Although one of the first divers in the water, we were the last buddy pair to surface. Back on board the dive vessel, with kit doffed and coffee in hand, it became apparent that one of the divers from the other group was unwell. He was being observed by the group’s dive leader while reviewing his dive computer. Within a few minutes, the diver was laid down and administered emergency O2.
Once any diver is administered emergency O2, then the boat skipper must alert the Coastguard. The diver was complaining of abdominal pains and rashes we becoming visible on his legs. The skipper issued a Pan Pan distress call to Solent Coastguard. With the MV Aeolian Sky located between Swanage and Portland on the Dorset south coast, the retirement of the Portland helicopter in 2017 and closure of Portland Search and Rescue operations, dictated the area is now served from Lee-on-Solent in Hampshire.
Once confirmed that the helicopter was being dispatched, the skipper requested that all kit be moved to the starboard of the boat and tied down. Any loose items needed to be secured and the port quarter side be kept clear. Loose items can cause chaos on deck and the potential to be sucked into the helicopter’s air intakes and threaten engine failure. We were advised that we could make photography and videography recordings but no flashes or video lights. We were also warned not to touch or help the Coastguard personnel as they boarded the boat, in fear or static electricity discharge.
After 10 minutes or so, the Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopter could be seen approaching from the distance while the skipper increased speed. Initial thoughts were to question why the boat would be moving away from an incoming aircraft? When explained, it becomes logical that a moving watercraft will become more stable than if static and the helicopter consumes less fuel than in a hover.
Normally the winchman will be winched out and the ship’s crew should continue to take in the slack. As the winchman or strop approach the vessel the earthing lead or hook must make contact with the vessel to discharge the static electricity before the vessel’s crew make contact with the wire.
It takes another few minutes with the helicopter above in close proximity. We assume through the noise and downdraft that the skipper and pilot are in contact. The technique is called a hi-line transfer.
With the doors open on the helicopter, the winchman makes his descent to the dive vessel, with medical bag on the second drop. The winchman is in discussions with the dive leader and the injured divers’ buddy. At this time, we still do not know exactly what is wrong or how the incident occurred, though discussions with some of the other group seem to suggest the patient suffered an uncontrolled ascent from the shipwreck.
The winchman spends quite a bit of time with the patient. He can be seen conducting an injury assessment, checking movement of limbs and taking blood oxygen measurements. The winchman reviews the patient’s dive computer and log sheets as provided by the dive leader, then evacuates the patients’ BCD and associated dive kit back to the helicopter. We assume this will be investigated at the decompression chamber.
Both the skipper and pilot make things look effortless as the boat picks up speed again. Operations seem to move quickly now, as the medical kit pack is also winched back to the helicopter and soon after the winchman and patient.
So What Went Wrong?
It would be inconsiderate to speculate as we do not know exactly. That said, other divers from within the patient’s peer group seem to suggest when the dive computer was inspected, it had locked. Many popular dive computers will error and lock if the diver breaches the safety algorithm so that it cannot be used for 24 hours. The concept I guess is that as you should not use someone else’s computer, then you are locked out of making repetitive dives for 24 hours as a safety net.
Speaking to a couple of divers from the other group, it was suggested the injured diver was “yo-yo-ing”. A term that I have not heard before but easy to guess the meaning and a profile that could match the lay of the wreck. We were told that the diver had made an uncontrolled ascent, though it is unsure whether he missed a safety stop.
What Do We Learn From This?
Firstly the professionalism and skill of skipper, pilot and winchman. It would be fair to say that these guys worked like synchronised clocks. A most professional and synchronised medical evacuation by the boat skipper and HM Coastguard. It was a privilege to witness.
Secondly, kit and training. We do not know the exact circumstances behind this emergency, but it is fair to deduce that loss of buoyancy is a major culprit. Whether it was loss of weights, panic in an out of air situation, stuck inflator button or similar reason, kit maintenance and skill practice should be performed routinely.
The good news is that we hear that the diver was found to be well and was recovering well.