The ladies climb in after pushing the boat out a bit

Surf launching

The vast majority of the best diving in the world lies beneath the ocean. I know there are many wonderful and exciting cave and quarry sites as well as inland lakes, but in South Africa we dive mostly in the ocean. Some of the launches are from sheltered harbour jetties and some are from sheltered launch sites in a cove or a bay. Many are however straight off the beach through the surf (such as in Sodwana, where these pictures were taken). On a calm flat sea this is very easy and safe but in rough conditions with huge swells it has a few risks.

The tractor pushes the boat into the water
The tractor pushes the boat into the water

The best operators and boat skippers will know the local conditions well and will rarely if ever launch if there are huge swells. So if the skipper is confident you should be safe.

The ladies climb in after pushing the boat out a bit
The ladies climb in after pushing the boat out a bit

A semi-ridgid inflatable dive boat is an extremely robust piece of equipment. They are well put together and can withstand a huge amount of punishment from the skipper and the ocean. They are also most often raced up the beach at high speed after every dive so they need to be tough. Most if not all will float despite being swamped with water, and many will stay afloat with more than 50% loss of air in the pontoons. There is most often a stainless steel keel strip under the boat and this takes most of the load as the boat is beached and trailored.

Everyone climbs on board
Everyone climbs on board

The risks

A dive boat filled with divers and their gear is stable and sits low in the water. The skipper will move people around to get the boat balanced and level and if all the divers have their feet in the foot straps on the deck it is then safe to race through the waves. Wave after wave can be punched with a boat and with the correct and well timed throttle control each wave can be crested gently without too much bone jarring. An inflatable boat can become almost vertical without capsizing but what it cannot do, nor can any other vessel for that matter, is handle waves from the side. A wave must be approached at as close to 90 degrees as possible. A huge swell can be approached at any angle, but a breaking or foamy wave must not.

Cresting a wave
Cresting a wave

Almost any boat will be rolled over by the motion of the wave. Unless you are on a keel boat (like a yacht), once over you are staying like that. A capsizing dive boat fills the air then the water with potentially lethal objects. Airborne weight belts, cylinders and cameras all have the potential for injury. Sandbanks are the most common cause of dive boats being rolled over as a sandbank stops the boat in its tracks allowing a wave to swing the boat on the anchored point (the motors) and the next wave will roll the boat over. The other cause of dive boat rollovers is a motor stalling in the middle of the launch. The sudden loss of power will render the boat poorly powered for wave hopping.

The skipper guides the boat through the breakers
The skipper guides the boat through the breakers

There are to my knowledge no practiced suggestions on how to stay safe. If the boat is going to go over the skipper will most likely shout “Jump!” and then do so quickly and try to get as far away from the boat as possible.

The most important rules:

  • Make sure you know that the skipper is experienced and aware of the local conditions.
  • Make sure the boat is in a well maintained state.
  • Make sure you are opposite your gear, it is secured correctly and add a little air to you BCD. This way it will float if tossed into the sea.

Don’t listen to the loud mouths on the boat that tell you to look at the land to avoid nausea. You won’t get sick while the boat is moving. WATCH the skipper, watch the sea and see what is coming at you. This way you can brace yourself for a wave, or any other unlikely event .

Despite the seemingly ease at which a boat rolls over I have done over a thousand dives from a rubber duck, launched through surf myself as a skipper and have never seen a dive boat go over. Many fishing boats, yes, but not dive boats. I think the industry and skippers in southern Africa and Mozambique are all well aware of the risks, loss of income and potential lawsuits so boats are generally well maintained and the skippers are experienced and capable. A skipper that gives divers scary launches does not last long in a dive resort. So sit back, hold on, feet in the straps and enjoy the ride.

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Tony

Scuba diver, teacher, gadget man, racing driver, boat skipper, photographer, and collector of stray animals

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