Saturday was a learning opportunity. Because this was something of an embarrassing story to relay, I'm sharing it in the hopes that others can learn from our mistakes.
We headed out of San Diego Bay on my parent's boat under mixed cloudy/sunny skies and choppy seas to look for blue water and anything interesting to jump overboard and swim with - mola mola, kelp patties, etc. We passed through an area of low clouds on our way out, but it cleared up as we passed Pt Loma. Out near Buoy 1, we headed west. We soon came upon a series of large clumps of free floating kelp and decided that we should check out underneath them.
Carol and I before we jumped off a perfectly good boat. You can barely see the approaching fog bank on the horizon behind us. Photo by Jeanne McGee.
Carol and I suited up and got the camera ready. My dad positioned the boat so we were close to the kelp patty as we slipped off the swim step. As we started swimming to the nearest kelp, low clouds quickly came in, enclosing us in fog. We kept an eye on the boat as it drifted away north in the breeze, but didn't worry about it too much. We checked out the kelp patty and didn't find much under them except for a few schools of small fish. The boat had disappeared into the fog. Thinking my dad would be moving the boat back to the kelp any minute, we didn't worry too much.
Kelp and fish in the open ocean
As we swam to a couple of close kelp patties, we realized we still hadn't seen the boat. After about 15 minutes, we started getting concerned. Then the clouds/fog moved past and opened up. We could see much farther, but still couldn't see the boat. We were floating in the open ocean with no boats around and realized we were in real danger of being lost at sea.
Then, off in the distance, we saw my parent's boat heading generally in our direction. We could make out my mom on the bow, on the lookout for us. We waved our arms and splashed water, sticking near the kelp so we'd be more visible. My 14 pound weight belt kept me from getting too high up in the water as we bobbed up and down in the swells. They got closer, but still didn't see us. We started getting really worried when they kept going south, heading farther away from us again. Fortunately, we were wearing 7+ mm wetsuits so we weren't getting cold quickly.
After another 20 minutes or so, we saw a couple of sailboats heading in our general direction. One was going to pass close enough that we thought they might be able to hear us with no engine noise to drown us out. We yelled and waved our arms and were overjoyed when we saw the boat captain's head turn and then saw him turn his sailboat.
We were picked up by Philip. We quickly explained how and why we were alone in the open ocean. As I asked him to hail my dad, I heard my worried dad talking to the Coast Guard, working to get a search and rescue started. Philip had to break in a couple of times before everyone realized he had found us safe. We could see my parent's boat off to the west and Philip gave them directions to us. My dad, who is usually pretty stoic and in control of every situation, headed for a sailboat in the opposite direction before Philip got him turned around again. Under these circumstances, calm and rational goes out the window. I could see the look of relief on my parent's faces as they pulled alongside the sailboat.
While sitting on the sailboat that rescued us, Carol notices my camera dome cover floating by again. I quickly jumped off the sailboat to retrieve it.
Having no way of easily lashing up the boats, we decided we would have to jump off Philip's sailboat and swim back to my parent's boat. Carol had already taken her wetsuit half way off and while I encouraged her to put her hood back on and zip up, she was in such a hurry that she didn't want to take the time to zip up. I jumped off first and waited in the water for her. As soon as she jumped in the water, she practically floated across to my parent's swim step. Apparently, she suddenly noticed how cold the water was and didn't take her time swimming across. Back on board, everyone had a collective sigh of relief. We agreed we were done for the day and headed back in under sunny skies. Afterwards, my dad shared that they lost us 5 minutes after we went in the water. They started a search pattern, but because they had already drifted, they were searching too far away and couldn't see anything in the fog. Carol and my mom shared a few tears, relieved that it was over and we were safe.
Here's a list of things we should have done differently:
- We shouldn't have jumped off the boat knowing there was patchy fog and low clouds in the area. It's much harder than it seems to see people in black wetsuits and choppy water. Add fog and it's impossible.
-Carol mentioned that we should bring a whistle ahead of time. I even had one attached to my camera bag from hiking. For some reason, I didn't listen and didn't think it was needed. We would have been able to make a lot more noise with a whistle. Even on the sailboat, Philip said he had his stereo on loud and was surprised he had heard us.
- I own a large surface marker buoy (safety sausage) for boat diving, but didn't think we would need it for snorkeling near the boat. We would have been much more visible after the clouds had cleared if we had one.
- My dad commented after that he should have hit the 'Man Overboard' button on the boat's GPS so he would have the approximate coordinates of where they dropped us. Without that and having no points of reference, the ocean all looks the same. Even with that, we were still drifting with the kelp.
- And a general principle for all adventures is that we should be capable of self rescue. We'll be investing in something like a Nautilus Lifeline GPS/radio/EPIRB for future trips.