There are two basic reasons cruisers jump over the side: because they want to or because they have to.
The want-to department consists of snorkeling and scuba diving and hunting for seafood to spear or collect, but also cooling down, swimming a lap around the boat for exercise, or taking a salt-water bath.
The have-to department, however, is mostly boat chores: cleaning the waterline and the bottom, untangling monofilament or nets from the propeller, checking an anchor’s set, and sighting or actually moving an anchor or its rode to retrieve it when fouled. Oh, yeah, and retrieving important items – like prescription sunglasses (ahem!) – when dropped overboard.
People often ask me, when they learn I’m a dive instructor and used to run my boat in charter, how best to set up themselves up for diving.
Well….It’s all got to start with training. Most people know you’re supposed to take a certification course to scuba dive, but I’ve often met uncertified cruisers with dive gear aboard “for emergencies.” Believe me: that can BE an emergency in itself.
Certification courses include a range of water skills (for snorkeling and skin diving as well as scuba) but also not-so-obvious academic knowledge which will keep you out of trouble, particularly when the unexpected happens.
Cruising divers in remote locations need more training not less. For the kind of diving cruisers seek, you should have at least Advanced Open Water certification. A good instructor can tailor many of the skills taught to cruisers’ particular needs, such as how to search for a lost stern anchor or use a lift bag to recover a dropped outboard.
Finally, when great gaps of time appear in our logbooks, we should never be too macho to take refresher courses or dive a few times with supervision. Rusty skills are almost scarier than no skills! Oh, the things I have seen!
Fortunately, refreshers are easily found at most resorts; it’s why so many Admirals like to mix diving with resort operations with diving on their own.
And let’s look at snorkeling. Many people assume they don’t need training to snorkel.
Next time you snorkel with a group, compare how they handle themselves in the water – how they kick, surface dive, purge their snorkels or masks of water, and whether they keep their mask in place or are always pulling it off.
Nine times out ten the competent snorkelers will have had skin diver training in a scuba class. Even if you really don’t want to scuba dive, most dive shops will make skin diver training available if you ask.
Mask, snorkel, and fins
Regarding equipment, cruising divers need to think through the kind of diving they’ll actually do and where they’ll be doing it. Mask, snorkel, fins, suits and weight belts are personal gear, and most cruisers keep their own aboard.
Spend money on a good mask, properly fit to your face and with prescription lenses if you need them, plus a good snorkel. If you’re headed for warm water consider more comfortable full-foot scuba fins instead of traditional open-heel fins with booties, but avoid undersize snorkeling fins. Fins need to be stout enough to cope with currents, but not so big or stiff they become work or are awkward to stow.
Full-body dive skins, whether thin Lycra or thicker, lined versions, are another good investment. They will protect you from stinging things, coral abrasions and sunburn, plus they dry quickly and pack small. For more warmth, skip right over shortie wetsuits to jumpsuits. You’ll want it eventually, and in cooler waters (eg Baja, Galapagos or New Caledonia) we were glad we had neoprene hoods, gloves and socks on hand.
Vacationing divers rarely carry their own weight belts, but as cruisers we often keep two: one for diving in wetsuits and another lighter one for skin-diving. The easily-adjustable pocket-style belts also are easier on decks.
If you want to dive on your own or be prepared to cope with lost anchors and underwater boat chores, you will need to carry at least your own tanks, BCs and regulators.
Gung-ho divers will want their own compressors to refill tanks wherever they might be.
We carried a Bauer 3.5cfm gas compressor in a deck box on our aft deck with four 80cu/ft tanks secured on each side.
Aboard the 37’ Lady Galadriel, they carry a comparable-size Rix compressor in their forward sail locker and strap four 65cu/ft tanks to side-deck fenderboards.
(Aluminum 80s or 65s are typical tanks found aboard cruising boats, the size chosen based on boat size, diver size and air consumption.)
The Soggy Paws crew, planning higher latitude sailing, stow both compressor and tanks below. This is safer and keeps weight lower but makes it a major endeavor to dig it all out to dive.
Having your own compressor is the ultimate luxury for scuba divers, but they’re expensive, bulky, heavy and require fuel.
A quite satisfactory compromise is the choice Procyon made, to carry four tanks (two apiece), and personal dive gear.
This arrangement leaves them prepared to dive some on their own (or with friends who have compressors!) as well as to deal with boat emergencies. Then they mix in dives with resort boats when they come into port for tank fills.
Or you might consider a hookah rig. While a “hookah rig” can refer to a regulator with a single long hose like the one we slap on a tank on deck and hang over the side for bottom cleaning, it can also be a small independent gas or electric compressor like the Brownie Third Lung Zeelander has aboard. This provides compressed air via one or two long hoses enabling close-to-the-boat diving, but it can’t fill a tank.
If you decide to have tanks aboard, each diver should have his/her own BC and regulator. Choose basic, easy-to-maintain, compact models, and make sure the BC fits properly. I hate seeing a small woman “swimming” in her husband’s gear!
If you don’t plan to carry your own tanks, there’s little reason to invest in your own BCs and regulators. The days of iffy rental equipment seem be to over. You give up, however, the option to dive on your own.
Finally, independent divers should always carry an emergency O2 bottle available through your membership in Divers Alert Network (DAN) which you definitely don’t want to cruise without!
Setting up the boat
As for setting up the boat itself, criteria I sought when boat hunting were space on deck to handle scuba gear and space somewhere aboard to stow it. Catamarans have the space, but don’t like the weight; monohulls handle the weight, but make you work for the space.
Belatedly, after choosing a monohull with a high freeboard, I realized how important ease of getting in and out of the water was, not to mention loading gear into the dinghy.
Catamarans usually have nice stern boarding areas, but aft cockpit monohulls with boarding gates or sugar scoops can also work well.
I solved my challenges with a stout custom stern ladder and a fore-and-aft tether system to hold the dinghy alongside for loading and unloading. This actually works better than trying to load off the stern.
Dinghy & outboard
And speaking of the dinghy, there’s the issue of getting into IT from the water, not to mention of getting it up on a plane when loaded with people and gear.
Inflatable RIBs with flat floorboards, medium-size pontoons, and an outboard 15hp or better are ideal for carrying two divers and their gear.
Preparing your boat to be a practical platform for all the snorkeling and diving you want to do while cruising is best addressed well ahead of departure. Although opportunities for training and purchasing equipment do exist in most tropical destinations, choices may be more limited and more expensive.
This article was published in the June 2010 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.
Related articles (on this website)
- #46 – Water, Water Everywhere (Admiral’s Angle column)
- Fitness Resources (lists several scuba diving resources)
- Gwen took her SCUBA passion cruising (Women and Cruising blog)
- Laurie’s epic journey to conquer her hear of water (Women and Cruising blog)