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Commercial Diving: HYPOXIA


Article and photos by Mark Norder

KMB18 Mask

I hold the bandmask in place while Dave closes the zipper that runs down the back of the hood. He then hooks the five rubber spider straps onto the posts, clamping the fiberglass KMB18 tight against my face. Breathing seems a bit hard, so I crank a few turns on the dial-a-breath. Doesn’t help much and I just blame myself for being a bit overanxious, it’s been a while since I’ve worn commercial gear. Kevin, my tender, throws a big loop of umbilical over the side and I take a giant stride off the barge and into the cold water, eight feet below.

“On the bottom” I say out of habit, even though I stop my descent just below “the surface to swim over to the 108-foot fishing boat Zenith, tied a few feet away. Although the sun is setting, the water is clear and in the shadow of the hull I can see the cargo net wrapped tight around the hub and blades of the six-foot diameter prop.

“Probably jammed between the hub and the cutlass bearing” I think to myself, as I pull my knife from its sheath. Breathing is still hard, so I crank a few more turns on the knob, then grab a handful of net and saw easily through the mesh wrapped tight around the base of one of the blades. A few minutes of this has me sucking hard, over breathing the mask, forcing me to stop and rest. My chest heaves and my ribs hurt.

“Damn!” I say to myself, as I take the last few turns the dial-a-breath has to offer.

I hang off the rudder for a few minutes, getting my breathing under control so I can get back to work. I pull the net off the first blade, move to the next and again start cutting, and again I am forced to stop and suck big gulps of air into my lungs. But this time it takes a bit longer and I can’t recover quite as much and when I start cutting, cut even less. I’m getting weaker, finding it harder and harder to pull enough air through the hose to satisfy my oxygen starved lungs.

A few more swipes of the blade, a few more gulps of air, a little more self abuse for being such a wimp, and again I have to stop. This time I can’t recover; I’m struggling, weak and unfocused.

The Zenith

“Can’t do it, gotta get out” a small voice deep in the fog keeps telling me. But I try one more time, then one more again, until I’ve tried one time too many “Up on the diver” I mumble.

“Say again?” comes Dave, “It done?”

“Negative. Need Tyler to finish. Gotta get out.”

But I can’t. Breathing is useless and back at the surface I can’t get both fins off and can’t climb the ladder with one fin still on. I am eight feet below Dave, might as well be eighty. I’m breathing faster, but still not breathing enough. Do I swim over to the beach? Will my hose reach that far? Why can’t I figure this out? Why can’t I breathe? What’s wrong with me?

“Need some help.” It comes out thin and hollow.

“What’s wrong Mark?” calls Dave, “We can’t get down to ‘ya, you gotta get up the ladder!”

I get one foot on a rung, pull myself up enough to hook the other knee. Like a cripple, I do this two or three more times; a foot, then a knee, a foot, then a knee, sucking and wheezing. Again, I must stop, then I manage another couple rungs, then again I must stop. Finally, a hand reaches down and grabs the mask, a couple of spider straps pop and cold fresh air spills past the broken seal. I suck it in, two or three greedy breaths, then pop off that other damn fin and climb up on deck. Before Dave can strip me of my gear, I slink back to the barge, alone and humiliated. “Am I too old for this?” I ask my empty room. “Is it time to hang it up?” There is no answer, not from the grey walls, not from my crushed ego.

The next day there is another dive, an inspection on a tug our dry-dock will be lifting in about a week. Our engineer needs some specifics on the line cutter and cutlass bearing on the strut, just forward of the prop’s hub. I grab my gear and slip over to the docks where the Chukchi Sea is tied up. It’s only a quick solo jump in SCUBA and the work is done in about ten minutes, but I stretch the dive out to over forty, just to make sure.

Later that day, Kevin comes into my office. “After you left last night, while getting ready to jump Tyler, I saw Dave adjusting the valves on the rack. He had you air pressure set way too low, Tyler had no problem.” He pauses for a minute, “just thought you should know.”

After he leaves, I turn to the internet for confirmation; Hypoxia, or hypoxiation is a pathological condition in which the body as a whole (generalized hypoxia) or a region of the body (tissue hypoxia) is deprived of adequate oxygen supply. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, poor judgment and confusion.