TWO Sydney scuba divers were lucky to celebrate Christmas after spending four hours in the sea off the Coffs Coast on Saturday.
The incident sparked a nationally coordinated search involving about 50 rescue workers with boats and aircraft.
The two male divers, one aged 40 and the other 32, were picked up by Coffs Harbour Water Police in the shipping lane near North Solitary Island after drifting six nautical miles south-east of their original dive site at the submerged Pinnacle Rock, near the Sandon River.
The men, part of a group of five Sydney divers, went down for a second dive on Saturday afternoon and became separated from their boat, the Doubtless, when the anchor chain of their dive boat broke.
The diving master on the Doubtless contacted Wooli VRA at 2.15pm to report that the 6.2 metre aluminium runabout, which had two 100hp Yamaha outboard motors, had drifted away from the dive site.
Meanwhile the two divers had also surfaced and drifted away.
Wooli VRA, Coffs Harbour Water Police and the new police launch Fearless; Woolgoolga Sea Rescue vessel WR12; a Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter, a commercial shipping tanker and the Iluka/Yamba Coastguard boat were all involved in the search, which was co-ordinated by the Canberra-based Australian Search and Rescue (AUSSAR) Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Canberra.
AUSSAR organised drift tests at the dive scene using an EPIRB and divers in the water to establish the speed and direction of the men's drift.
"They were very lucky," said Woolgoolga Sea Rescue rescue co-ordinator John Murray.
"Four hours is a long time to be in the water and they had drifted past North Solitary Island and were out in the shipping lanes."
Mr Murray said the divers' lives were probably saved by the orange safety sausage they had inflated, which was spotted about 5.45pm from the bridge of a tanker which had been diverted to search for the men.
He said although there was not a big swell, conditions at the time were 'sloppy' ? choppy and blowy ? making it difficult to spot the divers between the whitecaps.
The weather conditions at the time were reported as 25-30 knot winds and 1.5-2 metre swells.
Water police later transferred the men back to the Doubtless to return to Wooli, but the diving boat had to wait another hour at sea because of a boat capsize on the bar at Wooli.
Meanwhile Coffs Harbour Water Police also had to tow home the Iluka/Yamba coastguard boat, which had broken down during the search.
Coffs Harbour Police said that the two divers reported no ill effects from their four hours in the water.