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    Lost at Sea Spearfishing | A Risk Worth Talking About

    February 05, 2024 12 min read

    Lost at Sea Spearfishing | A Risk Worth Talking About

    I think we can all agree that spearfishing is not for the faint of heart.

    It doesn't mean we’re stupid or particularly brave BUT..

    We definitely aren't risk averse.

    Having said that, most spearos have a great sense of the risks we face and employ strategies to mitigate them. In this blog, I want to focus on a big scary one that we often don’t think about…

    Being lost at sea.

    AND if I take a look around, I personally know at least 6 people who have been lost at sea spearfishing. This is serious stuff and something to think about.

    Here are the top factors in my opinion that contribute to being lost at sea.

    1. Divers in the water without visible floats
    2. Multiple divers in the water separated or heading in separate directions
    3. Inattentive or untrained boaty (or too polite)
    4. Poor topside conditions (20k+ winds)
    5. Boat malfunction, breakdown or sunk
    6. Lack of understanding with regards to prevailing conditions (underestimating current etc)

    Let's take a look at each in a bit more detail.

    Divers in the water without visible floats

    Many divers have switched from using the safest and most effective beginner setup in the water and now use reelguns instead of speargun, rigline and float and flag. I’m not going to discuss the pros and cons of rigline/float combo vs reelgun in detail as it’s a big conversation HOWEVER if you dive with a reelgun, you can still dive SAFE by having a shared float with your buddy that provides a rallying point for you both, a visible float and flag for ALL boat traffic in the area and you can even have a flasher hanging off it giving you hunting advantages.

    Even if there are only 1-2 divers in the water and a vigilant boatie aboard your vessel, NOT having a float and flag is a sketchy system at best and a recipe for divers to become lost at sea or worse, struck by a boat.

    Multiple divers in the water separated or heading in separate directions

    Dave solo-diver, Steven selfish-slayer and Wanda BeStruckByABoat all jump off the boat heading in different directions while their Virgin boatie Virgil is left on board to ‘look after them’. Dave, Steven and Wanda are being dicks of the highest order. How can a brand new boatie be expected to look out for them all?

    If it’s me, I’m picking up 2 divers, dropping them with the 3rd and telling them to stick together otherwise I’m heading home. Even in great conditions, a boatie can’t keep track of who is where and manage other boat traffic. You need the discipline to stay together and the boatie needs to have the assertiveness to go and tell people to get in so that he/she can keep everyone together (and alive).

    This scenario can also happen when someone shoots a large pelagic and gets towed away from the other divers. Same system though, pick up the divers and follow the person getting towed (and get another speargun ready for second shots).

    Inattentive or untrained boaty

    Rhys from Noob Spearo Community on Facebook 

    “I took a good mate out for an epic days diving in my tinny. Big run up the coast and the weather blew right up. But the fishing was super on. One of his first times going ‘boaty’ and we jump in. Spanish Mack’s everywhere. Miss a big one and look up and the boat is nearly out of eye shot and drifting with the wind. We swam for a good amount of time to catch up to the boat screaming “throw out the anchor”. Nearly swam to the headland some 3km in. Got to the boat and the motor wouldn’t start. First thing I checked was the bloody safety lanyard (kill switch). Needless to say I now have a bit of a motor starting speech for all new divers on my boat!”

    This story clearly illustrates a scenario in spearfishing that can happen quite easily. New spearos can often be new boaties and so they need some training before being left alone at the helm.

    I’ve seen seasick boaties fall asleep, pinched fuel line meaning the boatie couldn't start the outboard, near swamping caused by someone reversing into decent sized seas and more. A boat license doesn’t indicate competence, especially not boat specific stuff like bilge pump operation, EPIRB location, First Aid location, 2-way radio operation etc. They also need to know how our systems work in the water and what their role is. Communication protocols between divers and boatie are critical AND most of all, they need permission to come and pick people up if they feel anxious about aspects of the situation.

    Training a boat operator for spearfishing (especially in current) involves a combination of boat handling skills, knowledge of the local environment, and safety considerations. Here are some steps to consider:

    1. Boat Handling Skills: Ensure that the boat operator has a valid boating license and is familiar with the specific type of boat they will be operating. Provide training on basic boat handling skills, including steering, throttle control, anchoring, and maneuvering in various conditions.
    2. Understanding Currents: Educate the operator about the type and direction of currents they will be encountering in the area where you will be spearfishing. Teach them to read the GPS.
    3. Safety Procedures: Emphasize the importance of safety. Ensure that the boatie knows where all the necessary safety equipment, including life jackets, EPIRB, first aid kit, communication devices, and emergency flares are located. Instruct the operator on proper emergency procedures, including what to do in case of a diver in distress or a medical emergency.
    4. Navigation Skills: Teach navigation skills using charts and GPS systems. The operator should be able to navigate to and from the spearfishing location safely. Emphasize the importance of maintaining a safe distance from rocks, shoals, divers, floats and floatlines and other potential hazards.
    5. Anchoring Technique: Ensure they understand how to use anchor properly in the event of separation due to breakdown.
    6. Diver Safety Protocols: If the boat operator will also be responsible for the safety of spearfishers, educate them on proper pickup and dropoff systems and communication. Establish clear communication signals between the boat and divers.
    7. Weather Awareness: Train the boat operator to monitor weather conditions and understand how wind, waves, and weather changes can impact the safety of the expedition.
    8. Local Regulations and Etiquette: Ensure the boat operator is familiar with local regulations related to spearfishing and boating. Basically what to do if Water Police, Fisheries etc stop by. Teach proper etiquette, including respecting other boaters and divers in the area (and running interference between oncoming boats and divers in the water).
    9. Practice in Controlled Conditions: Show the boatie how to pickup divers in controlled conditions, such as calm waters, before taking on challenging environments.
    10. Continuous Learning: Encourage the boat operator to engage in continuous learning including asking the other divers and boaties how to do it better. This is an attitude of no ego and continuous learning that will make you friends on the water forever.

    Poor topside conditions (20k+ winds)

    We can’t control the weather and sometimes we just have to pull up stumps and head in canceling the trip. Listen to your intuition, it’s informed by your experience. When the wind is up and the sea state is messy, we lose visibility quickly. This means that divers that were visible 200m away when it was glass are now barely visible 50m away. Stay within sight of your divers at all times.

    Imagine calling the coast guard and giving them the last known coordinates where you lost sight of your mates. Pretty bloody awful.

    Boat malfunction, breakdown or sunk

    Boats break and when they do it’s about preparation.

    'We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.'
    - Archilochus

    Do you have a working 2 way radio, functional EPIRB, flares and can you recall your location?

    Dealing with a boat breakdown can be stressful, but here are some steps you can take to handle the situation:

    1. Stay Calm: Panicking won't help. Take a deep breath and assess the situation calmly.
    2. Safety First: Ensure everyone on board is wearing a life jacket. If you're close to other boats, signal for help using distress signals or a marine radio.
    3. Troubleshoot: If it's safe to do so, try to diagnose the issue. Check the engine, fuel levels, battery, and any visible parts for obvious problems. Sometimes, the issue might be something simple that you can fix.
    4. Call for Assistance: Use a marine radio or a cell phone (if in range) to call for help. Contact the coast guard, a marine towing service, or someone who can assist you.
    5. Anchor or Drift: Depending on the situation, anchor your boat to prevent drifting if it's safe to do so. However, if drifting could lead to danger (like in strong currents), it might be safer to drift while waiting for help.
    6. Inform Your Location: Provide as much information as possible about your location when seeking help—GPS coordinates, landmarks, or your proximity to known locations can be helpful for rescuers.
    7. Wait Safely: While waiting for help, ensure everyone remains safe and calm. Monitor your surroundings for any changes in conditions.
    8. Attempt Repairs (if possible): If you have some knowledge and tools and it's safe to do so, attempt basic repairs if you've identified the problem and think it's something fixable.
    9. Learn from the Experience: After the incident is resolved, take some time to reflect on what happened. Consider if there are preventive measures you could take in the future to avoid similar breakdowns.

    Remember, boating safety is crucial, and it's always a good idea to have proper safety equipment, tools for basic repairs, and knowledge about your boat's systems before heading out on the water.

    *If you're in distress, you can use visual signals to attract other boats' attention. This can include waving arms, setting off flares, using a whistle, or displaying distress flags.

       

    The Emergency+ app is a free app developed by Australia’s emergency services and their Government and industry partners.

    The app uses GPS functionality built into smart phones to help a Triple Zero (000) caller provide critical location details required to mobilise emergency services.

    Lack of understanding with regards to prevailing conditions

    I was in the water with 3 others when our boatie decided that he would throw out the pick (drop anchor) and jump in with us. We all knew we were diving the very top of the tide and that the tide would turn and the current would start carrying us out but our boatie thought we’d ‘be sweet’.

    We weren't.

    By the time we were alerted to the fact that the current had started to pull, we were 150m away and struggling to make ground on the boat. 20 minutes later, a few of us crawled aboard and picked the others up. Not cool though, not at all.

    Tide and current can’t be underestimated and that’s why it is preferable to have a boatie in these kinds of conditions. Divers drift with the current, saving their effort for their dives and not swimming against the currents. It’s also great for getting fish out of the water immediately and on ice. You can also move very quickly to new spots.

    Understand where you are. If you don’t know, ask.

    Final Tips, Thoughts, Story and Tools

    “G’day Shrek

    Hope you and your family are well mate.  Thanks again for all your work on the (Noob Spearo) podcast!!  I have had an appalling year for time in the water, even to the point I reckon I’ll need to go to some learn to swim classes soon!! However as always your podcasts keep it real for me and keep the froth alive!!

    In the event I can get my shit together (I’ve been busy installing an 11m pool with a heater for the kids / so I can do target practice) to get on the water a bit more, I was thinking of asking the fat fella in the red suit and pearly white beard for one of those safety socks I have heard you talking about.  I think from memory you said they tuck up the inside of your wetsuit and if you need to attract attention for whatever reason you can blow them up with your mouth and wave them about?  I have tried to google it however it appears my googling skills are missing the mark this time around, is there any chance you remember the name of the product and could pass it on?

    Regards

    Jason”

     

    Hey Jason,

    It's a safety sausage:) Here are a few examples from Adreno

     

    These safety sausages and safety packs can be inflated super easily and you can stash them about your person, up your suit, sleeve or in a pocket and will make you far more visible in the event that you get separated from the boat. 

    Other options (most of these are compulsory in spearing comps) are a whistle and mirror.

     

     

    Personal Locator Beacons like this one below are easy to secure on your float as well. Sunny Coast legend Opal has one on hers alongside a tourniquet. 

     

     

     

    An Extraordinary Lost at Sea Tale

    Sue Dockar survived two days and two nights lost alone at sea after being swept away during a spearfishing contest in shark-infested waters off Queensland. This story shows how a series of small and avoidable errors dominoed into an inevitable disaster.

    Read The Lonely Sea and get the full story of this amazing story HERE

     

    DIY Spearfishing Charter Gone Wrong from Bert (Old Man Blue)

    As an avid traveller and diver, I have had the misfortune of being lost at sea on more than one occasion, sometimes according to my wife, due to my own stupidity. Remarkably, I am still here (and married). My experiences have become stories to share, reminisce, and during quiet reflective times, shudder about. Sometimes life really does just smile upon you, and you are grateful to find yourself still in the land of the living…… and able to dive another day.

    About 20 years ago a few mates and myself, set out from Geraldton on a charter. We were a mixed bunch of rod fishermen and free divers. The operator liked his smokes, and his drinks, and in retrospect this should have sent my Spidey senses tinkling. We set out for the Abrolhos Islands on a sea that was gnarly. We moored within sight of one of the many islands for the guys throw out a line. I took this opportunity to slip overboard for a dive.

    On one of my ascents, I looked up to see the boat pulling anchor and motoring away. As I was on this particular trip with numerous jokesters, my first thought was… practical joke, which was very quickly followed by an expletive and my second thought of… ‘I’m stuffed” as the boat quickly disappeared from view. A quick perusal of my location resulted in my third (and very relieved) thought of – swim to the island. After what felt like hours, in less than ideal seas, I found myself at the calmer back end of the island with the wondrous vision of our moored boat!

    My alarming situation was made even more alarming by the fact that NOONE on the vessel had even realised that I had been left behind! Their focus had moved from fish to TV to beers.

    Lessons I learned from the trip were:

    1. Always charter with other divers, because the majority of non-divers are oblivious to the many risks that freediving spearos face.
    2. Carry a safety mirror and/or blow up float – if I had one I could have possibly attracted their attention and saved myself a long swim.
    3. Don’t dive alone, don’t dive alone, and don’t dive alone! Make it your mantra. To be honest– I’m still working on this one.

    Charter Operators and DIY stuff (in Australia and Abroad)

    • Ask your charter operator how they keep track of all the divers. A good operator will have a headcount system and often if you are out wide, this count might be conducted at routine times throughout the day.
    • Dive in teams and make a pact to stick together.
    • If you are traveling and diving on a budget, let a third party know where you are going and what your expected time of return is.

     

    In conclusion, spearfishing is undoubtedly an exhilarating pursuit, but it comes with its own set of challenges and risks, one of the most serious being the prospect of being lost at sea. The personal anecdotes and insights shared here shed light on the critical factors that contribute to such incidents, urging the spearfishing community to take a proactive approach to safety.

    The risks outlined, from divers without visible floats to inattentive or untrained boat operators, underscore the importance of comprehensive training and a keen awareness of prevailing conditions. Spearos must prioritize safety protocols, including the use of safety sausages, whistles, and mirrors, to enhance visibility and communication during emergencies.

    The narrative also emphasizes the significance of responsible boat handling, navigation skills, and continuous learning for boat operators. Ensuring they are well-equipped with knowledge about local environments, safety procedures, and emergency protocols is paramount. The importance of practicing in controlled conditions and staying informed about weather conditions further underscores the commitment to safety.

    As highlighted by a real-life account of survival at sea, the consequences of overlooking safety measures can be severe. The tale of Sue Dockar serves as a stark reminder that even seemingly small errors can cascade into a life-threatening situation. Therefore, the community must embrace a culture of responsibility, prioritizing safety over the thrill of the sport.

    In the end, spearfishing can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience, but it demands a collective commitment to safety and preparedness. By acknowledging the potential dangers and taking proactive steps to mitigate risks, spearos can continue to enjoy their passion while ensuring the well-being of themselves and their fellow enthusiasts on the open seas.

    About the Writer

    Isaac Daly - more commonly known as Shrek in our spearfishing community, is a spearfishing and freediving instructor, Noob Spearo Podcast host and Author. He froths on the spearfishing lifestyle and loves teaching others how to spearfish safely, effectively and ethically. Connect with him at https://www.noobspearo.com/