks a bunch Paul.