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Our panel of experts offer some useful hints and advice on how best to dive from hard boats
Following on from last month’s focus on RIB diving, this issue we turn our attentions to hard boats. Stable, more spacious and with some creature comforts – toilet, galley for those essential teas, coffees and tasty snacks, and in some cases diver lifts – hard boats can deliver you to dive sites that are out of reach of smaller vessels. Then there is the ultimate hard boat diving – on a liveaboard, where you stay and dine on board, and dive three, four or even five times a day. Depending on the dive location and depth, you don’t have to be an experienced diver to venture out on a hard boat, they offer a great way for newly qualified divers to get some decent dive time under their weight belt. However, there are some do’s and don’ts, and the following nuggets of information from our agency experts will help you get the most from your hard boat diving days.
Advanced Instructor and BSAC Chair Alex ‘Woz’ Warzynski said: “A hard boat provides a great platform for exploring dive sites that are a bit more out of the way and are not the more common, regular sites. It’s tempting just to use a hard boat as a water taxi to take you to the old favourites, but with a bit of research, a bit of planning and the right team of divers, it can be a much more interesting prospect. Even if you’re diving the regular sites, arriving with a bit of knowledge about the tides, weather and what to expect underwater will help everyone on board enjoy themselves that little bit more.
“Coming on board with every bit of dive kit you own could be tricky in the limited available space on a hard boat. I set up my kit the night before the trip, make sure everything works, then there are no surprises when you get on board, such as an empty cylinder or leaking reg. So far in nearly 30 years, I’ve never missed a dive due to badly prepared kit.
“On arrival, I tend to leave the bag or box in the car, and just take everything to the boat ready to use – as a guide, if you are single-cylinder diving, you should be able to do this in one trip from the car. I find those big blue Ikea bags perfect for chucking the kit for the day into, slinging over a shoulder and walking to the boat. The only extras I take on board is normally lunch, a bottle of water and something to keep the sun off if we are lucky with the weather.
“Fortunately I don’t get seasick, but as others do, that water also comes in useful if people are ill. There are the usual remedies of medication (Stugeron is okay, but there are meds that contain an ingredient that increases your chances of decompression illness, so please make sure you check). For divers who get hit hard, there are even some funky glasses you can wear that, although make you look a bit silly, give your eyes an artificial horizon to prevent motion sickness.
TDI’s Business Development Manager Mark Powell said: “Make a reservation with a reputable dive boat/dive shop. Don’t know one where you’re going? Do some research. You’d be surprised how much better your day will be when you have a trained, experienced crew and a highly organised boat. Look for a boat that carries emergency oxygen and ideally has a crew person in addition to the skipper.
“Take care to pack your certification card and check any gear you’re taking with you. Make sure it is all in working order before you get on the boat. If renting gear, ensure the correct gear is reserved before your arrival. When you arrive check that the rental gear is as expected and works correctly.
“On the day of the dive, get up early and get to the boat early. You will be so much more relaxed and ready to enjoy the day if you and your gear are loaded and squared away before the mad rush. An early arrival may also give you a chance to chat with the crew and get to know them. It also allows you time to find a parking space, which is not always easy in some seaside towns.
“Once you get onboard, unpack your gear and start getting ready. That early arrival may help you do that without being crowded. Try to keep your gear compact, and stow what you don’t need. Your dive gear should fit under your bench seat and your BCD set-up should not be all over the place. On smaller boats, set up your gear and stow whatever you don’t need to dive. Of course, if the crew tells you that there’s room, feel free to spread out and get comfortable.
“Talk to the crew and ask questions! If there is something you’re unsure of, or would like to know, just ask. The crew is there specifically to help you, to keep you safe, and to make your day enjoyable. Never leave something unsaid that may cause you to worry. The more you know, the calmer you’ll be, and you’ll enjoy the day more. The more the crew knows about you, the more fun you’ll have. If you’re a new or inexperienced diver, make sure to let the crew know! If you may have trouble on descent, or if your safety stop ascent is a little shaky, let the crew know. The more you tell them about your dive level, what you expect from the dive, etc, the more fun you’ll have and the safer you’ll be. Know your dive comfort zone. If you’re an open water certified diver and the dive is planned for a wreck at 30m, let the crew know you’re not certified to that level. The crew should always be able to make accommodations for you. You should never dive past your training and certification!
“Be sure to listen to everything going on. Listen to the Captain’s welcome message and listen to the crew’s briefing. Don’t talk to your buddies or fuss with your gear. Important safety messages and dive procedures are included in these briefings. Your fun and safety may depend on knowing what was said. There should be plenty of time before and after these briefings to take care of everything. And some of your questions may get answered before you even ask! And for your own sake and those on the boat with you, always follow crew instructions. The crew’s only goal is to make sure you’re safe while having an awesome, fun time.
“The trip is over. You’ll probably be briefed about the unloading procedure. You’ve had a great time and you’re back at the dock. Wait for the crew to secure the boat before you try to get off. Once your gear is off the boat, gather it up and get yourself squared away. Be considerate to other people when loading and unloading, and don’t leave cars blocking access while you unload.
“Remember to have fun! And let others know what a great time you had. A kind word and thank you to the crew, the owners, and a nice thank you or review on Facebook, TripAdvisor, etc, is also always welcome.”
Garry Dallas, Director of Training RAID UK and Malta, said: “You’ve finally got yourself booked on a charter hard-boat or a luxury liveaboard. As you’re motoring out to the open ocean, there’s some etiquette to consider when it comes to hard boat diving.
“In many ways, it’s not dissimilar to RHIB diving (see last month’s article), fundamentally you’re on a bigger vessel, but safety is always key to enjoying your boat diving experiences.
“Your skipper/tour leader will always brief you thoroughly. Pay close attention – they want you to enjoy it too. Remember, just because you’re on a bigger boat and have more space, don’t spread your gear out more. There may be a lot more people who also need to get around you! Keeping your gear together reduces the risk of loss and damage. Simply manage your gear as you would do on a smaller vessel, others will appreciate it too and follow suit. Mark-up/personalise your gear to avoid any awkwardness. Make sure your gear is secured and that it won’t fall over should the boat pitch or roll.
“Be aware of slippery decks and deck ladders when moving around the vessel, especially when barefoot. With larger groups diving, there’s usually a system for entering and exiting the water and stowing your equipment away for refills for the next dive. Listen carefully to these procedures to avoid kitting up a spent tank and the stress that ensues.
“If you suffer from seasickness, here’s some tips for you – the eyes normally see the world that is still, while our body’s equilibrium sensors in our inner ears send signals of a moving environment to the brain. This confusion causes unrest in the body, then tiredness and nausea kicks in. Get plenty of sleep, avoid greasy foods and alcohol, and take suitable seasickness tablets for divers. Keep busy or look at the horizon, stay in fresh air and don’t go on the top deck where there’s more roll. Stay close to the centre of the vessel or the stern, not the bow. Drink fresh water every 15 minutes and stay out of the sun. Try not to sleep as it often makes it worse.
“Finally, make sure your equipment is tip-top before you get on the boat and never rush anything, enjoy!”
GUE’s John Kendall commented: “As with any boat dive, it's best to have your equipment all set up and checked before you leave harbour. Try to arrive with plenty of time before the advertised ‘ropes off ‘time, and introduce yourself to the skipper. Ask them how they want the boat loaded, and remember that most UK hard boats take ten to 12 divers, so even if it looks like there's plenty of space, this doesn't mean that you should bring every last piece of diving equipment that you own. Just bring what you need. Big advantages of hard boat diving generally include the ability to make hot drinks, and also to travel to the dive site out of the weather, but follow the skipper's instructions about where you can and can't go in a wet dive suit. Finally, try not to block the toilet – most marine toilets won't deal with anything that hasn't first passed through you.”
Vikki Batten, PADI Course Director, TecRec Instructor Trainer and Director of Rebreather Technologies, Technical Diving Division, said: “UK skippers are some of the best in the world and usually very knowledgeable about sea conditions and the dive sites they drop you on. But you should also educate yourself – the PADI RNLI Distinctive Specialty Diver course was developed with the RNLI to educate divers about safety at sea.
“Listen to the briefing about entering and existing the water carefully, techniques may be very different to what you have experienced diving in other locations. If you don’t know why someone is telling you to do something just ask, there will always be a good reason and it is usually safety related.
“When you’re in the water remain alert and focused. Stay aware of boats, buddies, buoys and lines, that makes it easier for the skipper and buddies to communicate with you if they need to, and for you to respond to any change in circumstances.”
Jonas Samuelsson, PADI Course Director, TecRec Instructor Trainer and Territory Director for Egypt (among other areas), commented: “My favourite hardboats are liveaboards, and its hard to explain the feeling when you departing from the harbour on the way to an amazing reef or wreck. Your day on a liveaboard consists of three favourites of mine – sleep, eat, dive – repeat. I love all kinds of diving, but the advantage of being on a liveaboard is that you are able to reach some of the most-spectacular dive sites… and the food, of course. My last liveaboard trip was in Egypt and we enjoyed sharks, turtles, rays and wrecks during a five-day trip. I can’t wait to go back. Just be aware when diving on liveaboards to ensure that you discuss your certification and experience level with the dive operator so they can give advice which trip is most suitable for you.”
Emily Petley Jones, PADI Course Director and Regional Training Consultant, said: “One of the most-challenging aspects to diving from a hardboat can be the exit. You should listen very carefully to this section in the brief, as there are many variations as to what you should do when you exit. If using a ladder when you exit, you should make a note of what sort of ladder it is. If it is an open ladder (where there are no sides), you can leave your fins on to climb back on-board and slide your feet in from the sides. If it is a closed ladder, then you should remove your fins before you climb on. Make sure that you always have one hand on the boat, or a line connected to the boat before you take off your fins! One of the most-common concerns for skippers is divers crowding around the ladder. Always give each other space, and ensure that only one diver is on the ladder at a time, and more importantly, that the base of the ladder is clear in case they fall back into the water. Some ladders have a tendency to pivot as the boat rocks in the water, try to get your weight on the ladder as soon as you can as this will help stop it from swinging quite so much.”
IANTD’s Kieran Hatton said: “Divers are like gas, they expand into the space they have available! This is fine when you’re the only diver on the boat, but something of a problem when you are with nine other like-minded individuals.
“Diving offshore requires a degree of organisation and team planning. When boarding a boat, people will find their seat, this may be on a ‘George always sits there’, or a first-come, first-served basis (mine is the one by the gate). Either way, once you have your seat, best to stick with it for the week, ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ and all that.
“Different trips are going to require different equipment, but much like diving, only take what you need, space will always be limited. If diving on a liveaboard for multiple days, then it will be a good idea to take spares and tools. If a long run out for a single dive at slack water is the order of the day then there is little point, if you are not ready to go when the skipper says go, the dive window will be closed anyway. Be ready before you leave the quay, trying to fix a rebreather while traveling at 20 knots is not a lot of fun.
“Bring food! Food to share (don’t forget about the veggies), a long run back to shore is better on a full stomach.
“Last but not least, buy the skipper and crew a pint – it is long day out and too often a thankless task looking after divers.”
He jokingly added: “Oh, and did I mention – don’t sit in my seat!”