Surface Tows Against Current

Knowing the conditions of the dive site is essential to safely executing your dive plan. Doing a site survey or contacting a local dive shop are two ways you can identify potential site hazards. ©JIM GARBER

It was a sunny day at South Florida’s Blue Heron Bridge. Two years had passed since I last dived this location, and I was anticipating a simple excursion to look at the local fish. The dive plan was to make a shore entry and allow the current to take me west down the beach. 

The area directly across from the artificial reef and the large bridge at Phil Foster Park was crowded, with many divers on shore waiting to enter at high slack. I moved toward the opposite end, which was almost empty except for a trio of divers in the shallow water preparing to dive. 

While conducting my predive safety checks, I analyzed the site conditions and recognized that the current was deceptive. It did not appear fast in the immediate vicinity, but it was moving strongly under the bridge’s smaller section. As I continued to gear up, the three divers seemed to be having equipment issues. A second-stage regulator was free-flowing, and the group struggled to manage it. I stood patiently on the shore, giving them the courtesy and space to start their dive without feeling crowded or rushed. 

After they floated out about 30 feet, the diver with the flag rapidly submerged and left his buddies. The two divers remaining on the surface struggled to empty their buoyancy compensators and attempted to fight the positive buoyancy by kicking down. They couldn’t submerge and flailed against the current without utilizing their snorkels or second stages. They were now 30 feet beyond where their buddy had descended and were clearly not going to descend themselves, as they were visibly struggling and in the beginning stages of distress that would soon lead to panic. 

I felt fairly confident they were not suffering from a barotrauma because neither diver had descended, so I thought they might have cramps or malfunctioning BCDs. One diver was an older man, so I was concerned about him performing the strenuous kick required to overcome the current. I entered the water with two options in mind: preferably safely get them back to the entry point or pick an alternate exit if I could not make headway against the current while performing a surface tow. 

I entered the waist-high water in full kit and called to the nearest diver, who was nearly 60 feet away. He and his buddy were about 45 feet apart and not communicating with each other as they focused on themselves. I asked if they needed any help. The closest diver looked at me, didn’t respond, and continued to kick. 

I kicked with the current and quickly got to him. Remaining outside the reach of his flailing arms, I asked if he was OK. He stared back through his mask with wide eyes and didn’t verbally respond. I grabbed his second stage and held it to his face. He started breathing heavily from the regulator. I asked him to turn on his back and said I would help him back to shore. He immediately turned over. 

As I prepared to start a tank tow, I saw the second diver still struggling farther away. I called out that I would be back to help him and told him to grab the middle bridge abutment, which the current was carrying him toward. He verbally responded that he would try.  

As I towed the first diver back to the shallows against the current, I got him to calm down and assist me with kicking. I got him to waist-deep water, had him stand up, and told him to wait there while I retrieved his buddy. 

The second diver was holding himself in place on the bridge. When I arrived, he assumed the tank-tow position but told me he couldn’t assist with kicking due to exhaustion and cramping. We made some headway against the strong current at the bridge by moving sideways toward the shore, where the current was slightly slower.

I was gassed but able to successfully bring the second diver to where the first stood in the shallows. We talked for a bit while they caught their breath, and I asked about the third buddy who never came looking for them. Their indifference toward his inaction indicated they were not concerned about getting separated and had not planned what to do. Their dive plan amounted to following their friend with the dive flag. 

I offered to share my dive flag and submerge up the beach with them to look for their dive buddy. After I helped them fully dump the gas in their BCDs, we submerged and found their dive buddy at the first artificial reef.  

Knowing how to execute a tank tow is a vital rescue skill, but a rescue would have been unnecessary if the divers had simply followed three basic dive safety principles. 

Learn About the Site 

The divers were unaware of the site conditions, including the possibility of encountering a current. This dive site’s surface conditions are manageable if you avoid a few trouble spots. Doing a site survey and asking at a local dive shop helps identify those areas. The divers strayed too far down the beach and were unaware of the current shifting and concentrating at the small bridge. The descent would have been difficult, but they wouldn’t have gotten swept under the bridge. Once they had floated past the point where the current splits, it was exponentially harder to control the situation.

Know Your Limitations 

The first diver had not dived in 20 years and was thankful for the tank tow. It had been four years for the second diver, and while he was also appreciative, he was sure they would have been fine — despite his cramping, fatigue, and inability to assist with the tank tow. I assisted them because I dive frequently, know the site conditions, and have done extensive flow, cave, and river diving. I was aware of my limitations but confident that I could help because of performing similar rescues in the past. A shallow test dive in a controlled environment after some time off is essential for avoiding injury due to skill degradation or gear malfunction.

Have a Complete Dive Plan

The supposed simplicity of their dive plan gave these divers a false sense of security. A dive plan should have contingencies in place for when things go wrong. The two divers did not know how to react to the current pulling them away because they weren’t aware of the possibility, and they didn’t have a rescue plan or any idea what to do in an adverse situation. 

Although divers should always keep their rescue skills fresh, a thorough understanding of the dive site, your and your buddy’s skills and equipment, and a mutually agreed-upon dive plan can help prevent the need for anyone to use them. 

© Alert Diver — Q1 2023