This happened a few years’ back and I never got around to writing about it. But, since it’s kind of an interesting story, if you’ve got a few minutes to kill, take a read.
In early 2011, I flew to Roatan, just off the coast of Honduras, for a dive trip. Al, my first dive instructor, organizes trips like these occasionally, and I went down by myself and met up with about 20 other folks, all from Calgary. A few of them were dive masters, and a few others (including me), had around 20 or so dives, and had a decent feel for the water. And rounding out the group were a number of brand new students doing their open-water certification.
We stayed at a small resort on the east end of the island, and on the very first dive of the very first day, part of the group set out on the resort’s boat, the “Miss Katie”, a modest, utilitarian vessel, just big enough to accommodate around a dozen divers. I was on that boat with my dive partner Clint, along with Al who was certifying all the new students.
It was a glorious, sunny morning, but considerably windy, and as we idled away from the harbour, I noticed there was pretty heavy swell off shore, and within a few minutes we were into it, the Miss Katie getting buffeted to and fro and side to side.
It wasn’t long until the captain stopped at a potential dive site. However, the swell was hoisting the stern up and down, feet at a time. It may have been easy enough to get into the water, but certainly not the kind of conditions you’d want if you’re trying to get a bunch of new students back onto the boat after the dive. So, Al exchanged a few words with the resort owner, who was also diving that day, and the owner instructed the captain to navigate the Miss Katie to another site, where (he thought) the swell might be lighter.
We started chugging along again, and though we were moving pretty slowly at first, the boat was still getting thrown around like a bathtub toy. At one point, someone pointed to an object in the water, and Al half-jokingly observed, “Hey, it’s one of my socks.”
The boat picked up a bit more speed, but this only served to sharpen the collisions, so much so that at one point, after the hull took an unfortunate angle with a larger wave, a scuba tank popped out of its cradle, landed against Al’s daughter Fallon’s leg, hit the deck, then hissed like a popped tire. It startled all of us, and the captain abruptly cut the motor and we jerked to a stop. ‘Jesus,’ I thought to myself, “what the hell!”
After we secured the tank and Fallon confirmed she was alright, we started moving again. I looked around at everyone–all signs of the previous, nervous mirth had given way to quiet foreboding. At this point, it seemed to me that finding a calm dive site was beyond possibility, and less than a minute later, as we were picking up speed, a jet of water blasted through a window on the port side and drenched the entire covered portion of the wheelhouse where I was sitting. The captain slowed, tried to adjust the boat’s angle of incidence with the pattern of swell. I looked toward the rear of the boat and noticed that with each wave there was water splashing onto the deck of the boat, which wasn’t completely receding before each successive wave. A little pool was forming in the port corner.
Seconds later, Al moved with urgency up into the wheelhouse on the starboard side, close to where the captain was standing. Because of the tilt of the boat toward the port side, it became clear this was a counterbalancing effort. Someone yelled out for others to do the same, and divers rushed starboard.
From my point in the wheelhouse, I looked through the front window toward the bow of the boat, and noticed Paul, the divemaster, balancing right on the tip of the bow, and I thought to myself, “He’s trying to counterbalance the stern!” I looked back at the stern again and saw water was freely rushing in now. Someone yelled “grab your fins!”, which I did.
In seconds it was clear the Miss Katie was going to sink, stern first. The bow tilted skyward like the Titanic, I heard someone say “everyone off the boat”, right after which I yelled “GET OFF THE BOAT!” (I and my dive buddy, Clint, were crunched into the wheelhouse, and couldn’t exactly just *jump overboard*). And as they say, down she went.
I got out from under the wheelhouse just as the water closed off the gap. I submerged briefly, popped back up, then turned around and thought, ‘Oh fuck, oh fuck!’ because I knew Clint was behind me. About five seconds later Clint’s head popped up.
Then there was yelling, lots of yelling. People yelled out for other people, and other people yelled back to confirm. I thought to myself,’Holy fuck! Our fuckin’ boat just sank!’
I saw Fallon, who appeared to be hyperventilating. Christine (another open water student) was holding Fallon on her left side, and Al was holding her on her right side. They reminded her repeatedly not to kick, and to stay on her back.
Paul, the divemaster, was assisting another diver who, like me, managed to grab his fins before the boat sank, but he appeared to be in distress. I swam up behind him and held on to his chest. Nevertheless, he couldn’t get his fins on, so Paul and I told him to let them go.
At this point, most of the divers were about 20 yards closer to the shore than the three of us. Keep in mind, when the boat went down, we hadn’t even chosen a dive site, so almost all the equipment went down too. Because I had my fins I had pretty good mobility, but most everyone else was largely adrift in little pods. I looked back to where the boat sank, and in between swells I could just see the heads of the owner and the captain. I thought to myself, ‘The boat is *gone*, guys. There’s nothing you can do.’
Over the next while, our little groups did what we could to get to land, and eventually, one by one, we washed up on the rocky shore and clamoured out. We were nowhere near the resort (nor any commercial activity whatsoever for that matter). Rather, it appeared we had come ashore at the foot of a very poor neighbourhood. The resort owner walked over to a group of locals in a pickup truck, and borrowed a phone. Eventually a large canoe with a motor arrived and took us back.
After sharing a sombre lunch at the resort, Al stood up, and said to the new students, all still wide-eyed from the morning’s events, “Folks, that didn’t go exactly as planned. But I’m telling you now, the best thing you can do is get right back on that horse.” And later that day, every one of them got on the resort’s *other*, more seaworthy, boat, and completed their first dive.
The Miss Katie went down in about 60 feet of water, hit a slope, and then slid to 170 feet, around a half mile from shore. The same afternoon, the owner went back to the site with one of his divemasters, as well as a few of the experienced divers in our group. The divemaster, a fearless local who reminded me of Baron Samedi from ‘Live and Let Die’, did two consecutive dives to 170 before our divers stopped him from going down a third time. He was able to rescue all of the BCDs and tanks simply by cracking the valve on the tanks and inflating the BCDs so the rigs just floated up to the surface on their own. Of course, most everything else not tied down when the Miss Katie sank was already well on its way to Cuba. Interestingly, nearly one year to the day, one of Al’s fins washed up on shore, right in front of the resort.