Coastguard patrol
The Coastguard wants to do itself out of a job. It is attempting to improve its understanding of divers, in an effort to reduce the number of diving incidents. Tony Sutton joins officers on patrol - and hears some harsh words spoken about diver training.

MCA OSPREY, MCA OSPREY. Come in please. Over, the radio crackled. It had been virtually silent all day. It was 4pm, and we were heading back to base at Weymouth. Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) Surveyor Mark Towl and Weymouth Sector Manager Rob Sansom, who had been acting as helmsman, had just pronounced the day boring.
     All that changed in an instant. Two snorkellers... two hours overdue... should have picked up a relative.
     Mark grabbed the charts to get a compass bearing on their last-known location. Rob threw the wheel round, putting the 7m RIB into a tight turn, and slammed the throttle levers to max.
     Osprey, powered by twin 300hp inboard diesel engines with jet-drive transmission, raced across the surface at 32 knots.
     Others had also got the message and were converging on St Albans Head, where the snorkellers - two men in their 40s - had entered the water.
     I think were nearest. Were gonna get there first, announced Mark.
     Not so. The Coastguard helicopter zoomed past us overhead. And as it disappeared over the horizon, clouds of grey smoke came billowing up from the back of our boat.
     Shut the port engine, shut the port engine, shouted Mark. Rob - a ship engineer before he joined the Coastguard - grabbed the toolbox, threw open the port engine compartment and stuck his head inside.
     Aagh, one of the cooling pipes has come off. Its too hot to handle. Itll be cool enough in a few minutes. Well be back to full power in 10, he announced.
     Mark was trying to contact base. We could hear them, but they couldnt hear us.
     The helicopter was now doing a search of the area. Two snorkellers sighted, said its radio operator. Down went the winchman, only to discover that these two had no desire to be rescued. It wasnt the missing pair!
     Base seemed to be getting frantic: MCA Osprey, MCA Osprey, come in please, come in please. Mark kept responding, but nobody was picking us up. I began to have visions of the rescuer becoming the rescued, of a full-scale search party being launched to find Osprey as well as the snorkellers. The day was getting exciting.
     But then base stood down the search and rescue operation. The snorkellers had just arrived home, intact and oblivious of the commotion their delayed return had caused.
     Rob had also successfully resecured the pipe and our radio was suddenly, miraculously, working again.
     We settled to getting back to Weymouth under our own steam, travelling at a more modest 24 knots. But as we throttled back at the harbour entrance, radio communications became hot again. A diver was being helicoptered straight to Dorchester County Hospitals A & E entrance.
     This only happens if the patient is critical, if its life-threatening, Portland Coastguards Diving Liaison Officer and Watch Manager Jim Anderson said later, when we visited the operations room.
     The diver - a soldier from Lulworth army camp - had been using a rebreather on a wreck dive, eight miles west of Portland Bill. Diving off a boat called Xdream, he had been in the water for a total of 80 minutes at a maximum depth of 56m, with a bottom time of 50 minutes.
     There had been no problem with his stops, but when he arrived on the surface he started swallowing sea water and vomiting. He became unconscious when he got into the boat, said Jim.
     That weekend there were to be three more diving incidents, with the divers being rushed by helicopter to the recompression chamber.
     The Portland-Swanage area is a hotspot for us, Mark had said that morning, as we set off for what was planned to be a day of intensive contact with the diving community. We have the highest proportion of diving-related incidents in the country.
     Alarmed at the rising number of incidents, the MCA has become far more proactive, spending a lot of its time visiting divers and dive charter-boat skippers, trying to find out what problems they have and ramming home safety procedures.
     Today, divers were going to receive a double whammy. Our first stop was Poole to pick up Richard Martins, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE)s specialist Diving Inspector. He would work closely with Mark, leaving divers, skippers and instructors in no doubt that both organisations were far from happy with the incidents situation.
     Richard was preoccupied with a tragic death when he stepped aboard Osprey, straight from the Coastguard offices.
     We have a family upstairs being met by the police over a 23-year-old boy, he said. Theyre extremely distraught, because this guy hasnt returned. Were seeing this on a weekly basis at this time of the year [September] and its harrowing. Im a family man, and the thought of coming home to find that my son has disappeared in the water fills me with horror.
     The diver had surfaced, clutched his SMB and then disappeared below the surface without his face-mask in place when he attempted to grab a rope being trailed by the dive boat.
     He wasnt the only missing diver. Three weeks earlier, a 48-year old female diver disappeared while ascending.
     Both had been on the same dive charter boat, Killer Prawn, and had been on one of the most popular dive wrecks in the area, the Kyarra, an Australian passenger/cargo vessel of 7000 tons lying at a depth of 32m a mile off Anvil Point, near Swanage.
     With Richard on board, we head for Swanage and discuss safety.
     A lot of the incidents are caused by rapid ascents and decompression sickness brought about by people being either unfamiliar with their gear or making basic mistakes, said Mark.
     I think a lot of people diving on computers are not really planning their dives. Theyre just leaping into the water and finding out what the bottom time is when they get down there, which doesnt leave them much room for contingencies.
     Rob added: When I was taught to dive, it was plan your dive, dive your plan. Diving is a dangerous sport. Its been dumbed-down a bit, certainly by the training organisations. They dont stress too much the dangers of diving nowadays. I dont want to tar all training organisations with the same brush, but there is a general consensus within the Maritime & Coastguard Agency that the larger number of incidents involve PADI divers.
     Whether thats because PADItraining is less intensive than the BSAC course, I dont know.
     PADI training took me through everything BSAC training does. Its all in the book. If you choose to ignore it, then thats not the fault of the trainer.
     I think probably the main difference between the PADI and BSAC diver is that the BSAC one tends to be a club diver, so hes diving with the same people all the time and tends to be using the same kit.
     A PADI Open Water Diver puts himself at higher risk if he is diving with a buddy he doesnt know. I certainly wouldnt go on a deep wreck dive with a buddy I didnt know at all.
     There are an awful lot of PADI divers, some BSAC divers too, who come down here and hire gear that they are not particularly familiar with.
     Richard agreed. I think its down to training standards. From the feedback weve got from the various organisations - the Coastguard, police and anyone else who gets involved in emergency services - it appears that the consistent theme is poor training.
     Its poor training and breaking the rules which seems to trip people up time and time again.
     Incidents involving novices and those under instruction generally resulted from panic, Richard believed. Training hasnt been effective enough.
     At the other end, the HSE was seeing complacency from experienced divers. We had an incident recently with three of the most senior and best technical diving instructors in the country.
     One guy put on pure oxygen at 25m. Without the experience of the other guys who got him back to the surface, hed be dead. So youre looking right at the top end, the very best of the best, and theyre still making mistakes, said Richard.
     Discussion on safety ended as we approached Swanage Pier - a favourite baptismal diving spot for many divers who trained in the South and South-east. This is a hearts and minds exercise, said Richard as we climbed onto the pier. We find it far more effective to go out in the boat with the Coastguard Agency and explain what were about.
     We want to encourage the diving population to actually work with us and not against us. Its not about trying to be a nanny state and preventing divers from doing what they want to do and enjoying themselves - its just trying to prevent another tragic death.
     Mark was soon talking to Mike Marsh, the skipper of Killer Prawn. Were changing the name, Mike told Mark.
     After the accidents, the Coastguard went over the boat with a fine toothcomb, and found that it met all its requirements. It also found that the crew had followed correct procedures in handling both emergencies.
     Mark was keen to push one of the key Coastguard recommendations: encouraging dive charter-boat skippers to have another crew-member, so that in an emergency there would be somebody to look after boat operations, such as being the helmsman and picking up divers. The skipper would then be free to handle the emergency. We normally do have an extra hand, said Mike. But for many skippers, its a question of cost.
     Richard had found Pete Williams, owner of the Swanage Pier dive shop Divers Down and of the two dive-boats Killer Prawn and Swanage Diver.
     Richard wanted to know whether the skippers on his boats gave safety talks before the dives.
     Of course, but its like on the planes - as soon as we start, they switch off, said Pete.
     Maybe you should ask them to sign a bit of paper saying theyve been informed on safety procedures. Thatll wake em up, and it also protects you if anything goes wrong, suggested Richard.
     Pete said that he would think about it, but argued that there was a limit to what could be done in instructing punters.
     We make it crystal-clear on both boats: if its a group booking and its under instruction, they are totally responsible, he said. Well give them the ins and outs of the boat and safe procedures and give them the best advice we can when theyre in the water.
     But no way can we can ever enter into policing the instructor or the people hes training, otherwise wed never get a contract.
     At the end of the day, especially somewhere like Swanage, there isnt the market. We do it because we love the diving.
     Secondly, we do it to try to make a living and pay for the boat. If you looked at it from pound notes, youd be better off getting a job, concluded Pete.
     Earlier, Mike had argued for skippers to take more control and identify and deal with problem divers by, for instance, examining their log-books and observing their fluency in putting on dive gear.
     Ideally I would like commercial dive-boat skippers, without having to be regulated, to say to a diver: I dont think youre qualified to do this dive and I would appreciate it if you stayed on the boat. Youre a PADI Open Water Diver, youve only got 30 dives under your belt, youve never done a dive deeper than 20m, and I dont think you can handle this deep dive.
     Swanage Pier was busy. Divers were finning by with their SMBs, and streams of them were heading for dive-boats or the dive shop.
     Divers Down runs a shuttle service from March to October, with the two boats each providing up to five trips a day, a maximum of 120 dives a day with 12 divers on each boat.
     Pete reckons he has had 20,000 divers through his centre in the seven years since he took on Divers Down. On that basis, the incident rate is tiny.
     After a couple of hours talking to divers and gathering information, Mark and Richard reboarded Osprey. We headed out into the bay, looking for dive-boats to examine. Osprey, the predator, was in hunting mode.
     Mark and Richard had talked about how fast the local bush telegraph got to work, but this was ridiculous - there wasnt a dive-boat to be seen. Where had they all gone
     The start of a weekend on a blazing hot summers day, on a sea as smooth as a mirror and with good underwater visibility, yet there was nothing: such a contrast to the hive of activity on Swanage Pier when we arrived. The predator had, it seemed, been outfoxed.
     We headed out for the Kyarra wreck dive site, expecting a cluster of boats as slack water approached. There was only one, which we ignored - Killer Prawn.
     We turned to Poole to drop Richard, and then had a slow amble back to Weymouth. The scenery was magnificent, if you like a desert. We were on a smooth, blue, shiny surface with a cloudless sky above and, in the distance, the Jurassic cliffs of the World Heritage site. There was only one blip - the paddle steamer Waverley with its boatload of Jurassic sight-seers right up against the cliffs.
     And then, late on in the afternoon, the monotony was finally broken by the radio, with its message aboutmissing snorkellers.

When the Coastguard get blank stares
Portland Coastguard Diving Liaison Officer and Watch Manager Jim Anderson says that training standards have dropped in what he describes as a very dangerous recreational pursuit. He says that as the sport has become more popular, it has become increasingly governed by money.
     Its getting as many people through the door in the training centres and out the other end as fast as possible, he says. Yes, they are taught the basics of diving, but there is not enough emphasis on the safety aspects of it.
     Jim holds what he calls mini-seminars, with divers invited to spend a day with him in the Coastguard operations room.
     He is appalled at what he often discovers: he gets blank stares when he talks about basic safety procedures such as buddy watch and checks, risk assessment and what to do in an emergency.
     At the end of the day, were the ones that extricate these people from their difficulties, he says. The Coastguard is here to help in any way possible, but at the same time, we would like the diving fraternity to take some responsibility for their own safety.
     We would like them to take a hard look at their dive planning: looking at every aspect of it; keeping safety on an equal footing with the rest of the dive plan; making sure everybody is aware of what to do in an emergency.
     The costs of mounting a search and rescue operation are high. Dealing with a single diving incident is likely to cost between £10,000 and £15,000.
     Jim is one of 24 officers in the operations room at Weymouth dealing with incidents. There are four watches made up of a team of six in each watch, doing six-hour shifts.
     And resources are limited; the Coastguard has only four search & rescue helicopters, and four RIBs like MCA Osprey covering Britain.

The Osprey, with her engines on full, responds to a distress call.
An MCA rescue helicopter passes overhead.
Rob Sansom, MCA Weymouth Sector Manager, gets down to repairing Ospreys port engine
Swanage dive boat Killer Prawn - a name change looks likely.
Mike Marsh, skipper of Killer Prawn (left), with the Coastguards Mark Towl
Divers aboard a Swanage dive boat.
Mark Towl and HSE diving inspector Richard Martins (centre) talk to a diver
Divers safely back to Swanage pier

Diving bodies unite on safety
A campaign to show that diving, far from being dangerous, is one of the safest of outdoor sports is about to be launched by the British Diving Safety Group (BDSG).
     This claim would appear to fly in the face of the increasing number of diving incidents reported by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency, itself part of the BDSG. National Diving Liaison Officer Ken Bazeley says the general trend for the past 12 years has been upwards, and that diving incidents involving the Coastguard are now around 200 a year.
     This doesnt include minor incidents and inland diving which, by Coastguard reckoning, pushes the figure up to around 400 a year.
     Diving organisations have been unable to relate this figure to the annual number of actual dives or diving events that occur in British waters, so no one can say whether the incident figure is high, low or average, compared with other sports.
     Many people have suspected that the number of divers participating in the sport has mushroomed. Now, for the first time, the BDSG is trying to work out the size of the British diving population, with the MCA commissioning research on its behalf. The figure obtained from its first attempt, as reported in last month, has staggered many people - 700,000!
     Using that figure, the diving incident rate - based only on divers, not diving events - is a low 0.07%. In other words, statistically one diver would need to undertake 1400 dives to have an incident.

Incredibly small
Rick Raeburn, chairman of the BDSG, says that more work is being done on the population figure, which covers anyone who has dived once or more in the past 12 months in this country or abroad. But any revised figure is still likely to show that the number of incidents is incredibly small, he says.
     While we are always promoting diving safety, we dont want people to think: Its dangerous so I wont dive, says Rick. We want to encourage people to dive.
     The BDSG is also keen to see more complete reports on diving near misses. In the past, few divers have bothered, says Rick, who believes that there could be a wealth of useful information out there to help the group identify problem areas.
     Fatalities are another issue. Last year they jumped to 25, compared with a 10-year annual average of around 16. For the first eight months of this year, the fatality level at 26 had already passed last years total.
     The British Diving Safety Group was formed a couple of years ago, after a spate of incidents. It became apparent that the different organisations involved in diving didnt have very good channels of communication, says Rick. The group brought together the main training agencies such as BSAC, PADI, SAA and SSAC. Allied with them were the MCA, RNLI, HSE and the Diving Diseases Research Centre. A year ago, technical diving organisations were also included, as was the Professional Boatmans Association.
     We meet quarterly, and now there is far greater co-operation between the diving organisations and a much closer relationship between bodies like the RNLI and the HSE, says Rick.
     Once everybody was talking to each other, the group was able to adopt a unified approach to diving safety. One of the first things it did was to produce a common incident reporting form, accepted by all diving organisations.
     2005 will be the first full year in which all diving organisations have used the form. The information will be collected and results published by BSAC, continuing the role it has performed for several decades in its annual Diving Incidents Report.

Stinking hangover
BDSG next produced the Diving Safety Pack, with its basic essential information for divers, such as an accident flow chart, pre-season and pre-dive check-lists, safety checks during a dive and a Diving Boat Operators Safety Code.
     Also produced were guidelines on what divers should look for in a charter-boat, and on how they should equip their own dive-boats.
     Non-commercial dive boats are not covered by the MCA, and there is concern that many are very poorly equipped, says Rick.
     This applies particularly to club boats, he says, which often nobody is responsible for equipping or looking after. The voluntary code covers basic gear such as radio, flares, a decent anchor and navigation lights, and the first aid kit, including oxygen.
     Rick looks after leisure-boat safety for the RNLI and is a PADI and SSAC-qualified diver. He says the responsibilities of dive charter-boat skippers are straightforward when it involves group or club bookings.
     They provide transport to and from the dive site. In general, they do not provide any form of diving service, says Rick.
     The decision as to whether its safe to dive the site and how it should be done is up to the people in the boat, not the skipper. That is the official position. So theoretically, somebody could get on the boat with a stinking hangover and go diving, and the skipper could say that this is not his responsibility.
     In reality, a lot of them have got quite a lot of common sense and will say to people: Look I dont think you should dive, but legally they are not normally involved.
     If you get a dive company taking a lot of individual divers out on a trip, and perhaps there is some suggestion of a guided dive, then the charter-boat skipper is providing a diving service and would have to take more responsibility for deciding if the site is safe to dive.

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