Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Lost at Sea
Think of the worst possible thing that could happen to you on a scuba dive. Threatened by a dangerous shark! Frightening yes, but you are very unlikely to be attacked or killed. What about running out of air? Yes, but either way it will be over very quickly and you will not have much time to think about it. Coming up away from the boat? Nothing scary in that at all. After a recent experience, I believe that the most frightening thing that could occur is what I will describe in the following paragraphs.
The morning of Saturday 2 October 1993 was overcast and it had rained earlier during the night. Despite this, the forecast was okay, with only light NE to SE winds predicted. Together with three other divers, we left Port Hacking (south of Sydney) in a private 5.6 metre Marlin Broadbill to dive Osborne Shoals. This boat, Le Scat, was at that time owned 100% by Les Caterson but he and I now own 50% each. The reef is located about three kilometres off Cronulla Beach and at least 2.5 kilometres from the nearest land. On arriving at the site, we anchored first go and the line was secured to the front bollard as normal. The seas were very calm and there was so little wind we could not be sure if we were hooked up.
Our equipment was set up (deco-line, cross-over line etc) before we descended. I was first down and checked the anchor to ensure it was secure. It was already in a spot (at 16 metres) from which it would never come out by itself. We started the dive and followed the usual wall to the west. About 15 minutes into the dive it got noticeably darker overhead and after a while we turned around and came back to the anchor. The line was now laying in a different direction, being more to the north than before. However, it caused no concern to us. Two of the divers decided to ascend at this time as one was on only her ninth dive (the other has hundreds of dives to his credit). After another 10 minutes, Les and I finished our dive and also started to ascend. Before I did, I removed the anchor and placed it on a small lip.
When I had gone up a few metres I knew something was wrong. The cross-over line was not where it should be and the anchor line went on and on and on. I had lost visual contact with Les so I surfaced. The scene that greeted me was simply like nothing I had ever seen before. Instead of no wind, there was a gale blowing from the south at about 35 or more knots and the seas were huge. However, this was not the worst thing I saw, or rather, did not see. I looked for the boat but it was gone!! Shit!! The first buddy pair were holding on to the anchor line about 15 metres away and Les had surfaced as well and was next to me. What had happened? Why had the anchor line parted from the boat? Where was the boat?
At first we could see the shore, both Cronulla Beach and the outline of Cape Baily to the north-east. On the top of the waves I looked for the boat but it was gone. No doubt about it, we were lost at sea. The seas were breaking over our heads and weather conditions worsened with rain decreasing visibility to only a few hundred metres. We moved closer together, discussing what we would do. It was obvious that the couple of fishing boats we had seen not far away before we started the dive would be gone. It was also improbable that any boat would be still out in these seas and likely to pass by Osborne Shoals.
Think, when would anyone miss us? I figured that it would be at least five or six hours before Elly, Les's wife, phoned the local dive shop to check if he had been there and a couple more before a search started. That was too late to wait as dark would fall shortly after that time. There was no current and the wind was blowing in a direction that would eventually bring us to shore about 2.5 kilometres away.
After some discussion, we decided we had to set off towards shore. The first buddy pair decided to dump their weight belts at this time but both Les and I decided to keep ours. My reasoning behind this is that I know I can snorkel far more efficiently when wearing a 5 mm suit with a weight belt as the weight keeps my feet submerged. I also knew that my BCD would keep me afloat easily and I was not tired. I also decided against dumping my Nikonos (camera) for obvious reasons.
We moved towards the end of the anchor line and cut it giving about a 30 metre length. I took one end and using a bowline attached it to a clip on my BCD. Les did something similar to the other end while the other two put the line through the buckles of their vests. At least we were not going to be separated.
We decided to slowly swim at right angles to the wind to bring us closer to shore. Being the strongest swimmer, I took the lead and the others gathered towards the other end of the line. All the while we scanned the seas for a boat. We also listened for a plane or helicopter as many fly straight over Osborne Shoals when heading along the coast. It is also straight under the main flight path of Sydney Airport but each plane we heard was too high and above the low clouds.
After about 15 minutes, I saw what I thought was a waterspout out to sea. A few minutes after that I realised that it was in fact the sail of a large yacht. I called to the others and we waved to the boat. The experienced diver in the other pair and I both had powerful Ocean Graphic torches which we turned on and pointed towards the boat. But a few minutes later the rain started again and we lost sight of the vessel.
Back to the swimming, using my compass to make sure we were going towards the shore. Still no other sight of a vessel. The weather cleared every now and again and we could see the outline of Cape Baily to the north-east. Well, at least we were not going to drift outside it into open sea. Swimming again, my new Dry Snorkel working marvellous, not a drop of water in my mouth. Gee I am glad I have it instead of my old one. Thoughts came to my head, not of dying, but of losing the new boat (I had, of course, tied the anchor line) and even worse, what Elly would do to Les for losing, not the boat, but their little dog which was still on board. Hell, it was a certainty that she would never talk to me again. Despite all this, I never once doubted that we were going to survive. We were all calm, healthy and fit and the water was not too cold.
We had been in the water now well over an hour and a half. Suddenly, I thought I saw something to the north of us, more than a kilometre away. I sang out to the others. Yes, on the top of the waves I could sometimes see a boat. Please, head this way. A minute later I was certain a yellow boat was coming in our rough direction. We waved and shone our torches, but it was still too far off to see us. My heart leapt. What was that behind the boat. Yes, it was towing a boat, but I could not see what colour or type. Again, please be our boat. A few more minutes passed. No doubt about it, the boat being towed was ours. Not only was it the right colour, the dive flag was up. Hell, I even know whose boat is towing it. What luck, it was the Port Hacking dive charter boat, Cat Dive, owned and skippered by Karl St John. St John was right, he really was our St John!! The irony of being rescued by Cat Dive did not escape me even in the water. Les had owned and operated Cat Dive for the past 10 years until he sold it only a year ago. Here his old boat was going to rescue him.
There were three people on the front of the boat scanning the seas. It was obvious they were looking for us. We kept waving. After what seemed like an eternity, they waved back. We were saved. Minutes passed as the two boats battled the huge seas. Finally they came alongside us and I disconnected myself from the anchor line and swam over to our rocking boat. The dog was still there. I gingerly put my camera aboard. The mermaid line was entangled around the starboard engine and the ladder but I dragged myself aboard. My legs felt very weak, something I had not noticed in the water.
I dumped my gear on the floor of the boat and looked for the others. Karl had stopped towing while I swam over and climbed aboard and the extremely strong wind had already blown us more than 30 metres from the other divers. I would have to go and get them. I pulled in the deco-line and cross-over line. I could not reach the mermaid line wrapped around the prop so I raised the motor out of the water, no luck. I would have to get back in the water. Grabbing hold of the mermaid with one hand, I jumped in and grasped the motor. It was wrapped around about four times. After a couple of minutes, riding the motor like a bucking bull, it was free. I got back on the boat and dropped the motor. Both motors started first go so I freed the towline and looked for the others. They were now about 100 metres away, bobbing about in the Tasman. I motored over and eventually stopped above them, letting them approach the boat in the dangerous seas. I threw a line in the water and they grasped it. First aboard was the inexperienced female, then her buddy and finally, Les came on board.
We had a slow trip back to Port Hacking in the huge seas, reflecting on our good luck and Karl's great work. Early the next morning Les and I went back to Osborne Shoals to recover the anchor and lost weight belts. Within three minutes, we had everything.
What had happened? Well, it is obvious that the change of wind direction, enormous increase in wind speed and huge seas had combined to completely rip the anchor line off the bollard where it was attached. After checking how it was tied, it is possible (and obviously it did) that the boat rising high out of the water and dropping heavily in a certain way could cause the multiple knots and loops to come undone.
What did we learn? Firstly, the weather bureau is as inaccurate as ever as no change was forecast and the weather was supposed to be quite good. Secondly, the boat needs a bigger bollard to enable a better tying off point. Thirdly, another part of the anchor line should be tied off somewhere on the boat, just in case the first gives way. Fourthly, we will never again leave no-one with the boat while diving. Finally, we all learnt that we were calm and relaxed when faced with a prolonged life-threatening situation.
Of course, some will say "Why did you all dive at once?". Well, we could have left one pair in the boat until the first surfaced and it is a method that can be used. Since then, we always leave someone either on or within site of the anchor line or under the boat (if the visibility is good).
The final thanks, of course, has to go to Karl St John of Cat Dive for his initiative in seeing a boat in a funny place in such rotten weather, investigating it and using commonsense to figure out that we were lost between the boat and Osborne Shoals.