DAN Member, Dennis, was on a diving holiday on a Thai liveaboard. He was enjoying a dive in the Andaman Sea at a dive site called Silvertip Bank: a large, scenic reef with crystal-clear water and plenty of marine life. Everything was going according to plan, until he surfaced.
When I reached the surface, I was mildly surprised to see I was only about 70 metres from the mother ship. The briefing we’d received before the dive had been explicit and gave us two options on how to return to the boat: We could swim to the rear platform of the dive boat and climb aboard, or we could remain where we surfaced and await pick-up by one of the chase boats. When I surfaced and saw how close I was to the boat, I started swimming for the platform.
During the swim I raised my head periodically to check my bearings, so I was aware of the dive dinghy picking up a nearby diver. I needed no assistance, however, so I continued my swim. What I didn’t realise was that given the location of the other diver, the driver of the boat was looking directly into a blinding, sun-dappled sea to track him.
He never saw me.
He only heard the impact when the propeller struck me.
I, unfortunately, felt the impact. It felt curiously like a heavy blunt object striking my left shin and pulling the fin from my foot, followed by the sickening sensation of the propeller striking my right foot and actually slicing the other fin away.
Stunned, I didn’t know the extent of the damage, and I wasn’t about to look down to assess it. I was frightened, I was in pain, and I had no fins; my priority was to get out of the water. Fast. I managed to get air in my BCD to keep myself afloat and started yelling. The driver, having seen my fins floating near the surface, quickly spotted me and came to help. You can imagine my relief when I was safely on the chase boat and could see my feet still attached to my ankles!
Also fortunate, I had a friend back on board who was a medical professional. I knew, and he confirmed, the laceration on my right foot would require stitches. With assistance, I hobbled into the salon on my mangled right foot. There, a crude “operating table” had been set up on a bench. There were needles, sutures, medical gauze and hydrogen peroxide from the boat’s first aid kit, but no anaesthesia to numb my foot while the wound was closed with 16 stitches. I don’t drink, but that day I was tempted!
The driver of the chase boat later came into the salon to apologise. He didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Thai, but I think we both understood. He obviously felt horrible about what happened. He came up to me, placed his hands together and bowed, as per Thai custom. I couldn’t understand his words, but his body language told me he was deeply shaken. I shook his hand and with eye contact and a smile told him I would be OK. That turned out to be easier said than done.
Over the next few days, the pain in both my right foot and left leg grew steadily worse. The pain was intense, and I was unable to put weight on either extremity. I’d hoped to be able to dive again, but clearly, I needed more than ice packs and Tylenol. I needed evacuation to a hospital, treatment for my injuries and a flight home. The boat arranged the evacuation and dropped me off at the Myanmar border. The ambulance ride from there to Phuket was nearly five hours of bone-jarring torture. Every turn, every bump, every vibration sent stabbing pains up my leg. Never before had I experienced such sustained, intense pain.
In Phuket, X-rays revealed no broken bones as I had suspected, but a systemic infection of the skin and subcutaneous tissue called cellulitis. This was the source of the pain in my leg, which now shot from my lower back all the way down my foot. I spent the next five days in the hospital.
Eventually, I got my flight home, gratefully with the help of DAN TravelAssist (Worldwide Emergency Evacuation Coverage included as part of DAN Membership).
Looking back, I’m still shocked my accident occurred. I often think about the odds of being run over by a boat in an area as remote as the Burma Banks. After all, it’s a big ocean, and I’m a small target. But the odds were against me that day, I guess. On the other hand, I do recognise how lucky I was to have avoided more serious injury.
Since my accident, many people have asked me if the incident has lessened my enthusiasm for diving. My answer is an emphatic “NO!” I have a passion for the underwater world, and I love to dive. Just as an automobile accident would not prevent me from driving a car in the future, my run-in with the propeller hasn’t discouraged me from diving. I am, however, a lot more sensitive to the sound of a revved up outboard headed my way.
If you haven’t been following our campaign that commenced on July 1, we encourage you to catch up on DAN AP’s Propeller Injuries & Boat Awareness Safety Campaign.
By DAN Member Dennis, reprinted with permission from DAN’s Alert Diver magazine.