Back from dive with death

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Posted by on April 17, 2005 at 20:06:48:

When Surash Bajnath walked ashore at Mayaro on April 4 last year, he was literally the answer to the prayers of those gathered on the beach.

Villagers had been praying for the safe return of the veteran diver who had gone missing nine hours earlier off the coast of Guayaguayare. Also praying for him were the nuns at the St Ann's Convent.

After many had given him up for dead - following futile searches by friends and the Coast Guard - Bajnath, 42, emerged from the ocean near the Mayaro beach hotel known as RASH Resort, barely able to swim ashore.

"People were praying on the beach and could not believe I was alive. All I could think of was food and water and some sweet, cold piece of watermelon. My mouth was salty," he recalled in an interview with the Sunday Express.

Forever in search of bigger fish on the east coast, Bajnath is reputed to be one of the best divers and underwater fishermen in the country and has explored most of Trinidad and Tobago's waters without cause for concern - until his experience last year.

That day, Bajnath had gone with two friends and boatman Mervin Sendall around 6.30 a.m. to a popular spot near an oil platform off Galeota to do some spear gun fishing.

After Bajnath had been underwater for more than one hour without surfacing, his friend Claude Banfield became worried. One hour later, when he and the others had searched without success for Bajnath, they began to panic.

"We searched downstream in loops and saw nothing," Banfield said.

"We got back into the water to look for him, thinking that he might have been hung up or caught in some lines. Still we saw nothing. I thought he was way too experienced for that or hitting his head on a pylon. I thought he floated downstream and we kept looking. Eventually, we had to go in for fuel and to report him missing to the Coast Guard."

Bajnath, meanwhile, had got caught in some strong currents and was also hampered by poor visibility.

"I had been diving using the same guy (boatman), Mervin, for years and that day I was just unlucky. The currents were strong and visibility was really bad," he told the Sunday Express.

Bajnath's usual advice to those diving near platforms is: "Plan your dives and dive your plans. Let your captain know in detail. Always use a Buoyancy Control Device and not a back-pack. A down line from the boat is a good idea and stay with the legs of the platform, that way you never get lost."

Though he had followed his own advice, Bajnath got into trouble because of the "hard currents".

"The current was really strong and visibility was low and, within a matter of minutes, I was swept away behind the boat. I could see the boat for at least one hour and then the currents took me far out and the boat disappeared," he said.

He had earlier surfaced about 500 feet behind the boat, but the rest of his team did not spot him or hear the sound of his dive alert, similar to that of an air horn.

Bajnath felt that the boatman could have been more vigilant, particularly since he had at one time been about 300 feet away from the boat and had waved his 'sausage' (a four-foot long, fluorescent orange, sausage-shaped inflatable, used to pinpoint a diver's location.)

For the next few hours, Bajnath drifted and swam with currents that took him more than 20 miles from his original diving spot - the Petrotrin D platform.

"But I guess God was not ready for me," he remarked to the Sunday Express.

Bit by bit, Bajnath started shedding his heavy load of equipment, keeping only vital supplies and surrendering himself to the currents.

"I saved my regulator, Buoyancy Control Device, weight belt; ditched the weights and spear gun," he said.

When he eventually let his diving tank go, Bajnath prayed "they would find the bright yellow thing with my name and know that I was alive".

He explained that it was difficult to remove diving gear in the water, so that anyone who found the tank would realise he might still be alive.

The sun beat down mercilessly on his head, face and neck (he was clad in a wet suit), and thirst and hunger set in. "I usually wear a hood to dive. That day I was not wearing one," he recalled with a slight grimace.

Each time he crested a swell, Bajnath could see the tops of the hills of the Central range.

"I got really excited when I saw my first rooftops around 1 p.m. It was the turbo charge I needed," he said.

He headed for the shore, striking out in the direction of the houses. Swimming against the current, he staggered onto Mayaro beach about two and a half hours later - blistered, battered but not beaten.

Bajnath said he had mentally prepared himself at the start of the ordeal. Initially, he hoped that he would be found before nightfall.

"Night-time in the sea is very different," he noted gravely.

But the expert diver and seafood chef had also prepared himself for a longer haul.

"I was mentally prepared to face up to six days at sea before I died. I would kill and drink the blood and eat any fish that I came across," he said.

He put so much thought into his predicament that he ruled out shooting either turtles or sharks because the volume of blood that would be shed would attract sharks - "which I have encountered on many occasions".

In the end, he did not have to kill anything for its flesh or blood.

"I was planning all the way through that whole scenario if I had to spend a night or two in the sea."

While lost at sea, Bajnath spotted a helicopter, a boat and a small jellyfish "which stung me".

No one ever caught sight of the 'sausage' he waved or the bright yellow diving tank which he had released when he could no longer swim under its weight.

His initial thoughts were about his parents; he wished they could be spared the trauma.

He prayed that the rest of his diving team were safe, and could not stop thinking of all the men he knew who had perished at sea.

"I thought of all the boats and other guys who never made it," he said.

The friends Bajnath had been diving with, meanwhile, were thinking only of him.

Bajnath had enough air to last 35 to 45 minutes at a depth of 85 feet. So by the time three hours had passed without them finding him, his diving companions and boatman feared the worst.

They reported him missing to the police and the Coast Guard, and returned to the dive spot with enough fuel to continue searching for Bajnath.

Banfield telephoned Bajnath's mother to tell her her son was missing.

"It was not something I was looking forward to doing. She was frantic when I told her," he said.

As the hours rolled by, Banfield began to think that his friend was dead.

He said: "We were still in rescue mode and called everyone to help. APSCO (an oil service company) eventually had boats in the water and helicopters in the air searching."

"We even took a closer route to shore all in the hope of spotting him," Banfield said.

Sendall, the boatman, said: "The thought did cross my mind that he might be dead, but I knew he was also experienced and I did not want to believe the worst."

That day, Sendall recalled, the currents were really strong.

"Within ten seconds that current could take you 40 to 50 feet," he said.

He added that the water was choppy and, with the swells, it would have been hard to spot Bajnath in the water.

Banfield also argued that Sendall would have been preoccupied with getting the other divers into and out of the water and, as a result, would have missed Bajnath's attempts to attract his attention.

Another close friend of Bajnath, Martin Mendes, said he "did not want to believe" that his buddy and diving partner was dead.

"We called everyone to help look and a couple companies responded. We also had the nuns at the St Ann's Convent praying for him. I knew if anybody could survive this it would be Surash. I knew he was swimming out there somewhere," Mendes said.

Both Mendes and Sendall expressed dissatisfaction with the response time of and the action taken by the Coast Guard.

Chief Petty Officer Randolph Hackshaw remembered the incident as he was on duty that day, and spoke to Bajnath after he swam ashore.

Hackshaw said the Coast Guard did all it could, utilising its resources as best as possible.

He said their records showed that they received a call about the missing diver at around 10.35 a.m.

After confirming that the diver was missing, he said, they called National Helicopter Service, which was on standby.

"Due to location and availability of resources, we contacted Briko Air Services Ltd who already has a helicopter in the area. They were already aware of the missing man and assisted us with searching. They searched the coast up to Radix Point and saw nothing."

Hackshaw also said that the Coast Guard vessel TTS Bacolet was on standby in Tobago "to move at a moment's notice".

He added: "We were in constant communication with those searching.

People might feel like we were not doing anything because they were not seeing a Coast Guard vessel but communication is an organ of search."

He said: "It's a man's life and we will do everything possible."

When asked by the Sunday Express if Briko Air Services was equipped and qualified to conduct such a search, Hackshaw said the company's helicopters usually work on the East coast and so the crews were familiar with the area.

And, he added, "we would have provided all support information on currents and tides".

"Whenever we conduct a search we try to access assistance wherever we can," Hackshaw said.

One week after his ordeal, Bajnath returned to the dive spot that almost took his life to retrieve Banfield's spear gun, which the latter had abandoned that fateful day when it became entangled in some cables after he had shot a fish.

Bajnath said: "It was no issue. I considered him a friend and went to get the gun.... I had no hesitation, it's a good place to dive."

"That's the kind of fearless diver he is," Banfield remarked about his friend.

Almost one year later, last March 29, Bajnath again returned to the same waters - a place where he said he has had some of the best dives.

The self-confessed diving fanatic added: "I never had any nightmares about the ordeal and it has certainly not stopped me from diving."

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