Experience counts for nothing if you’re
not familiar with your equipment, as Hunter Wilson discovered
Buying new kit can be a bitter-sweet experience. Although you have
the pleasure of owning something shiny and up-to-date, it always
seems a shame to relegate an old favourite to the ‘reserves’
shelf. More seriously, lack of familiarity with a new piece of kit
could be the death of you. I’m an advanced diver and assistant
club instructor with 20 years’ experience in the water, but
when you're trying out some thing new, you might as well be a learner.
Four years ago, I was diving with five friends in the North Sea
just off the Tyne, where we’d pinpointed a new wreck. We were
diving off a hardboat in the late afternoon, just as the October
light was beginning to fade. I’d bought a new BCD and was
looking forward to christening it.
We dropped a shot-line down to the wreck and my buddy Dave and
I were first to descend. It was pretty dark, and what was left of
the sunlight faded quickly as we went beyond 30m. The gloom played
a part in what was to follow, because I had only a medium-sized
torch with me, which sent out a pencil beam. It’s not easy
trying to get a perspective on a big wreck with such a narrow beam:
it’s like having tunnel vision and can be quite disorientating.
When we reached the wreck at 40m, Dave and I exchanged okay signals,
but as we swam on I began to sink. I was too heavy in the new BCD,
which was hardly a massive problem, but I definitely needed to get
some air into the jacket. And that’s where the problems started.
Taking hold of my low-pressure inflator, I tried to feel for the
button to inject air, but couldn’t find it. I continued to
sink to the bottom at 42m, and narcosis set in.
The problem was that the inflator button didn’t really stand
proud of the unit and was difficult to find. If only I’d taken
the trouble to familiarise myself with the controls while I was
still on the surface.
‘I hit the surface so fast I knew
I was in big trouble. I couldn’t swim, I couldn’t even
feel my legs. It was terrifying, as if I’d lost my legs altogether’
I dropped the torch so that it was hanging face-down from the lanyard,
beaming on to the sea bed. For several minutes I fiddled with the
inflator, trying to concentrate in the darkness as the fog of narcosis
swept across my mind. As it turned out, I had actually succeeded
in locating the button and had injected more than enough air to
lift me off the bottom. In fact, in the gloom, I failed to appreciate
that I was ascending rapidly. I looked at my computer to see that,
in virtually no time at all, I had risen from 42m to 16m. By then,
though, it was too late.
I hit the surface so fast I knew I was in big trouble, and I shouted
to the boat for help. I couldn’t swim, I couldn’t even
feel my legs, so the crew had to haul me on board. It was terrifying,
as if I’d lost my legs altogether. The crew got my kit off
and hauled me into the cabin, where I was given 15 minutes of oxygen
from a basic kit. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to give
me back some of the feeling in my toes while we waited for help
from the coast guard.
Luckily for me, we were diving not far from a recompression chamber
run by the Tyneside Police underwater search unit. Before long,
I was in there, with a police diver carrying out various tests to
gauge the extent of the bend. All I could think was, ‘You
silly bastard, Wilson.’ It was so stupid, so unnecessary,
and I’d caused so much fuss. But it was also a lucky escape
– I suffered no lasting effects and, after a few weeks, I
was allowed back in the water.
I reckon that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,
and I’d like to think I learned a few lessons from the experience.
The most obvious one is to get to grips with new pieces of kit before
using them on serious dives. You have to know your kit so well that
operating it is a reflex, a series of automatic reactions.
The BCD wasn’t a bad design, it was just different to my
old adjusted buoyancy life jacket. That said, I’ve since modified
its shoulder dump by attaching a long piece of string to the cord,
so that it hangs where I can see it. Also, the thin beam of the
torch contributed to my confusion. It’s all very well carrying
a small torch as a back-up, but if you’re diving a deep wreck
in British waters, you need a powerful lamp with a wide beam as
your primary light source. In all, it was a frightening experience
that I never want to repeat. But I do think I’m a more prepared
diver as a result.
Interview by Simon Rogerson