Dive Planning: What Happens When One Member of a Dive Team Fails

Technical Diver
Technical Diver

“Plan your dive. Dive your plan.” How many times have your hear that one? It’s especially important when dives take on complexity, and is down right critical in technical diving.

A couple days ago, I let myself get into a situation that never should have taken place. I was asked by an instructor at another shop to make a simple and shallow dive to practice some technical skills and give him a chance to try out a new drysuit. I didn’t really want to be away from work, but he said he didn’t have anyone else, so I went along. I also wanted to confirm my buoyancy with nearly empty tanks, so it would work out fine.

On arrival, he had a buddy with him, which had me wondering why I was there at all, but it was a nice day, so what the heck. Then, the dive planning. Honestly, I didn’t expect to have much of a plan at all. We had talked about doing a short 30 foot dive and practicing some skills. That was the plan.

I guess since I had agreed to come along, he figured that provided an chance to go deep, and he begins to walk me through “our” dive, which would take us to 135 feet with a planned deco obligation of 10 minutes. First of all, this is not the time to spring it on me that he wants to do a moderately deep deco dive, and secondly, I was carrying EANx36 as my back gas and had an MOD of only 95 feet, which I didn’t want to get near. And, my cylinders were only about 1/3 filled to begin with. (Again, my goal was a buoyancy check in shallow water with nearly empty cylinders, as we’d discussed in the store a day before.)

On top of that, his buddy is an Open Water diver who was diving with a weird mix of sport and technical gear, and didn’t have the training, experience or equipment to be making that kind of dive.

I’m not this guy’s guardian. If he wants to make a solo dive to 135 feet, I don’t care one way or the other, but I certainly wasn’t going to be able to make that dive (based on available gas alone), and his buddy very clearly had no intention of it either–good for him. So, the actually plan went as follows:

1) Descend to 20 feet and conduct a bubble check.

2) Continue to 65 feet and have his buddy remain there.

3) I’d continue to 80 feet, easily in site and within reach of the buddy should contact be necessary.

4) At that point, our third diver would make his solo descent to 135 feet. (He’s an adult, so don’t start flaming me about staying together.)

5) Meanwhile, his friend and I would hang out at 60-65 feet and on his return, we’d blow bags and ascend together. He’d be making an actual deco stop, me a simulated one, and essentially a long a safety stop for his friend.

The actual dive went exactly as planned, until the last segment. At 80 feet, I watched our deep diver disappear into the abyss. I spent maybe 5 minutes there, frequently looking up to see that our other diver was OK, which he was. Then, I ascended back to 65 feet to join the other diver and wait… and wait…

He never joined us. 37 minutes elapsed. Something I didn’t think about until later is that very likely, the duration of that stay on the bottom put the buddy into deco, since this was an altitude dive. I, being on 36% Nitrox, could’ve stayed down as long as I had gas left so I really wasn’t thinking about what his computer might be telling him. We were both obviously concerned most about our now missing diver.

Eventually, we surfaced to look for his lift bag. Nothing. Any bubbles? None. We scoured the surface, and couldn’t see any evidence of him at the beach, which was pretty far off.

Here we are on the surface, minus one diver who’d been very deep. In my mind, I believed he wouldn’t be surfacing. His buddy was growing increasingly upset. We left our flag in place to mark our point of descent for any rescue/recovery divers, and decided it was time to get to the beach and call for help.

Just then, a kayaker came along with cell phone. He called for help and our third buddy swam into shore. I stayed put (with the kayaker) since I was the last to see him and wanted to brief anyone who might be getting in the water to look for him, on how to identify our exact location on the bottom.

Within a few minutes, rescue vehicles with sirens were speeding along the highway toward our beach, and not long after that, I hear our deep diver shouting at me to bring back his flag. At this point, I am angry. Relieved, but angry.

In retrospect, what had happened was that he had simply missed us on the way up and finished his dive. He acknowledged that he knew where we were, but opted to simply finish the dive alone, rather than swim 25 feet to the right to keep to the plan.

That decision put many people in danger. I’m going to call the other diver, because I now want to know what his computer was telling him about decompression from 65 (he hit 67 at one point, I think) feet.

So, that’s about it. The whole dive was wrong from the start, but we did have a workable plan, and if he’d stuck to it, it would’ve been just another dive. Instead, we had a serious scare, people were endangered and he made me look like an ass.

In the end, I will not get in the water with that guy again. He’s a nice enough guy, but in my view reckless, which has no place in technical diving (or any diving for that matter). I could have tried to stop him from making that dive, but he’s trained for it, and I’m not the diving police.

In retrospect, what I should have done, would be to let him make a solo dive if that’s what he wanted to do, and make a simple sport dive with his buddy to do my buoyancy check. In other words, not even try to make our differing objectives blend.

To be clear, I was never in danger. I had plenty of gas and was nowhere near any deco limits. I don’t know if that’s true for the guy’s buddy. In fact, I’m almost positive that he went into deco, since the NDL for 90 feet is only 25 minutes (70 feet, adjusted for altitude is 91 feet). He was on the bottom for 37 minutes, at a max depth of 67 feet, and a straight up ascent.

The more I reflect on the dive, the more I can pick it apart. The bottom line is that these are both the kind of guys you eventually read about in the paper. This single dive had all the signs of the potential for something going horribly wrong. Moving forward, I will handle such situations very differently.

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