Beverley Scherberger

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SAMPLE CHAPTERS FROM “STRANDED”

Chapter 1

Lissy

MY DIVE BUDDY and I finned head-first toward the bottom of the sea. I had visited Cozumel, Mexico, several times before and thoroughly enjoyed the drift dives common in this area. We didn’t have to monitor the current, navigate back to the boat, or watch for an exit point. Jumping into the water and drifting with the flow allowed us to simply “be” and relax into the whole dive experience.

I knew the captain would observe our bubbles and follow along in the current, ready to motor over and pick us up when we surfaced. He would also be alert and nearby in case of an emergency. It couldn’t get any easier.

Of course, I’d heard horror stories of people being left behind following a drift dive, but couldn’t imagine how that could easily happen. If there were fourteen divers to begin with the captain just had to count bodies before heading back to shore. Certain that our captain and crew were competent enough to ensure that everyone was present and accounted for, I turned my attention to my new dive partner.

We had met the previous day. Following the morning dives, our group had mingled with the locals at a popular lunch bar. With plenty of tequila and tacos for everyone, we’d made new Mexican friends. We were on vacation! It was the perfect time to let loose.

Across the bar, I noticed a tall, attractive guy staring in my direction. Before making a fool of myself, I turned to my right and glanced around to be sure he wasn’t making eyes at someone behind me. Nope, nobody looking his way. When I turned back, prepared to practice my rusty flirting skills, there was only an empty space at the bar. Not even a beer bottle to indicate he might return. Hmpf… Missed my chance.

A smooth voice, speaking English with a strong Mexican accent, startled me out of my pout. “Hola. You dive weeth these Americanos, no?” I raised my head to see the vision from across the bar standing at my side. Up close, he was even better-looking than I’d thought. A shock of wavy black hair fell into his eyes and as he brushed it back, I appreciated the careless look emphasized by his well-worn T-shirt and snug-fitting jeans. Soft curls brushed his shoulders and he gave his head a sexy toss to throw it off his face. Broad shoulders, olive skin, a square, masculine jaw, and perfect white teeth completed the package. His intimate smile, coupled with intense dark eyes that bored into mine, made me blush. He stood so close his left leg brushed the naked skin of my thigh. I wished I hadn’t worn shorts.

“Yes, I’m with the group.” Anxious to keep the conversation going, I asked, “Are you? A diver?”

“Sí, I dive weeth mi padre for many years, then mis amigos. I know many very good places to go. Places not for tourists. You would go there weeth me?” I looked up into his bottomless dark eyes and found myself unwilling to say no. But I couldn’t just go off with a total stranger. My mind searched frantically for an acceptable way to spend time with this Latin hunk.

I had an idea. “Why don’t you dive with our group tomorrow? Maybe the captain would let you select the site and you can show us some of your favorite spots.” I smiled back, hoping he’d say yes.

“What ees your boat?” When I told him the name of the dive operation and that our captain’s name was Carlos, he nodded. “Sí, es mi amigo. I speak to heem and arrange for special dive weeth your group tomorrow. You weel like thees beauteeful place.”

Putting his empty bottle on the bar, he said, “I am Rodrigo. You call me Rigo. And what are you called, beauteeful American chica?”

Again, I blushed. “My name is Alyssa, but my friends call me Lissy.”

“I like Leesa more better. That I weel call you. Hasta mañana, Leesa!” I could feel the heat in my face as he walked away, the tight jeans hugging the curve of his ass.

“Oh, my God, Lissy! Who was that?” Two of the girls from the dive group descended on me with a barrage of questions. “How did you meet him?” “What’s his name?” “Does he have any gorgeous friends?” I explained that he was going to talk to Captain Carlos and see if he could dive with us in the morning. I was hoping to see the beautiful places Rigo had told me about, not to mention the beautiful Rigo himself.

And sure enough, the next morning, he was on the dock talking animatedly with Captain Carlos. The two men pointed seaward and nodded, evidently in agreement. The butterflies in my stomach threatened to come right up my throat as Rigo glanced in my direction and smiled. I nearly melted into a puddle there on the dock, but my friend Joanne grabbed my elbow and kept us both moving.

“Hola, Leesa! Buenos días! We weel dive on a beauteeful place. You weel theenk eet ees perfect.” In true Latin fashion, he kissed me on both cheeks, causing my face to flush again. I introduced him to Joanne and he charmed her immediately. “You weel be Cho, pretty amiga of Leesa.”

The crew efficiently loaded the scuba tanks onto the boat. Our fourteen divers arrived in various small clusters and eagerly boarded, stowing personal gear under the bench seats. As the boat motored slowly away from the dock, I introduced Rigo to my friends and told them about the non-touristy dive site.

Captain Carlos came up on deck and asked for our attention. “Good morning, divers! Today, thanks to Rigo, you will dive on a very beautiful reef. It’s much more secluded and farther away than we usually go – almost two hours – so get comfortable. It’s not visited by the dive operations in Cozumel because of the distance so it’s pristine.” We all grinned and applauded our new friend. “Yay, Rigo!” “We’ll buy you all the beer you can drink tonight!”

The captain continued. “You’ll have to watch your depth in this location. The bottom slopes to a drop-off that is way too deep for sport diving – over three hundred feet – and the current can be tricky. Try not to get separated from the group. You might see whales or sharks so be sure to take your cameras.” We cheered, thrilled about a new adventure.

Everyone chatted enthusiastically for the first hour. Later, lulled by the heat of the sun and the drone of the boat’s motor, some napped. At last, Captain Carlos cut the engine and Rigo announced, “We are here! The perfect place for to dive!” We cheered and began donning our gear. When everyone was ready, the captain motioned for us to enter the water. “Please, be careful, watch your depth, and when you surface, I’ll come pick you up.”

Although I’d noticed a storm brewing in the distance and the dark clouds on the horizon had become even more ominous during the lengthy ride, the sun shone brightly on us as we rolled backwards off the boat. All was calm and serene underwater.

As Rigo and I cruised downward, we saw the others descending around us. The group leveled off above the bottom at a depth of sixty feet and it quickly became apparent that Captain Carlos was right about the tricky current. We zoomed along, alert for humongous rocks jutting up from the sea floor. Many were as large as small houses, but thankfully, the visibility was good so we could avoid them by angling left or right. At this depth, the water filtered out color, leaving the scene various shades of blue-grey. Darker shadows hid entrances to caverns and swim-through arches created by overlapping rocks. Boulders of all sizes and shapes dotted the floor; stands of spiky Elkhorn Coral decorated the areas in between. As we zoomed over the seascape, the rocky floor gave way to a coral reef punctuated by massive rock formations.

The reef was, indeed, pristine and beautiful. I saw no broken coral or dead white branches. Everything was healthy with a wide variety of marine life. Many different types of sponges and coral provided homes for a plethora of fish, but we were moving so quickly it was impossible to take photos. Afraid of slamming into a boulder if I took my eyes off the path ahead, I held the pricey camera close to my body.

Then, suddenly, it seemed as though a giant hand pushed me toward the bottom. The monster current drove us helplessly downward and I could see the other divers reacting as I did, instinctively and futilely kicking upward. We plunged ever deeper, the sea floor ahead sloping sharply into the dark blue abyss.

Frantic, I grabbed Rigo’s hand and he pulled me to his side, motioning toward a huge boulder jutting into our path some distance ahead. Instead of angling to go around it, we turned in the water to meet it feet first. I prayed the current would hold us against the rock, preventing further descent. We desperately needed time to think, to plan.

We struck the hard surface and I felt the jolt throughout my entire body, but my knees cushioned the blow. Held there by the same huge hand that had previously been shoving us downward, I watched my friends zoom past and disappear from view. Horrified, I knew I might never see them again.

Clinging to the rock, I knew we had to find a way out of the down-current. The compressed air in our tanks would cause nitrogen narcosis beyond a depth of 130 feet. Symptoms such as feelings of euphoria, impaired decision-making, and diminished motor skills could cause us to disregard the danger and make incorrect choices concerning our safety. Continuing to descend would certainly be fatal.

Rigo and I tried to slow our breathing. We didn’t want to run low on air and compound our serious situation. After a short time, using hand signals, he motioned that we should swim to our left. In the distance was another rocky upthrust we could use for refuge. I suddenly understood. If we could swim across the current, we might be able to get out of the strongest downward flow and ascend to a safer depth.

My gauge showed eighty-five feet. I pantomimed crawling up the rock, relieved to see Rigo nod in comprehension. We hugged the rocky slope and slowly made our way fifteen feet up the boulder like a couple of oddly-attired and very awkward mountain climbers. Thankfully, the rock wasn’t sharp-edged or covered with coral that would cut through our thin dive gloves and shred the knees of our Lycra wetskins. Rough and slightly porous, the surface contained nooks and niches for finger holds and the rock sloped enough that we had no trouble shimmying upward. Our fins prevented us from using our toes to gain further purchase, but the current helped hold us in place.

When the rock narrowed, we stopped and took each other’s hand. Our eyes met and we nodded, simultaneously launching ourselves off, kicking hard to the left. We flew through the water and for a while I thought we were going to soar past the next big boulder, but it suddenly loomed large in front of us. We turned and met it feet-first. My gauge read ninety feet.

We rested briefly, shimmied twenty feet to the uppermost portion, and again hurled ourselves into the current. When we finally thudded into the next large rock, my gauge showed ninety-five feet. I looked at my watch to see how long we’d been in the water and found it had been the longest eighteen minutes of my life. Concerned about our depth and bottom time, I checked the laminated NAUI dive chart I wore clipped to my BC. According to the tables, we needed to begin ascending soon or we could end up with the bends. This, too, could be fatal.

We had no choice but to keep moving. This peak was taller than the others and we crawled up to seventy feet before once more taking flight. I thought the flow seemed less powerful and hoped it wasn’t just wishful thinking, but when my feet hit the next rock, the impact was much less forceful. I knew we’d reached the outer edge of the current. Almost afraid to check the time, I said a short prayer before raising my wrist.

We’d been underwater for a total of twenty-two minutes and had yet to begin our ascent. The NAUI tables indicated we must hang at fifteen feet for five minutes to offgas enough nitrogen to surface safely. Would we have enough air? I reached for Rigo’s gauge – only 150psi. Mine read 200. We would normally finish with no less than 500psi in each tank, leaving enough air for the ascent. The good news was that as we ascended, the air would expand. But we needed to start up immediately.

We crept to the pinnacle and took off at a depth of sixty feet. I felt a distinct difference in the force of the down-current and we actually made some slight upward progress. The current lessened more and more as we drifted. No more boulders loomed in front of us and I checked my gauge to find we had ascended to fifty feet. Finally we were heading in the right direction. I pointed upward.

Turning vertical in the water, still holding hands, we worked our way toward the surface. At thirty feet, I checked the time – twenty-five total minutes. I slowed our ascent and held up my wrist. Rigo nodded to indicate he knew we’d have to decompress.

At the appointed depth, we stopped and faced each other. The water seemed choppy and we had difficulty maintaining the fifteen foot depth but it was imperative that we offgas nitrogen before surfacing. Anxious to board the boat, I’d even welcome a bout of seasickness right now. I just wanted out of the water.

We tried to relax and breathe normally although we’d both used up precious air fighting the current and I knew Rigo’s tank would soon be empty. Time seemed to stop as I watched the second hand creep slowly around the dial. With one full minute remaining, Rigo reached for my octopus – a secondary regulator that can be used to buddy breathe. His tank was empty. Afraid to look and see how much air was in mine, I figured it was irrelevant, anyway. We’d breathe this tank down to nothing and then surface to deal with the consequences.

In short order, we sucked the last bit of air from the tank and kicked slowly upward. As we pulled the regulators out of our mouths and gulped for air, we got another shock. Directly overhead ugly storm clouds hung low and threatening. Wind howled, waves tossed us high in the air and then dunked us in the trough, and rain poured down in sheets. Thunder boomed across the water and lightning flashed repeatedly against the black sky. And the boat was nowhere to be seen.

Shouting to be heard over the tumultuous storm, I yelled, “Where’s the boat? He didn’t leave us here, did he?” Turning in a frantic 360-degree circle, I searched in vain for the vessel. The only time I had any view at all was when the waves carried us to the crest, right before dropping us back into the trough, and all I saw in every direction was miles and miles of rough water.

Rigo cursed Captain Carlos then in his next breath offered a plausible excuse for his absence. “He could not see our bubbles een thees water. Had to save hees boat – thees storm ees un diablo.” He held onto my BC and showed me where to hold his; we had to stay together. I wondered what had happened to my friends. Did they survive the down-current or had it swept them to their deaths? Were they frantically searching for the boat at the surface, scared and alone, as we were?

I suddenly had another frightening thought and yelled over the storm’s noise. “Rigo, what do we do about sharks? How do we protect ourselves?” I shuddered at the idea of teeth biting into my legs from below, dragging me under.

His shouted reply surprised me but brought a small measure of comfort. “When beeg storms come, sharks go deep to be safe. There ees no danger.” He looked up at the black sky and added, “Not from them.”

A sudden strong wave lifted us high and when we dropped again, our tanks crashed into each other. The back of my head slammed hard against the metal valve and I hoped I wasn’t bleeding. Even with Rigo’s assurance that sharks dove deep during storms, I didn’t want to bloody the water. Rubbing the back of my head, I said, “Rigo, let’s release our tanks. They’re useless now and I just hit my head on the valve.” He nodded and I turned in the water. The waves heaved us to and fro and he had trouble undoing the latch securing the tank to my BC. Meanwhile, I held onto him with my left hand and used my right to release the connecting hose in front. We pushed the steel tank away from us, watching it slowly sink and disappear. Then he turned his back to me and I fought to undo his.

When both tanks had dropped out of sight, I reached for my weight belt. Then, I had another idea. I pulled myself close to Rigo and yelled into his ear. “Why don’t we free our weights but use the belts to lash ourselves together? Then we won’t get separated.”

I couldn’t believe he could flirt at a time like this, but his reply did make me smile. “You are smart, too, pretty chica. Es un buen idea.”

Since we had dumped our tanks, we blew into the manual inflation tube – similar to blowing up a balloon – to inflate our BCs. We wanted to be as buoyant as possible. Then, one at a time, we removed our weights from the belts. The lead sank quickly. I buckled my belt back around my waist, but lengthened it so it was no longer snug. Rigo lengthened his and fed it through mine. In this way, after he’d refastened his belt, we were securely attached without having to physically hold onto each other.

I didn’t relish spending much time being tossed about like flotsam on an angry sea, but there was nothing more we could do. Nothing except pray.

 

Chapter 2

Joanne

I SAW LISSY and Rigo enter the water, followed by several others of our group. I was suited up but my dive knife had disappeared and I was loath to go without it, so four of us spent a few minutes searching. Tom gleefully announced, “Found it!” as he pulled it from under one of the bench seats. I buckled it securely to my leg.

Tom, Robbie, Sarah, and I rolled backwards off the boat. Finning toward the bottom, I saw the rest of the troupe ahead and relaxed. Captain Carlos’s warning to not get separated from the group had been playing a loop in my head. We stayed close, soaring over the bottom and playing “airplane.” Arms outstretched, we flew like small single-engine planes, tilting and turning to avoid the humongous rocks.

Suddenly, the current switched from fun and exhilarating to terrifyingly uncontrollable. Forced downward, I saw the bottom slope sharply away into the depths. We kicked upward to no avail, grabbing hands to stay together. The terror on their faces mirrored my own.

Up ahead, I saw Lissy and Rigo turn to meet a huge pillar feet-first and remain plastered to the rock face. I pointed and the others nodded. We spotted the next enormous boulder and aimed our flight so it was directly in our path. Turning in the water, we thudded hard against the rock, held in place by the forceful current. Hugging the rough surface, we tried to slow our breathing and control the panic.

I’d been diving for several years but had never encountered anything like this. We had to maintain control and think this through or we’d never survive. I quickly took stock of my buddies’ strengths and weaknesses. Except for Sarah, we often dove together as a group so I knew them rather well.

Past middle-age, Tom was a veteran diver and very fit and strong; he was our best asset. About six feet tall, he sported broad shoulders and a severe buzz-style to his gun-metal grey hair. A widower, his great personality, quick wit, great smile, kind-heartedness, and wonderful sense of humor often hid behind his military bearing. Retired from the Navy, Tom was well-acquainted with anything to do with the sea and dove as often as possible. I had every confidence he could help save us. But we all had to do our part.

Robbie was older, a retired college professor. He was a less experienced diver but very competent and level-headed, more nerdy than athletic. Kind and compassionate, he’d had a reputation as a demanding but fair teacher and his students had always seemed to enjoy his classes. His intelligence and self-control would also be an advantage. Tall and lean, his wild head of wavy white hair gave him a “nutty professor” look but he had a big heart and I knew he loved the outdoors. He’d only discovered a passion for diving in the last year or so, but had studiously attacked the books and took the underwater exams very seriously. What he lacked in experience, he made up for in book-smarts. Another asset.

Sarah was the least experienced of our group. About thirty-five, she was a slim brunette, her long, dark hair whipping in the current like a flag in a high wind. Relatively new to the sport, she had signed up for this trip as a spontaneous gesture to her commitment to become a more proficient diver. Not at all equipped to handle this type of situation, terror showed plainly in her huge eyes. Bubbles billowed from her regulator. She had to calm down and breathe slower or she’d run out of air far too quickly. I vowed to do my best to help her through this.

Sarah crushed my hand in a vise-like grip. I turned my head to meet her eyes and pointed to her regulator, then fluttered my fingers quickly upward, mimicking her bubbles. Letting the current hold me against the rock, I forced my fingers out of her grasp. I patted my chest to indicate breathing, and then put my arms at my sides, hands waist high. I slowly pushed my palms toward the sea floor, much as I’d seen my yoga instructor do when she wanted us to exhale slowly. I pointed to Sarah to do the same. She nodded. We repeated this movement several times until her eyes lost that crazed, panicky look and the amount of bubbles flowing from her regulator lessened.

I made a circle with the thumb and first finger of my right hand, the universal scuba sign meaning “Are you okay?” She nodded and repeated the okay signal back to me. I turned to Tom and motioned that we should swim to the next big rock.

But instead of pushing off, he gestured upward and began crawling up the rock face. When the peak became too narrow for four of us abreast he stopped and pointed toward the next boulder. I understood that he wanted us to lose some depth before diving back into the current.

Still holding hands, we launched off the pinnacle, kicking as hard as we could to the left. In a short time, we landed on the next rock, working our way across the current to escape the worst of the down-flow.

When I saw Tom check his watch and examine his NAUI tables, I knew we might also have another problem. We had to keep moving to try and reach the surface as soon as possible, minimizing our bottom time. He looked up and met my gaze. I could see the worry in his eyes.

We repeated the climb-and-flight-to-the-next-rock routine several times and finally the current lessened. I hoped we’d soon find Lissy and Rigo waiting on the boat. This was one dive I was anxious to end.

As we clung to the last pillar before ascending, Tom showed us his NAUI tables. He pointed out the box that showed we needed to hang at fifteen feet for five minutes to offgas nitrogen before surfacing. We all reached for our gauges: 150psi; 120psi; 100psi; and 60psi. Sarah had, indeed, used up a lot of air in her initial panic.

We hurled ourselves into the much-diminished current and Tom led us upward at a safe rate. As we ascended, I could sense Sarah’s building terror – now out of the monster current she was frantic to reach the surface. I held her hand tightly, afraid she’d bolt. Rising faster than her exhaled air bubbles could cause the bends and I wanted to protect her.

At the prescribed fifteen feet, Tom stopped. I gripped both of Sarah’s hands and turned to face her. I could see the raw panic in her eyes. She looked upward and yanked one hand free, kicking desperately for the surface. Tom and Robbie both grabbed for her BC. Her flailing fist knocked my mask off and I instinctively let go of her to replace it and clear the water from around my nose. Her other fist hit Tom on the temple and momentarily dazed him. Robbie held Sarah’s BC with one hand as he checked her remaining air. At that moment, bubbles stopped flowing from her regulator and her eyes grew even wider – her tank was empty. As I reached toward her with my octopus, she jerked free of Robbie’s one-handed grip and bolted for the surface.

I started after her, but Tom grabbed me and vehemently shook his head no. We still had three minutes remaining to offgas and there was nothing we could do for Sarah now that she was at the surface. Nitrogen bubbles in her blood would have expanded and lodged in her system. And, inexperienced diver that she was, she had most likely held her breath during the race to the surface possibly also causing an air embolism.

Looking upward, I could see her lying face down at the surface, eyes open, immobile and tossed by the waves. She was only fifteen feet away and I couldn’t help. A nurse by profession, it went against my very being to do nothing, but helping her would put myself at grave risk, too. Tears burned my eyes. What had happened to the rest of our group? Had the sea claimed more than one life today?

Robbie pulled his regulator from his mouth to show he was out of air. We checked our gauges and I handed my octopus to Robbie to buddy breathe. Soon, all the tanks would be empty.

The three of us faced each other, held hands, and tried to slow our breathing. It became harder and harder to suck a breath from my tank. Tom was watching, ready with his octopus when we drained the last of the air. He handed it to me for a breath, I handed it to Robbie who then handed it back to Tom. In this way, we finished off the final tank. With no other option remaining, we slowly finned to the surface, exhaling as we went. I hoped we’d off-gassed enough nitrogen to avoid the bends.

The world as we knew it when we’d entered the water earlier no longer existed. Thunder boomed, lightning flashed against the angry purple-black sky, and rain poured down in buckets. Waves carried us high and then dunked us back under water, leaving us spluttering and coughing. Sarah’s body had drifted away, buffeted by the storm and the howling wind. We didn’t even have a chance to say good-bye.

Terror claimed us once more. The boat was gone and we were alone on a storm-tossed sea. Again, retired Navy man Tom came to our rescue. We released our empty tanks, manually inflated our BCs, and removed the lead from our weight belts. Lashing ourselves together with the nylon belts, we took a small measure of comfort in the physical closeness. There was nothing more we could do. I closed my eyes and spoke to God. I hoped He was listening.

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