by Sean Harrison:
As the captain of some dive boats and crew on others, there was one thing that always concerned me – the props. I grew up on the water and we used to water ski and fish from boats all the time. While fishing, we were mostly concerned that our lines would get cut by the prop and, worst case (with small outboards), the line would foul our props. As young kids, we were not very good at figuring out how to avoid those situations. When we started water skiing, the problems became twofold: fouling the prop with a ski rope (and I thought fishing line was hard to get off!) and hitting a skier with a prop. At the docks, there were plenty of stories and scares of skiers who had experienced this very thing. Some were lucky and just caught a foot or leg on the prop when it was not engaged; others were not so lucky and got hit by a prop that was engaged. Keep in mind these were small props on small boats so the injuries, while still horrific and life altering, were not lethal. Statistics compiled by the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and published by Propeller Safety show that the number of injuries for 2013 was 174; that’s down from a peak in 2003 when there were 266. The number of fatalities in 2013 was 23; again, down from 47 in 2002.
Recently, there has been a large increase in the number of accidents involving dive boats backing down on or running over divers. This of course is not limited to the US; these cases span the globe. Some of the most recent cases were a 12 million dollar settlement in the US, 175 thousand dollar finding in New Zealand, and three more cases in the works; that’s just a snapshot. I am not going to speculate on the cause of these accidents; that would be unfair. I have been placed in many situations where a split second difference could have produced a different result and I have been very fortunate – in all my years putting divers/snorkelers in the water and getting them back out – to have never caused an accident. In the interest of fair disclosure, the boats were jets during my last two years as an active dive boat captain. While a jet is a little easier on the body, getting hit by the wash from a six inch jet nozzle is an experience a person will not soon forget. Remember the first time you ever turned on the garden hose to get a drink with the hose in your mouth? Thought your eyes were going to pop out of your head before you could take the house out? It is the same feeling, only throughout your whole body. For those of you who have been whitewater rafting, been thrown out of the boat, and went down the rapids – you know the feeling.
Number One Priority
One thing was consistent throughout my years: I always watched what was going on at the stern of the boat. As the person controlling the drives, I made sure the propulsion was not engaged whenever someone was close. As the person at the stern, I made sure there was no wash coming out and the captain had given the go-ahead. Sounds perfect and simple, right? Wrong. Add 18 divers, crew, the noise of the engines, and the chatter of excited people and you have yourself a very confusing and chaotic situation, but you have to cut through it and focus. The number one priority of any boat captain (and the crew they have chosen) is to get the divers in and out of the water safely. This again is not always an easy task; divers of all skill levels are onboard, weather conditions are not perfect or change during the dive, and the unexpected happens. At this point, one will want to slow down, gain control, and make the required changes. There were many times I asked divers already on the boat to sit in their seats and stay quiet until everyone was on the vessel. I would advise the divers in the water to not swim toward the boat and that we would pick them up when we were ready. This may sound strict, but it made the situation safer and everybody made it back to tell their tales.
To be perfectly clear: while the majority of the responsibility is with captain and crew, the people in the water have a level of responsibility too, if for nothing other than their own safety. Divers need to watch the boat, the captain, and the crew. It’s like boarding a flight: passengers must follow crew members’ instructions and placards at all times. You might even get a fun safety briefing filled with humor! It is not always easy to see divers just under the surface or to keep track of every diver that is on the surface. Many times, I had divers surface right at the stern and was never able to see them; that is a very poor and dangerous choice by a diver. I also had divers get out of their gear and jump right back in. This presents an even more complex problem. To ensure your safety, make sure to watch the boat, make eye contact with the person driving the boat, and listen to their instructions.
Tips from someone who has been there –have a plan with your crew, remind the old crew of the plan, have line-of-sight contact with the entry/exit point, and if at all possible have visual contact with entry/exit point.