Dropping Weights

  • An Avoidable Tragedy in Cozumel

    Mexico’s Caribbean island of Cozumel provides some startlingly good diving, which is often experienced by American divers since it is so conveniently close to the US. Diving tends to be organised in groups. It is not unusual for individual divers to turn up for dives.There are strong currents. This can lead to problems if one of the divers needs to return to the surface during a dive and that is what happened to a lady recently, with fatal consequences.

    The dive had not started well. It is reported that she had trouble with the inflator mechanism of her BC. Presumably, it tended to jam open or her own BC was not compatible with the regulator and direct-feed she had rented. So she disconnected it, intending to only connect the direct feed when she needed to put some air into her BC. This may be something that a well-practised regular diver can cope with but if anything else went wrong, it could lead to an incident pit.

    And something did go wrong. During the dive, she decided to abort and the dive guide went with her to the depth of a safety stop at, say, 5m deep. He had to be quick because on the current: He could easily lose contact with the rest of the group he was escorting. So he left her there, assuming she was competent enough to make it the short distance to the surface. He successfully rejoined his charges ar depth and continued the dive.

    We don't know what happened next. Her computer would not have recorded whether she actually made the surface or not, but her lifeless body was discovered by an entirely different group of divers some time later. It may well be that on achieving the surface, she forgot how to inflate her BC orally. She probably struggled to reconnect the direct-feed hose whilst finning furiously to stay at the surface. She might never ever have done that. She might have been carrying too much lead. She certainly did not drop her weights. Consequently, she eventually dropped and drowned. Drowning is never like it is portrayed in the movies. Struggling to keep afloat, she would have become exhausted and quietly slipped away. Nobody would have seen her go.

    What can we learn from this tragic series of events, a series of events that happens only too often with leisure divers? Firstly, never go diving unless your equipment is working one hundred percent efficiently. Secondly, be neutrally buoyant at all times. This means never wearing more lead than you need. If you think you need a lot of lead to go under, you are probably holding a large lungful of air. A properly weighted diver needs only to exhale fully to leave the surface.

    If you are neutrally buoyant, you will have no trouble swimming up to the surface, but wearing your tank and weights, you might need supplementary buoyancy to be able to stay afloat, breathing the atmosphere comfortably. This is when you need to inflate your BC and use it as a life preserver.  Know how to inflate your BC orally. That is why it has a corrugated hose. You do not need to use that hose to dump air (through the oral inflation valve) as many instructors still appear to teach. You have a dump valve positioned at the shoulder for that.

    If for some reason you cannot inflate your BC, you can still achieve flotation by dropping the lead weights you carry. I know that many worry about replacing integrated-weight pockets or a weightbelt after it has been dropped in this way, but it’s a small price to pay for your life, isn’t it?

    Think about it. Familiarize yourself with these actions. There is no reason to die in such foolish circumstances. And don’t expect anyone else to save you from your own folly. Don’t abdicate responsibility for your own well-being or even your life to a third person, someone you probably only met a short time before you went diving. Know how to work all your gear. Check that you know how to drop your weights and practise inflating your BC orally. Practice helps muscle memory so that it becomes second nature.

  • Be Ready To Drop It!

    Contrary to expectations of a sport that was years ago considered dangerous, there are few fatalities through scuba diving, but I was present in the Bahamas when a diver tragically lost his life during a dive. What happened? He went off on his own, ran out of air and at only around 18m deep he struck out for the surface. As designed, the Suunto computer he was wearing did not record the time he spent between 2m and the surface but it recorded everything else in its log and told the story. He probably made it to the surface but he dropped back down and drowned. He was a recently certified diver who had made a previous dive-specific trip so he was not totally inexperienced but why did he drop? When we recovered his body all his equipment was still in place. That is to say he was still wearing his weightbelt. Running out of air to breathe is obviously very serious. Every diver should manage their air supplies properly by keeping an eye on their pressure gauge. I admit that there may have been times when, distracted by an underwater photography subject, I have cut it very fine and arrived at the surface without enough pressure in my tank to inflate my BC. It’s not something I recommend but I’ve been able to orally inflate it instead. That’s what the oral inflation valve at the end of the corrugated hose is for. If this unfortunate person had reached the surface he could have done that but I am inclined to think that by this point he’d got into a panic and might have lost all sense of reason. He might have tried to use the BC’s direct-feed control but of course it would not have worked if his tank were empty.

    Make sure you get your weightbelt clear of your body before you drop it. Make sure you get your weightbelt clear of your body before you drop it.
    There is another option. Think about dropping your weightbelt in an emergency. Struggling to swim with full kit at the surface, if that diver had thought to drop his weightbelt he would still be alive today.You should not have to do this in order to swim up to the surface if you are correctly weighted to be neutrally buoyant, but you might need to do it once you are there. Dropping your weightbelt has the effect of making you buoyant so you don’t really want to do it at depth and enjoy an out-of-control ascent. You must also be careful not to drop it on divers that may be below you and for this reason practicing this act is discouraged at crowded inland dive sites. Before BCs, and their forerunner the ABLJ, were invented, dropping the weightbelt was enshrined in diver training. It was the only way to stay at the surface during an emergency. Correct use of a BC allows for neutral buoyancy at any depth and one only has to swim up a little for the gas within the BC to expand and start to become positively buoyant. You then need to jettison some air for reasons of controlling the speed of ascent. Dropping the weights effects a sudden increase in buoyancy that could get out of control. For this reason dropping weights tends to be glossed over in training. So how to drop a weightbelt? It used to be the last thing you put on in the old days. That was so that it was never fouled by other straps passing over it. Today, it’s often put on before the BC and tank.

    It is not sufficient to simply flip the buckle and let it fall. You need to be sure it falls away cleaning from you without snagging. Think about dropping you weightbelt and its ramifications. Avoid being over-weighted so that you can be neutrally buoyant at any depth but know that you can always drop your weightbelt once you are near to the surface. Unhitch it and swing it away from you and once it is clear, before you drop it!

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