George slammed the bottom as the current tumbled him like a paper sack in a windstorm. He tried to regain control by lying flat and digging his fin tips and fingers into the sand seafloor, but he couldn't hold on, and he couldn't fight the current back the way he came. With his buddy Chris lost in the rapidly deteriorating visibility, George surfaced alone in open water without a dive flag or surface marker, and saw that he was drifting out to sea like flotsam in a rip tide. He spun quickly and glimpsed Chris off in the distance. Then, out of the corner of his eye, George saw the fiberglass hull of a 50-foot yacht bearing down on him.
Both Chris and George had logged hundreds of dives in North Carolina's coastal waters and the inland lakes and rivers nearby. In their mid-thirties and in reasonably good health, they were active, safety-conscious divers who normally followed the appropriate precautions for this area, including flying a dive flag and carrying surface marker bags and signaling devices.
When poor weather busted Chris and George's plan to take their small boat offshore, they made a last-minute decision to hit a local shore dive they'd heard about. The site was off a small island near a major shipping channel and close to the main inlet for Bogue Sound. They entered the water just after the slack period of an extremely high tide. The current flow was minimal and the water looked flat-calm. But Chris and George never bothered to get a briefing from a local dive shop and even neglected to stop and chat with other divers who were exiting the water. If they had, they would have learned just how fast the conditions were going to change.
Twenty minutes into their dive, the current picked up astronomical speed. After noticing the ground rushing underneath them and the visibility dropping dramatically, the divers tried to get negative and settle on the bottom to reorient themselves. As George tried to kneel, the current literally tossed him head over heels before throwing him flat on the bottom and dragging him through the sand. Swept more than half a nautical mile, they neared the mouth of the inlet where treacherous water conditions and heavy boat traffic are the norm. By this time, they had become separated, and they both ascended slowly to find each other and check their surroundings.
On the surface, the choppy, confused seas pitched and rolled while the current forced them into the shipping lane. George bobbed directly in the path of a 50-foot pleasure yacht coming in from rougher water. He knew he couldn't swim away in time. Instinctively, he dumped the air from his BC and kicked straight for the bottom. Resurfacing cautiously, he found Chris, who breathed a sigh of relief when he saw George. They swam toward each other knowing they couldn't fight the current, and taking stock of their situation, the divers immediately regretted leaving their surface markers behind. They had agreed they wouldn't need them for "such a simple shore dive."
In the distance, Chris and George could see large channel markers. They decided that if they could reach one, they could hang on, and avoid being swept out to sea. They chose one and began swimming diagonally across the current toward it. As Chris and George approached the structure, the sound of another boat came from behind them. By the time they heard it through the crashing of the choppy water, the boat was just yards away. Expecting the worst, they turned and were surprised to see the concerned face of a fisherman who simply asked, "Y'all lost, or what?" as he came alongside. The divers removed their gear and crawled over the stern before graciously accepting a lift to a dock.
Chris and George could have avoided this situation entirely by getting a proper site briefing from a local dive shop. They would have learned that local divers visit the site, but only at slack tide because of the major shifts in tidal flow. As the tides rise and fall, dramatic currents run through this narrow inlet to fill or empty the adjacent sound. Also, as Chris and George were getting in, they saw 20 or so divers all exiting the water. This should have clued them in that it was a bad time to dive this spot.
In the water, the divers could have made themselves visible to passing boats by towing a dive flag or deploying the brightly colored surface marker bags they normally carried with them. Thinking this a "simple" dive, they chose to leave both the markers and the flag behind. Complacency overshadowed their training, and bad decisions put these divers in a dangerous situation. They were lucky that in the end their skills kicked in, and their quick, calm reactions kept them alive long enough to get rescued.
Lessons for Life
and other emergency signaling equipment. Dive flags tell boaters your location and are required equipment in areas with any kind of boat traffic.
—always get a dive briefing from someone with local knowledge. Local dive shop employees can fill you in on the day's tide and current conditions.
ascending in areas with heavy boat traffic. Stop about 15 feet below the surface and listen carefully. If you hear a boat close by, wait for it to pass before making a cautious ascent.
Emergencies are never planned events, and your skills and equipment are useless if you don't have them available when the need arises. Always take precautions, no matter how "simple" the dive seems.