Personal Narrative

Aquatic Angst

I closed a fist and moved it quickly to my chest, then gave a thumbs-up; “Low air; let's go up!” Internally, I was screaming, but the deep, soundless void could not convey my fear. I grabbed my air gauge and shoved it in my uncle's face. “I only have five hundred PSI[1]; I'm supposed to have that much when I get back on the boat.” My uncle seemed calm; he signaled that we'd go up at four hundred; in the meantime, we should look for the anchor line.

We swam inexorably towards “the tower” [2]but still it eluded us, yet always there it was just to the left. If ever we swam over to the shadow we'd only find that, once again, the deep was playing tricks on us. As we swam I tried my hardest to breath as little as possible, but I felt it; each breath was a little harder than the last. Finally, as my air gauge read two hundred fifty, we decided it was time for an emergency swimming ascent. I grabbed my BC[3]'s nozzle and started up. I didn't know what to expect, but I was pretty sure we'd come up just a little to the right of the boat. I was wrong.

When we surfaced I was very disoriented; I looked to the left where my body told me the boat should be and saw nothing but open water. I looked to the right, nothing. I looked straight; I could see the shore about fourteen miles distant, much too far to swim. Now, I was freaked out, even on the surface it was so choppy, I'd have to use my tank. My air was getting lower by the second. Finally, I located the boat about three hundred yards behind me. I could barley read the words “Miss Lindsay” on the stern. Sure, on land, three hundred yards doesn't seem that great a distance, but this was water; I was three football fields away in rough water with the current against me, but I had nowhere else to go. “Should we go back down?” yelled my uncle.

I turned the thought over and over in my head. If we went down the current would be less, but my air was running out fast. I glanced down at my gauge, it was too low. We started swimming as best as we could towards the boat. I kicked with all my strength, but between the dead weight of my positively buoyant fins and the strong current, we were getting nowhere fast and I was using up the little air left in my tank even faster. Finally, I thought, “I should switch to my snorkel. I'll need my air if we can't make the boat and are here for a while.” I kicked and kicked for what seemed hours, but the boat seemed scarcely closer and I knew if I tried to rest it would all be in vain. Over and over the water crested my snorkel; my lungs burned from the salt. I couldn't take it anymore; I tore the snorkel from my mouth and replaced my regulator. The fresh, dry air filled my lungs, but with it the knowledge that time was running out. I swam harder. I saw the boat's crewmen throwing out the tow line and swam with all my might. I grabbed the line just as my air ran out.

I spit my regulator[4] out and hit the BC inflator. Nothing happened. I tried to inflate the BC with my mouth but this made me even more fatigued. I tried to put my snorkel back in but only managed to knock off my mask. I grabbed for it before it could sink, but I had to let go of the rope. I held my breath and dived, even with the extra buoyancy, and grabbed it. I grabbed the rope and held it. I inched forward as the rope was pulled in. When I finally reached the ladder and was helped out of the water, I noticed for the first time the tears in my eyes.

This experience taught me a lot. Everyone hears about one accident or another, but most people never think it can happen to them. I thought so, yet this happened to me. The real thing that saved me that day was not panicking. It was a scary experience; I mean, sure I'll go diving again…but you couldn't have paid me to go on the second dive that day.


[1] Pounds per square inch: A measurement of air pressure.

[2]A local diver's name for the U.S.C.G. Chesapeake Light Tower, a light tower built in 1965 to mark the entrance of Chesapeake Bay. It was manned until 1980, then automated. The tower was decommissioned earlier this year but the light still runs and it is still active as NOOA National Data Buoy Center Station CHLV2. It is surrounded by an artificial reef of purposely sunken ships and even NYC subway cars.

[3]Buoyancy Compensator: a vest like garment which is inflated variably to compensate for weight belt and water pressure.

[4]In this case referring to the second stage regulator: one of two devices which draws air from the tank and regulates it to a breathable pressure. The second stage is the one which goes in the diver's mouth.