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    "Port Jackson sharks are found in large numbers in late Winter at The Split"
    Three Divers Adrift off Sydney
    Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - I Learned Something From That... I Learned Something From That ..
    © Peter Fields

    Murphy lurks. Murphy is always lurking. Him and his famous law. But, as an aside; did you know Murphy's law wasn't named after Murphy? No, apparently it was named after another Irishman with the same name. Well not long ago Murphy's law came on us with a vengeance.

    Along with my crew of two other divers I endeavour to dive every Saturday morning. And, sea and wind permitting, we get out about 40 odd times out of 52 each year. I run a Kiwi-built Aquapro 5.7 RIB with a 130 hp Yammy on the back as a dive boat which is quite roomy and comfortable with three but crowded with four and all their gear.

    Early winter is a great time for diving in Sydney. You can bet your ranch that clear tropic origin water comes down the coast in July at about 18° C and with better than 30 metres viso. And, as the high-pressure anti-cyclone belt slides north following the winter sun, we get heaps of clear calm sunny weather. Each calm is preceded by brisk southerlies or sou'westerlies followed some days later by a front, in turn preceded by northerlies, then the calm pattern is repeated.

    This particular Saturday morning my crew started phoning in before sunrise but, with the dawn light, I could see the ocean state from my house high on a coastal cliff. It was marginal with a stiff souwester blowing offshore and a 3 metre southerly swell. The crew reported in and we sat around wasting time and drinking tea, hoping the wind would ease and the sea calm enough to enable us to go. We did go, and because the improvement was marginal we opted to dive a wreck, the Annie M. Miller, a collier sunk in 1932 off the coast about a nautical mile out and north of Bondi Beach. The wreck's in 44 metres and it's a nice dive most times.

    I'm very twitchy about anchoring unattended boats while wreck diving and like to tie the pick into the wreck, with the last man up freeing it for the boat to float on wind or current while we decompress on the anchor rope. Currents are usual more often than not so the procedure is, when on a sand-surrounded wreck, to pull the folding grapnel pick and let it skid across the sand. When it's a reef area a large stainless clip, which secures the anchor to its chain, can be undone and the pick hand carried up while the chain drags loose across the reef. We do this to ensure comfortable decompression. If you like, going with the flow.

    These spring clips have earned the sobriquet 'suicide clips' for their propensity to come undone if the primary rope crosses over the clip and at least two helicopter winching accidents resulting in fatalities have been attributed to them. We'd had no trouble in several years of use and grew a bit blase, I guess. Besides which, if I'm in doubt at all, especially in wind or current I double cleat the warp topside and on the bottom, near the anchor, clip on my 'come-back' line and reel so that whatever happens I'm attached to the anchor warp.

    This day we picked in easily in a sou'sou'west, 15-18 knot stiff breeze and a one knot northerly current - isn't it odd that winds are named for where they come from and currents for where they're going to - and first buddy John Riley took off down to the wreck. His task, as first down, is to tie in the anchor. Second diver Brad Ormsby, a fit, well-muscled ex-bouncer, followed and I trailed by a few minutes after gear adjustments. When I reached the bottom in magnificent vis. I saw that John had wrapped the chain twice around a deck winch on the wreck and the anchor was lying unstressed. Good - I thought and wandered over to the other two, finning at 43 metres against the current and, contented the anchor was secure, with come-back reel securely in my pocket. Murphy's first strike!

    For about the first time in memory we were all relatively close together, (usually we're all over the wreck and out of sight of each other), and mucking about lazily. I was carrying a single 92cu.ft. cylinder of 26% nitrox with a bail-out bottle - a 20 cubic foot pony, air filled - slung across the base of my compensator jacket and occasionally I checked my nitrox computer. I like the voodoo gas; it's depth sensitive but it reduces nitrogen load and gives a feeling of well-being both during and after the dive. My old instincts took over at one stage and I swam a few metres back to double check the anchor. The warp and chain were gone and the grapnel lay uselessly on the wreck. I let out a deep, loud, concerned grunt through my reg and watched the others become saucer-eyed as they followed my pointing finger. Nothing left now but a blue water ascent and de-coke on the drift. [Note: Peter told me (Michael McFadyen) that he probably had a bottom time of around 8 to 10 minutes. This would be right at the limit of no decompression diving on an Aladin Pro computer for this wreck. This of course assumes a slow, correct descent. John would have required a few minutes probably, up to five or six, and Brad only one or two minutes. Read on further.]

    During a couple of dives previously I had noticed the inflator of my Air II octopus/inflator reg had been malfunctioning and going briefly into auto-inflate. I made a note at these times to service it and fix the problem. Sometime. Murphy's next strike.

    At about 18 metres Riley deployed the small parachute lift bag we all carry bungeed to our bail-out tanks, letting it sail surfacewards on the end of his comeback line. I commenced to do the same but in the middle of this manouvre my Air II went into uncontrollable inflation. I abandoned the reel, with one hand grabbed the dump string on my BC and with the other grabbed Riley for a weight or sea anchor or something. From 15 metres we rocketed to the surface, Brad following. Riley immediately ducked down to commence his really-need deco. I disconnected the airfeed to the jacket and noticed the boat about 75-100 metres away. Brad popped up beside me and with absolutely no time to waste, and because he was young, fit and strong I said to him - 'go for it' - meaning go after the boat. Relieved of my unwanted buoyancy I headed back down to decompress and offset the explosive ascent.

    I followed Riley's reel down to 15 metres and commenced decompression. Thank God for an oxygen rich mix - I did a long, slow careful de-coke hoping that Brad had reached the boat and would come back to where the parachutes were on the surface. I strained to hear a motor - but nothing. Deco finished, Riley and I were now on the surface in a 3 metre swell and a rapidly rising wind chop; the wind by now 18-20 knots and building. My lift bag was floating nearby so I swam across and retrieved it then rejoined Riley. No sign of Brad and, when the swell lift me high enough to see my rapidly vanishing boat there was nobody in it but the diver's flag was still valiantly fluttering. Well old son - I sez to meself - yer in the shit now. A mile or more offshore and heading north to open ocean on wind and current.

    I have always kept up the old habit of wearing a snorkel. Haven't breathed through it in years and for all I know it could have been full of spiders but I kept it 'just in case'. Well today was just in case. I inflated my Scubapro jacket and my Apollo drysuit and, in the 18° water was at least warm and comfortable and could snorkel breathe. Riley resisted my blandishments to fin gently shorewards as he believed a boat pickup was possible, although with wind and sea conditions there were bugger-all boats out this fine morning. In my pocket I had a rolled up safety sausage courtesy of a Dive New Zealand magazine giveaway a few years ago, so I unrolled it and inflated it but of course the wind blew it flat. I held onto it anyway as we drifted - and drifted - and drifted. About 20 minutes into the drift we ditched our weight belts. As mine fell it latched on to my fin buckle and, for a long moment, there was a whole lotta shakin' goin' on. At least we now floated higher and breathed easier.

    After 47 minutes were up on my computer Riley said - there's a boat over there. Where? I can't see one. Yeah, now I'm on the top of a swell I can. Pulling the safety sausage tight I gave it the best erection it, or I, had ever had. The boat, a trawler-type charter day-fishing boat turned in our direction and bore down on us. We doffed our gear and, handing it up and with great difficulty because of the high steep topsides and the boat heavily rolling in the swells, we got aboard, half drowned seals flopping on a heaving deck - but hell it was sweet. The boat skipper had seen our drifting R.I.B. but with a dive flag up and an anchor rope over he passed it by. One of his crewmen spotted the safety sausage and the skipper, a diver, realised straight away what was up.

    Telling him of the loss of Brad he got on the radio to the Water Police. I asked him to take me back to my boat so I could start a search. Leaping off his high deck rail I swam over to my rapidly drifting boat. Safely aboard the R.I.B. I got on the mobile phone to the Wales rescue chopper and reported Brad's loss and our position, all the while commencing a search by going slowly back to the start point and retracing our drift after a fashion. I saw the Police launch apparently searching along the base of the 500 foot cliffs inshore from us and I remarked cynically to Riley that the coppers were doing their usual, searching in the wrong place.

    We had just got back to the wrecksite when the coppers came headlong through the rough seas, their big launch knifing and bouncing through the swells and pulling up close by.

    'Are you the two blokes missing' says a brawny cop leaning over the gunwale.

    'Yeah - we were' I said, 'but there's another bloke missing now - we're searching for him'.

    'Aw, we've got his gear here' says the copper 'and he's over on the bloody rocks and we're not going in there to get him: It's too rough'.

    'You bloody beaut' I said. 'If you weren't so fucken ugly I'd give you a big kiss'.

    He actually cracked a grin as he handed over Brad's tank and BC and stuff. They had picked it up halfway in to the cliffs where Brad had abandoned it in order to swim more easily.

    We flew post haste the 2 kilometres or so to where the coppers had indicated followed by them in hot pursuit. There was our mate 6 metres up on a broad ledge with one fin in hand. He'd lost the other as a swell rolled him on the rocks. I backed up close to the cliff and held up a hand for him to wait. But he's an old surfer and can read the swells. No kidding - a swell rolled 6 metres up the cliff right to his feet and he stepped off as sweet and easy as you like and in a few strokes was at the boat. It was bloody good to see him.

    I quizzed him about his missed deco. He said the computer at the end of the dive required a 1 minute stop at 3 metres but the missed-deco profile on the Aladin said S.O.S. and 14 minutes at 6 metres. He was in remarkably good shape for just having done a 2 kilometre swim in terrible seas and his calves were aching with cramp but, nothwithstanding his good appearance and to be super safe, I put him on pure O2 from a D size industrial cylinder I carry in the boat and insisted he re-hydrate from bottled water I also carry.

    We raced him back to HMAS Penguin at Balmoral just inside Sydney Harbour - closely followed by the cops - where we expected someone to be available at the recompression chamber but the Navy was all off duty and we were advised to head for Rose Bay where an ambulance would meet us and transport Brad to Prince of Wales hospital and their hyperbaric facility - which duly happened. Brad was checked out, fed oxygen and observed for 4 hours before being discharged as o.k.

    He's a bloody hero. When we hit the surface, he told me he heard my instruction to 'go for it' but when he turned around the ocean was empty; we'd both gone. He made a quick decision. Swim after the boat and fail, all the while losing energy, or go for the cliffs where he could hopefully hail a passing boat or find some rock fishermen who could get a search and rescue message out for Riley and me.

    It's all over now except for the post mortems and analyses - and the delivery of three bottles of the best bourbon to our rescuer. No more suicide clips and we'll revert to our old way of diving. Riley likes diving on his own so he can go in first and when he's back on the anchor warp the next diver, me or whomever, can enter. I'm buying two newer and better safety sausages, one for each of my BC jacket diving rigs and I'm going to try and find a divers EPIRB (emergency positioning radio beacon) which I can carry at all times.

    By the way, callous bastards that we are, Riley and I boated off to Doyle's seafood pub at Watson's Bay and while Brad languished in a hospital bed with ravishingly beautiful nurses we enjoyed a hearty seafood lunch. But Murphy hadn't completely let go. When we hauled the boat out at the ramp there were dozens of feet of nylon fishing line wrapped around the outboard prop. Tough dude that Murphy.


  • Many thanks to Peter for providing this report to go on my Web Site. See my article on a similar problem.

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