Diving with a buddy

During your Open Water course you are conditioned to dive with a buddy, and a part of the training is doing a buddy check. There are many benefits to a buddy check, but a quick once over of your buddy who does the same to you is not enough. A decent buddy check covering all of the elements of BWARF ensures you and your buddy are ready, have air, have no dangly bits and have all the required items (a mask is not part of a check but try and dive without one and see how little you see).

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yo_XsP1PbDs&w=540]

You both have octos. It’s important to test yours, but equally important is that you test your buddy’s – after all there is a good chance it’s you that will need it in an emergency. Equally important is that you know where everything is on your buddy’s gear. It is unlikely that everyone knows just how to ditch their buddy’s weights if they have an integrated weight system.

Often you will be allocated a buddy on the boat, on the way to the dive site, and you have no idea what kind of gear they are using or even what it looks like. Try and make sure you buddy is next to you on the boat. Once in the water find them on the surface first, and descend together; looking for a total stranger at depth can be a little difficult.

Agree beforehand what the plan is when the first one of you reach the stipulated low on air pressure. Decide who is going to lead, discuss who will navigate, what your dive time will be, your dive profile and so on.

Few people realise just how enjoyable diving is when you have the same buddy dive after dive. Clare and I have done close to 100 dives together and we are so set in our ways that we know exactly what the other is thinking , planning and how each of us will react in a given set of circumstances. For example, when we found a horsefish at Long Beach, I displayed an animated action of a horse being ridden. Clare understood what I was doing but the other six divers in our group thought I was a lunatic.

Know your buddy, plan your dive and dive your plan.

What it takes to be a Divemaster

Many divers dream of becoming a Divemaster or a Open Water scuba instructor. In reality it is a “dream job” as it is made up of 99% good stuff and only 1% of the bad. (More on this shortly.)

The Divemaster role requires hard work
The Divemaster role requires hard work

Sadly not everyone can be a Divemaster. Not because its difficult (it’s not – learning to be a Divemaster is easy and fun with the right mindset, and we can all learn something new if we want it) but something else needs to be there first, an intangible skill or demeanour for want of a better word.

There are lots of good Divemasters, people who scored 90% plus on all the exams, scored highly on their skill sets and have the right gear and proper diving habits. But there are fewer really exceptional Divemasters, who performed as well as the rest while in training but have that elusive ability to be exceptional Divemasters. These are people who you would be happy to trust in any situation. It is only in an emergency situation that this ability in a person shines through.

You need to be calm and authoritative to be a Divemaster
You need to be calm and authoritative to be a Divemaster

Being exceptionally good in the water is not all that is required. An active Divemaster will know the dive site, have exceptional buoyancy, keep divers together and ensure you all see the hidden beauty of the dive site. But will they cope when two people run out of air at the same time, or when half the group gets lost, or two people panic when their masks flood (90% of regular divers have not removed their masks since their Open Water course)? Will they make the right decision if the conditions are unsafe, or will they dive anyway because they need the money? What will they do if you see a shark and some of the group panic and some just freeze?

There is a lot more to being a Divemaster than completing the course. It is only once you have done the course and started working as a Divemaster that you start to learn, and only the right people stick it out. You need to have the ability to feel ”that was a good dive” despite a dive where things happen like an O ring pops on the boat, a regulator free flows, a diver loses a weight belt, someone gets lost , someone runs out of air and yanks your regulator out your mouth dislodging your teeth, the visiblity is lousy and the water is cold, the boat leaks and the weather sucks… Is this you? Yes? Then become a Divemaster and it will change your life… Diving is a way of life.

Solo diving

There has raged a heated debate for a long time on the merits and dangers of solo diving. Solo diving is the as the title suggests, diving alone, no buddy, no surface support (if boat diving) and most likely no one waiting on the beach.

Off on my own in Sodwana (don't worry - my Clare took this before she caught up with me!)
Off on my own in Sodwana (don't worry - my Clare took this before she caught up with me!)

Very little solo diving takes place in a resort environment, primarily because they want a full boat before they launch. It’s not a common practice, most resort environments have heavy boat traffic as there are often many operators diving the same dive sites, these skippers look for a buoy close to a boat (the boats follow a surface buoy towed by the dive master), and skippers don’t really want divers scattered all over the ocean as it is hard to keep track of them. If the resort you are diving with has an anchored boat it is easier to do a solo dive especially if you loose the group as there is seldom a dive master thats going to come looking for you. You may be lucky to find a skipper that will drop you off separately from the group, but it is rare.

Cape Town is a little different. It is often a case where someone on the boat is doing a mapping project, or some research or looking for a specific feature underwater so solo diving happens. The skipper and sometimes other members of the group know you are down there but not where.

If you want to maximise the number of photos you get on a dive or get some good video footage then solo diving makes this easier. Not having a buddy means you do not need to check up on them, you do not need to periodically look for them and you wont have them yanking on your fin to show you something cool just as you are about to get that ”shot”. By the same token there is then no one looking for you, checking up on you and no one for you to signal ”out of air” for example.

If you are going to go solo diving start small, somewhere where the beach is close, the weather is good and someone knows where you are, how long you plan to dive and what your route will be. It is for some an intimidating experience and your comfort level takes a while to increase.

Once you decide to try solo diving be brutally honest with yourself: do you trust yourself, your equipment and your ability to think rationally in a stressful situation? If not, don’t try it.

If you are okay with all of these aspects make sure you have the right gear. Split your weights over a weight belt and integrated weights. You’ll need a knife, a compass, a dive computer, decent gloves, a hoodie and all the rest to ensure you don’t get cold, tired, uncomfortable or lost. Be sure you know when to turn the dive if you are swimming out somewhere and returning to the same spot. Ensure you plan and monitor your air consumption, checking more often because just knowing you are ”good on air” won’t help you if you have a leak on your first stage that no one tells you about… There is no one there remember. (If you think you have a leak, you can roll onto your back and look up and between breaths you will be able to see if you do.)

Plan your dive and dive your plan.

Bookshelf: Raising the Dead

Raising the Dead – Phillip Finch

I was totally obsessed with the Dave Shaw and Boesmansgat story when it happened in 2004. Boesmansgat is a water-filled sink hole on a farm in the Northern Cape, approximately 270 metres deep. An amateur diver, Deon Dreyer, lost his life there in 1994. His body was never recovered, but ten years later Dave Shaw, a highly experienced record-setting cave diver, encountered Dreyer’s still-grieving parents and decided to mount an expedition to recover the body.

Raising the Dead
Raising the Dead – Phillip Finch

The series of events that followed couldn’t have been dreamed up by a Hollywood scriptwriter. I remember as this unfolded in 2004, reading the news daily for updates. The video recording of Shaw’s final dive is available here, but I warn you it’s upsetting.

The kind of diving that is required to descend to depths of 100 metres and more is hazardous, requiring intense training, a calm mind, and complex equipment. The slightest over-exertion at depth can lead to lethal gas buildup, convulsions, and death. Hours and hours of decompression are required. The actual time spent at depth is of the order of a couple of minutes. Most of the time on the dive is spent ascending, slowly. It’s lonely, and tests one to the limit. Finch details the preparation, explains the technicalities in accessible terms, and paints full pictures of the characters of the people involved in the expedition and support team.

Tony and I both read this book in almost one sitting. The mindset of deep technical divers is quite different to that of recreational scuba divers, partly by necessity (they have far more complex equipment and greater dangers to contend with) and partly because many of them are involved in the sport in order to push limits – their own, and their equipment. (Being risk-averse, I prefer to operate well within my limits most of the time!) This book made me grateful that none of my loved ones are into this very extreme sport – I couldn’t bear waiting for news while my family member was on a 12 hour dive to insane depths, in a completely isolated location.

The book is available here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise click here. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.

It was also published under the title Diving Into Darkness. Highly, highly recommended, even if you’re sure you’ll never put on a rebreather or enter a water-filled cave. My father (definitely not a scuba diver) read it too, and found it gripping.

Life in a dive camp

Depending on the type of accommodation you have chosen, if you are in a packed camp then have some respect for other divers in the camp or cabins next to you. You may be on a party trip but they might be on a peaceful break from a hectic work environment.

These are a few of the camp rules I have used in some of the camps I have worked…

Noise

Please respect the fact that some people in the camp are on an early dive and need to sleep. No noise after 10 pm. Go to the beach or a pub if you want to be noisy.

Dive planning

Dive planning takes place in the dining area every day at a specific time. Please be there, if you are not there we cannot book a dive for you.

Dive planning
Dive planning noticeboard

Kit up and launch times

Kit up time and launch times are on the board, please be ready to kit up at the designated time. Please sign the launch sheet, produce your dive card and complete an indemnity before you go diving.

Boat rules

Please ensure your kit, mask, fins and weight belt are on the boat you are on.

Try and sit opposite your gear from the launch as it is not safe to move kit around on a full dive boat.

Please ensure you are opposite your kit before you put your weight belt on.

Rinse your mask before you kit up as you are less likely to fall in the water.

Ready your kit by loosening the straps clips etc., so when someone gets to you to help, you are ready. This reduces the time spent bobbing on the ocean which causes seasickness in some divers.

At the end of the dive please hand your weights up before you remove your kit.

Once you are on the beach please take you mask and fins off the boat, and the staff will often bring the rest. A good habit is to remove your regulators and BCD and wear them back to you base as some operators can be hard on gear. (Remember to dry and replace the dust cap.)

Some more boat etiquette can be found in this post!

Why it’s a good idea to carry an SMB

When I met Tony he was living in Mozambique, and when his visa ended he moved to Durban. Around that time we had decided we quite enjoyed each other’s company, so I flew up every second weekend to visit him. He was working at Calypso Dive and Adventure Centre at uShaka Marine World as an Instructor and Divemaster, so I tagged along on dives on the Saturday mornings I was in town. I was a fairly new diver at the time (it was September 2009).

It was the first time I’d come up to Durban to see him, and he had a student who had to do a deep dive on the Saturday morning. The boat was heading out to the Coopers Lighthouse wreck, a mysterious ship lying in 24-32 metres of water whose identity is not certain. Some people think it’s an old whaler, but there are several theories as to its origin. The wreck is thought to be about 100 years old and situated in line with the Cooper Lighthouse on the Bluff.

The rubber duck left the beach at 0700. The sea was looking quite bumpy, and the boat ride wasn’t great. I am not the best sailor, but as long as the boat is moving I’m fine. It’s about a 25 minute ride through shipping lanes, south of Durban harbour.

There was a howling current when we arrived at the site, and while we kitted up on the boat we drifted some way from the shot line hooked to the wreck. The sea was horrible – I alternated vomiting over the side (so embarrassing) with doing up clips on my BCD! Once we were ready, the skipper circled round and dropped us close to the shot line, but on the wrong side – so the current was taking us away from the line rather than towards it. I was with Tony, and his student – who was on the other side of the boat – had managed to get to the shot line and was holding on for dear life. In the current, his body was horizontal, like a flag in a strong wind.

Tony and I swam and swam, for what felt like an hour. We were swimming into the current at about 10 metres depth, but I think we were either standing still or moving backwards (it must have looked quite funny, if you were in that sort of mood). We could see Tony’s student, and we could see the shot line ahead of us, and then it just seemed to vanish. By that time the student had joined us, and the current had taken us out of sight of the line.

I wasn’t quite sure what we would do at that point, but Tony had a plan, which he explained to me later, on dry land. We descended to about 20 metres, and stayed there for about 20 minutes. The three of us were hanging in the blue ocean – no sign of the bottom – surrounded by shoals of fish. We could have surfaced immediately when we lost the shot line, but then we’d have had to spend the duration of the dive sitting on the boat, which was being tossed about like a cork. (I’d already demonstrated low tolerance for this kind of activity by chumming the local fish life while kitting up.) That’s if the boat had even found us – the skipper wouldn’t be expecting divers to surface after only ten minutes, and the conditions were not conducive to him spotting us as soon as we surfaced.

After about 20 minutes we began our ascent, doing a safety stop at 5 metres with an SMB deployed. When we reached the surface, the sea was mountainous. There was no sign of the boat, and even if it had been five metres away from us we’d have struggled to see it because of the size of the waves. Tony clipped our BCDs together so that we would drift more slowly (larger surface area to offer resistance to the current), and told me to keep my regulator in my mouth becuase the waves were so big. (It was on this dive that I discovered that you can vomit through a regulator… useful fact to keep in mind…)

Then we waited. The bright orange SMB stuck up between us, and in between gags I scanned the horizon (which was not very large, thanks to the waves) for the boat. The three of us floated there for 55 minutes before the boat found us. After being hauled aboard like a drowned rat I heaved over the side for good measure and then concentrated on my lollipop.

The skipper told Tony he’d been driving around looking for us, cursing Tony for not having an SMB deployed. We did – but the waves were so big that the boat was practically on top of us before it could be seen. If we hadn’t had an SMB, I very much doubt they would have found us without the aid of the NSRI.

Reels and surface marker buoy (SMB)
Different sized reels and surface marker buoys (SMB)

For the uninitiated, SMB stands for Surface Marker Buoy. They’re generally tubes of orange, red or yellow plastic, that you inflate by inserting your octo or regulator at the bottom, and purging it. It’s generally considered good practice to deploy an SMB at the safety stop when you’re on a boat dive – it warns other boats of your presence, signals that you’re ok, and gives your skipper an indication of where to come and fetch you.

If you get lost on the surface, a SMB is essential. You’re not very visible dressed from head to toe in black, and that orange tube might be the only difference between a very long time drifting on the surface, and a quick rescue. They fold up really small, and with a little practice are very straightforward to deploy. If you’re diving off a boat, or in an unfamiliar location, make sure you pack your SMB.

Out of air!

Out of air emergencies should not happen. Diving safely includes being sure that you have checked everything yourself, doing a buddy check and diving within your own personal limits. Always avoid making too many changes to your gear configuration and don’t test more than one new item at a time unless you are in shallow, confined water.

Most incidents are a culmination of several small mishaps and would most likely not have occurred had just one error being omitted. The other issue to be aware of is trusting your training and avoid thinking you know better. Here’s why…

I was diving in Mozambique, did a backward roll, and a negative entry (that’s when you don’t hang around on the surface with an inflated BCD, but start your descent immediately). Now, doing negative entries is not ideal, but the surface current was strong, we were diving a small reef and I wanted to get down quickly. So after the roll I finned down head first as fast as I could, without a buddy… Mistakes number one and two.

At 18 meters I found breathing to be difficult. Having just over-exerted myself I stopped to catch my breath but found as I reached the end of my breath my regulator stopped giving me air. Slow breaths were okay but it would not deliver what I needed. I instinctively looked at my pressure gauge, plenty of air in the cylinder but the needle dropped off as I took a deep breath.

“AHA my cylinder is not all the way open,” I thought so I reached up to try and check. It felt open, but convinced I was not doing it properly I took my kit off, held it in front of me and checked. The cylinder was all the way open, and now suddenly I was not getting air at all. I swam to the surface, slowing at about 8 metres to grab a few breaths from a buddy pair descending slowly.

On the surface I signaled the boat and whilst remaining in the water had the top man change my regulators – mistake number three. Straight back down to 18 metres I went, breathing normally and as soon as I turned face down to scan the sea for the group I ran out of air again. Back to the surface as fast as possible! A CESA from 18 metres is relatively difficult once you are stressed and short of breath from over exertion.

On the second descent logic was telling me the problem had to be my cylinder, but arguing with myself I dismissed this as I had serviced my cylinder less than three months prior to this and felt it could not possibly be at fault.

Back in camp I stripped my pillar valve and found it to be blocked with rust and sand. How could this be?

After investigating it turns out the cylinder was dropped from a vehicle a few weeks before this by the compressor operator. The pillar valve was damaged, so they drained it in a hurry, causing condensation, dropped it again in the sand, rinsed it with the water used for cooling cylinders whilst filling (salty water), emptied the water out, replaced the pillar valve with a used one, without a snorkel (a small pipe that runs from the bottom of the pillar valve into the cylinder). I got it back full of air unaware of the incident. The salty water inside rusted the cylinder, the absence of a snorkel meant that every time I was pointed head down the scales inside slowly drifted into the pillar valve until it was totally blocked.

It is not unusual for a little spot of rust to develop in a cylinder. It’s not ideal but it won’t kill you. However a snorkel ensures the pillar valve is supplied with clean air and the scales are kept out – in my situation in Mozambique, the scales would have settled around the top of the snorkel where it attaches to the pillar valve, instead of blocking the valve completely. The other end of the snorkel would have been a bit further into the cylinder, drawing clean air. When I took my cylinders to Orca Industries recently for their annual maintenance, I was very impressed that they insisted on checking each one for snorkels, and fitting them if they were absent.

Plan your dive and dive your plan

Three divers approached me at the dive centre one day, requesting I take them to a dive site where they could dive to 60 metres. They wanted to test some new equipment configurations. Two were certified advanced Nitrox divers, qualified deep technical divers and had made several dives to over a hundred metres… in a lake. The third diver, like myself, was qualified to dive to 40 metres.

So we draw up a plan: they will dive to 60 metres, spend 6 minutes at that depth, ascend to 50 metres and spend 5 minutes there, then ascend to 40 metres 5 minutes thereafter and so on until the reached 6 metres where they would switch to pure oxygen to reduce the deco stop time as the current at this site is strong. The third diver and myself would meet them at 40metres.

Using a software program called V Planner we calculated that including the descent time and ascent times for each stage, at a controlled rate, we would enter the water precisely 16 minutes after they started their dive and we would meet them at 40 metres. We would then all be together for the next 30 minutes, ascending with them to their 6 metre safety stop, ensure they had both switched to pure oxygen and then leave them and return to the boat.

The plan was that we would spend 6 minutes on our descent to 40 metres and all four of us would reach 40 metres together. They were made to clearly understand that should they have a problem at any depth deeper than 40 metres we would not be able to help them as we were diving 12 litre steel cylinders on a Nitrox 32% mix, limiting our depth – and what’s more we did not have the qualifications to go to 60 metres.

We discussed the plan in great detail and everyone was set. A red SMB would be hoisted if they experienced any difficulty and a yellow would be released once we met at 40 metres.

Mistakes happen

We started our descent on time, and watching my dive computer and timer I descended at the agreed rate. My buddy, however, did not. He descended way too fast. Believing that they would be in control of their dive he descended very fast and joined them, ahead of schedule at a depth of 55 metres. They were 3 minutes behind schedule as they had struggled to come to terms with the ocean current. Now we had a problem. I waited at 40 metres, but they arrived late, and this meant I would risk going into deco before we left for the 30 metre stop.

At this point my buddy ran out of air. He was closer to the deep divers as he was reading their slates, so he grabbed the first regulator he could see: the deco tank regulator, filled with pure oxygen. At depth oxygen is toxic and can kill you in a matter of minutes. I grabbed it out of his mouth, so he grabbed my regulator out of my mouth as he was now starting to panic. He was holding onto me so tight I could not reach my octo so I reached for the octo of another diver. So here we were three divers locked together at 40 metres, each with a regulator in our mouths that belonged to someone else. I managed to get him calmed and off my cylinder and onto the octo of the deep diver with the most air. Now back to normal, we started our ascent and did the required safety stops, reached the 6 metre stop for them to switch to oxygen and headed for the surface. I reached the surface with 10 bar in my tank.

Deep dive
Ascending from the almost disastrous deep dive on Atlantis in Ponta do Ouro. Note the hang tank of pure oxygen.

My buddy had been to 55 m on a Nitrox mix of 32%. The maximum safe depth for this blend is 40 metres. He had almost sucked on a cylinder of oxygen at 40 metres, this is a lethal dose at depth. Mistakes happen. Be meticulous with dive planning, rehearse your incident scenarios and make sure you dive your plan.

Diving from a boat

There are divers around the world that will – and do – happily dive from all sorts of vessels. In some parts of the world diving takes place from reed rafts (Lake Malawi), from mokoros – similar to a hollowed out tree (some places in Mozambique), from canoes, jet skis, house boats (Lake Kariba), various hard boats and of course the most popular, rubber ducks. Their real name is semi rigid inflatables. People also use fold away inflatables with smaller motors in many places: these boats can be stored in your boot, inflated at the dive site, loose floor boards placed inside and a small outboard attached. All of this takes less than an hour and you are on your way to a dive site of your choice with a few buddies (only a few as they are small boats).

I will focus on the rubber ducks we use most often in South Africa, but most of these points apply to any type of vessel.

Much of the diving in South Africa and in many parts of Mozambique require a boat capable of taking 12 to 14 people and all their gear, and then being rugged enough to launch and return through rough surf, and then be able to withstand beaching. A dive boat with 10 divers, 10 sets of gear and all the safety gear can weigh around two tons. That’s a lot of weight when the boat is slammed onto the beach at a speed suitable to ensure it comes to a stop high enough out of the water so you can just step off.

Preparing to launch the boat
Pushing the boat into the water at Ponta do Ouro

There is a lot to a dive boat, irrespective of whether it is a hard boat, a huge live aboard or a rubber duck. They require maintenance, and this can easily be managed if divers just have a little respect for them. Sure, the owner/operator must be held responsible, but with a little attention to the small details they offer us as divers years of good service.

It goes without saying that you expect a boat to have all the necessary safety gear, life jackets, flares, first aid kit, emergency oxygen, tool kit etc. I believe you will find most operators following the law here. Just as motor cars need to pass a roadworthy test, so boats need a seaworthy inspection and to pass this there is a list of requirements to be met. Having met this, passed the inspection, mostoperators will usually comply, as a rule.

Be gentle

Almost all boats have a wooden or fibreglass deck. Tossing your gear around and dumping weight belts on the boat, all contribute to the damage sustained by operators, but often it is your foot, your regulator or pressure gauge or perhaps your expensive air integrated dive computer that gets damaged when someone tosses their weight belt on board. Always hand things up to the people on the boat, never toss them up.

Pontoons are tough and designed to withstand much abuse. However, the wire ring you used to fix your zip, the sharp edged cable ties on you gear, the rough edges of your cylinder boot, and your dive knife, all pose danger for the pontoon. Think about the pontoon when you drag your gear on and off the boat, and think about the grooves created by dragging kit over the pontoon time and time again.

The console up front usually houses all the electrical connections and switches for the boat’s electrical system, and just shoving all your belongings in there is not the way to go. Ask the skipper where you should put things as he/she will have a place for everything.

All skippers have a specific place for everything on their boats. Respect this as it makes it easier for the skipper to produce things for you on demand when you want them. Another important consideration is that it may be the place the first aid kit is kept and in an emergency it is annoying to a skipper to find their first aid kit has been replaced with a camera, cell phone and towel.

Loading the boat

When your gear is being loaded:

  • make sure you know where on the boat it is placed;
  • make sure you place your fins close by;
  • make sure your mask is there, either around your neck or in your fin (not on your head!);
  • make sure your weight belt is loaded and that you can recognise it;
  • and make sure you are kitted up and dressed ready to go when the boat leaves
Launching the boat at Ponta do Ouro
Divers climb aboard after pushing the boat into the sea at Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique

Launch times

Respect the launch times! You may be doing one dive and have all day, but there are others doing the next dive that are going to run late if you hold the boat up.

When the boat leaves the beach or the jetty, stay seated, feet in the foot straps and hold on tight. This is not the time to be walking around the boat passing the skipper your keys, glasses and cameras. This unbalances the boat and makes it harder to negotiate the surf or other boat traffic. This is also the time when you would fall off and blame the skipper.

Before the dive

At the dive site, follow the basic rule: be opposite your gear, and don’t expect heavy dive gear to be passed around on the boat. When the skipper comes round to put your gear on your back, make sure you are ready with the straps extended, the clips done or undone as you require, your air turned on, and that you have your weight belt on, right hand release. Don’t expect the skipper to do everything for you as it’s unfair on all the other divers who kit themselves up and are ready to roll two minutes after the boat stops, only to have to wait 10 minutes for you because you are on the wrong side of the boat, can’t find your mask, forgot what colour your fins are, etc. Finally, when you are all ready, the skipper will count you down. Go on the word “go” (or whatever word the skipper tells you to roll over on) – if you hesitate stay on the boat, or you may land on the person next to you and injure them.

On the surface
Divers preparing to descend after rolling off the boat

On the surface

At the end of the dive, signal you are OK once on the surface, then watch the boat as it approaches you. Don’t stick your face in the water and expect the boat not to run you over. Hand up your weight belt, camera, torch etc when the boat is alongside, but make sure the skipper has a firm grip on it before you release it. Just shoving it in his or her direction is no guarantee that the item won’t end up on the bottom.

When you hand your BCD and cylinder up, make sure your BCD has some air, but is not totally inflated. Make sure you give it a shove from the bottom and most of all, if possible give the skipper a chance to tie it down before you demand a hand-up. Once on the boat take care of your own kit, roll up your SMB, tuck your regulators away, and place your fins and mask out of harm’s way, preferably inside or close to your BCD. Make space for others to get into the boat, or better still, give them a hand. Don’t scatter your gear around, as a deck littered with fins, masks and cameras becomes a difficult place for a skipper to work and things will get broken… Your things!

After the dive

At the end of the dive make sure you collect all your gear as soon as possible. The boat may need to be loaded for the next launch and if you first get undressed, have a snack and then stroll over to the boat, it is likely your gear will be mixed up with the next load of divers’ gear.

Imagine this…

The boat arrives at the dive site, a few people are sitting at opposite ends of the boat to their kit, gear is passed around and a mask is crushed, someone starts bellowing, someone else drops his mask in the water as they are trying to rinse it while fully kitted up (rinse your mask first), they start whining, someone else who does not service their gear has a faulty regulator, they swear blind it was okay on the beach but you can see clearly the hose has been torn for months and is badly cracked, someone says “oops, I forgot my fins in the car”, so the skipper hauls out all the spares he has, gets everyone sorted out and you all roll back into the water.

Someone hesitates, and lands on another diver, gashing their head open with a cylinder, so the diver is hauled out of the water. The gash in their head requires bandaging, yet at the same time five hands appear next to the boat all demanding cameras. The skipper usees all his psychic skill to ensure everyone gets their own camera, then observes that a few divers are struggling to descend. The skipper hauls out the extra weights, sorts them out and down the divers go, all but one –  ”I forgot to put my weight belt on!” So they get sorted out and descend.

Twenty minutes into the dive someone pops out of the water like a cork, and gets hauled out of the water. As a safety measure the skipper administers oxygen. Their buddy surfaces a few minutes later, swims up to the boat and tosses their weight belt on board, landing on their buddies head.

These thing happen, fortunately very very seldom, but every diver wants to have a good time, a good dive and a pleasant boat trip, and if we all follow the instructions of the skipper, the Divemaster or Instructor and basic dive safely protocol, these things will not happen. Plan your dive and dive your plan.

On a typical day a skipper can easily see between 20 and 40 different people. It is not possible for the skipper to remember what your weight belt looks like, what colour your fins were and what gear you are using, so make it easier by being responsible for your gear. If you have rental gear it will often be numbered: remember the numbers, remember the colour of your fins and mask, so keeping all your kit together in one spot on the boat will make this easier.

Driving a boat is easy?

Boats look really easy to drive: a steering wheel, a control box that puts the boat in gear and accelerates all at the same time, no clutch, no hand brake, no turn signals, wide open expanse of ocean to drive in – it stands to reason it must be really easy. And it is: on a nice calm day with flat seas, no wind, and no swell, it is real easy to place a boat precisely in the spot you want it, run it up next to the jetty and come to a stop millimeters from the side.

Surf launch in Mozambique
Launching through the surf at Ponta do Ouro in Mozambique

But on a day when the wind is humping, there is a big swell and lots of other boat traffic it becomes a little more challenging. If you are asked by the skipper to sit down, keep your feet in the foot straps and hold on, then do so, as he/she probably knows better. A skipper doing surf launches needs to concentrate only on the boat while launching and beaching. Don’t walk around, shout at them or hand them things as they are reading the water, the swell, and the gap that is forming out at the back line and making a decision to go or not to go. Your safety is their primary concern. Once committed to the break in the swells it is not easy to change your mind.

Beaching the boat after a dive in Ponta do Ouro
Beaching the boat after a dive in Ponta do Ouro

In a nutshell…

Pay attention to the boat briefing as the skipper has the responsibility for your safety. Make it easy for him to keep you safe. In an emergency you will expect the skipper to produce a first aid kit in a flash, produce pure oxygen in an instant and radio for help in an extreme emergency. This will happen, and your emergency will be dealt with expertly, if the skipper finds his first aid kit accessible, his oxygen set at hand and his radio functioning. But if you shoved your bag in the console and ripped wires out of the radio, dumped your personal bag of clothing on the first aid kit, moved the oxygen somewhere else on the boat to make space for your camer – when these things happen all they do is delay the reaction time of the help that you the diver need.

Pay attention to the dive briefing. Chances are the dive master has been there many times before and is speaking from experience. If you are unsure of something, ask – there are no stupid questions, and the only stupid mistake is not asking if you are unsure.

Many divers have done hundreds and in some cases thousands of dives, all incident free, all enjoyable and all conducted safely and this is largely due to their own exceptional skills, and exceptional skills held by skippers and divemaster coupled to a level of boat etiquette we all have or should have. This is just one more reason to dive, to enjoy the wonders the ocean never fails to deliver.

Bookshelf: Diving science and physiology books

Sound boring? Doesn’t have to be. While your Divemaster instruction manual might make this stuff sound very dry, learning about what happens to the human body while breathing gas under pressure doesn’t have to be. Find some inspiration from this reading list when your theory gets too boring, or remind yourself of what you’re supposed to know already (if you’re a bit rusty).

For beginning divers:

Recommended reading for Divemaster candidates:

Scuba accidents and how to avoid them: