Mike strained against the shifting weight of the heavy twin cylinders on his back. There was nothing on the side of the wreck to grab onto, no easy way to flip into position to untangle the monofilament wrapped tightly around his left leg. He was alone and he was trapped-half his body was inside the narrow passageway; half outside the vessel. Worse still: He was forced into a face-up "turtle" position by the weight and negative buoyancy of the tanks in his ill-fitting, homemade technical diving BC. This caused his second-stage regulator to leak so badly that every breath was part seawater. As he struggled to rotate his body and deal with the entanglement, Mike glanced at his gauges. He was dangerously low on air and already overdue for a decompression stop.
Mike was in his 20s, in excellent health, an active open-water instructor in North Carolina, who enjoyed diving the state's offshore wrecks. Curious about what he might find inside the sunken ships, Mike began to study technical diving techniques for penetrating wrecks, but because this form of advanced dive training was not available in his area, he lacked proper certifications and equipment.
The USS Indra had been down for only a few months when Mike decided to attempt his first-ever penetration dive with friends. As a landing craft repair ship, Indra had many wide-open spaces for divers to explore, but Mike planned to explore the narrow passageways below deck. He'd be diving solo, so to carry the extra air he needed for emergencies, Mike had a set of twin 104-cubic-foot steel cylinders, each equipped with its own regulator. To carry the tanks, Mike had built his own technical diving harness and back-inflation bladder.
Following all the rules he had read about, Mike swam inside the wreck. Reaching a cramped engineering space near the stern, he removed a brass valve and a gauge as souvenirs of his dive. He then backtracked to his starting point with an ample supply of gas in his tanks and nearly 15 minutes of no-decompression time remaining. He spent the rest of his dive exploring the open area of the ship.
When he had only a few minutes of no-deco time remaining, Mike exited the hold and unwittingly swam through a mass of dangling monofilament that grabbed the knife sheath on his left calf. Mike attempted to back up and allow the line to fall free, but it was wrapped tight. The line was short enough that Mike was held near the top of the opening, and he could back into the ship only a foot or so. He bent forward to reach his calf and immediately discovered that his home-built rig did not hold the tanks tight to his body, and when he bent forward to deal with the monofilament, the heavy steel tanks flopped to the side, flipping him upside down and wrapping the line more tightly around his leg. It took Mike nearly two minutes to fight his way into position to reach the entanglement. He finally managed to cut the line and escape, but the process had exhausted his air supply. His submersible pressure gauge showed less than 200 psi left in his cylinders. Ascending directly to his stop depth, Mike was able to complete his mandatory decompression just as he drew his last breath from the tanks. Finning to the surface, he was able to orally inflate his homemade BC bladder and make it to the boat unharmed.
This near fatality took place well over a decade ago, and the victim of his own stupidity was none other than the author of this column. Technical diving was in its infancy so I rationalized that it was OK to violate the core safety rules of the sport. Despite the availability of tech training and equipment today, too many divers still make the same mistakes I made-diving beyond the level of their training and experience, and doing it without the proper equipment.
I had no experience using heavy twin steel cylinders (which have very different characteristics from the aluminum cylinders I was used to) and therefore I had no clue as to the demands they would place on my homemade harness, a hideous contraption that was literally held together in places by duct tape and zip ties. Aside from one brief foray in the pool, I spent no time testing my rig. Finally, I compounded all of these problems by making my first dive with this death rig a penetration dive outside the scope of both my experience and training.
I was fortunate to escape unharmed that day. My training had taught me to recognize and fight off panic. Had I panicked, there is no doubt that I would have died. Immediately after this dive, I sought out the proper gear and appropriate technical training.
Lessons for Life
and never dive without the proper training and equipment.
Never dive a new piece of equipment without truly running it through its paces in a controlled environment like a pool. And never dive with homemade equipment.
for advanced dives like wreck penetration, cave diving, deep diving and decompression diving no matter how much open-water experience you have. These pursuits require special skills you can't learn any other way.
Rescue diver courses and advanced self-rescue courses will teach you to recognize and stop panic.