Diver uses new system to aid partner's rescue

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Posted by on April 24, 2005 at 07:16:09:

ST. PETERSBURG - A scuba diver has no greater fear than surfacing to find the boat is nowhere in sight.

Over the years, I've heard dozens of stories from readers who have close calls in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.

Michael Barnette, veteran underwater explorer and author of Shipwrecks of the Sunshine State, recently recounted an incident off North Carolina's Outer Banks.

"We were on a deep wreck and were just starting our (decompression) when the seas picked up."

Technical, or mixed-gas divers, usually decompress in open water drifting beneath an inflated "lift" bag.

"The current was ripping so we told the captain not to tie us off. But he was afraid he would not be able to keep track of us."

So the captain did exactly what Barnette told him not to do: tie the lift bags to the boat.

"They were ripped right out of our hands," Barnette said. "So there we were floating in the open ocean."

Barnette and his dive partner drifted for hours before they were fortunate enough to be picked up by another dive boat.

"It made me want to go right out and buy a PLB," he said.

A Personal Locator Beacon performs the same function as an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon but is smaller and lighter. Operational since July 2003, PLBs send a signal to a satellite that notifies the appropriate rescue personnel.

Since 1982, nearly 5,000 people have been rescued in the United States (18,000 worldwide) using this technology, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that maintains the system.

The most popular PLB is ACR's AquaFix, which costs $600 to $800 depending on the model. Until this month, no diver had used an AquaFix on the water.

On April 9, according to the Coast Guard and a spokesman for ACR, two Bradenton divers surfaced 10 miles offshore to find the current had pulled them away from their boat. The couple tried to swim for it, but when the woman tired, the man pressed on alone. A passing boater picked him up, found his boat but did not alert the Coast Guard.

It was close to sunset. The diver, aboard his own vessel, tried to hail authorities but could not make contact. Shortly before 7 p.m., he activated an AquaFix purchased two months earlier.

The satellite picked up the signal at 6:58. At 7:01, the distress call location was determined. One minute later, the Coast Guard's Miami office was notified. At 8:10, a 41-foot cutter from the USCG station in Cortez arrived and began running a search pattern in 4-foot seas.

The woman saw the cutter and signaled the crew with her underwater camera's strobe flash. The cutter picked her up 30 minutes later and returned her to her 27-foot boat.

The woman told her rescuers she did not panic because she knew her wet suit would keep her warm, her buoyancy compensator would keep her afloat and if she did see a rescue boat, she could signal with her flash. She also told authorities she was comforted knowing there was a registered PLB aboard her boat.

"This was the first recorded rescue using the AquaFix PLB," ACR spokesman John Bell said. "The system worked just the way they were supposed to."

To learn more, go to www.sarsat.noaa.gov

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