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Boat diving: Top tips for your first trip

Photographs by Mark Evans
Photographs by Mark Evans
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MARTIN SAMPSON offers tips on everything from gearing up, entries and exits to communicating to best effect with the skipper. Photography by MARK EVANS

Gearing up

On the actual day of boat diving, aim to arrive a little earlier than required, because tides wait for no one. You can then set up your kit at a leisurely pace. Turn up late, and the stress caused by time pressure might mar your experience of the whole day.

Kitting up on the boat
Kitting up

The skipper or crew will tell you where to stow your gear. At this point, you quickly realise that the large boat you saw on arrival doesn’t look that large any more. You can help by stowing your scuba diving equipment as tidily as you can.

A cheap and useful accessory is a net goody bag in which you can stow your mask, snorkel, fins, DSMB and so on. A tidy deck helps to prevent accidental breakages of equipment under unsteady feet. 

Before the vessel departs, the skipper should give everyone a boat-safety briefing. This will include such details as where to find the oxygen and first-aid kits. On liveaboards this will be more comprehensive, and will be found in a folder to which passengers can refer during the charter. 

Entry methods

Assessing the waters before a dive
Assessing the waters before a dive

Getting kitted up on a moving deck or in a cramped RIB isn’t always easy – don’t be afraid to ask for help. Once into your gear, remain seated and try to lean back so that the weight is transferred from your shoulders to the inflatable sponson or bench seat.

From RIBs and smaller hardboats, the usual entry method is a backward roll with your dive equipment. Just before you exit, make sure that loose items such as cameras, gauges and torches are secure in your lap so that they don’t get snagged on items such as rope-handles on the side of the boat.

From larger boats, there will usually be a step entry from the deck or a platform. As you move to the exit point, be aware that modern plastic fins might skid on a wet deck. I usually fit my fins right beside the exit point.

Make sure that you don’t actually exit the boat until the skipper has definitely said “Go!” I once saw a diver exit a liveaboard boat when it was still doing six knots, and was more than 200m from the drop-off point. To make matters worse, our premature diver had forgotten to put his fins on. By the time he had been retrieved, time had marched on and we had missed our slackwater period.

Just before you leave the boat, don’t forget to put some air into your BC and put one hand across your mask.

All set for scuba diving!
All set for scuba diving!

Dive and re-entry

The rest of the dive will, we hope, go as planned, but during the ascent don’t forget that there is a boat somewhere above you. Once you have completed your safety stop, look up to make sure that you are not right underneath the boat, especially if its engine is still running. 

Hardboats will normally have an easy-climb boat ladder, and the better ones are designed so that you can climb them in full kit, including fins. Make sure that you keep your mask on, regulator or snorkel in, and have plenty of buoyancy just in case you fall back in. Better still, many hardboats have powered lifts that make getting aboard almost effortless.

A sneak peak from the dive
Re-entry

When retrieving divers, be prepared to help others de-kit and move across the deck. Most of us are unsteady on our feet after being weightless under water, and this is the moment when divers can fall, hurt themselves and damage gear.

With RIB diving, you will normally de-kit in the water – always pass your weights up first before taking off your BC. It’s also very helpful to have someone lean over the side of the boat to hold onto you so that you can use both hands to remove gear without drifting out of reach.

Heading back after scuba diving
Heading back after diving

Plan for a great diving expedition

Research as much as you can about the vessel, skipper and crew before booking. Try to get feedback from past customers about the boat, so that you know how it operates and whether it suits your needs. Also, check whether the skipper is a diver – a skipper with good experience with scuba diving equipment will have an excellent idea of what is possible on your trip.

Speak to the skipper, and ask him to provide you with a basic itinerary of what is usually covered during a charter, though bear in mind that plans are normally “weather permitting”, and not set in stone.

If you have a list of particular sites you want visit, chat with the skipper, because sometimes what you think is do-able might not be possible because of tides, distance or some other reason.

If planning an expedition to somewhere exposed, offshore or distant, be prepared to have to go elsewhere if the long-term weather forecast is unfavourable. Ask the skipper’s advice about plan Bs, and don’t get mission-fixated.

Sometimes plan B sites can be just as good, and in general doing some diving is better than doing none at all. A good skipper would prefer to have you diving rather than tied up in the harbour, so keep your options open.

Top Tip - Avoiding seasickness: - Stay hydrated - especially in hot climates. Upset stomach may not actually be from ‘dodgy' food or suspect water, but simply dehydration.

Avoid caffeine and alcohol, and eat good food - you might not feel like eating, but the energy can help defeat seasickness.

If you take anti-seasickness pills, try them out on shallow dives first in case they exacerbate nitrogen narcosis. Take them about one to two hours before going afloat.

If you start to feel ill, sit somewhere towards the stern of the boat but not near the engine exhaust. On a liveaboard you might be better off sleeping in your bunk.

Ask the skipper to take you to sheltered sites.

Ask about what scuba diving equipment you need to bring and what is provided (weights, gas etc). Very importantly, turn up with full cylinders ready to dive, because sometimes the first dive can be before breakfast.

Have a good spares kit and liaise with the rest of the group so that there isn’t too much duplication, because space is normally at a premium onboard (no need to bring the kitchen sink).

Ask for a sample menu, because good food onboard is just as important as good diving with the best dive equipment. In some cases, it can be crucial in keeping up morale, as when the weather prevents diving.

Most importantly, build up a good working relationship with the skipper and crew. Communication is critical both ways when the weather intervenes and you have to fall back on plan B.

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