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Solo diving exacts a heavy toll

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 24, 2001


Among surfers, there is no place in the world that strikes fear as much as Mavericks.

The northern California surf spot, known for its bone-chilling water and monster waves, has been challenged by a select few. Among these who ride mountains of water, no one exemplified courage as much as Jay Moriarity.

In 1995, Moriarity, an unknown 16-year-old from Santa Cruz, made history and the cover of Surfer Magazine when he wiped out on a 30-foot wave that would have killed most people.

A year earlier, this previously unknown surf spot south of San Francisco made headlines across the country when Hawaiian big-wave rider Mark Foo fell off a wave and drowned. Foo's death caused a controversy, and even Sports Illustrated carried a photo sequence of the fatal fall. The next winter, Moriarity came along, battled another monster and survived.

Last week news came from the Associated Press that Moriarity, like most seemingly indestructible watermen, had died. But the 22-year-old didn't die surfing the monster waves of the treacherous North Pacific. He died in the idyllic waters of the Maldives, a group of islands off the southern coast of India. Friends said he had been diving alone.

It is tragic a man who felt so at home in the water would die such a lonely and avoidable death. But that is the way it usually goes.

As a surfer, diver, paddler and swimmer, I have felt the confidence that comes after logging hours of "water time." But just when I felt most comfortable, Mother Ocean came along and spanked good and hard.

If you are lucky, you just swallow a few mouthfuls of seawater and live to try again another day. But now and then the sea claims one of our heroes, just to keep the rest of us honest.

Who knows why Moriarity decided to go spearfishing alone that morning. In retrospect, it is easy to say he should have taken a partner. Every diver learns about the "buddy system" in basic scuba class. The concept is even more important free diving, when shallow water blackout can claim even the most experienced free-diver's life.

In May, the close-knit cave-diving community was stunned by the news that Steve Berman died mapping sections of a cave system near the Santa Fe River. The 40-year-old had logged more than 10,000 dives. He was alone, 3,500 feet into in a cave, when something went wrong.

That is where the buddy system comes in. It doesn't matter whether you are surfing, swimming, kayaking, diving or even offshore fishing, it is always good to have a friend nearby when nature throws a curveball.

Most spearfishermen, however, prefer to dive alone because they believe it improves their chances for success. As a result, Scuba Diving International is offering a new Solo Diver course for experienced divers who want to go it alone. The course stresses the basics of self-rescue, including a redundant air source.

But all the training in the world will never take the place of a buddy. We all need somebody to watch our back. Those of us who spend our lives in, on and under the water know the value of a good friend to count on when the going gets tough.

I'm sure there's more than one Santa Cruz surfer who wishes he had your back, Jay. May we all live and learn.

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