Wednesday, 27 November 2002 00:00

Great Big Stuff Ups I Have Made

By Trevor Jackson - Esperance Star

When I first started using my CCR, a friend of mine handed me a ream of paper. On the front cover it read....An Introduction to Rebreather Diving by Richard Pyle. It was one of the best things my friend ever did for me, as it outlined many of the near death experiences that Pyle had been through whilst he learnt to use his machine properly. Despite vast amounts of diving experience, even the very finest divers can come unstuck, most get to live through there experiences, some, regrettably, don't. So at the risk of copping a hiding from some members of the fraternity, I present to you my own version of Pyles invaluable document.

Part 1

By the time you've finished reading it, you may think I'm an idiot who should never get in the water again, and if you're lucky, you may learn something that one day might mean the difference between making the surface, or not. I am actually going to talk about only 2 stuff ups, and in no particular order either, both incidents should have or could have resulted in me floating face up in the water with a ghostly look on my face, but thankfully, by virtue of luck [in one case] and good management [in the other] I'm still here goes my reputation...

About a year ago I was on a mission. I had a big dive planned and we were going to be using techniques and gear configurations that were well outside the norm. The equipment we would take was complicated and immense, we would be operating in near to total darkness and one slip up would be catastrophic. I had to train myself, I had to go back to basics and learn instinctively where everything was, what it did and how to use it in the dark. I decided to put myself through a self regulated dive course, from start to finish, everything I had ever learnt would be relearnt, again and again. Everything I had ever done would be re-done. Every bad reaction would be recorded and remedied, every time I made a mistake I gave myself an uppercut till there were no more mistakes. Everything that could go wrong I made go wrong and then made myself fix, it was a tough few months, but sometimes we're our own best teachers [or worst enemies]. Towards the end of this 'training' I decided to do a night dive on a wreck that I was quite familiar with. I'd go in and practise swimming around without lights, laying lines, squeezing through gaps, practise gas switches and generally give myself a rough time of it.

It was a fairly calm sort of night, I anchored the Esperance Star above a wreck called the Etmor at Curtin Reef near Brisbane, put my gear on and waddled out to the back deck to jump straight in off the duckboard. I was facing east as I hit the water. Without knowing it, I rotated through 180 degrees during the descent, so when I hit the bottom, instead of facing east I was facing west. I could see the wreck through the dim water and swam over to it, making a right turn as I approached the hull. Because of the rotational descent, I was now actually heading to the northern end of the wreck, towards the stern, whilst the whole time thinking I was heading south towards the bow. I skipped up onto the deck and found the first hole I could, only turning on my lights as I actually entered the hull. Once inside I made a left turn, which I of course assumed would head me north into the familiar rooms of the Etmor. Instead, after swimming about 30 meters into the near black corridors, I came to a dead end where there shouldn't have been one [or so I thought]. I sat there and pondered what had transpired for a minute or two and slowly figured out what must have gone wrong. No worries I thought. Ill just back track and find the exit, all was cool.

Murphy, my favourite Irishman, was about to come a knocking. Murphy was about to start laying down some of his law. I remember thinking,'well Ill be rooted if the light goes out'. Murph must have heard me and intervened, making it so. My primary light failed completely, but like most proficient tech heads, I carried a spare. In fact a brand new spare which had never been in the water, a brand new spare which had never been tested, because if it had been, I would have known that it knew my Irish friend as well, and it liked him better than me. Both lights failed. I was 24 metres down, lost inside a wreck in the middle of the night and with no real idea of the way out. To add insult to embarrassment, the crew of the boat was now so used to my long duration night dives that they probably wouldn't start to worry for at least 2 hours.

At this point it would probably be stating the obvious that now was not the time to panic! I had a completely full Closed Circuit Rebreather, two full 125cft stage bottles, three reels and about 8 hours to get myself out before I ran out of gas. I sat on the inner decks of the Etmor and tried to nut out a solution. Time was on my side, if I just sat there and waited, I guess someone would have eventually come down, but there was no guarantee that they would find me, and night time penetrations were not normal practise. I had to get out myself. I pulled out my primary reel and attached the line to the nearest strong point, feeling around in the dark. I found a wall and ran along it, spooling off line as I went. A dead-end. I felt along the dead end and kept reeling out line the whole time; I came to another stop. 'This isn't going to work', I thought, 'All I'm doing here is creating a great big spiders web for myself and I am the Fly'. I had to figure out which wall ran north-south, and which ran east-west. The Etmor lies north-south, but I was so completely disorientated that on more than one occasion I had to feel for the direction of my exhaled bubbles to check if I was upright.

I came to one of the dead ends and pulled off a fin. Using it as a measuring tape, I crawled along the wall, tying a knot in the line every fin length. When I got the next dead end I found the start of the wall and repeated the process. All this took up precious time and gas but the end result was that I now knew that one wall was 34 'knots' long and one was 18'knots' long. The 34 'knot ' wall was the north-south wall. I knew that because I had seen plans of the Etmor and remembered it had a long room in its stern, running lengthways. All I had to do now was figure out which end was the end I had come in on, and then concentrate on finding the way out once I had done that. I remembered as I entered that I had swum through some cross bracing, steel girders that had formed an 'X' from the floor to the ceiling.

Part 2

I swam to one end of the long wall, swam out a few metres along the short wall, found a tie off point and did 5' knot ' arcs out from that point. Nothing. I went a few metres more along the short wall and tried again, repeating this twice more, finding no cross bracing. I was at the wrong end, but at least I knew that at the other end I would find the way out.
I swam back along the long wall and started to search for a way out once I reached the end. I actually headbutted one of the cross braces while I looked. I remember swearing but I was also quite chuffed at this point because the exit was only minutes away, and the illuminated handsets of my rebreathers computer told me all was well. I stared upward straining to see some light. There was nothing, then faintly off to the left I could see something, not a light source, more like the texture of a rough surface, barnacles, I swam up to them and found an entrance. The bright spotlights on the rear deck of the Esperance Star were my salvation; they 'just' penetrated to the bottom, just enough light.

As I stepped onto the duckboard after nearly 2 hours inside the Etmor, the cook came up and said,' I saved you some dinner'. It was good to be aboard, I looked around and saw that the troops were all happy watching a DVD and eating desert. I, of course, never said a word.

As I lay in my bunk that night I reflected on what had happened. I was fairly happy. I realised that whilst I had done plenty wrong, I had also done plenty right. I had managed a shit situation by thinking my way through it and by not panicking. I gave myself an uppercut, and then thought back to a few months earlier when I hadn't been thinking too well, on a dive that should have been my last, a dive that made me think seriously about giving the whole thing away.

The President Coolidge, one of my favourite spots. Deep, historic, beautiful. It was my fourth trip to the wreck; we knew her well and had come equipped to do some serious deep shit. Well almost equipped, there was a bit of a hitch there. My buddy Big Max and I had sent some of our gear over on a ship a few weeks prior to our arrival. We were assured that it would be on the wharf when we arrived but those assurances proved unrealistic. Our Helium filled stage bottles and Max's rebreather bottles were not there, it would take a few more days. One thing that has sent more than a few divers to there peril is diving with unfamiliar gear, another is impatience, I was to be guilty of both, and lucky to get away with it.

Our rebreathers require specific sized bottles, which fit inside the unit to supply oxygen and diluent gas. Max's were not with us but I had both of mine. We decided to use one of my bottles in Max's unit as his oxygen bottle, and supply the diluent gas via offboard tanks, which could be supplied by the local diveshop and then jacked in externally to the counterlungs of the rebreathers. This setup was a complete botch job, but it would get us into the water straight away. The only problem would be that the hoses that run from the onboard diluent tank to the BC power inflator would have to be left off, meaning that our BCs would have to be inflated manually. This was OK except we would have to remove our rebreather mouthpieces and breathe off our bailout regs to do it.' NO drama ', I thought. Well actually I didn't think, and that is why I am writing this.

All went well initially. We descended down to the bow section of the wreck then onto the sand at 35metres just below the first cargo hold. I decided to inflate my BC a touch so I closed my mouthpiece, picked up my bail reg and filled it. I went back onto the rebreather for a second then decided to add a touch more air to the BC. I grabbed the reg again, topped up the BC and replaced the rebreather mouthpiece. A moment later my rebreather went ape. The handset computers, which maintain the partial pressure of oxygen, began to sound their alarms. I looked down to read them, they were telling me that the oxygen PPO2 in the rebreather loop was up at 2.8bar, double the recommended safe limit.

Immediately I assumed that the electronics had failed and had begun to inject O2 at too high a rate, and that to stay on the rebreather would be dangerous. I still had the bailout reg in my hand so I put it back in my mouth and begun to monitor the rebreather to see if I could tell what was wrong. Nothing seemed to change, which was odd. About 2 mins went by and I began to feel that the gas I was breathing was becoming difficult to draw, as if I was actually running low, but I couldn't be. I looked down to check the contents gauge of the bailout bottle, only to see its reg hanging below it. My foolishness dawned on me in an instant. The rebreather electronics weren't failing they were reading correctly. At the moment I had picked up the bailout reg the second time, I had actually picked up the open circuit o2 reg attached to my onboard oxygen cylinder. I filled the BC with the O2, then breathed pure O2 back into the rebreather loop, sending the computers haywire. Then Id replaced the O2 reg into my mouth and began breathing straight off it.

It's only a three-litre cylinder and I had breathed it dry at 35 metres. A PPO2 of 4.5 bar for over 2 mins. I should not have been conscious. I grabbed the bailout reg and did the bolt up the long sandy slope to the surface, wondering if at any point I would conk out and become a statistic. Obviously I made it, but I stood on the beach for an hour afterward kicking myself, again and again. Actually it was longer than an hour, it was more like...........EVER SINCE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Like anyone I've got an ego. I like to think I am pretty good at what I do. The trouble is when we stop thinking and start taking things for granted we come unstuck. I haven't had any major self-inflicted fuck-ups since these two, and Ive stopped kicking myself. Life goes on, but from now on, I'll make bloody-well sure I keep it that way.