That time our dive boat sank
Whenever two or more scuba divers gather in one place, you’re likely to hear amazing tales of underwater adventure. Most of them are true, mostly. When it’s my turn to tell a dive story, mine starts like this: “Well there was that time our dive boat sank.”
Before I tell the story, here’s a little background…
The place was Dominica, a 30-mile-long volcanic island located in the Caribbean between Guadeloupe and Martinique. Note #1: It is pronounced “doe-mah-NEE-kah” not “doe-MIN-eek-kah”. Note #2: It’s not the Dominican Republic. It’s Dominica. The Dominican Republic is a whole ‘nother country.
For divers, the quality of the reef is pristine along the entire coastline with an abundance of small fish, wrecks and large creatures such as eagle rays. The southern dive sites feature wall diving while the north is a mix of coral gardens and fascinating rock formations.
In addition to diving, the island offers spectacular hiking. A six-hour round-trip hike to the world’s largest boiling lake is among the most spectacular and most challenging on the island.
It’s been nearly six years since our most recent vacation on Dominica. Despite it being one of our most memorable trips ever, I haven’t written about it until now on TripAdvisor or anywhere else. That’s because it’s not my intent to embarrass the owners of the dive company or damage their business. Operating a dive shop in a remote Caribbean island may seem like a dream job but in reality it’s a tough business. Besides, they’re nice folks. That’s why I’m cutting them some slack by not naming their company here.
But damn it’s such a good story! I just gotta share it with you.
For our first three days, we dove from the dive company’s large inboard-powered boat with about eight other divers aboard each day. The captain (I’ll call him Paul) was one of the owners. On our fourth day, a Sunday morning, there were only five paying customers so we were assigned to a smaller 20-foot-long flat-bottom john boat powered by an outboard motor. Our crew appeared to be the junior varsity team as well; two young local men, one serving as dive master and the other as captain. I have no idea how experienced they actually were but they looked young enough to be in high school.
We finished our pleasant but uneventful first dive of the day at a site called Douglas Bay Reef. Mary and I climbed back on board, removed our BCs and air tanks, and took a seat near the bow to wait for the fifth and final diver (I’ll call him Gustaf) to board. Gustaf was an obese man; so large that when he stepped onto the ladder, the stern of the small boat plunged downward. Water poured over the transom. Within seconds the boat flooded and we found ourselves in a swirl of floating dive gear, coolers, water bottles, gas cans, and other flotsam. (When your possessions are loose in the water, kayakers call this a yard sale.)
As water continued to rise to the gunwales, our young crew did not appear to know how to remedy the situation. My fellow divers and I took it upon ourselves to grab plastic gear tubs and start bailing, hoping we could outpace the inflow. After a minute or two of frantic effort we realized we weren’t making progress. I concluded that our dive boat was about to become an artificial reef. Our youthful captain ordered all divers into the water and then got on his cell phone to call for help.
We were only about 200 yards from shore and the water was calm so there was no panic, only confusion. The crew gathered up BCs floating in the swamped boat and tossed them overboard to the divers for buoyancy. I waved them off, indicating that I was safe because I was holding onto a floating gas can. However, in the confusion I did not realize they tossed my BC overboard anyway, with the regulator, air tank and integrated weights still attached.
Seeing she was the sole woman among six confused men, all with different opinions about what to do next, Mary told me she was going to swim to shore. As for me, I decided to stay in the water near the boat.
So there we were: me, Gustaf and two other male divers bobbing in the water waiting for rescue while Mary sunned herself on shore. With the extra weight out of the swamped boat, it somehow managed to remain afloat. After 30 minutes or so I could see two boats round a nearby point and head toward us. The rescuers picked us up one by one. One boat motored close to shore to retrieve Mary.
Thirty minutes later we were back at the dive shop telling our story to Paul. He apologized and promised to add a night dive to the schedule to make up for the dive that we missed that day. The small dive boat never did completely sink to the bottom but it did fill to the gunwales with only bits of it protruding from the water. The rescuers managed to pump it out and tow it back to the dock.
The next day, Mary and I went on a scheduled hike with a guide to a remote waterfall deep in the jungle, which meant we didn’t return to the dive shop until Tuesday.
When we arrived Tuesday morning, I looked around for my kit. Paul’s perplexed response was: “Don’t YOU have it?” I explained that I was never reunited with my gear because I floated with a gas can while we waited to be rescued. Paul thought for awhile and theorized that in the confusion Gustaf might have taken my gear home by mistake. That didn’t seem likely to me but Paul put in a call to Gustaf anyway. Meanwhile he set me up with complimentary rental gear for the upcoming dives.
When we returned from the Tuesday dives, Paul told me he finally got hold of Gustaf and as I suspected, Gustaf did not have my gear. “But I bet I know where it is,” Paul announced. “It’s probably on the bottom at Douglas Bay Reef. We’re scheduled to go diving near there tomorrow so we should be able to find it.”
Sure enough, after a bit of cruising back and forth at the site of Sunday’s incident, Paul and his crew spotted the tank, BC and regulator at the sandy bottom in about 40 feet of water. Paul jumped overboard and free dove with only a swim suit and fins to retrieve it, which I thought was a pretty impressive feat. He had a happy expression on his face when he surfaced with my kit, probably because he knew he was no longer on the hook to replace over a thousand bucks worth of dive gear.