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June 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 40, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Foolishness of Leaving Your Dive Boat Unmanned

from the June, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Headed back to Key Largo through rough seas on the late afternoon of May 24, Captain Joe Hall on the Sailors Choice didn't believe what he was seeing. A lone diver, frantically waving his arms, bobbed alone among six-foot seas near Pickles Reef off Tavernier, Florida. "Waves were crashing over the bow of our boat," Hall said. "I barely caught a glimpse of him."

They put the ladder down and helped the diver onto the 65-foot fishing boat. "Then [the diver] asked, 'Is everybody else here?' I asked him what he meant." That started an intense rescue effort that found four other divers, scattered from near Molasses Reef to Pickles Reef, about three miles away. The five-diver group from Georgia was diving at Molasses Reef when the anchor line from their unmanned boat snapped.

One of the divers was underwater when he saw the anchor slack. He went to the surface and saw the boat drifting away. They didn't leave anybody topside. The boat owner, tentatively identified as Steve Lunsford, tried to swim after the boat, but strong winds estimated at 25 m.p.h. pushed the vessel away. The Sailors Choice started running a search pattern after hearing Lunsford's story. Many of the 18 fishing customers aboard went forward to scan the seas. "Everybody on board helped out," said Hall."

Four Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission patrol boats headed offshore after getting the 5 p.m. call. One of the FWC boats later rescued a diver, who apparently tried to follow Lunsford, near Pickles Reef. The Sailors Choice spotted the remaining three divers, who had inflated their BCDs and stayed near Molasses Reef. "By the time we saw them, they were drifting farther offshore," Hall said. "We got on the [loudspeaker] and told them they were going to be OK. Sea Tow went in and scooped them up."

A Key Largo vessel found Lunsford's boat adrift on the shoreward side of Pickles Reef. The divers spent about two hours in the water. After the first diver was found around 5 p.m., the rest were out of the water before 6 p.m. "It was the end of the day, so no other boats were going to be out there," Hall said. "Those guys probably would have spent the night at sea."

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