It was the end of the summer and a good friend of mine suggested a group of us taking a late trip to southern ireland. He had seen the holiday advertised at a very favourable price, which included a week’s diving, accommodation and the car ferry across from england to ireland. Of course, as it was october, we didn’t expect the weather to be very predictable – or even favourable for that matter – but we were mostly students and hey, at that price…
We set off from Leicester. After a pleasant ferry trip from Holyhead we made our way south. Arriving at our destination, we met the organisers in the local pub, and we were just in time for last orders before being shown to our accommodation, which was excellent. After breakfast the next morning we joined the organisers at the harbour. We were introduced to the skipper and loaded our kit on board.
On our first few days we didn’t experience the typical scenic dives we had expected, but the visibility was okay at about 8m, and we found crayfish in the 20m region, but then we ventured out to the skelligs, a group of islands about 16 miles away, with an underwater pinnacle. The diving was superb. dropping over the side of the hard boat we found the pinnacle we’d been told about. From its start at 6m, we went down to its base at 47m, enjoying 15-20m of visibility and an abundance of marine life. Back on the surface all was well – everyone was smiling, and there were plenty of stories to be swapped, if only we knew what the next day had in store.
Due to our excellent dive on the skelligs, with outstanding visibility for october, we decided to revisit the site the following day. The conditions had deteriorated slightly overnight, but all was well – until the hard boat’s engine wouldn’t start, that is! One of our group was a mechanic, and diagnosed a faulty starter motor. Luckily much to our relief, we were transferred to a 7.5m rib boasting a v6 outboard motor. However we were horrified to discover on the trip out that the teenage skipper not only couldn’t swim, but had little experience handling a rib.
Once at the site, it was obvious that the skipper didn’t really know where the pinnacle was. He said that if we failed to find it, not to worry as the first shelf was at 20m and the second at 40m before it veered down to 75m. I was confident from my previous experience of the site and buddied up with my two friends, Chris and Ruth. Chris and I were both experienced advanced divers (I was 22 at the time and had started diving at 13) and Ruth was a dive leader: we all had years of experience and we were used to diving together as a trio. The skipper seemed to be in control and keen for us to dive, and as there were other boats already at the site, we felt confident that there was sufficient surface cover.
After buddy checks we dropped over the side and began to descend. The pinnacle never materialised. puzzled, the three of us motioned to one another, " where’s the pinnacle?" and decided to carry on down. We stopped on the barren sea-bed at 40m, disappointed that we’d missed our target. With only a few patches of kelp and a couple of wrasse to amuse us. We decided to head back before running into decompression time. At 20m I could feel an undertow pulling us towards shore. I signalled to others to ascend, swimming out to sea at the same time, as we did not want to be pulled inshore onto the rocks.
All was well until we were almost at the surface, and at 6m preparing to do our safety top. Suddenly I was dragged backwards at speed and then found myself being whisked downwards like a corkscrew; head-first and completely out of control. Desperately I tried to clear my ears and managed to grab hold of ruth’s ankles. We both ended up at 25m where we were tumbled over the rocky bottom. It was like a scary ride at alton towers! (a UK theme park – ed) my face was bruised with the sheer force of the action, and I was gripping my mouthpiece with my teeth. We grasped at the kelp, but it just ripped off in our hands.
At this point Chris came hurtling over the rocks a second or so behind us, whereupon we were all spat upwards at great speed. I blew out hard in order to release the air expanding in my lungs and tried to dump air from my suit. I opened my neck seal, releasing air in an attempt to slow my ascent. It was all happening so quickly. I was afraid of bursting a lung and my ears were not enjoying the ride, but suddenly we slowed down. Amazingly we were somehow still close by one another. We made for the surface and a feeling of relief set in as our heads broke the surface.
However, it was not over yet. The sea had picked up and we were still in a current near the landing stage as the the waves broke over our heads. I was concerned that we were going to be swept out of sight, and after some hard finning we shouted for help. We could see the rib tied to a hard boat, the skipper’s back turned to us. We waved and shouted, blew whistles and shone torches. Five minutes passed. Eventually after six minutes the skipper saw us.
Once back aboard the boat we discussed what had happened. We had gone out with a skipper who had no rescue skills or diving experience. Our traumatic dive, during which we could have been lost or suffered a bend if we had panicked had been compounded by the skipper taking vital minutes to respond to our calls on the surface, and we could easily have been washed off the site altogether. We had not been warned about tides or undertows, let alone a whirlpool. Perhaps it was a freak of nature, but whatever – we were lucky that we were trained and experienced enough to keep cool heads and react appropriately to the situation. If you are going somewhere remote, you should try to learn as much about the diving and the conditions as you can before you dive. Don’t assume that the people you are diving with know absolutely everything. always aim to take responsibility for your own safety and if you’re not happy about a dive – don’t do it.
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