A Dive That Went Wrong

Five days, a quick island hop to Oahu, our first time exploring the island. A major feature of the plan was a bit of diving. Oahu features a number of unique dives we can not experience on the Big Island, particularly the wrecks. Based on conversations on ScubaBoard I chose to book with Gabe and Kaimana Divers. The reviews and comments of this dive op have been uniformly positive. After some experience I can second that opinion.

Along with a few changes of clothes and the cameras, we packed two full sets of dive gear. There would be five full days, including two days of diving. The basic plan each day was a two tank morning dive trip, a deeper wreck dive, followed by a shallower reef dive. The YO-257, the Corsair, there are several sites to choose from. On the Big Island we do have the SS Kauai at Mahukona, but scattered bits and pieces are not the same as a large intact ship.

Walking across the posh lobby of a luxury hotel with full dive gear over your shoulder is fun. Everyone looks in your direction, you can only guess at what they are thinking. It was 7am, meeting our ride to the marina. We were looking for our ride from Kaimana Divers in a big black pickup truck. Already in the truck were a couple from Texas and another fellow, five divers total, a nice small group.

We met Drew, our divemaster for the day. Like all divers we introduced ourselves, Jeannie and Charles lived near the gulf coast, but traveled regularly to dive under better conditions than local waters offered. Our fifth diver was somewhat less experienced, with a dozen dives behind him. We were all looking forward to this dive.

Surf to Diamond Head
Surf and Surfers along the famous Waikiki breaks with Diamond Head in the background
Heading of of the marina we saw the first sign that perhaps not all was well… The surfers were out.

Dramatic breakers rolled across the famous Waikiki reefs, stretching from the marina to Diamond Head. There is an adage in the local dive community, if the surfers are happy, the divers are not.

Arriving over the wreck for the YO-257 there was a notable swell, while it was going to be a problem, it was diveable. Drew hopped in to secure the mooring line. Upon returning to the boat he reported a moderate current. We geared up and readied for the water.

Visibility was poor, at least by Hawaiian standards, about 40ft maximum. The current was stiff, this was going to be a larger problem. I was wondering, was this only a surface current? What was it like 100ft below on the wreck? Conditions were questionable and I considered the situation. I decided to trust the judgement of the divemaster, someone who dove this site regularly, and continue the dive.

Swarm
A school of fish and a green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) hang out in the lee of the YO-257 mooring buoy
At the bottom things were not any better, the stiff current swept across the wreck. We could only make out the superstructure, stack and stern. We were down, now what? Deb and I were in decent shape, we signaled to each other and checked status. Clearly this dive was going to be limited at best, might as well make what I could of the few minutes we would have on the bottom.

The thought occurred to me, perhaps there would be some shelter from the current in the lee of the ship? The wreck was positioned broadside to the oncoming current. Dropping down I found this was not the case. The large openings cut through the hull for divers to access allowed the current to come right through. I was greeted by a blast of water, realizing there was no shelter, even for a moment.

Turtle on the YO-257
A green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) rests on the stern of the YO-257
A few feet from the mooring line one photo opportunity beckoned, a large green sea turtle slept among the bollards of the stern. Moving along the rail of the ship I maneuvered to fire a few shots with the camera. I did manage several decent shots, not bad considering the conditions. I note that the photo shows quite a bit of debris in the water, blurred to streaks by the current.

I was about to re-position and take another shot when I heard the clanging of a tank banger. The divemaster was signalling to surface. Aborting the dive? No surprise.

It was a slow ascent, hand over hand up the mooring chain. The two couples were doing reasonably well, Drew was on top of the lone diver on the ascent. Deb was likewise doing well, she even deployed her camera for a few shots of the group hanging onto the mooring. I noted that she took more photographs than I did. She is better at taking snapshots of the whole activity, while I tend to concentrate on getting more composed photos.

YO-257 Dive Profile
Profile for a rather short dive on the YO-257
Upon arrival at the surface the not so minor issue of re-boarding the boat became the next challenge. The captain had strung a line from the bow to the stern to allow us to get from the mooring line to the ladders. Problem, the boat was rocking hard, up and down several feet, with the line against the side of the boat. I thought about it for a moment and realized the larger danger was simply getting hit by the aluminum hull as we came around. I opted to take hold of Deb’s hand firmly and let go, swimming around to the trailing line deployed from the boat’s stern. With my big fins I was capable of towing Deb against the current without much problem, particularly for a short sprint.

Our less experienced diver was obviously shaken by the experience, hunched on the rear bench, clearly rethinking this whole scuba diving thing. The couple from Texas were taking it in stride, as did Deb and I. We laughed and joked about the dive, the humor no real disguise for the realization that there had been some real risks involved.

Checking the gauge I found I still had over half my air available, Deb had about the same. Not bad as I am sure we were working hard and using the air fairly rapidly in the conditions. In general our equipment served quite well. As did our procedure, Deb and I generally understand each other well underwater, we have done this a few times if not usually in such challenging conditions.

I see how the YO-257 can be a great dive. A cloud of fish surround the wreck, including rarities like Pyramid and Threadfin Butterflyfish. A number of turtles were visible sheltering from the current. The wreck itself is worth of a few photos, the old ship looming in the blue. I would really like to dive the site again with decent visibility and no current.

Later we were talking to some surfers on the beach at Waikiki. The conditions may have been terrible for us, but they were celebrating. The day was the first good day of surfing they had seen all season.

My thoughts have returned to the dive a number of times in the last few days. I reviewed the decisions of the day. While conditions were bad they were not truly dangerous, neither were they any fun at all. On the other hand things were getting worse as the dive progressed. Without the less experienced diver along we could have explored a bit more of the wreck before aborting, in any case the dive would have been quite limited. No one was arguing with the decision to abort, Drew made the right call.

Was it the right call to start the dive in the first place? I am not going to argue either way. Drew had not seen any of us in the water before this day. Given the conditions, the abilities and limitations of each diver quickly became apparent. Drew was on top of things in the water, where he needed to be and assisting right where needed. I was impressed by the skills and professionalism of the crew, they knew their business. I really hope to try this dive again some day. When I plan a trip to Oahu again it is Gabe and Kaimana Divers I will be calling.

Playing out what-if scenarios of what else could have so easily gone very wrong. With her split fins, Deb could not have swum against that current, even for a short time. If she had lost her grip I would have had no choice but to let go and get her. Perhaps simply surfacing as the current swept us away from the boat and deploying the surface marker to await pickup.

Based on the experience I will be making a few small additions to our gear with safety in mind. A dive to re-practice some safety drills and procedures is also in order, it has been a while. My final thought is that most of the danger could be dealt with, and was, as long as I kept my head and did not do anything monumentally stupid. This dive presented quite a challenge, enough to stress skills and remind us that things could have been much worse. As Drew summed it up on the beach… this was a “confidence building dive”!

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

One thought on “A Dive That Went Wrong”

  1. Great to hear the report….. Was stoked you guys got to dive North Shore with us! Thanks again for the kind words and can’t wait to show you how awesome the YO257 can be on an epic Hawaii scuba diving day!

    Mahalo….

    Gabe @ Kaimana Divers

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