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October 2004 Vol. 30, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die, Part IV

equipment failure ... or operator error?

from the October, 2004 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In DANís report on sport diving fatalities in 2002, several deaths involved buoyancy control problems that include improper weighting or other weight belt problems. According to a study published in the SPUMS (South Pacific Undersea Medical Society) Journal, weight belts were implicated in 7 percent of the equipmentrelated incidents and accidents (33 incidents out of 457), including DCS and drowning. Most are easily avoided.

Consider this experienced but obese and poorly conditioned 50- year-old divemaster who made a wreck dive to 125 fsw. After he signaled his buddies that he wanted to ascend, he became separated on the way up. Ten months later, his body was found in the wreck by another group of divers. He had removed his weight belt, but it was entangled in his catch bag.

Proper handling of weights is an essential and basic diving skill, yet every year divers ignore their training Ė sometimes with disastrous results. A 48-year-old male, who had received his open-water training only one month earlier, was fishing with friends when he decided to go diving alone and disappeared. When his body was found two days later, the rookie diver had several weights in his pockets, which of course makes them difficult to ditch and contributed to his drowning.

A 50-year-old diver with only five dives became separated from his buddy and ran out of air. Sadly, he had incorrectly attached the weights on his belt, and couldnít release the buckle. Found unconscious, he couldnít be resuscitated.

At the end of an extended dive, two buddies surfaced and began swimming to shore against a strong current. The 31-year-old diver slipped back underwater and wasnít recovered for a month. He had released his weight belt, but it had gotten caught in his BCD straps.

In training, divers are warned to avoid putting other equipment straps over their weight belts. It can be just as important to avoid placing the belt over other equipment. Consider the case of the 65-year-old who made a solo dive from a boat to retrieve a lost ladder in 20 feet of water. While suiting up, he made two serious mistakes. He didnít connect the power inflator to his BCD, and he put his weight belt over the hose leading to his second stage. He hit the water and descended, but he was caught up in a strong current. His body was recovered the following day.

And, this reminds us of another death in Florida. A diver sat on the gunwale, wearing his weight belt and no fins or BC. He fell overboard, plummeted downward, and died.

Sometimes weight belts can cause problems for others. A 24- year-old with only 15 lifetime dives attempted to help her buddy who was having difficulty with his weight belt. While coming to her buddyís aid, she dropped the regulator from her mouth. Her buddy then lost his weight belt and rose to the surface. On the way up, he lost a fin and his tank came loose from his buoyancy compensation device. Yet, he survived, while the young woman was found on the bottom dead, with the regulator out of her mouth.

A poorly prepared or panicky buddy can be more of a liability than an asset. Yet, buddies can help insure that each is properly configured and ready to dive. Solo divers have no one else to double-check their gear, so itís especially important that they thoroughly check their gear configuration and ensure that itís all in working order.

The SPUMS report identified several problems involving weight belt technique. If divers remove weight belts above or below the surface and grab the buckle end of the belt, weights may drop them from the belt. Experienced divers put a twist in the belt where it passes through the weight (or use clips) to prevent weights from slipping. Too long a belt can get tangled and prevent release, or can get snagged and cause an inadvertent release. With too short a belt, a diver may have difficulty adjusting belt tension during the dive or resecuring a loosened belt. And, many dead divers just pack too much weight; a properly weighted diver will have less difficulty in maintaining neutral buoyancy throughout a dive and be more capable of dealing with a sudden loss of weight.

Some distressed divers just donít drop their weights. A 41-yearold with fewer than five lifetime dives experienced buoyancy problems when he was unable to inflate his BCD or dry suit properly, and became separated from his buddy. His body was found on the bottom, with his weight belt still on. SPUMS suggests that one reason for the reluctance to ditch weight belts is that it isnít an easy (or necessarily safe) drill to practice. So, when a situation goes out of control, ditching the belt isnít a natural response. However, any wellprepared diver should be able to take his belt off and put it on again underwater. What better way to while away a safety stop than to practice this vital skill? Then youíll be ready to drop your lead if the situation turns sour.

Weight management is only one part of buoyancy control, of course. As noted above, BCDs and dry suits must also be set up correctly, and kept in proper trim throughout the dive. That lesson was sadly lost on an experienced divemaster who passed out while swimming back to shore in a kelp bed. Four days later in a local hospital, she died of complications of near-drowning. She had failed to connect her auto-inflator hose to her BCD.

Buoyancy control problems can start that chain reaction that leads to panic, the diverís worst enemy. For instance, DAN reported on a 41-year-old diver who had difficulty with the auto inflator on his buoyancy compensator. He signaled he was out of air five minutes into the dive. He made a panicked ascent, lost consciousness at the surface, and died of pulmonary barotrauma. In another case, a diver with 100 lifetime dives descended to 120 fsw. He was unable to manage the buoyancy of his dry suit, and made an uncontrolled ascent from the bottom and died, due to pulmonary barotrauma.

It makes sense to begin your next dive trip by getting your buoyancy under control. At the surface, deflate your BCD and hold a normal inhalation. You should float naturally at eye level. Underwater, you should be able to rise a few inches by taking a deep breath (keep it to a few inches, to avoid an embolism), then sink slowly by exhaling. Your weight placement should allow you to swim in a more efficient horizontal position, not with your feet below your head and without rolling from side to side. You should be able to hang vertically at your desired depth without finning or dangling off the anchor line. And, if you dive with various gear configurations, youíll need to adjust your weights accordingly. Just because you wear 10 pounds with 3 mil of rubber, doesnít mean you need 10 pounds in a skin. Travel light.

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