A very close call.

I have been lucky enough to do quite a few adventurous activities in my time.  Diving is one of them.  I’m a fairly experienced diver, but there are many others with much more experience and skill than me.  I got up to Rescue Diver level, and although I’d done some diving in the UK, I much prefer the warmer & clearer waters abroad. It has led to the Maldives a few times, a fairly long sting travelling around the Philippines diving at various sites & islands, & Egypt a number of times.  I’ve done night dives, wreck dives, some pretty deep dives, and quite a few shark dives – not in cages, right out there with the sharks. 

Me doing commercial filming on a dive in the Red Sea

I was in Egypt for a couple of weeks & getting lots of dives done.  I managed to get a place on a boat heading out to a wreck dive.  This was a dive I’d wanted to do it for a long time so I there was no way I was going to miss it. It meant an early start & a long boat trip. 

The wreck is the SS Thistlegorm.   A 128m long British Merchant Navy ship, built in 1940.  She was sunk on 6 October 1941 near Ras Muhammad, a marine National Park at the Southern extreme of the Sinai Peninsula.   On her 4th & final voyage the cargo included: Bedford trucks, armoured vehicles, Norton and BSA motorcycles, Bren guns, cases of ammunition, and rifles as well as radio equipment, Wellington boots, aircraft parts, railway wagons and two LMS Stanier Class 8F steam locomotives.  These steam locomotives and their associated coal and water tenders were carried as deck cargo. 

Trucks cargo in the Thistlegorm

A collision in the Suez Canal meant the convoy that the SS Thistlegorm was part of could not make passage through the canal to the port of Alexandria.  Instead she anchored, with HMS Carlisle moored on the same anchorage.  Two German bombers discovered the vessels and they targeted the largest ship, dropping two 2.5 tonne high explosive bombs on the Thistlegorm.   Both bombs struck hold 4 near the stern of the ship at 0130 on 6 October.

In the early fifties, Jacques Cousteau discovered the wreck by using information from local fishermen.  Much of the cargo can still be seen and explored, which is why this is a great site to dive, alongside the historical reasons and the abundance of marine life such as tuna, barracuda, batfish, moray eel, lionfish, stonefish, scorpionfish, and sea turtle.  It is however rapidly disintegrating now.  It is also hard to dive due to the very strong currents in the area. 

Steam windlass and mooring winches

It’s at least a couple of hours by boat to the dive site.  Even though it was still early, it was very hot, and the boat ride was not the smoothest.  When we got there, I didn’t feel too good. The rough choppy sea meant that it took quite a while to get anchored & get a line down to the wreck.   In December 2007 the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA) installed 32 permanent mooring buoys by the wreck so that boats did not have to moor on the actual wreck as this was adding to its deterioration.  However, by 2009 all of these mooring buoys had gone as the currents where just too strong for them, and today they were running strong too.   

We got ready as we planned the dive and & then went over the side. 

Straight away I felt bad. I was struggling & felt ill, not recovered from the long rough boat ride.  Even worse, I had not prepared properly.  I was too blasé about my dive. I had complacent. The worst thing to be on any activity.

I didn’t have enough weight, and the Red Sea is very salty, so it’s very buoyant & you need additional weight to dive down. I wasn’t descending much at all.  The rough sea made the visibility under water bad, we had to follow a line down to the wreck that we had managed to get down to it when we had anchored up. 

I was working hard, trying to pull myself down the line, rather than just holding it & descending easily. I got to only about 20metres & I was out of breath, really breathing hard. The wreck lies at 30m, not deep, but there was no way I was going to make it.  I had only been under for less than 10 minutes; I checked my air & it was over half gone already!  Usually I’d be under an hour or more & still have plenty of O’s left. 

My only option was to end my dive. I signalled to my buddy that I was going back up and that he should continue and join another buddy group.

But I had now also lost the descent line, which was of course also my ascent line back to the boat.

I started to drift pretty fast in the current. My dive computer indicated I needed to so a short safety stop at 5 metres, for 5 minutes. That was hard in the current & with the choppy sea.  The visibility was so murky it was hard to know even what was up or down!  It was a long 5 minutes.

By the time I popped up at the surface I knew I had drifted a long way. 

I could not see any boats anywhere. Nothing. And I was still drifting.

I was now classed as “lost at sea”.

I put out an emergency buoy & I started on my whistle. My dive whistle is pretty loud. It’s actually sold as the loudest whistle in the world, but with a lack of breath I’m not sure it was enough.  There was nothing to be seen, and I was bobbing around, alone and lost and with little hope of a passing vessel spotting me in the water due to the height of the chop.  My emergency buoy was taller, but would it be spotted?

I was resigned to the fact that this was the end.  Or at least the start of the end.  How would I die? Exposure, exhaustion, thirst, or sharks – it is a good area for shark diving.  It was a strange acceptance that there was not much I could do.  I had no control over the situation. What I did have though was a small horn on my BCD.  I had bought it not too long before. It’s basically a small air horn that uses the air in your BCD to blast out a loud horn. I’d never used it before, but I gave it a blast.  It was loud, not major loud, but would it be enough, would it be heard? By now the dive crew would know I was missing, they would be out looking for me. They would have the smaller RIB boats deployed too, doing sweeping searches, as well as calling in other dive boats.  They know the current direction so they may have an idea where I am?  I was pretty exhausted by now. I was hot, but I was cold too. If it got dark before I was found, then I knew that would be it.  I had been on my own for what felt like quite some time now, in reality it was only about an hour. But that was a lonely hour!

In the distance, a feint noise.  A boat engine.  It made me re-focus, I checked my emergency buoy was upright, I gave the BCD horn some blasts.  The boat was getting nearer, and then there it was, I could see it.  A small RIB.  Without the buoy they would not have seen me. But thankfully they did.  They got me on board, gave water, checked me over & radioed the dive boat. This RIB was not from my boat, so a few had been out looking for me. I was safely returned to my dive boat, and after some food and a de-brief we headed back.  On the way back we stopped at another dive spot – one of my favourites in fact, Yolanda & shark reef.  It’s a much gentler dive, although it has a huge drop off that you need to be careful with as its easy to lose your depth without realising.  But it’s a gentle dive and just what was needed after the events of the day.  You have to get back in the saddle. More importantly, you have to learn from your experience, and there were many many lessons to take from the day.