My Battle at Oban

This has got to be the scariest moment of my diving career and I hope never to repeat it.

I recently went to Oban in Scotland to dive some wrecks in the Sound of Mull. On this particular day I was going to dive on two wrecks, the Rondo and the Thesis.

There were 11 divers on the boat when we left Oban and I ended up being part of a party of three. This really didn’t bother me because I’d dived with this father and son duo before and we’d worked very well together in the past.

(Although not an ideal scenario, I’d rather be in a trio with two divers I know than a duo with an unknown buddy.)

Athel and his son Mark are massively experienced divers and good friends too. It was Athel who introduced me to diving in the first place. He has done a lot of my instruction and signed me off on plenty of practical assessments and dives in this last year. So I felt very relaxed and confidant before the dive.

The first dive was to be on the Rondo. It sits vertically on a rock face. The stern sits at 8 m whilst the bow sits on the ocean bottom at 55m. We discussed the dive plan and I told Athel that I needed to get 35m on my computer to complete a Dive Leader practical assessment.

(Even though I’d done 35m before, as far as our Diving Officer was concerned I had to do it in front of a Dive Leader or Dive Supervisor.)

Mark was concerned about going to down to 35m on this dive as he’d already done a quick 10m bounce that morning to test out a membrane drysuit that he’d hired. Mark had always dived with a thickish neoprene drysuit. Therefore, he wasn’t sure of weight, air migration, etc. in a membrane suit. He hadn’t wanted to go wreck diving in something he’d never tried before. So he did the earlier dive, which was fair enough.

It was decided that Mark would go no deeper than 30m and Athel would follow me a few meters more. I would bounce down to 35m and then come back to 30m to start the dive proper. This way during the initial phase of the dive we would never be more than a few meters apart from a buddy.

We three were going to be the first on to the wreck, so as soon as we arrived at the site we started to kit up. Once fully kitted I sat on the side of the boat and my air was turned on. To my dismay there was a large hissing sound coming from behind my head. It was quickly determined that my o-ring was shot - not a good thing as I was the only person on board with a DIN fitting first stage. Although I happened to have a backup of nearly every other piece of kit, I didn’t have a bloody o-ring!!

The search was on for a replacement. Meanwhile, other divers kitted up and were dropped onto the wreck. The skipper was telling me “If you don’t hurry you are going to miss the tide.” My stress levels started to rise as I thought I wasn’t going to get to dive after an extremely long journey. I very nearly told Athel and Mark to go without me. Finally, after much searching of everyone’s kit bags and with my body core temperature reaching an all time high, an o-ring was found and duly fitted.

(I’m not sure if this was the start of, or added to the hit I was going to get in a few moments but it can’t of helped - that’s for sure!)

As the dive boat had to keep circling the wreck, we had to drop backwards into the water from the moving boat. As I’d never done this one before it was a really trippy experience. The effect of seeing the hull move quickly past gave me a scary impression of being whipped away by a very fast current. It was very weird to turn around only to see two heads and a buoy sitting stationery in the water behind me. After laughing about how the effect had tricked our minds, we got ourselves together, gave the signals and descended the shot line to the stern of the wreck.

Visibility wasn’t as good as I’d expected but it was still better than most places I had dived recently. After another check of each other and a round of “ok” signals, Athel motioned for me to lead the descent, I signaled “ok” and started to freefall down the right hand side of the wreck.

Craning my neck around to make sure they were following, I allowed the descent to speed up. With me leading, Athel second and Mark bringing up the rear, we all dropped into the murk like three freefallers jumping from an airplane. For me the effect was awesome! I plummeted face first into a blackness that I’d never seen before underwater. The silt was flying past my faceplate at an incredible pace. I could feel the cold starting to penetrate my suit and I noticed the effects of the dramatically increasing ambient pressure all over my body. I was blowing air into the mask to relieve the squeeze, popping my ears like crazy and pumping great squirts of air into my BC and suit to try to slow down my rapidly increasing descent rate.

(But all of this time I was feeling totally in control. Well, in reasonable control anyway….)

Now don’t laugh, but I really felt that I was pushing a boundary. I felt like an astronaut entering space. I was aware of doing something extreme. I was aware of my life support system. I was aware that I was entering realms that many will never experience. As I dropped quickly into the depths, I felt completely alive. It was absolutely and totally one of the most awesome rushes I’ve ever experienced. It was definitely living and I was loving it.

It became black very quickly - much, much faster than I’d expected it to. I was trying to pull the torch from my BC but it was stuck. By now I was pumping rather large amounts of air into the jacket and surprised to see that nothing seemed to be happening to the braking system. So I started giving longer and longer bursts of air. I consoled myself by thinking “I’m over 4 bar, of course its gonna need lots more air, keep pumping.” Slowly I came to a halt. I finally succeeded in releasing my torch and lit it up. Jesus, that torch was feeble. It was like candle power. It had never looked so dim.

My air integrated computer read a depth of 36m (117ft). I had plenty of air and I was stationary. I looked back up to see Athel slightly above me signaling frantically to stay where I was. I could see Mark’s torch beam above Athel cutting into the darkness. It was really, really dark down there and very, very cold. As I looked up I couldn’t see any ambient light penetrating from above. I signaled back to let Athel know that I had no intention of going any deeper and set about getting myself into or onto the wreck.

(I don’t remember being concerned. I was very aware of where I was. I was very aware of the darkness and of the cold, but I didn’t feel overly worried about anything really. I just had a very healthy respect for where I was and how sh*t could happen very quickly at these depths and in these conditions. The one thing I didn’t really like was the fact that the seabed was another 60 pitch black feet below me.)

Sweeping around with my torch I could make out the rusty metal of the wreck. My beam was a paltry glow in the gloom. I decided there and then that it was time to treat myself to a mutha of a torch for the next time. This torch was good for a backup but really nothing else.

So there I am at 36m, feeling good, feeling in control, very happy that I’d actually exceeded the 35m mark. I was about to start my adventure on the Rondo. I started to fin over to the wreck . This is when the sh*t hit the fan in a very big way. How?? Well let me tell you….

The first thing I noticed was the noise down there. It was ridiculous. Seriously! I couldn’t believe how loud everything was. It sounded like I was somewhere between Gatwick Airport, the M1 motorway and the London Subway. Was it really that noisy or was this the start of a very scary narcosis hit?? Methinks it was the latter.

So there I was wondering where the hell all of the noise was coming from and also realizing that I was not moving quite as serenely as I’d expected. The wreck was there in my torch beam but I wasn’t making much headway onto it. It was at this moment when I tried to pull a nice long breath on the regulator. It wasn’t giving me enough air. “Whoa!!” I thought. “Don’t even go there Dave!! Just breath easily next time.” Another long haul on the regulator confirmed my greatest fear. My mind screamed, “I’m not getting enough air!!! Jesus Christ I’m not getting enough air!!!” Panic started to set in. Panic like you wouldn’t believe. Suddenly I was all too aware of my puny existence in the deep dark depths of the ocean and the terrifying fact that I was four minutes away from the surface. It was all too apparent in a horrible, sickening realization that I had stepped out of my depth.

I can remember looking at Athel and Mark’s torch beams moving back and forth as they swept the wreckage. I knew they were involved in their own experiences and didn’t have a clue what was happening to me. How could they? Even though they were within arms reach, I kinda knew that if I gave in to my fear and signaled my distress to them – to then see them become concerned and start offering me regulators or any other confused assistance which couldn’t help anyway - that it would probably be enough to send me over the edge. Yet I absolutely knew that I was about to reach critical mass. A few more restricted breaths would make me bolt for the surface. I knew if that happened I would die. I also knew that if I couldn’t breath I would have no choice. I would bolt.

My heart sank. I was going to become a statistic, a story of a guy freaking out, spitting out a perfectly good regulator only to die swimming frantically for a surface that he never reached. With each attempt to breath my chest screamed. The urge to surface to gasp in lungs full of clean clear air and see sunlight became overpowering. If I didn’t win my fight over panic I was going to go. I was going to die. Let me tell you here and now - I’ve never been so scared!! It is weird knowing that you ARE going to die, like falling from a cliff or a parachute failing to open. I experienced a calm yet terrifying acceptance of the inevitable.

I kept telling myself “I have air. It’s a bad trip. I’m narced. Rise up, rise up slowly. As soon as I rise it’ll go.” But with every attempt to breath my panic increased. One voice in my head was calm and reassuring. “It’ll get better with every meter you rise,” it said, whilst another screaming voice was reminding me that it didn’t matter that I had air, “You can’t breath! You need to get to the surface before it is too late.”

If you’ve ever had a play fight with someone and they’ve held a hand over your mouth and nose, and you’ve pretended not to be bothered so you can get a slight feed of air through a tiny gap, but then felt the pain build up and your tiny struggles for freedom become panic induced thrashings -- if you’ve ever experienced this then you know how I was feeling at that moment. Only I couldn’t break free from the grasp. I was at least a hundred feet away from doing so.

“Go! Go! Go!” screamed Mr. Panic.

Then the calm voice, logical, thinking it through, “No, don’t! It’ll get better. We’re going up. Look at that crab, what’s it doing?”

“F*ck the crab,” screamed Mr. Panic. “I can’t get enough air!”

“No you’ll be alright, you re just narced. Its a bad trip. You only THINK you can’t breath,” came the calm part of my brain, trying to sooth, trying to keep control.

“I know! I know what’s happening but I still can’t breath you stupid bast*rd! Go! Go now. Quickly, get me to the surface!!” wailed Mr. Panic.

This went on and on as I fought to keep in control. There were two voices in my head doing battle. Strangely enough it was like I was a third person in there, detached yet listening. My battle wasn’t with my equipment but with my mind.

“Look it’s getting better already, isn’t it? Isn’t it???” the calm voice insisted. Then, not as panicky as before, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it is better. But I’m still not happy.”

This went on and on as I slowly rose into shallower depths. The voices in my head stopped fighting. I found myself able to concentrate on the dive. I was able to check my status, able to signal and respond to signals from my buddies. It was over. I’d beaten it. But I never, ever want to go there again -- NOT EVER!!

I was shaken for the rest of that dive. I couldn’t stop thinking about what had just happened. My mind was reeling at how close I’d come. I just wanted to get out of the water. At the same time I was determined to stay in and prove that I could get back on this horse and ride it.

One of the things that rushed into my head through those horrible moments was an incident that I’d read about. A diver was describing how his buddy had rushed up to him without a regulator in his mouth. His eyes wide open in panic, the buddy had snatched the offered regulator only to take two breaths from it before spitting it out and bolting for the surface. He was later found dead. His cylinder contained plenty of air and his equipment was found to be functioning perfectly. When I first read this I wondered just what the hell had been going through his mind to do something so insanely rash and illogical? During my worst moments down there, I knew EXACTLY where that poor sod had been. I had very nearly repeated it….

The good news: Two hours after this incident I was 23m down and in the bowels of the Thesis. I was staring in wonderment at all of the soft corals that live in the bow of this wreck. I was watching my bubbles dance thru the torchlight to collect into the roof space above me. I was completely loving my diving once more but aware of just how dangerous diving can be. Or is that just how dangerous the mind can be?

Since I came back from my trip, I’ve been thinking about what happened to me and how it is that I am here to tell the tale. I’m part of a great dive forum where people share experiences, tips, etc. On there I had read horror stories about being under the influence of a narc hit in dank, dark and cold conditions. Thanks to these threads I think I had an understanding of what was happening to me. I’m so thankful to the forum members for writing about this stuff, I could kiss the whole lot of them full on the lips! Also I had read many BSAC incident reports. They taught me that panic kills and fear control is everything. I think all of this information helped me keep my shit together. Without it I think I might of bolted. I would not have known better and instinct would of caused my death.

I’ve also been wondering - What did I do wrong?????? I’ve done some research and I think these are some of the factors that contributed to my ride into hell:

  1. I descended far too fast.

  2. The environment was not what I expected - it was much darker and more intimidating.

  3. My breathing technique was probably not good - maybe I was breathing too shallow and not getting rid of enough CO2.

  4. I hadn’t built up enough previous dives for that depth.

  5. I swallowed a second sea sickness pill 30 minutes before the dive.

  6. I simply reached a depth where narcosis kicks in for me and instead of rapture it became a nightmare.

  7. Some or all of these may have had an influence. I dunno….

There is a positive side to all of this. I have seen the dark side of diving. You have no idea just how close I came to losing it. It scared the hell out of me. But at the critical moment I controlled my fear. I feel that I’m a better diver for it. Now when I dive I’m not so smug and I have so much more respect for my chosen sport.

These days, I’m even more addicted to my diving.

Dave W.

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