How I helped to save a drifting boat
Disclaimer: The following story contains some foul language and has had names changed.
Fate can be a bitch sometimes. I believe we’re all meant to be at certain places and times in our lives. For me, that meant forgoing scuba diving to signal someone to help rescue my boat.
The day began with a cold dampness. The sky was gray in Caye Caulker, and it sprinkled as I walked to the scuba dive club. Down the dock, I found my friend Katie had signed up for a last minute course. Although she wouldn’t be with the beginners getting their Open Water PADI, we would be on the same boat ride.
Slowly, my classmates arrived: three women from Poland and a Canadian from Alberta named Shawn. Our dive instructor Angela introduced herself and got us fitted into our scuba gear. I snugged into the wet suit, jacket and fins she provided and later adjusted my weight belt. Once that was finished, Angela went over each one of the components in the scuba gear and told us how to assemble it.
My clumsy interaction led me to miss some holes lining up properly. Already, I could tell this may not be the best day. But I was going to spend 325 American dollars for this course. You will finish this, I thought.
After the discussion, we loaded our tanks and the rest of the gear into the boat. Another instructor Jose was joining us. After a couple of tries, Jose finally started the boat while Angela untied us from the dock. Soon, we were off, and I was talking to Katie.
“So, you worked in television?” she asked me.
“Yes, and I hated it. So, I decided that I would go on a walkabout and travel.”
We talked a little bit about the annoyances of the industry, but the conversation stopped when we arrived at the shallow water that would be our first dive site of the day.
“Before we go any further,” Angela said. “I need to know that you can swim. You have to swim for 10 minutes. If you drown, you fail.”
It was meant to be a joke, but no one laughed. We hopped out of our T-shirts and tank tops and jumped into the water. I treaded water, floated on my back and talked with Shawn for a little bit. Finally, time was called, and we started getting our gear ready for the dive.
A feeling of lightheadedness came over me. I had felt the feeling once before on the dock when I tested the regulator, but I thought it would pass. Instead, it came with a sight headache.
“Did you drink last night?” one of the employees said.
I replied yes, and they accused me of having a hangover. This was no hangover; it was something else.
I asked to be one of the last ones to jump into the water. I tried to give my body enough time to adjust, but before that happened, Jose signaled for me to come over. I put my goggles on, slipped into my jacket and put the regulator in my mouth.
“I’m going to push the tank off the side. You’re going to feel the weight.”
Thirty pounds wanted to drag me in the ocean, but I resisted. This is normal and not unusual.
“When you’re ready, hold your regulator and goggles with one hand, and the strap with the other,” Jose said. “Then, lean back and fall in.”
They call it James Bond style, and I fell into the water, came up and gave Jose the OK signal. But something didn’t feel right as I looked under the water. The tank felt heavy. My swimming felt awkward, and even though I could breathe, my lungs felt like they weren’t getting enough air. I tried breathing deeper. The mechanical inhale and exhale were audible, but my brain couldn’t register that I was able to survive underwater.
I put my head above the waves, but I felt like I was drowning despite the fact I was wearing a jacket. The tank and weight belt tugged at me to come down. I tried not to panic, looked at the boat and signaled for help. Katie looked confused, then quickly got Angela’s attention.
“Swim toward the boat,” Angela shouted.
That wasn’t working.
“Get on your back. It’s easier,” she said.
I backpedaled to the boat and grabbed the ladder.
“What’s the matter?”
“I feel like I can’t breathe.”
“It takes a while for our bodies to get used to the fact that we can breathe underwater. It’s probably your nerves. Hang around the boat. Take as much time as you need, and when you’re ready, we’ll continue.”
I put the regulator back into my mouth, making sure to continually breathe. Although safe during this test, divers are told to breathe constantly. Holding a breath while diving can be fatal. Air compresses underwater and holding breath can lead to lung expansion or death when resurfacing.
I stuck my head in the water and could see the bottom of the boat. A fish swam by in the light green ocean. My breathing was slow, but I never felt like I was getting enough air.
I went back to the surface to try again. No luck. I called it quits.
“Angela, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. Diving is supposed to be fun. You’re on vacation. Maybe you can do snorkeling instead.”
I took off my fins and jacket in the water and handed them up the boat. I climbed in and looked at Katie.
“I’m pissed at myself,” I told her.
“Don’t be. You tried something new, and that’s what’s important.”
Angela suited up and jumped in the water, leaving Jose, Katie and me behind. After a few minutes, Jose started the boat, and we moved to deeper water. This is where Jose would be training Katie in a more advanced diving lesson.
I watched Jose tie a knot and noticed the long line of rope that it was connected to in the boat. My nerves kicked in, but I shook it off and attributed it to my over-active imagination. But is the rope supposed to move? I thought.
Jose and Katie suited up and hopped into the water. I watched them slowly sink into the dark blue ocean, and I walked back to the end of the boat.
I’m not imagining things, I thought. This rope is clearly moving.
I looked as the rope line to the buoy became longer and longer before finally slipping into the water. The boat was untethered.
“Shit,” I said out loud.
This time I didn’t panic. My first thought was to start the boat and return to the line. But after some mishaps on a jet ski back home in Kansas, I thought driving this boat would be a last resort. Instead, I watched myself drift, naively thinking that someone would surface before I would ever need to start the boat.
What seemed like 10 minutes was probably only two. I saw a boat in the distance coming toward me. I signaled for help.
“What are you doing?” the man asked with a thick Caribbean accent.
“I chickened out while scuba diving, so I stayed on the boat, and I don’t have a lot of experience.”
But the man wasn’t in the mood for conversation. He tossed me a rope.
“Tie it and make it quick.”
I made a couple of loops around a piece of metal on the front end of the boat.
“More than that. Pull harder.”
Finally, I achieved what he asked, and he started his boat, slowly towing me back to the buoy where I became untethered. He hopped on board and attached my boat back to the buoy.
“You were lucky today, man. You almost ended up in the reef.”
I thanked the man and asked for his name.
“Fernando,” he shouted back.
I watched him drive the boat away, and I looked back at the rope. It was moving again, but not like before. Still, I wasn’t going to take any chances. I hopped on the stern and gripped the rope in both hands.
The sun burned my skin, and the waves crashed into the boat. I realized how grateful I was to be alive. I could have died if the boat had crashed into the reef, and I wasn’t ready to have that happen. I had too much to live for.
Finally, bubbles formed in the water, and I saw two divers surface. Then, the rest of my classmates came up before the instructors tossed out their regulators.
“Are you holding onto the rope?” Angela asked.
“Yes because the boat drifted away, and I had to signal for help to get towed back.” My tone was furious. This was the first time I was finally able to be angry about the experience. It was the dive shop’s responsibility to make sure the boat was tethered to the buoy, and if I hadn’t been there, the boat would have ended up in the reef.
The divers made their way back to the boat. They climbed up the ladder and took off their gear. When Angela got on board, she turned to me.
“So, was this the most stressful day of your life?” she asked. She had a slight smile on her face like she was trying to make a joke. Clearly, a standup comedy career is not in her future.
“No,” I said. I was still angry, but answering honestly.
“Certainly, the most scary then?”
“No,” I said. This may have been a lie, and I’m still undecided on the matter. It’s not like I couldn’t have started the boat if I felt like the distance was too great.
Jose chimed in: “Hey man, this is what you get for having Angela tie the knot.” I guess he must have thought I was an idiot since I watched him do it. I said nothing and waited for the boat to start.
The turns of the key wouldn’t work, but after some fiddling in the engine, Jose was finally able to get it working. We made our way back to the dock, and I was grateful to be alive.
I gathered my wallet, glasses and watch, then walked away. Luckily, no one asked me to pay. If that were the case, this story could have had a different ending.