Big Guy - Out of Gas

A pony bottle (left) attached to a larger cylinderImage via WikipediaWhen I get on a dive boat, I invariably do 3 things that end up getting me in trouble (actually, its just the third thing that leads to trouble):

  1. Pick out a spot where I'm not in anyone's way.
  2. Put my gear together quickly and stow whatever I don't need.
  3. Find a good perch from which to check out the other divers.

And so it was on the Monday of a 2009 trip. Nearly every diver on board was an old friend or, at least, well known to me. However there was one guy, let's call him "Steve" (I'm going to use pseudonyms for other divers unless I have permission to discuss them directly), who looked out of place and more than a little uncomfortable. This big, happy, boisterous fellow was putting his regulator together with the tank backwards (think back, we've all done it or something like it). Fumbling with the screw on the yoke of his first stage, he spun it right off and dropped it overboard triggering a scramble for a new one before we headed out. Lots of folks helpfully dug around for a replacement. I ended up lending him the one from my DIN-to-yoke adapter. I decided to keep an eye on him when we splashed. What I should have done was pulled him aside and checked on his background. It's the first of two major regrets I have from that day.

A couple of hours and one fantastic below deck snooze (for me) later, Steve entered the water. I followed immediately, caught up to him on the hang line below the boat and followed him down. Reaching the wreck 100' below, I found that the current was flowing from the anchor at the stern toward the bow. The return trip was going to be up-current but the current was light so it was no big deal. To my right, Steve floated with the current down the hull. He was clearly having some buoyancy issues and was blowing a lot of bubbles. As we reached the far end, I asked how much air he had. After a couple of false starts, Steve understood and showed me his gauge. It read 300 psi! He'd used over 90% of his air in 8 minutes. And he didn't seem to see this as a problem.

Deciding that I needed to get him to the anchor line before putting him on my air, I grabbed his wrist and hauled him the length of the wreck. When we got to the line, he was nearly out of gas so I switched him to my 40 cubic foot pony bottle which also had the EAN30 mix we were diving. We quickly ascended to 50' so we could cut down on his air volume per breath. At 50', I showed him his gauge , made it clear that he was going to be ok and tried to convey that I was running the dive now. We ascended slowly, Steve calming as we rose.

As we approached the boat, Steve started looking up with concern at the "headbanger" mushroom anchor weighing the hang line down. The surface chop was ramming it up an down as is typical for an offshore dive. To protect his head, I rotated him away from the line so that I was under the weight and prepared to transfer us to our safety stop. At 20', Steve suddenly spun away from me to grab the hang line. As he did so, he moved past the limit of my pony's reg hose, the mouthpiece clamped fiercely between his teeth. Before I could pull him back, he ripped the mouthpiece from the reg and took a huge 'breath' of water. His eyes rolled with panic as he tried to sort out what had happened. I took my reg out and purged it as I popped it into his mouth. With my other hand I moved to my Air 2 (by the way, I now have an 8' octopus reg on my main first stage and on my pony - just in case). He shook with spasms of coughing and retching; and started a run for the surface which I aborted with a clamp on his shoulder.

After a couple of minutes calming him down, we were getting really low on air. I guided us to the surface and inflated his BC as he grabbed hold of the ladder. Unfortunately, after 15 minutes of panic, he was exhausted and could not climb out under his own power. The guys on the swim step were pulling but he was at least 400 lbs fully geared up. I settled in on the bottom ladder rung with my shoulders under him and, in a moment worthy of Borat, helped heave him out of the water.

When I arrived on deck, he was out of his gear and lying prone; eyes shut. "Shit!" I thought. "He's dead." But Steve opened his eyes and smiled, "Did you just save my life?" "Three times." I answered. "Let's get out of this gear and talk about it up top."

Out in the warming sun, we rehydrated, grabbed a sandwich and talked through the incident. Steve was visibly shaken and both of us were wiped. It turned out that Steve had just 6 dives - his certification dives. This was way beyond his experience set. Watching him getting ready, it had been obvious. We figured out that he was over weighted, which led in part to his buoyancy problems; and we talked about air management. I offered to guide him through his second dive and to get him properly weighted. On that dive, when he reached 1000 psi, I sent him up the line with some other divers - he had a great time.

Which leads me to my second major regret. What we didn't talk about was his general lack of fitness and how that had endangered both of us. Steve had no business being out their because he was too inexperienced, yes. But he also was grossly overweight and completely unaware of how his lack of fitness drove the causal chain that could have ended his life.

Just over a year later, Steve died of a heart attack while diving in the Virgin Islands. When I heard he was gone, I felt more than a twinge of guilt. His hometown paper ran stories about all of the wonderful things he had done and was doing with his life. What stuck with me was how popular he was for officiating at weddings. With his cherubic grin and easy charm, he was kind of unforgettable. He may have been a terrible diver but he was one heck of a guy.

I should have laid it out for him when we first talked after the rescue. I should have said:

  1. Look, you're lucky to be alive.
  2. You are too inexperienced to be diving out here without expressly seeking guidance from an experienced buddy.
  3. You ran out of air because your lack of fitness compounded a slight buoyancy problem into a major air supply issue.
  4. You could have killed both of us trying to get you out of the water.
  5. You have to think about this like hiking underwater. If you couldn't comfortably go on a six mile mountain hike, you shouldn't be out here.
  6. You are too nice a guy to lose ... please drop 100 lbs or quit diving.
  7. Please, take the second dive off and think about it.

I wonder if that conversation would not have served him better?

A couple of weeks later I shared this story with our dive club. That experience led to this blog's first entry.

Dive safe,


Next time - Out Of Gas, Too!
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