This is quite a long account for reasons that will become apparent as you read it. Friday was not an experience that any of us will forget in a hurry and any lessons that can be learnt should be. Debutant Dive Marshall Peter begins:
With a full boat booked out for Friday, Mike was first to call off: going biking, Geoff was uncertain anyway and was to confirm, the Moores sms’d apologies for fatigue, and a call from Hennie suffering the runs. My marshalling was clearly a popular move! That then left Cathy, Ian, Derek and self to check out a new site indicated in a Notice to Mariners, followed by the Jumbo. Cathy had come along despite her bad back to enjoy a little winter sun and enjoy a dive after a spell off.
We set off with blue skies, calm sea, with MetDxb predicting offshore 2-4ft waves with max.12 knot winds and no change for the next few days. Two large cruise ships crossed our bows in and out of Dubai across an almost mirror flat blue sea. Cathy and Ian shared the drive out, and in 40 minutes we were scanning the bottom for the new supposed wreck - “NEW18” on the GPS. Nothing, not a barnacle showed up. After several passes from different directions, we decided to head for Neptune and Jumbo in that order, Neptune being nearer and marginally deeper. Neptune proved most elusive, not showing at the GPS coordinates. We eventually located her 50m away, recorded the correct location, and securely snagged her with the anchor first time.
Cathy and Ian’s dive on Neptune saw an eagle ray, and an electric torpedo ray, as well as friendly batfish, but with the water at 22ºC kept it short. Derek and I went over the side with our cameras, and were soon with the batfish on the inverted oilfields supply vessel. We made one penetration but I discovered my torch was dead, so generally swam around and over the hull. At the stern Derek was low, I was above, my head closely encircled by a shoal of barracuda swimming in opposite directions. After a couple of minutes with video I thought it wise to descend to join Derek, blissfully oblivious of this glorious sight! More batfish and the odd barracuda, before releasing the anchor, to ascend after 40 minutes.
We moved the 2km or so across to Jumbo, and it took a couple of attempts before we snagged it, but the second was good. The sun however had gone, and the overcast sky, reminded us of similar conditions the previous week. Cathy and Ian went over the side at 12.50. Five minutes later all hell broke loose. In just moments, gale force winds were upon us in violent gusts, as waves increased to what I judged to be 8-10ft, with horizontal sleet forcing us to shelter low behind the bridge, keeping an eye on distance and speed. Derek pulled out the life jackets for us to wear. The boat was violently rotated all around the wreck, stabilised only by the anchor, one reason I didn’t release it on the buoy – my mistake. After a few minutes the anchor was off the wreck and we were drifting rapidly with the NW squall, 80m, 100m, 200m, 300m from the Jumbo, knowing Ian and Cathy would be unaware of this, and enjoying their dive. I kept looking at my watch, judging that they would not stay down more than 30 minutes again.
I shouted to Derek to haul the anchor, which he could only do on hands and knees, keeping his face down out of the sleet and spray, trying to keep his balance as the boat rolled and pitched. I had to remove the deck bungs, as the boat was quickly filling with water, and then started the engines, both catching first time, to be able to turn the boat both into the waves, and back towards the Jumbo. The anchor took some minutes, and when it came up, had Ian’s yellow line attached. I turned the boat so as not to catch this in the props, while Derek reeled it in – but there was no tension, and soon we had all his line on board. By now we were some 700-800m from the wreck. Derek managed to haul in the ladder, which was jammed into the side of the boat. The violence of the waves and the wind was spectacular, but the boat performed superbly. We both had the feeling we were in “The Perfect Storm”! It is impossible to describe one’s feelings during all this, knowing we had two divers down, and wondering how long we would take to find them – how long would the storm last? How far might they drift in these conditions? How long would our fuel last for a search? How close was the nearest help (we had seen a coastguard cutter earlier)? But there was far too much to deal with to allow negative thoughts. I gave up wearing my glasses, which in these conditions made vision impossible, and watching both waves and the arrow on the GPS, with Derek reading and shouting the distances out to me as we closed back in on the Jumbo, we scanned the waves all around us, especially when we were pushed up high.
I didn’t look at my watch when I glimpsed a tiny flash of yellow – a fin or SMB right in front of us, but lost as we descended a into a trough. Up on a crest again, then, SMB again briefly visible, while Derek moved to the bow to guide me onto them. The same gale that had blown us off the wreck was forcing them towards us! We were straight onto them, as first Cathy, then Ian caught onto the safety line. We dropped the ladder, which refused to lie anything but horizontal in these conditions. Cathy was dragged / pushed into the boat, Ian’s kit was heavy with weights and he was unable to climb the trailing ladder without also removing his BCD. One fin defiantly resisted removal, but then he too was on board. Despite the still awful sea condition, our mutual relief was palpable, with smiles and hugs all round.
While Derek stowed the ladder, Ian and Cathy put on life-vests as we pushed all our gear into the front, without any attempt at packing or clearing. Ian took over control of the boat and headed us back towards land. Let Ian now tell their story:
The anchor had hooked a piece of reef and we used my reel to locate the wreck which turned out to be about 10m away. We swam down to the prop and then back along towards the bow, checking the reel hadn’t moved as we passed it. The viz wasn’t great and at this time it became eerily dark down there – looking back, this was the first indication of what was going on above us. We’d been down 20 minutes when we passed the spot where the reel should have been and it was missing. I decided to abort at this point and we headed up. I didn’t do a safety stop, reasoning that after only 20 minutes on nitrox there was little risk – better to get visible on the surface.
On the surface we found driving rain, a heaving wall of water in front of us and no boat. There was no indication of direction and we couldn’t have moved in any case so we made sure our BCD’s were fully inflated, ditto the SMB and we had a firm grip of each other. We were probably about 15 minutes like this before we saw the boat moving towards us – a most welcome sight to say the least. Getting into the boat in these conditions wasn’t the easiest but we made it with a bit of assistance. Once inside the priority was to get the boat under control and headed in the right direction. The danger at this point was allowing the boat to turn sideways to a big wave. This achieved we set off for home. Fortunately we were running with the waves and for the first part of the journey made reasonable time, albeit slightly in the wrong direction. It was hard work having to constantly work the steering wheel and the throttles but progress was steady if uncomfortable.
Back to Peter:
Our return saw the Burj Khalifa silhouetted on the Dubai skyline (hugely reassuring to see land again), with dramatic rays of sunlight through the cloud starboard while a black sky to port as the storm continued provided an awesome contrast, with the waves unabated, but with the nor’westerly taking us towards Dubai, unable to hold a comfortable direct course to Al Khan. It was a phenomenal experience to see and feel the power of nature. On two occasions large vessels crossed in front of us, sod’s law, forcing us to slow against the sea driving from behind. Ian piloted the boat magnificently in these aggressive conditions.
We hoped that close to Palm Deira there would be some let-up in conditions, but this was not to be. Ian snuck in behind the outer ring on its southern Dubai side, only to find we were driving at an angle against strong waves. This stretch of the ride was seriously unpleasant, the boat crashing regularly into troughs, and tipping violently, though at no stage did we feel it would go over. We saw a potential gap, a shortcut between the islands, being taken by a small freighter. A few minutes later we observed it listing at 45 degrees port, grounded close to shore – so no, there wasn’t a gap there for us!
The waves didn’t let up any bit until we reached the mouth of Al Khan lagoon around 3pm. Sharjah Police were on board the Coastguard vessel, Al Ghagha, with the coastguard waiting for us, full of humour, anxious to know that we were all fine, as they handed us back our IDs. They were obviously counting the boats back in. We anchored in the calm of the lagoon, changed from our wetsuits into what would have been nice if they had been dry clothes, and packed our gear before landing, and loading onto the trailer. Dry land was very, very good – even though the sea facing sides of our vehicles had a healthy coating of sand from the shamal that had also hit the coast, with wind speeds up to 111km/hr.
Lessons to be learnt:
The only thing I would add to that is to keep a close eye on the weather, whatever the forecast has told you. There were certainly darkish clouds on the horizon on what had been a sunny day up to that point and with hindsight, we might have scrapped the second dive and headed for home sooner. That said, I don’t think many people would have foreseen what occurred (and how quickly).
So how close a call was it? Hard to say really although it’s not something I would want to repeat in any circumstances. The important thing was that nobody panicked and everybody did the right things. In particular, Peter and Derek deserve huge credit for getting control of the boat when it drifted off-station and getting back into position to spot us in the water. I know from personal experience the relief they must have felt we they saw us.
After all that drama, anything else might seem anti-climatic but there are a couple of other things.
Firstly, many thanks to those who continue to send info regarding the artifacts in the Dive Bar. It’s all very useful and is finding its way into the spreadsheet. An updated version will go out before long.
Secondly, thanks to Simon and Jutta, that this new web-site is now published. It’s still a work in progress but will develop over time. The old google group is still there but can no longer be updated.
Ian Hussey and Dive Club writers.