Ditch or Die

Ed.'s note: This regular column presents the anatomy of a diving accident and the lessons to be learned from it. The incidents described are real. Names of locations and people have been changed or deleted.

Setting the StageFred and Sam were good friends who dived together whenever their busy schedules allowed. Because they lived in an area with excellent diving, and because Sam had a boat, the pair was able to dive on their own from time to time.

After Sam became interested in doing some commercial fisheries diving, he purchased a dry suit for the cold waters in his area. Sam was a big guy, so the dry suit required him to wear a very heavy weight belt. However, the belt became a problem because it was difficult for Sam to keep it in place around his waist. He went to a local dive store and purchased a shoulder-type harness/belt system. This solved the problem of the belt slipping down or falling off, but presented a new problem--the belt required several deliberate actions to ditch the weights. Sam tagged along with Fred to one of Fred's advanced open-water course dives, so he could practice using his new shoulder harness.

Weeks later, the two decided to do a day of diving from the boat to hunt shellfish for dinner. Because it was a beautiful and calm day for boating and diving, Sam's wife, a non-diver, tagged along.

The DiveTypical for the area, the water was cold, a current was running and the marine life was plentiful and diverse. After anchoring the boat securely, Sam and Fred followed the anchor line down to the 60- to 90-foot range and began gathering dozens of small scallops. At some point during the dive, Sam indicated to Fred that there was a problem, but Fred couldn't tell if he was experiencing a medical problem, a buoyancy difficulty, a problem with nitrogen narcosis or a low-on-air situation. Not knowing what to do, Fred returned to the boat with the scallops. When Sam failed to surface, Fred radioed for help and waited for assistance to arrive. After several attempts, professional divers found Sam's body with his weight system still in place.

The Legal ActionAn investigation and autopsy revealed nothing of particular note other than the fact that Sam's weights had not been ditched. The death was ruled an accidental drowning while diving. Sam's widow brought a legal action against the manufacturer of the weight system, two different dive stores, two different instructors, an instructor association and their friend Fred.

The theory of the legal actions was that the weight system was unsafe, should not have been in distribution and that the manufacturers, dive stores and instructors failed to warn Sam of this. The suit also claimed the training association and stores should have known this and that they failed to properly train and supervise the instructors and store personnel. The case against the buddy was for abandonment and failure to behave as a buddy should. Through the process of discovery and legal filings, all the defendants were dropped, dismissed or settled out of court. The case never went to trial, so no legal ruling or precedent was established.

What Killed Sam?We will probably never know for sure. But Sam's failure to ditch weights and become positively buoyant most likely played a role--as it does in 80 to 100 percent of all fatal scuba accidents. Ditching your weights and gaining positive buoyancy can often turn a potentially fatal accident into a near miss. For divers who need to carry a large amount of weight or who have difficulty keeping a weight belt in place, several solutions can be used separately or in combination. Weight-integrated BCs have greatly improved and now are available with both ditchable and non-ditchable weights. Negatively buoyant tanks can reduce the amount of lead a diver needs. Ankle weights, tank (trim or keel) weights and small weights in regular BC pockets are all non-ditchable, but do help with weight distribution. Shoulder harnesses are still in use and most still require a deliberate process of several steps to ditch. This requires training, particularly since such belts are not normally used in classes. Diving Unlimited Inc. (DUI) has solved this problem with a shoulder harness system that ditches like a weight-integrated BC.

Lessons For LifeAs a responsible diver, you owe it to yourself, your loved ones, your dive buddy and the dive professionals who serve you to:

Know your dive equipment.