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Partially closed tank valve causes buddy separation and angst

Lessons learned, as reported by one of the divers, when an equipment problem caused him to become separated from his buddy. On a recent boat dive trip with my girlfriend, we arrived at the dive site and discovered that the current was a little stronger than expected. My partner and I decided to do simultaneous back rolls in order to enter the water at the same time to avoid being separated by the current. Once under, we made contact and gave each other the OK signal before descending to catch up with the rest of the group that was already heading down to the bottom. At about 30 feet down, I looked just behind me to my right where I expected to find my dive buddy swimming but, to my surprise, she was not there. I looked around and did not see anyone descending from the direction from which I had come. Even with the visibility at over 50 feet I did not see my partner anywhere.

I began swimming back and heading for the surface thinking that she must have surfaced and had probably drifted back in the current. In my hurry to find my partner, I inadvertently ascended too fast and my dive computer alarmed warning me to make a safety stop even though I had only been in the water between 2 to 3 minutes and no deeper than 36 feet. I knew that my risk of DCS was minimal at this point because I could not have absorbed enough nitrogen in that short time at that shallow a depth to be at any serious risk. However, I vaguely remembered reading in my owner's manual that if I ignored a mandatory safety stop, the dive computer would lock me out for any dives in the next 24 hours. I stayed at 15' in order to comply with the safety stop parameters while continuing to head towards the boat and look for my buddy. When I got closer to the boat, I could see my dive buddy hanging onto the back of the boat and felt relieved knowing that the boat captain was there to help her with any problem that she might be having.

Before my safety stop ended, my partner came down and joined me and we caught up with the group. After we finished the dive and were back on the boat, she explained to me that her regulator was breathing hard as we went down and, rather than continue down in the strong current with an unknown problem, she surfaced and went back to the boat to figure it out. It turned out that her regulator valve was screwed down to an almost closed position and she had not realized it. It was a simple problem to correct and, once she did, we continued the dive.
This incident taught me several lessons. First, stay within eyesight of your buddy when descending. It can be tempting to increase the distance between you and your buddy on dives with good visibility; however, a situation can deteriorate from a simple problem to an emergency very quickly. My buddy made the right decision to abort the dive at that moment and solve the problem before it became a bigger problem in deeper water. However, she was not able to get my attention to let me know what she was doing because I had moved ahead of her and was focused on joining up with the group.

Second, if you lose sight of your buddy you need to make sure that you do not forget normal practices (such as a controlled ascent) when trying to regain contact. In cases where there is no known emergency and you have simply separated from your buddy, an ascent is an ascent.

Finally, read your dive computer manual carefully. In my case, I had just started using a new dive computer and thought that I risked locking up my computer for the next 24 hours if I surfaced before the safety stop was completed. My computer was actually trying to compensate for my increased rate of ascent with a recommended safety stop. If I had violated this recommended safety stop, my computer would have only shortened the available no-decompression time for my next dive and I could have simply prolonged my surface interval time to correct this.

As it turned out, everything worked out, but you should always know what your computer is telling you and fully understand its operation in order to make the best decision in any circumstance.


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