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Near Miss at Vulcan - Graham Lambert

I'm lucky to be alive, and I hope my story may prevent you from getting into the same trouble as I did.

It was a hot windy Cape Town Wednesday afternoon and the invitation to slip off work and go looking for a lost anchor on Tafelberg Reef (near Vulcan Rock) was irresistible. I'm a seasoned Cape Diver (300+ dives) and not easily put off by less than perfect conditions, but as we rounded the bend in the road into Hout Bay and saw the sea for the first time, my first reaction was to start thinking of any excuse to give this up as a bad idea. The swell was fairly big with the tops of the waves whipped white by the strong South-Easter and starting to break. If I had been on my own, I would have turned around and gone home right there and then. We pulled into the parking lot at the slipway where my animated and highly enthusiastic buddies soon dispelled any hope I had of talking them out of it.

I'm not a nervous diver, but having personally found a dead woman diver underwater, and listened to several first-hand accounts of divers being lost by their boats then being miraculously picked up at sea by other fortuitously passing boats, I have a personal rule that I always carry a reel and surface marker buoy (SMB) when diving from a boat. In my experience, there are 3 scenarios where this very important:

The obvious one - you intend to penetrate a part of a wreck or cave and you need to find your way back out again. NEVER penetrate a wreck or cave without a reel - disturbed sediments, a dead torch or general narcosis/panic may render you unable to find your way out. Someone tends to die like this every year, don't let the next one be you.

The boat anchors on a wreck or reef which you intend to explore, you run a line from the anchor as you explore, then find you way back to the anchor line at the end of the dive. Besides leading you to the boat, this will allow you to do your compulsory deco stop on the anchor line if you incur a deco penalty (don't tell me your dive plan won't go into deco time) - problems happen, buddies get stuck or lost and you may easily find yourself facing a compulsory 5 to 10 minute stop. If this is in say a 2 knot current, and you don't have the anchor line to hold on to, you will drift 60m per minute, so after 5 minutes you will eventually break surface 300m away from the boat. In a 2m swell you will no longer be visible from the boat - bye bye! In any case, if you're over 40 like me, you will always want to be doing a 5 minute safety stop after every dive.

You dive on a reef or blinder and the boat does not anchor because the reef wave breaks. You explore the reef and by the end of your dive you will not know where the boat is. (Natal divers may find this odd, as they always use a DM towing a buoy, but Cape charters seldom use DM's and often dive in this manner). After your dive, you attach your SMB to the reel and after partially inflating it, send it to the surface where the boat operator can clearly see you position and any other buddy pairs. He can then track your position as you do your 5 minute safety stop at 5m, comfortably hanging on your reel under the SMB.

As you can see, I'm sold on the reel/buoy idea, so back to my story:

As we started to kit up I discovered that one of the buddies had lost my reel on a previous dive that week as well as his own and we now had no reel between the three of us. If only I had had the 'balls' to be a wet blanket, and refuse to go, but they were all so keen and off we set with our top-man, a young inexperienced chap who would stay with the boat while the 3 of us searched for the missing anchor. After a very bumpy ride we reached the GPS target and cast anchor. Skipper watched the GPS for a bit to make sure the anchor was fast and we rapidly kitted up. As I watched the waves spraying over the deck, I wondered if it would be possible to use any cell phones or radios if we had to.

Our dive plan was to meet at the bottom of the 30m deep anchor line and then remain in sight of the line at all times, while searching for the previously lost anchor. The boat was pitching and pulling at the anchor-line like a wild horse and as I didn't want to hang about and get sick, I dropped over the side into the froth and went to the bottom to wait there for the others. The visibility was about 10m and the water was remarkably warm for Vulcan. I checked the anchor. It looked well hooked onto the reef and so I turned my back on it, and while remaining in one place waiting for the others to get down, I began to look around. When I looked round to where the anchor-line was supposed to be - it was gone. I was alone in a big ocean with no route back to the safety of the boat. In my rising panic, the first thought that crossed my mind was that I must have blacked out or swum about in a narked daze for a bit - why was I not still next to the anchor, it was there a minute ago? As it transpired the anchor must have been ripped off the reef by the pitching boat which was now moving off at a few knots. Skipper and our buddy had not met at the bottom of the line as planned, neither had they checked the integrity of the anchor. After a few minutes I saw their bubbles and joined them with some relief - but why was there no anchor line rising comfortingly up to the boat?

Skipper seemed happy, and I followed behind him and our buddy as they swam around looking for the previously lost anchor. I tried to signal to him "Where is OUR anchor?" When he appeared to have no idea, I forced both of them to begin an immediate slow ascent with me. I could feel the current and we held hands to stay together as we ascended.

A grim scene waited for us on the surface: The boat was almost out of sight and the swell had reached the point where the waves were breaking over us. My first thought was that it was after 5 in the afternoon and that by the time anyone missed us it would be dark. By morning in this wind and current we would be well out to sea. The only thing to do was put our heads down and swim - and pray.

If the boat had been over sand or drifted into any deeper water there would have not have been a happy ending to this story, but thankfully, the dragging anchor snagged onto something which arrested the drift. We were being carried from upwind with the strong surface current and carefully steered ourselves towards the boat and to stunned safety where we were greeted by the (now white-faced) top man. I doubt he would have been able to get the strained anchor line up on his own and come back find us one he realized he was drifting. We sat in a silence for a while reliving the dreadful moments

Please learn from my story: don't be afraid to say NO when you are not comfortable with the diving conditions; and get yourself a reel and buoy and learn how to use them - ALWAYS!
50m reel SMB