Advice to divers after Karin prop-tangle death

The Karin in Scapa Flow (MAIB)
The Karin in Scapa Flow (MAIB)

Last Updated on June 27, 2024 by Steve Weinman

The preliminary findings of an investigation into the death of a wreck-diver who became entangled with the propeller of the dive-boat Karin while on a decompression stop in Scapa Flow have been published in a safety bulletin issued by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB). 

The investigation has prompted a set of safety recommendations for boat operators as well as for scuba divers – who are being urged to hold DSMB line-reels in hand rather than clip them to themselves, and to stay on the shot-line during stops wherever possible.

The fatal incident occurred in the Orkney Islands on 28 September last year. Divernet reported that a diver had gone missing and that search and rescue operations had been stood down after two days, though the circumstances of the incident were not officially divulged at that time. 

On 26 October Divernet reported that the diver’s body had been found and at that point the fatality was named as Paul Smith, 70 from Greater Manchester. A sonar seabed search conducted by a survey vessel located the diver near Cava Island and his body was retrieved by a local dive-team.

On 4 November the launch of the inquiry was reported, with the news that Smith had been struck by what MAIB’s investigations listed as a “passing support vessel”, the 24m converted fishing-boat Karin.

The vessel was registered to Kirkwall-based skipper and technical diver John Thornton, one of the first to offer dive-charters in Scapa Flow. 

MAIB does not name Smith in its bulletin but states that the diver “almost certainly” died as a result of being struck by Karin’s rotating propeller. Smith had been surfacing after diving from a second dive-boat on the 45m-deep wreck of the German battleship SMS Markgraf

Favourable conditions

Conditions were described as “favourable”, with good visibility, calm seas, no rain and the tidal stream typically low at less than 1 knot. 

Smith and his buddy had ascended to their final 3m scheduled decompression stop and were away from the shotline that marking the stern of the wreck but using a delayed surface marker buoy, the line from which was clipped to Smith’s dive-vest. “It was not uncommon for divers to carry out drift decompression stops before surfacing,” reads the report.

“The DSMB was visible to the second dive-boat waiting on the other side of the wreck-site, but it was not sighted by Karin’s crew before Karin motored over it. The crew of the second dive-boat saw the DSMB disappear under Karin. Subsequently, one of the two divers failed to resurface.” 

Onboard Karin was its skipper, unnamed in the report but described as “suitably qualified” and with “extensive experience both as a diver and dive-boat skipper engaged in this type of operation”, and one other crew-member, a cook. 

The skipper was operating the boat from the wheelhouse, manoeuvring at a speed of four knots slightly to the east of the shotline. According to the MAIB bulletin he had not seen Smith’s DSMB, even though it had been on the surface for 11 minutes before the accident.

Cava Island, Scapa Flow (Colin Park)
Cava Island, Scapa Flow (Colin Park)

5 safety lessons

MAIB has highlighted five safety lessons, the first three aimed at boat operators. It emphasises the need to maintain an effective dedicated look-out at all times when a vessel is running, especially when close to people in the water, as with dive-boats. The look-out should ensure that whoever is driving the boat has sufficient warning of a surfacing diver to take effective avoiding action. 

Unless drifting or anchored, support boats should keep a safe stand-off distance from submerged divers and move over the dive-site only when recovering divers from the water, says MAIB.

It goes on to say that operators should co-ordinate and plan their movements before arrival at dive-sites to minimise the number operating there at any one time but adds that, where it is unavoidable to have more than one vessel, detailed and frequent communications between them are essential. 

Aimed at divers is the recommendation that DSMB lines should be held in hand, as recommended by governing body the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC), rather than being attached to the diver. If the buoyline then becomes snagged by a passing craft, the diver can release it to avoid entanglement and the risk of being drawn to the surface or into contact with the vessel. 

MAIB also says that it is desirable to use static shotlines in known positions while divers are on stops, unless current strength prevents this. Divers decompressing or surfacing away from lines are more vulnerable to hazards such as boat traffic or entanglement in marine debris or underwater structures, it says. 

MAIB has recommended that the British Diving Safety Group (BDSG) should share the safety bulletin among its members.

It has emphasised that owners, operators and skippers of diving-support boats should ensure compliance with regulations on provision of look-outs, especially when around divers in the water, and also that the BDSG should raise awareness of the hazards to divers of attaching a DSMB to their person.

The MAIB investigation is continuing and a full report is to be published on completion.

Also on Divernet: SCAPA DIVE-BOAT HIT DIVER ON DECO STOP, SCAPA WRECK DIVER NAMED, DIVER MISSING IN SCAPA FLOW, DIVER DIES IN SCAPA FLOW

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#askmark, Heyo! Longtime listener, first time caller, etc. Went with a BP/W for my first set and I'm having a really hard time keeping the power inflator on my shoulder; the corrugated hose keeps flipping off my shoulder and getting twisted up or just ending up behind the backplate and dangling down the back of the wing. Is there something I can add to my harness to keep it in place? I don't want to tie it to the D ring since I wouldn't be able to lift it to deflate. I'm using the cheap DGX Gears wing for reference. Thanks!

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#askmark, Heyo! Longtime listener, first time caller, etc. Went with a BP/W for my first set and I'm having a really hard time keeping the power inflator on my shoulder; the corrugated hose keeps flipping off my shoulder and getting twisted up or just ending up behind the backplate and dangling down the back of the wing. Is there something I can add to my harness to keep it in place? I don't want to tie it to the D ring since I wouldn't be able to lift it to deflate. I'm using the cheap DGX Gears wing for reference. Thanks!

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The information in this video is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional SCUBA Training. All content, including text, graphics, images, and information, contained in this video is for general information purposes only and does not replace training from a qualified Dive Instructor.
00:00 Introduction
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The information in this video is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional SCUBA Training. All content, including text, graphics, images, and information, contained in this video is for general information purposes only and does not replace training from a qualified Dive Instructor.
00:00 Introduction
01:17 Ears
05:13 Scuba.com
06:05 Hydrate
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