Lessons Taught By and Early Winter Storm

Winter diving in California can be great with fantastic water clarity but there are those days when you get “whopped up side da head.” Such was the day on December 9 when storm of unexpected ferrousity struck. To varying degrees, dive boats were caught offshore and some, myself included, had quite a bad experience of it.

The day began with good sailing out of Long Beach aboard the Iron Eagle with my wife and 12-year old son and the Catalina Conservancy Divers. Judging by the winds that had been blowing for the previous 48 hours, it looked like diving Farnsworth Bank on the backside of Catalina would be a good possibility. Reaching the backside proved that to be not possible with six-foot seas. We moved to the frontside to dive Little Farnsworth on the east end. Seas looked calm and the anchor was set.

But as divers entered the water, the wind came up and the boat slipped anchor. No divers ever made it to the reef and realizing what had happened, all ascended without incident. Smart and cool headed, the divers gathered together and the large chase boat was launched for diver pick-up, which proceeded without incident. The Iron Eagle was also picking divers up. All the while, the wind was increasing. It was about noon. Because of the ever increasing wind, the divers picked up by the chase boat were dropped off on the Iron Eagle but it was decided to not risk transferring their gear until calmer waters could be reached. It was decided to head for calm anchorage inside of Long Point. It looked good and the chase boat went on ahead along with a jet ski from the boat. It was assumed they were together.

And the wind increased…

The Iron Eagle reached the calm behind Long Point without incident, anchor was set but the launch was nowhere to be found. As divers were preparing to go in the water we were told of the launch’s sinking. A passing dive charter boat, the Psalty V, picked up the operator of the launch and some sets of dive gear. Other gear was lost. Apparently, the launch was swamped by a rogue
wave and the crewman did not have a radio.

By now it was 3 p.m. and this was our last chance to dive. Conditions in the cove were good but obviously beginning to rage offshore. We went in and had an enjoyable dive.

Reaching the surface, it was immediately apparent that the boat had slipped anchor again. In the process of pick-up, I decided to demonstrate to my son how to use a signaling sausage. It had a hole, went flat, and fell over in the wind. End of demonstration. And the weather continued to worsen. Although with some difficulty, all divers were recovered safely.

Running along the dive boat Sand Dollar, we left the island about 4 p.m. and told to stow gear as it was going to be a rough ride. No joke. The Iron Eagle is huge, a converted oil field supply boat, 100 feet long. Waves, 20 feet high,
were breaking over its tall bow. Knowing this type of boat from my days on working the oil fields, I felt quite safe.

It was a long ride home with many getting sea sick (I was fine and generally do not get sick). Many had chosen to put on life vests simply because this was the worst conditions they had ever seen. While it was the worst I’d seen in the San Pedro Channel, I’d experienced worse in much smaller boats in the Gulf of Mexico.

What did I learn from this trip? First and foremost, the ocean will always surprise you—most the time in beautiful, delightful ways, but sometimes in ways of fury. Second, keep cool when things go haywire. The divers in the water when the anchor slipped did just that. They stuck together and rather than fighting the sea, simply waited for pickup. Third, I need to check my emergency gear more often. It had been five years since I purchased my signaling sausage. No wonder it had a hole! It is a good thing the boat had already spotted us and I was just doing it for drill. And finally, although sea sickness cannot always be prevented, there were a lot of people on the boat that return trip who did not get sick. Common denominators among the unsick were: no post-dive beer drinking, they got comfortable and closed their eyes quickly, and they got away from others who were getting sick.

By the way, I am heading out again very soon for some more fantastic winter diving in the California Channel Islands! What? You think I am going to let one storm slow me down?

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