The reason I’ve been wearing flip flops to the office

It’s been a while since I put a picture of my feet on the internet, and this is my first diving injury to speak of in almost 110 dives. So this is to demonstrate that fifteen litre cylinders do not mix well with feet, even feet wearing 5 millimetre booties.

Nicely bruised foot
Nicely bruised foot

Excuse the brutally chopped toenails. I put the cylinder down on my foot while unpacking the boat after our dive on the Cape Matapan. Next time I’ll just take my own kit (with my 10 or 12 litre cylinder) off and let Tami carry her own fifteen!

Keeping warm in the Cape

Cape Town water is not warm. The Atlantic ocean’s temperature ranges between 8 and 13 degrees, while False Bay can be anywhere between 10 degrees (very unusual) to 20 degrees (also rather unusual, and generally combined with visibility that can be measured in centimetres rather than metres), with an average somewhere around the 15 degree mark.

Being cold increases your risk of decompression sickness, and it makes you stupid and slow, and hence a danger to yourself and your buddy. It dimishes your enjoyment of the dive and can lead you to get out of the water when you still have plenty of air and time at your disposal.

Here are a couple of suggestions – tried and tested by Tony, a lifelong warm-water diver, and me, a boat-diving wussy…

Gear

Justin demonstrates the virtues of a good wetsuit
Justin demonstrates the virtues of a good wetsuit

Ah, you say, cold water means you need a drysuit, or at least a nice thick (5mm plus a 5mm shorty on top, or otherwise at least 7mm) wetsuit to keep out the chill. This is true, but there are three other essential components to a Cape diver’s gear that can make a HUGE difference.

Booties

Get thick booties – the thickest ones you can find, especially if you have poor circulation. If you can, wear them with the cuffs inside your wetsuit.

Thick booties on the boat
Thick booties on the boat

Gloves

Gloves, at least 3mm thick, are essential. Don’t try and dive without them – you won’t be able to operate your camera or inflator hose after a while. Your fingers are not well-insulated. Again, tuck gloves into your sleeves if you can.

Hoodie

The hoodie is actually the most essential part of your gear. While it appears to be a myth that the majority of body heat is lost through your head, if it’s the only part of you that’s exposed, it WILL be the primary source of heat loss. Heat loss through the head increases with exercise up to a point, and like the hands, your head is not well insulated for the most part.

When Tony moved to Cape Town from Mozambique a year ago, he was quite resistant to wearing a hoodie, and got very, very cold (almost paralysed after a dive… not good) for the first while. He found a loose hoodie (not attached to his wetsuit) that didn’t make him feel restricted, and we are now able to do one hour dives in 12 degree water with relative ease (as long as we don’t sit around TOO much). I think this has been the greatest assistance to him in adapting to the 10 degree lower temperatures here, compared to further north.

Other techniques

A couple of other techniques that have worked for us…

Move about

If you get cold, swim a bit. We tend to stay still for longish periods, interacting with fish or taking photos or just looking, and this tends to cause one to get cold quite fast. Go for a short swim when you start getting chilled – it makes a big difference.

Wear a jacket on the boat ride

One of those cheap and nasty anoraks with a white flannel lining can transform your boat ride – specially the ride back to the slipway, after you’re wet. Put it on straight over your wetsuit. This can make a huge difference as it almost eliminates wind chill on your torso.

Buying soft gear

Booties

Buying booties is a safe bet as (unless you’re still growing) your feet won’t change size nor will they overheat in warm climates. If you plan to dive in Cape Town (or any other cold water location), rather go for a thick pair of at least 5mm – believe me, it makes a huge difference!

Mask

Buy an entry level mask so if it needs replacement a few months later it is not a huge financial loss. Besides, a spare mask is always a bonus. Before you decide on a mask try a black skirted mask (the skirt is the soft rubbery material around the glass) and focus on the angle of vision, then try a clear skirted mask and see how different the angle of vision is. Remember that the bigger the mask the greater the volume of water it will hold, so if you despised the mask clearing skill during your training avoid a huge volume mask if possible. Nothing spoils a perfect dive more than a leaky, uncomfortable mask.

Underwater
Choose your mask carefully...
Masks
The black mask holds 180ml of water, while the blue mask on the right holds 370ml - that's more than a full can of cooldrink!

Wetsuit

If your body shape is not “average” (and very few of us are) then an off the shelf wetsuit will most likely not fit as well as a custom made one. Don’t be fooled into believing that a custom made suit is way more expensive – it seldom is – and most wetsuit manufacturers will adjust, re-shape and modify the suit later to ensure a perfect fit. It’s also fairly easy to adjust a wetsuit after the fact if your body shape or composition changes drastically. Ask a lot of questions before buying a wetsuit and try them all on. Too often the effort of getting in and out of a wetsuit in a dive centre makes the second or third one feel comfortable by default… you’re too tired to keep going.

Some things to think about: where do you want the zips – front or back, straight or on the diagonal? How long should they be? Two piece or one piece? Do you want a separate hoodie, or do you want it attached to the suit? How thick should the suit be? What should the neckline be like?

Fins

Fin styles and size are varied and depending on your level of fitness, swimming skills and diving style, the difference between a huge heavy fin and a lightweight shorter fin will make a huge difference to the incidence of cramp whilst diving. Fins also affect your buoyancy and your profile underwater.

Fins
Fins come in a range of size and shapes. Don't call them flippers!

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.