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The Art of Escape

Wreck diving skills Houdini would love

It was a calm, clear day when we descended 100 feet to the deck of the USCG Duane off Key Largo, Fla. The water was clear, the current was slow, and fish were so thick that they formed a living shroud over the intact hull. You couldn’t ask for better conditions for an easy, trouble-free dive.

Our dive was nearly complete and I was straggling behind my buddy as we swam along the portside rail. I turned my head to admire a school of huge barracuda when my forward motion stopped. It felt like an invisible hand had reached out from the wreck and grabbed my tank valve.

In fact, that’s about what had happened, only the hand was a tangle of monofilament fishing line. I didn’t know it yet, but another loop from the same snare of discarded line had also wedged between my tank and the BC. My hands and feet were free, but I was tethered to the wreck. I signaled my buddy for help, even grunted at him through my regulator, but he was already at the ascent line with his back to me. The barracuda just stared.

Learn from the Techies

Wrecks attract fish. Fish attract fishermen. Fishermen accidentally hook their fishing line, heavy tackle, nets and assorted ropes on the wrecks, creating entanglement hazards for divers.

In fact, getting caught in a web of monofilament is the major wreck-diving hazard facing open-water divers. Modern fishing line is not only strong, it’s designed to be invisible in water. The only time you can see it is when it’s been down so long it becomes encrusted. And when an angler hooks a wreck by mistake, he’s often forced to cut the line at the end of his pole, leaving long strands of the stuff to drift and weave itself into intricate patterns on the wreck’s exterior.

The danger of entanglement increases inside the wreck, where wires and loose wreckage also have a tendency to reach out and grab you when you least expect it. Wreck penetration divers are trained to recognize and deal with these hazards. Unfortunately, most open-water divers aren’t, and when confronted with an invisible snare of monofilament, they often make things worse. Take a page from the technical diver’s handbook, and you can learn to deal with entanglement hazards quickly, safely and effectively.

Get Streamlined

Dangling hoses, flapping straps and loose tank bands all create an increased risk of entanglement. To eliminate these potential snags:


  • SECURE YOUR GAUGES. To keep gauges from dangling, place a bolt snap or other securing device on your console or SPG and connect it to a chest D-ring on your BC. When you need to check your gauges, the console is easy to locate and unsnap. Clip it back when you’re done. Another option: Use a retractor that automatically pulls the gauge console back to your BC when you let go.
  • SECURE YOUR OCTOPUS. Place your alternate second stage in an octopus holder or attach it with a band of surgical tubing.
  • ADJUST YOUR BC’S FIT. A loose-fitting BC can shift or flip at crucial moments, sending you right into a hazard you’re trying to avoid.
  • TIGHTEN TANK BANDS. Make sure the loose ends of your tank bands–especially Velcro ones–are secured. It’s amazing how well Velcro can grab stuff that’s not Velcro.
  • REVERSE YOUR FIN STRAPS. The loose ends will stay tucked inside the strap instead of dangling outside.
  • THINK IN 3-D. As land-dwelling creatures, we tend to think of things in just two dimensions (what’s in front and behind us; what’s to either side), but divers should also be aware of depth–what’s above and below us.

Most divers swim along, focusing their vision down and slightly ahead. Unfortunately, some of the most common entanglements involve snags on the diver’s tank valve. Make it a point to look up and ahead frequently, watching for entanglements.

Don’t Fight It

When the Duane reached out and grabbed me, my first reaction was to freeze. Kicking, pulling, twisting–almost any movement–only make the problem worse. If you’re diving with a buddy, signal him for assistance (he is nearby, right?). Your buddy can see the problem better than you can and has the freedom of movement to deal with it effectively.

If there’s no one to help out, your first step is to determine where the entanglement is and, if possible, what it is. Gently move each part of your body and carefully feel for any restriction of movement. If you can’t locate a particular restriction, odds are the entanglement is on your BC or tank. Once you’ve located the restriction, hold it away from your body and slip away from it.

If you can’t find it, or if you can’t reach it, the best option is to back up. You most likely swam into the restriction, and if you haven’t made the problem worse, simply backing up may allow you to swim out of it.

What should you do if you can’t back up and you can’t find the entanglement? Look again. It’s there. Sweep your arms down and back along each side, then do an overhead sweep that begins behind the tank valve and goes forward.

The overhead sweep is how I discovered the first of the two tangles that had me anchored to the wreck. Working by feel I was able to remove the loop wedged between my tank and the BC. I was also able to feel the more complicated knot wrapped tightly around my tank valve. One problem down, one to go.

Cut and Run

Now for the hard part: Cutting myself free. Whenever cutting tools are involved, you’ve got to think before you act. Accidentally cutting a hose or your hand will only make matters worse. You’ll still be trapped, of course, only now with a rapidly dwindling gas supply or a bleeding appendage.

Once you’ve located the entanglement, position your body so that you can secure the object with one hand while you use the other hand to cut it away. Before you unsheathe your blade, get a good look at what you’re cutting. Figure out the best to approach the problem and determine whether you have the right tool for the job.

Blame the old Sea Hunt series and countless James Bond scuba battles for the propensity of divers–especially male divers–to buy the biggest machete they can find and strap it to their lower leg. Only in movies is this a good idea.

For starters, a knife that large serves no useful purpose unless you really are trying to vanquish underwater villains. Worse, strapping anything that large on your leg only invites entanglements while putting the knife out of reach should you really need it.

Your dive knife is a tool for cutting monofilament and trawl netting–not a weapon for cutting hoses and throats. A good 4-inch dive knife, a recessed Z-knife or shears are much more practical options. When diving wrecks, you should carry all three.

Mount your cutting instruments where you can reach them in any situation. For dive knives, try the BC chest strap or waistband, the forearm and even the low-pressure inflator hose. For shears, a BC pocket is the only location available unless the shears come with their own mounting sheath. Small Z-knives can be mounted on the side of a mask strap or on the strap of a wrist-mounted gauge.

Ditch It

If all else fails, you may have to resort to removing your BC, a skill we all learned in open-water class and promptly forgot. Removing your gear is always a last resort, particularly at depth. Removing a traditional BC, for example, leaves the diver wearing a weight belt while his source of buoyancy (and his air supply) attempts to float upward. Weight-integrated BCs have the opposite problem. They can leave the diver floating toward the surface while the BC heads toward the bottom.

That’s why the first critical step is to ensure that all of the air is dumped from the BC. If possible, settle onto a solid surface before beginning the removal. Make sure you have a secure grip on the regulator in your mouth before unbuckling the chest and waist straps and removing your left arm first. This allows you to rotate the BC toward your right side without jerking the regulator out of your mouth.

If possible, keep one arm hooked underneath or through the BC at all times. Once the BC is off, you should be able to easily cut or remove the entanglement. Before replacing your BC, swim away from the entangling object to ensure that you don’t have to repeat the process.

The Right Tool for the Job

THE TOOL: Standard dive knife

Look for a blade with a line-cutting notch, a sharp smooth edge and a serrated edge. Line-cutting notches and smooth blades make short work of monofilament, while a serrated edge is best for sawing through thicker rope and nylon lines.

The Technique: With one hand, form a tight loop of monofilament and snap it using the cutting notch or cut away from your body with the smooth blade. Serrated edges work like a saw on heavier lines.

THE TOOL: Z-knife

Developed to cut parachute shroud lines, the Z-knife blade is recessed inside a hook that ensures you cut only what you intend to cut–a good idea because the blade is razor-sharp. Z-knives slice through monofilament and small lines with ease and virtually eliminate the chance of accidentally cutting a hose, your fingers or your BC bladder.

The Technique: Loop the line tight, hook it with the Z-knife and pull.

THE TOOL: Shears

A quality pair of shears can take on darn near anything from monofilament to steel leaders and tackle. Put yours to the test: if it can cut through a penny, it’ll handle anything you encounter under water.

The Technique: Just cut. An advantage of shears is that you can use them effectively one-handed.

Source: Scuba Diving Magazine

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