IT HAPPENED TO ME: Know your kit

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


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