As the Prop Turns

It began as an idyllic day. I was vacationing on a Thai liveaboard, enjoying a dive in the Andaman Sea. The dive site was Silvertip Bank, a large, scenic reef with crystal-clear water and plenty of marine life. My dive profile was conservative, my digital camera’s card was full, and I followed my plan without incident. I even extended my safety stop as an extra precaution. Everything went according to design.

Until I surfaced.

The Accident

When I reached the surface, I was mildly surprised to see I was only about 75 yards from the mother ship. The briefing we’d received before the dive had been explicit and gave us two options on how to return to the boat: We could swim to the rear platform of the dive boat and climb aboard, or we could remain where we surfaced and await pick-up by one of the chase boats. When I surfaced and saw how close I was to the boat, I started swimming for the platform.

During the swim I raised my head periodically to check my bearings, so I was aware of the dive dinghy picking up a nearby diver. I needed no assistance, however, so I continued my swim. What I didn’t realize was that given the location of the other diver, the driver of the boat was looking directly into a blinding, sun-dappled sea to track him.

He never saw me.

He only heard the impact when the propeller struck me.

I, unfortunately, felt the impact. It felt curiously like a heavy blunt object striking my left shin and pulling the fin from my foot, followed by the sickening sensation of the propeller striking my right foot and actually slicing the other fin away.

Stunned, I didn’t know the extent of the damage, and I wasn’t about to look down to assess it. I was frightened, I was in pain, and I had no fins; my priority was to get out of the water. Fast. I managed to get air in my BCD to keep myself afloat and started yelling. The driver, having seen my fins floating near the surface, quickly spotted me and came to help. You can imagine my relief when I was safely on the chase boat and could see my feet still attached to my ankles!

Also fortunate, I had a friend back on board who was a medical professional. I knew, and he confirmed, the laceration on my right foot would require stitches. With assistance, I hobbled into the salon on my mangled right foot. There, a crude “operating table” had been set up on a bench. There were needles, sutures, medical gauze and hydrogen peroxide from the boat’s first aid kit, but no anesthesia to numb my foot while the wound was closed with 16 stitches. I don’t drink, but that day I was tempted!

The driver of the chase boat later came into the salon to apologize. He didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Thai, but I think we both understood. He obviously felt horrible about what happened. He came up to me, placed his hands together and bowed, as per Thai custom. I couldn’t understand his words, but his body language told me he was deeply shaken. I shook his hand and with eye contact and a smile told him I would be OK. That turned out to be easier said than done.

The Aftermath

Surfaced diver holds hands above head to signal a boat

Over the next few days, the pain in both my right foot and left leg grew steadily worse. The pain was intense, and I was unable to put weight on either extremity. I’d hoped to be able to dive again, but clearly, I needed more than ice packs and Tylenol. I needed evacuation to a hospital, treatment for my injuries and a flight home. The boat arranged the evacuation and dropped me off at the Myanmar border. The ambulance ride from there to Phuket was nearly five hours of bone-jarring torture. Every turn, every bump, every vibration sent stabbing pains up my leg. Never before had I experienced such sustained, intense pain.

In Phuket, X-rays revealed not broken bones as I had suspected, but a systemic infection of the skin and subcutaneous tissue called “cellulitis.” This was the source of the pain in my leg, which now shot from my lower back all the way down my foot. I spent the next five days in the hospital. It was not the end I’d envisioned for this dive trip of a lifetime. Eventually, I got my flight home, gratefully with the help of DAN TravelAssist®.


Looking back, I’m still incredulous my accident occurred. I often think about the odds of being run over by a boat in an area as remote as the Burma Banks. After all, it’s a big ocean, and I’m a small target. But the odds were against me that day, I guess. On the other hand, I do recognize how lucky I was to have avoided more serious injury. Had the chase boat been even two feet closer to my head, I wouldn’t be here to write this story.

Since my accident, many people have asked me if the incident has lessened my enthusiasm for diving. My answer is an emphatic “NO!” I have a passion for the underwater world, and I love to dive. Just as an automobile accident would not prevent me from driving a car in the future, my run-in with the propeller hasn’t discouraged me from diving. I am, however, a lot more sensitive to the sound of a revved up outboard headed my way.

Do Your Part

Propeller safety should be taken as seriously as every other aspect of dive safety. Much of the responsibility certainly lies with the pilot of a boat, but there are several things divers can do to help increase their safety margin when sharing the water:

Never assume the boat can see you. The glare of the sun, the height of the waves, and even distractions on deck can make it difficult for boat pilots to spot divers in the water. Give them a hand; use a dive flag or marker buoy when you’re underwater. When you surface, signal nearby boats to make sure they’re aware of your presence (be sure to use the “OK” signal so they don’t think you’re in distress).

Use your safety equipment. Safety gear is not just for emergencies. At the very least, every diver should carry a surface marker buoy (SMB), an audible signaling device and some sort of dive light or beacon. Each item can be used to communicate with boats.

Clarify priorities if exit options are given. If you’re given multiple options for how to end a dive, make sure you clarify which is the preferred method. If there’s still any confusion, tell the crew directly which option you’ll be exercising.

Don’t ride on the swim platform or bow. Accidents can happen when feet dangle or balance is lost, so make sure you stay within the confines of the boat.

Stay alert. As with so many aspects of diving, one of the best things you can do to stay safe is simply be aware of your surroundings.

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2010