As the wave rolled in on top of him, Mike braced for the impact he knew was coming but was helpless to prevent. Caught in the surf zone with a malfunctioning rebreather, he had made it to the surface for one gasping breath when the next wave pushed him under, pounding his body into the rock and sand bottom. The roiling water offered zero visibility, and he could no longer tell which way was up. His only hope was to find the bailout regulator that had apparently become trapped behind him during the struggle in the surf. As the violent undertow began to roll his body back toward the ocean, Mike's training kicked in and his hands began a systematic search for the missing regulator.
Mike was an active dive instructor in his mid-30s. Over the course of a 15-year diving career, he had logged literally thousands of dives in all kinds of environments and trained hundreds of students. In his off time, Mike enjoyed technical diving, and his latest passion was diving with a nitrox semi-closed rebreather. He was in good health, and an active dive schedule kept him in reasonably good physical condition.
Although he had little experience diving in surf, Mike eagerly accepted an invitation to join four friends who planned a rebreather dive to a reef located off a popular California beach. There was always some surf to contend with, but it was rare to find large waves at this beach, so the plan was to crawl through the surf zone and swim 150 yards out to the steep nearshore drop-off.
When the divers arrived at the beach, however, the surf was higher than expected. After evaluating the conditions, two of the divers in the group decided to abort the dive. Mike, the least experienced shore diver in the group, spoke with the remaining two divers who had decided to make the dive. In short order, he decided to go for it as well. The three divers quickly set up their rebreathers and made all of their safety checks by the book. They discussed communications procedures, the dive plan, surf entry techniques and what they would do if separated in the surf zone.
The trio waded into the water, then quickly dropped to their hands and knees and attempted to crawl through the crashing waves. Mike was shocked to feel the tremendous force of the water washing over him and quickly realized that he lacked enough weight to stay firmly on the bottom. He was soon being tossed around as if in a washing machine. After being slammed into the bottom several times, he attempted to turn and head back toward the beach. Struggling to maintain his position, Mike drew a deep breath, only to find that his breathing loop had flooded, and he gagged on a caustic mix of salt water and calcium hydroxide from the rebreather's scrubber canister.
Struggling to control his intense nausea while simultaneously searching for the bailout regulator, Mike lunged for the surface and managed to get a quick breath before the next wave rolled in. As he was tossed in the surf yet again, he reached back for the actual bailout cylinder and followed the hose to locate the misplaced second stage. He was able to clear the regulator and begin breathing from it, though with some difficulty due to chemical burns to his mouth and throat.
Weighed down by the flooded rebreather, Mike was finally able to keep his grip on the bottom and crawl to the beach. He was quickly assisted out of the water by the two divers who had wisely decided to sit out. Once clear of the surf zone, Mike collapsed, exhausted from the ordeal and the struggle to breathe. A medical check revealed that although he suffered slight chemical burns to his mouth and throat, his lungs were clear, and he would survive to dive another day.
Experienced divers like Mike get themselves into trouble by overestimating their abilities. In this case, Mike found that California shore divers need a special skill set for dealing with higher-than-normal surf. He should have known better than to attempt the dive when two of the local divers with experience in surf entries decided to sit it out.
An inspection of his rebreather showed that when Mike was pounded to the bottom by the surf, a hose fitting on his scrubber canister shattered, allowing water to enter and chemically react with the material that removes carbon dioxide from the diver's exhaled breath. Rebreather divers are trained to deal with this danger, known as a "caustic cocktail," but few have to deal with it in such demanding circumstances. The fact that he was able to control his gag reflex, find his dislodged bailout regulator and then reach the shoreline is commendable, but Mike is quick to point out that it was not his skill that saved him as much as it was the demanding training he received in his rebreather course. "I am very thankful that my instructor was such a jerk--it saved my life."
Lessons for Life
Mike's surf diving experience was limited to calm conditions, and while his more experienced buddies had the skills to make it look easy, Mike did not.
Mike knew that this dive was outside his experience level, but he tried it anyway because he wanted to "hang" with the local divers. His common sense and his experience should have told him to try surf diving on a calmer day.
Mike survived because he kept his emergency response skills current, and that allowed him to deal with problems effectively.
A healthy diver can survive almost any accident if he remains in control. Mike's ability to stave off panic helped saved his life.