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A Close Encounter With a Dive Boat Propeller

How to avoid disaster when diving around boats
By Eric Douglas | Authored On November 21, 2023
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A Close Encounter With a Dive Boat Propeller

Illustration

A Close Encounter With a Dive Boat Propeller

Steven P. Hughes

The whine of the boat’s motor filled Ted’s ears while he was underwater freediving, but he guessed the boat was far away. When he surfaced, the boat was coming right at him.

The Diver

Ted was a 63-year-old male. He liked to freedive to spearfish and collect lobster. His buddy, a scuba diver, dropped Ted off to freedive, then moved the boat to another spot a few miles away to scuba dive.

The Dive

Surface conditions were mild when Ted entered the cool water. He wore a tight-fitting wetsuit and used a homemade float—a truck tire inner tube with a cooler in the middle. He had a dive flag affixed to the top of the cooler. Ted had a 75-foot line tied to his weight belt that was attached to the float, so it followed him as he swam and made his dives. He never surfaced more than 25 feet from his float.

The Accident

After several dives, Ted had successfully collected both lobsters and fish. As he surfaced close to his float, Ted saw a 35-foot boat coming directly for him—rapidly. He immediately piked his body and attempted to dive down, but he wasn’t fast enough. The boat’s propeller caught his ankle and foot. The boat did not stop. With no way to contact his buddy, Ted had to wait in the water for nearly an hour before he got help. His wetsuit helped keep pressure on the wound and controlled the bleeding. When his buddy arrived, he immediately took Ted to a local clinic for stitches and antibiotics.

Analysis

At a local lake where I learned to dive, I watched a man on a jet ski repeatedly see how close he could get to a diver’s float with a flag. I yelled at him to go away, but that incident underscored how little some boaters know about watching out for divers in the water. It is incumbent on divers in the water to make sure we are visible on the surface. This includes using dive flags and visible floats. Ted escaped this incident with a scar, but it could have been much worse. His float system was a black rubber inner tube and a cooler. He did have a flag, but he was a little too far away from it when he surfaced. Painting the float white or yellow might have helped, as would a commercially available yellow diver float.

The boater clearly wasn’t paying attention and was at fault in the hit and run, but that is small comfort if you are the one in the water. The last thing most boaters will expect is a lone swimmer far from shore. The boat operator may have seen the float and simply avoided it. Whether he even heard the motor strike Ted is unknown. A diver’s head is only about a foot above the water, and Ted was wearing a wetsuit with a hood, making him nothing more than a silhouette on the surface. Many divers wear dark or even camouflage wetsuits, which of course makes them much more difficult to see. When diving where boats might be present, have a brightly colored float with a dive flag that is large enoughand high enough off the water to be seen by passing vessels.


Lessons for Life

  • Dive with a buddy. When freediving, always dive with a buddy in case of blackout.

  • Take boats and propellers seriously. Be visible and aware. Listen for boats and look around before and after you surface. Stay near your float, but don’t expect boaters to see you. Keep away from propellers, even when the engine is not running. Most diver boat propeller injuries are either lethal or debilitating.