Remain Calm

Two friends and I went out scuba diving against the recommendation of the local divemaster. This was a very stupid idea and I knew it going in, but was frustrated that the conditions weren’t good and really wanted my friends to get to scuba before they left. So we went out.

The main issue was the waves crashing against the lava rocks on the shore. We noticed, though, that they came in sets and figured we could get in safely if we just waited for a lull. Once we got out there it would be fine. No one really thought much about getting back in.

I went first, as I had been to this site several times. I timed the waves well and got in quite easily. I swam out a few dozen feet away from the rocks and waited for my friends. They dropped in with no problems as well and we went under. The turbulence of the 6-10 foot high waves had churned the bottom up so much that visibility was next to nothing. We were only a few feet away from each other at the surface, but couldn’t find each other underwater at first. I found one friend and had him wait so that I could find the other friend. Once reunited we swam around a little bit, but the dive was pointless. Other than a turtle or two you couldn’t see anything.

We decided to scrap the dive and went back to the surface. We bobbed up and down in the waves and realized two things very quickly. The first was that we weren’t exactly sure where we were supposed to swim towards to get out. We knew the general area, but couldn’t see the narrow passageway that led to the small cove where it was easy to climb in and out. At any given time there was a tall wave obscuring our view. The second thing we realized is that there was a rip tide pushing us away from the area to which we needed to swim. At maximum kicking speed we barely made progress against the ocean floor.

What we hadn’t noticed yet was that there was also a strong current pushing us sideways.

We flipped onto our backs, took off our masks and snorkels, and kicked towards shore. Once we got closer, we hoped, we could see exactly where we needed to go. The strong rip current coupled with the side current meant that we were mostly going sideways, though, and were aimed directly at a large lava rock shelf that was just a foot or so under the surface.

I didn’t realize what was happening until it had already happened. We got beached on the sharp lava rocks and began to get pummeled with huge waves that were taller than us. My tank banged on a rock and broke the regulator, free flowing my air everywhere. I struggled to put on my mask and use my snorkel as the waves hit my face.

This was not a good situation. People on shore had gathered and were watching us, doing the universal signal for “ok?”. We tried to do it back, even though we weren’t really okay, but were slipping around too much. Every time we tried to sit up on the rocks another wave would push us down.

I wasn’t particularly worried that we would die. People could see us, we had inflated BC vests, and we weren’t that far from shore. I was going to get injured, I assumed, and I might lose or damage some of my equipment. A reasonable price to pay for my stupidity.

None of us are particularly advanced scuba divers, but we all remained calm. Despite the waves pounding, we slowly and methodically took actions to get ourselves out of our situation. Between waves we made progress towards the back side of the rocks until we finally made it back to the ocean. We checked and we were all scraped up, but otherwise ok. We regrouped and turned ourselves against the sideways current. A guy on the shore realized we didn’t know where to go and stood at the right spot with his hands high in the air. We took deep breaths, paddled against the rip current, and slowly made our way back. We got out without incident.

I learned several things from the experience. First, always listen to the divemaster because otherwise you might get smashed on rocks. Second, always leave your mask and snorkel on until you’re out. Third, always remain calm and only get into stressful situations with others who can do the same.

I thought about what I would have done if someone was out there with us who was freaking out, and I still don’t have answers. I don’t see how I could have safely moved someone away from the rocks and out of the water if they were flailing and panicking. Once we got into a bad situation, we got out as quickly and painlessly as possible, and it was entirely because we were able to remain calm. In that moment, the ability to be calm was more important than any specific skill.

I’m not sure exactly how you train to be calm. Maybe some meditation. Maybe putting yourself into stressful situations where the stakes are low. Part of it seems to be acceptance. No point in freaking out about a situation that you’re in. It won’t change the fact that you’re in it. Part of it is having faith in oneself. I didn’t know how, but I knew I would somehow get myself out of the situation.

My favorite skills are general ones that apply to a lot of different fields. Learn once and all of a sudden you level up in a variety of areas. Always being calm has helped me out of a lot of sticky situations (this one, being stuck in a cave, being stuck in a boat with a dead motor, getting onto a moving freight train with no exit plan, etc), as well as normal every day life and confrontations. Being calm is certainly something worth working towards. Especially if you might some day get stuck on lava rocks in the ocean after making a poor decision.

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Photo is the palm trees in front of the area where this all happened. I just realized my last few photos have all been Hawaii related. It’s the most photogenic place I spend time!

Many people will want to tell me that it was dumb for me to scuba dive in this situation. That is 100% correct. I have changed how I approach scuba diving and have actively read books and articles on how to be a safer scuba diver. I am also integrating more emergency practice into my dives.

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