I've got 45 minutes till bedtime, so I guess I can finish it. Okay, where was I? Oh yeah.....
So, we're loaded down after a long day diving, headed back to port with a continually worsening sea. That was when "The Call" came in......
We were being hailed by a Coast Guard cutter in the area. There was a bad scene going down, right in the middle of Hillsboro Inlet (see pic), where a sailboat that was trying to navigate the tricky curents and very nasty choppy swells had misjudged the lull between "sets" of waves, and ended up capsized directly in the breaking waves. Below is a pic of the inlet, on a very
If you notice in the pic, the northern jetty extends out, and curves out almost directly across the inlet, pointing south. The reason for this is to keep the swells from breaking into the anchorage inside, where boats commonly raft up and anchor to hang out. Directly under where the picture was taken from is where the waves break when the sea gets big (as it was this day). This is where the hapless sailboat ended up capsized.
Okay, so the CG saw us on approach and recognized us (we were a pretty close knit commercial boating community, and with only about 5 different dive boats that used this particular port, it was pretty easy to recognise each from a distance) and reported the situation. It was bad enough the boat had gone over, effectively blocking the entrance to the inlet, but there was more; there had been 5 people aboard, and other passing boaters had picked up only four
. There was still one person missing, believed to be below deck and possibly trapped (hopefully in an air pocket). Unfortunately, the CG cutter on scene was too large to realistically get close enough to do much, and wasn't the type of ship that was equipped for diving. That's where we came in.....
That particular day, my friend's cousin (co-owner of the boat with him) who happened to be a Master Instructor and total diving badass, was not along on that trip. Also, my friend had a bad cold, which precluded him from diving, so he was just along for the ride and to help out on deck. See where this is going?
Yep, as fate would have it, I was the only person who was qualified as a Rescue Diver that was potentially able to respond. The CG advised us of the missing boater, and asked if we would be able to intervene. There was by no means any obligation legally for us to do so, but morally was a whole different matter. Like I said, we were a pretty tight-knit community, and we took care of our own. So when they looked to me, there was never any question in my mind of whether or not I was going in; It was on.
Now I had mere moments to get geared up as we were approaching quickly, since someone's life was potentially hanging in the balance. I quickly rigged up my tank and hooked up my hoses, threw on my weight belt, and was ready to sholder my rig, when I realized I had a problem. You see, having to exert myself so much earlier to tie to the wreck, there was only about 900 psi left in my tank. Plenty of time for maybe 15 minutes of air in the relatively shallow depth of the inlet, if I were just going on a leisurely dive.
But this was about the farthest thing from that; my pulse had already started racing, and my adrenaline was pumping. Yet there was no other choice; all the other diver's tanks were as low or lower from thier earlier dives, and my friend didn't even have his gear because he was sick. So I had to take my chances with what little I had.
We slowed when we got maybe 100 meters away from the foundering sloop, and swung wide to get turned around so I could drop in off the stern. The captain manuvered in as close as he dared in reverse, all the while having to keep a constant eye over the bow on the approaching waves. When he dared go no closer, he gave me the signal and I jumped overboard. Right away the water seemed to be about 20 degrees colder than only a few hours earlier, obviously a reaction to me being in such an excited state. I immediately started stroking towards the overturned boat, with my snorkle in my mouth, saving my air until I realy needed it. I was approaching the boat from the opposite side from where it overturned, meaning I was headed toward the bottom of the boat. I had to battle the current as I tried to swim around the bow in order to get to the deck of the vessel. Well, it was like being in a washing machine with a huge wooden battering ram trying to bash my body all around.
I finally got around to find that the deck was mostly submerged, including the stairway that lead belowdeck. At this point I was breathing heavily, and starting to tire from having to battle the waves and the currents that were conspiring to keep my from getting there in one piece. So I popped my regulator in my mouth, and moved in, alll the while knowing that the closer I got, the more danger I was in.
I finally got to the steps leading in, and was getting bashed continually against the deck and rails. I did everything I could to pull my self into the bowels of the heaving beast, trying to not get my skull bashed in. As I swam diagonally inside, I started in, my mind started to imagine what lay before me; would I find some poor frantic soul trapped inside, with just a few more breaths of air pocket left, or was I too late, and about to encounter a corpse, sloshing around inside it's watery grave. As I got to the bottom of the stairs, I started to get a little disoriented. I had never been in this vessel in it's normal upright stable
condition, let alone in it's present state. I tried to keep myself stable as I made my way foreward toward the bunks in the bow. I jammed my elbow on a cabinet as I approached the bunk, and cried out in pain, yet no one was able to hear me. I could barely see in the dim watery enclosure, and more felt around than actually saw anything. But I soon realized that unless there was some hidden compartment, I was the only soul aboard. I turned around to retreat, and even tried to see if there was anything body-like floating around the galley. Nothing.
As I made my way back "topside", I was starting to panic; did I really check everywhere? Was there someone in there and I just missed them in my state of disorientation? Was I leaving some poor soul behind? I tried to convince myself that I thouroughly checked everywhere, but still couldn't shake the nagging feeling. I made my way out, and immediately slammed my head into a hatch cover, just about splittiong my cranium open wide. I surfaced and tried to compose myself. I decided that I would try to check around the deck to see if they had somehow gotten entangled in some line and were trapped lifelessly there. As far as I could tell, this was also empty. I started to push myself away from the deck, in order to swim out and around to get back to my boat, and all of a sudden took a huge breath of seawater
! I quickly looked at my gauge and realized that I was completely out of air! I spit my regulator out, and popped my snorkel in, and started stroking back seaward. It was then that it hit me; if I had taken even another couple of moments belowdecks searching, I may very well have run out down there. In a situation like that, I very well could have panicked and easily drowned. I had gotten away within a few seconds of my life being in danger, literally.
As I got out past the break, I signaled to the captain that I was okay, and got ready to be picked up. I was physically beat, mentally spent, and yet I couldn't help but feel that I had abandoned someone in there. As I dejectedly climbed the ladder on the boat, and collapsed on a bench with not one ounce of energy left, the capatin came over to me, and told me something that made me so happy, yet made me want to lash out in rage at the same time; apparently, just moments after I had gone in, the CG had radioed my boat and informed them that the fifth person had been picked up by another boater, and they hadn't realized it right away. By that time I was too far gone for them to yell me back; I simply couldn't hear them over the crash of the surf.
So, I had risked possible death or serious injury, for no reason at all
. I was dumbfounded, but yet glad to know that the other boater was safe. I just wish I had known it sooner!
We hung around until a local towboat arrived and safely towed the sailboat in out of the break, then ran in and returned to our dock. All was not lost though, as apparently I had done a "heroic" enough job to impress a certain young lady onboard, who decided she was duely impressed enough that she felt compelled to ask me to dinner. The rest you'll have to leave to your imaginations!
All's well that ends well, as they say!