Hammerheading down
With RIBS you can expect the occasional emergency, but you dont have disasters in sturdy hardboats - do you Maggie Cainen finds otherwise

GET THESE ON QUICK, WE MIGHT GO UNDER ANY MINUTE, said Kelly, as she passed round the little red lifejackets. We watched, horror-struck, as Jerry the captain ripped open the planking around the well and exposed tons of water swilling around in the bilges.
     There were nine of us on board that evening - Jerry, with his crew Ivan and Kelly, four divers and two non-diving divers, out for a jolly.
     Our best and biggest RIB, the Humber with its 200hp engine, had had a nasty accident to its tubes at the weekend, and was away being repaired. We had only two small RIBs and two little hardboats available for the 26 divers who had signed up for our usual Wednesday evening dive.
     An emergency call had gone out to Jerry, owner of the magnificent Hammerhead, a big hardboat with massive twin engines that sleeps 10 and is a solid, reliable base for diving near and far. Jerrys a generous bloke, and at the last minute had responded to the Diving Officers distress shout and kindly agreed to take out Hammerhead.
     The two fully laden RIBs were quickly launched into the river, the two tiny hardboats with their 10 divers motored over, and Hammerhead started the trip through the marina to the steps to pick up divers. Jerry revved up the engines, but the normally swift boat felt sluggish and heavy.

Ominous scraping sound
     It was almost high tide, but the journey along the river and round to the steps was much slower than usual.
     As Hammerhead passed the slipway, there was an ominous scraping sound. We hoped we hadnt damaged the hull and nicked a prop as Jerry manoeuvred the heavy boat out to sea, well behind the rest of our small fleet.
     History was repeating itself. A few years ago we had been diving the Scilly Isles aboard Empress of India, which had motored all the way there from South Wales. We had dived half a dozen wrecks around the islands, including the Italia, the Plympton and the Hather, and were happily en route to Tresco when there had been an almighty crash, followed by awful grinding noises.
     The boat had stopped abruptly, and we were flung across the saloon and up into the air as the boat reared and gyrated.I had crashed down, landing on my back.

Grossly distorted
     Get these on, everybody, Cara had yelled, flinging large, cumbersome orange lifejackets at us. We shrugged into them and then rushed up on deck to find out what had happened.
     We had found Little Kettle Rock, or perhaps it had found us, and almost succeeded in sinking us. We had sent two divers down, seriously worried about what they would find.
     One of the twin propellers had been grossly distorted. It had twisted across and stopped its partner working. Luckily, the prop had not been driven into the boats hull and we werent holed, but it was a near thing.
     In relays, pairs of divers patiently sawed through the useless bent prop, to allow the good prop to work. Thereafter the boat handled and sailed like a cow, lumbering across the sea with a sideways gait. We couldnt risk continuing to dive.
     Today, on Hammerhead, another trip was going badly. As we neared the wreck of the Sea Serpent, Jerry was worried about the boats worsening response to the helm, so he stripped off ready to throw on his drysuit and get over the side to inspect the hull.
     First, however, he had ripped open the floorboards in the stern to check on the pumps - which is when we had seen all those tons of water slopping in the bilges, and pouring over the edge onto the deck. Get into these, everyone! crew-member Kelly yelled when she saw the flooded bilges. She began passing out state-of-the-art, smart red lifejackets.
     No, dont try to inflate them. Dont touch that yellow handle! she shrieked. You only pull that if you fall in.
     We gingerly inspected our jackets, carefully avoiding the yellow handle. I think it worked a powerful carbon dioxide cartridge. They were a snug fit, with fiddly little fastenings, or perhaps we were so nervous that we were all thumbs as we tried to fasten them.
     Adrenaline flowed fast and furious, and reminded us of all those maritime disaster movies. You dont have disasters in sturdy hardboats - thats supposed to be reserved for RIBs, with their temperamental engines and dodgy fuel. Hammerhead was by far the biggest, safest boat we used, the one that rescued the others when their gear levers stuck in reverse, or they ran out of fuel.
     The shock took us all in different ways but everyone realised the urgency of the situation. We had a new diver on board, fully kitted ready for his second open water dive. Fourteen-year-old Jeremy huddled back against the stern, staring open-mouthed at the water welling out of the bilges in front of him. He clutched his fins, ready to put them on. He hadnt bargained on his second dive being inside the boat!
     Jerry tried to work the electric pumps but had no joy at all. He fitted a manual handle to the pump and began working away furiously, trying to clear the flood by hand.
     The divers pulled off their dive gear and relayed him, as it was exhausting work. Ivan fetched out a second emergency pumping system and rigged it up alongside the first. It was looking grim, and Hammerhead was still so far down in the water that Jerry decided to leave the slow hand-pumping in the crews competent hands.
     He began driving the boat as fast as it would go towards the shore, fearing that he would have to beach it before it sank. Much hard pumping later, the bilge was finally fairly dry.
     As we bobbed just off the beach, ready to jump ashore, Jerry and Ivan began checking the wiring of all the electrical pumps. Why had they been malfunctioning
     As they carefully traced each electrical connection, to their horror they discovered that the wiring had been disconnected. A regular crew-member had forgotten his keys to the boat a few days previously, and had had to disconnect the wires to the alarm system to get on board. He had inadvertently disconnected the pumps, too! It took Jerry and Ivan only a few minutes to restore the wiring, but we had all had a lucky escape.
     Amazingly, despite their close brush with imminent ducking or drowning, our four divers decided that they wanted to dive the Sea Serpent after all. Most of the other divers were back in the RIBs or the other two small hardboats by then, but two stray DSMBs floated around, with four divers bobbing close by.
     The sun had turned brilliant red and was about to sink below the horizon. The sea had calmed down and no longer looked cold and threatening, so we helped the four of them into the water, broke out a bottle of chilled white wine and drank a toast to our lucky escape!

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