My son Rob and I made our first dive in the summer of 1993. Just a resort course and half-a-dozen repeat dives on holiday in New Providence, but we were hooked. The following summer we went to Grand Cayman for another resort course.
From the outset, although he was only 15, it was obvious that Rob was a natural diver. In 1995, when we decided to qualify as PADI Open Water Divers, he drew comments from the instructors every step of the way. He never had a problem with demonstrating skills, his knowledge bordered on encyclopaedic and he was incredibly relaxed in the water.
We extended our training to Advanced Open Water Divers and I was happy to stop there, but Rob went on to complete Rescue Diver, Divemaster and Assistant Instructor. He also attended non-PADI courses in First Aid and Resuscitation, the IANTD Advanced Nitrox Diver and the PADI Oxygen Administrator course.
Whenever I dived, Rob was my buddy and I could not have asked for a better one. Warm water, cold water, still water, muddy water or diving in currents, we stuck together like glue.
Our last dive together was on a wreck in the Caribbean. Rob was trying out a camera and amazed me when he positioned himself vertically upside-down in the water to get a shot of a moray eel. He hovered in that position for a full three minutes and never moved more than half an inch. His buoyancy control was incredible. After that dive, an ex-US Navy diver of vast experience told me that he would be happy to dive with my son any time, even though he was British!
We went into shock
Just before the Caribbean trip, Rob had been invited to dive the wreck of the Moldavia on his return. Unfortunately I had to work, so he arranged to buddy with one of the Divemasters from Stoney Cove, where he had been working over the summer.
He knew his buddy well. They had dived together many times, shepherding students round the murky depths of the Cove. Before the trip, they did a couple of 35m training dives to brush up on their knowledge of nitrox decompression.
We arrived back from the Caribbean on Friday, 14 August. Rob spent the weekend getting ready and early on Monday morning we heard him leave for his trip. We never saw him again.
Rob was 20. He was about to start his final year at Bristol University and was due to take his Instructor Development Course at Stoney Cove after the Moldavia dive. He was trying to decide what to do after his degree: instruct in the Caribbean for a couple of years; continue on to a further degree course; or go straight into real work. He had everything to live for. He was our only son, he was special and we loved him.
At 1.30am on Tuesday, 18 August, two police officers came to our home and told my wife and me that Rob and his buddy had failed to return to the boat following their dive. Two helicopters and four lifeboats were searching for them, but nothing had been found.
We went into shock. We were told not to go to Brighton because there was nothing we could do. We did not sleep, just paced the house and made occasional telephone calls to the police and Coastguard.
We were told that the helicopters and lifeboats would continue to search all the next day, and that divers would be going down to the Moldavia that afternoon. We couldnt just wait around, so my wife and I set off for Brighton.
The air-sea search was called off at lunch-time on Wednesday, 19 August, after almost 48 hours. Search-divers found Robs SMB attached to a shotline near the bows of the wreck. The shotline had become snagged under the wrecks anchor, and no longer reached the surface. Rob had started to ascend that line, but finding that it was too short, he had attached his reel to it, inflated his SMB and released it. The line on the reel snagged after only 2m had run off and his SMB also failed to reach the surface.
We decided that, having started his ascent, there was no way that Rob would not have made it to the surface. Navy experts advised us that a man clad in a drysuit with underclothing, neoprene hood and gloves could survive for 10 to 14 days in the Channel at that time of year. So, on Monday, 24 August we chartered a helicopter and flew a search pattern over the Channel between Littlehampton and Brighton, going out as far as 25 miles into the Channel. We saw nothing and returned home depressed, devastated and still, of course, in shock.

Accepting the worst
During the weeks that followed, my daughter, her friends and people who knew Rob raised the money to pay for three more dives on and around the Moldavia. A group of very experienced search divers went down with diver propulsion vehicles and searched the seabed as far as they could. Still nothing was found and no more clues as to what went wrong were discovered.
Letters and cards arrived from friends and relations. Some asked whether there was any news. Most were unbelieving and so were we. We felt that somehow he must have survived. Perhaps he had come ashore with amnesia.
Slowly we began to accept that Rob was not coming back. We asked questions, spoke to the Coastguard, other divers who had been on the fateful trip and the boat skipper. Friends of ours who sail worked out what the currents would have been like and the direction in which they would have been flowing.
I became obsessed with trying to find out what had gone wrong. It is one thing to lose your child, but not to know how induces a feeling of total despair. He was my son, my best friend, my buddy. He was good to be with and I needed to know how the sport we both loved so much had taken him from us.
On 10 November the body of Robs buddy was found on the beach at Birling Gap, 50 miles north-east of the wreck of the Moldavia. The only equipment found with him was his knife, strapped to his leg, and one fin. After 12 weeks in the sea, he was identified only by his suit and a tattoo. There was no way that the pathologist could determine a cause of death.
Unfortunately his computer was missing, so it was not possible to determine whether or not he had surfaced from the original dive. We were invited to the inquest, which brought to light a few details about the day of the dive and the sequence of events. Details of the air-sea rescue operation were also revealed and, quite frankly, if Rob and his buddy had surfaced, their chances of being found would not have been good.

What went wrong
The dive-boat with Rob and his friends had left Brighton at noon and had a fairly uneventful trip out to the wreck site. Slack water was at 2.00pm that day and the first pair of divers entered the water at 2.05pm.
By the time the first pair reached the decompression station, a considerable current had begun to run and they reported some difficulty holding on to the decompression bar. The second group, diving on tri-mix, started their descent at about 2.35pm. Rob and his buddy followed them down at 2.45pm, by which time the current would have been running at about 1 knot. A final pair of divers went down at 2.55pm.
One of the tri-mix trio became separated from his buddies towards the end of their dive. So two of them came up the descent shot, but the other deployed his SMB and decompressed floating in the current. The dive-boat skipper saw the SMB hit the surface and kept an eye on it while waiting by the decompression station.
The diver decompressing on his SMB was picked up at 4.00pm, just over a mile downtide from the wreck. The boat then had to return to the shotline, against the current, to pick up the remaining divers.
Rob and his buddy should have started their ascent at about 3.05pm. We know that they should have returned to the surface by about 3.25. Perhaps something did go wrong under water. But given that the shotline was caught under the anchor and Robs reel had snagged, it seems more likely that he decompressed hovering in the current and came up, without a marker buoy, about 1.7 miles downtide from the wreck.
The Coastguard was not alerted until 4.52pm and a helicopter arrived at the wreck site at approximately 5.10pm when, if on the surface, Rob would have been 4.5 miles downtide. The helicopter spent 35 minutes searching a sector centred on the wreck site. Only after that had been completed did it start a box search, mapping a spiral outwards from the wreck site, stretching out in the same direction as the current.
I have calculated that the helicopter would not have reached a diver on the surface before darkness fell. The search, however, continued throughout the night, using heat-seeking devices. The surface temperature of a drysuit which has been in the water for some time will be no higher than the surrounding water, so it would be unlikely to produce much of a response on a heat-seeking device. If the area searched during darkness was not searched again the following day, it is quite possible that Rob was simply missed during the night.
The search was co-ordinated by the Royal Navy vessel Sir Percival, which happened to be on the scene at the time and responded to the Mayday broadcast. Two helicopters, four lifeboats, the dive boat and four other ships in the area took part in the search for my son, but he was never found.
Now, a year later, the only hope of our ever knowing more is if, one day, the computers Rob and his buddy were carrying are recovered.
My feelings about diving have not changed. I do not feel that its a particularly dangerous sport and I may well dive again, although the first few dives will be tough without my buddy. If I do dive again it will probably be more difficult for those who care about me than it will be for me, but it is something I am trained to do and I have loved every moment that I have spent under water so far.
I have never felt in danger, but perhaps that was because I could rely so absolutely on Rob. He really was something special and the world is a very different place without him.





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