Small boat diving entails many risks and should always be done with careful planning and with a companion. It requires competent seamanship and diving skills and a balance between daring and common sense because of the very small margin for error it allows.
Have you ever done it off a canoe or a personal watercraft? It is possible – tricky, but possible!
Necessity is the mother of invention and divers who need to get farther offshore than they can swim have used many types of surface support craft to get to that important dive location.
Some of these vessels were certainly more practical and repeatable than others. There is probably a desperation and financial ability litmus test that could be applied to the different conveyances. In researching this article, veterans diving the East, West and Florida coasts and Midwest fresh water were asked to confess to every “boat” they had ever used.
While gathering these confessions, I heard stories that could be made into award winning comedy videos. Highlights of these gems are included as cautions in this report.
Table of Contents
What Is Small Boat Diving?
One person thought it was diving on a small rowboat sunk in his local quarry but most divers accept the concept of diving from a small boat. What is a small boat? Here’s a range of opinions: speed boat, rowboat, raft – inflatable or wood, personal watercraft – jet ski, canoe, inflatable, kayak, sailboat, pontoon boat, Jet Mate and long surfboard.
Within this short list there is definitely a range of comfort levels and investments. Each could be used appropriately in a specific diving environment and could be a disaster in another. Common sense, physical ability and some basic “sea-sense” are your guideposts.
These small boats need to be practical and meet the safety requirements for diving. When you select a conveyance, ask yourself these questions before beginning a day’s diving.
- Can I operate this watercraft?
- Do I know how to troubleshoot basic mechanical problems?
- Is the boat capable of operating in current weather conditions.
- If I get out of the boat, can I get back in by myself?
- Will the boat be there when I return from a dive?
- Where and how will the dive gear be stowed securely?
Can I Operate This Watercraft?
Driving a boat appears to be pretty simple. However, there is a tremendous range of seamanship skills that keep the boat right side up and running. The rules of the road, which regulate who has right of way, when and how to use lights, navigation markers, etc., govern the movement of boating traffic. Just like learning to drive a car, you need to learn and practice skippering a boat.
The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, school districts and yacht clubs offer organized boating safety courses. A friend experienced with similar types of boats on the local waters can also be a good teacher. Before you are the captain, be certain you can bring the vessel and passengers back safely. There are plenty of informative seamanship books to study before you take the wheel. Interestingly, anyone with the money or credit can buy a pleasure boat, launch it and motor or sail away with no operator’s license required. A U.S. Coast Guard license is required as soon as you take a passenger for hire out on your boat. Technically, as soon as something of value is exchanged, the skipper needs an operator’s license and the boat must meet Coast Guard equipment requirements.
Operating a boat takes practice to develop the finesse not to slam into the dock, run over the anchorline, go dead in the water or crash off the backside of swells. The marine environment changes every day – sandbars shift, tides flow, waves and surge affect the surface water. There is no substitute for practical experience in dealing with these ever changing conditions.
Veteran boaters can recount tales of running over their own anchorlines, wrapping line on the drive shaft or prop and being dead in the water – usually as darkness approaches. Every radio goes dead some day in its life. If it is foggy and you are vague about the harbor heading, someone will let a scuba tank fall over and smash the compass. Your motto should be: Expect the unexpected.
With government budget cuts, the Coast Guard doesn’t rush out to pick up disabled boats (assuming you have a radio to call for help). Private firms such as Vessel Assist off Southern California are called to tow disabled boats back to the harbor. If you are a member it is embarrassing and a minor expense. If you are not a member, bring your credit cards. It is much cheaper to check your battery and fuel tank before leaving the dock.
Even seasoned boat operators need to be reminded that lakes, oceans and streams are not forgiving of someone “having a bad day” or consuming alcohol. On the water, even more than on the highways, accidents happen in a split second, with tragic results as passengers are thrown from the boat or engulfed in flames.
Do I Know How To Troubleshoot?
One East Coast diver recalls seeing a new boat owner’s wife reading the directions aloud as he cranked over the engine the first time. It is amazing the number of people who use outboard motors and cannot change a spark plug or a bent prop.
A Pacific Northwest fuel dock hand tells the story of a boat owner who though 80 gallons of fuel was a lot for his 18 foot runabout – so he asked before he left the dock. Turns out he had just filled the air space between the hull and the interior liner of the boat!
Do you know how to turn on and off every device on your boat? If it does not turn on, what are the first three things you would check? Do you have backup parts or systems if key mechanical parts fail? Do you have basic tools onboard, plus specialized tools required for key equipment? You don’t have to know how to overhaul an outboard, but you should know the basic things to check when a motor won’t start, running lights are out or the boat won’t steer.
Can This Vessel Safely Operate In Today’s Conditions?
A little experience, common sense and good judgment go a long way in answering this question. Lake Superior divers have made safe, enjoyable dives in everything from a rowboat to a 40 foot charter boat. But, when a sudden squall hits Superior, no boat may be big enough for a smooth, dry ride.
Florida Keys divers enjoy scuba from a two person Jet Mate personal watercraft boat but Texas divers might say it’s not right for their waters. Monterey, California divers use ocean kayaks with great success and other divers just shake their heads at the prospect. It all depends upon the dive site’s distance offshore, swell size, other boating traffic in the area, air and water temperatures and sloppiness of the surface water.
Dive gear is heavy and bulky. You may need to limit the number of divers to two, since four may not fit comfortably or safely. In selecting a small boat consider how to tie down the equipment while you are running to the dive site. The weight of the equipment and people will make the boat ride differently through the water and may affect the amount of freeboard, steering response and side-to-side roll. A vessel, like a canoe, could roll over – is everything tied securely in place?
Have you listened to the marine weather or read today’s notices posted at the launch ramp or marina? Weather is extremely changeable in some areas. Knowing the local signs of certain shaped clouds, barometer readings, water/land temperature differences and other cues help you predict good boating weather.
Help, I’m In The Water And Can’t Get Out
Don’t laugh. Nearly everyone diving from a small boat has gotten “stuck” in the water. Less agile or overweight divers have some great stories to tell. Suffice it to say that getting back into a small boat can be a challenge.
Before you scuba from a boat, try a skin diving run at your entry and exit plan. Enter by rolling off the side, stepping off the deck or however you plan to get wet. Be conscious of not swamping the vessel as your weight shifts off the boat. Then, in skin diving gear, try to get back in the vessel by yourself. This can be a challenge. On small motor boats, re-entry is usually over the transom, using engine parts as foot holds. Be aware of the sharp propeller, which can slice through a bootie in a flash. In a rowboat, re-entry is on your stomach or over the transom with another person acting as a counterweight on the bow (in the water or in the boat).
A canoe is a real test. One way to enter is on your stomach on the boat’s side by swinging in one leg, hooking your foot under a cross bar and then leveraging the rest of your body into the boat until you plop into the bottom on your face. Someone else must be your counterweight. This person should be in the water on the opposite side of the boat, pulling down and watching you. As the diver entering the canoe rolls in, the counterweight person quits pulling down – or the whole boat just keeps on rolling upside down.
One other technique is to slightly roll the canoe toward you, then power kick your upper body over the side. Once your face hits the opposite side of the canoe, you can squirm around and pull your legs in. Either way, it’s not dainty and almost impossible to do without a counterweight person or swamping the boat. The first time you try a canoe entry/exit, be in shallow water with no gear in the canoe. You are probably going to swamp it. When diving from a canoe, a back roll entry is the best. Both divers get suited up and, on the count of three, simultaneously roll backward from a seated position. Uncoordinated timing swamps the boat. Also watch your fins. On one of our test dives a fin was put on and in the process of scooting into exit position, the fin went underneath a dive bag. When the diver rolled into the water, the fin became entangled in the dive bag, which grabbed onto the crossbar, which then hung the diver upside down, under the boat. Pretty funny to everyone except the trapped diver!
On really small boats or personal watercraft, the keys are to move slowly, keep your center of gravity low and enter the boat wearing as little equipment as possible. Take a dropline to tie off your tank, BC, weightbelt, camera, goodie bag – everything except your wetsuit, mask, snorkel and fins. Depending upon your personal strength and the vessel, you may want to remove your dive gear, lift it up onto the vessel, secure it, and then enter. An example is a kayak – a diver can’t reach the stow hatch from the seated position. So, the gear goes into the hatch, then the diver slides onto the kayak going up over the rear end.
This author experimented and decided it was possible to scuba from a Sea-Doo (two-person sized) or a Yamaha Wave Blaster personal watercraft – but not recommended as the easiest dive. We very briefly tried diving from the original style one person Jet Ski and gave up.
In the experimental phase the tester kept the Sea-Doo and Wave Blaster in shallow water and tried driving while fully geared up – possible at slow speeds but tough on the back when bouncing over waves. Be sure your BC/tank is cinched on as tight as you can tolerate when starting toward the site. After five minutes of traveling it will seem very loose.
Next we tried bungee cording the tank and BC in the foot well – you’ll need to add stainless tiedown loops to the Sea-Doo. Again, this is possible but remember to put your weightbelt on the other side to somewhat counterbalance the tank. At the dive site don your tank and BC while in the water. The maneuver the test crew found nearly impossible was climbing back on the Sea-Doo while fully equipped. They did a little better on the Wave Blaster because of its rear swim step and shorter seat length. These tests drew quite a beach crowd – all with lively comments on our awkwardness and failures.
Sailboats can be a major challenge. The transom tends to be high, the sides bow out then pucker in at the rail, there are usually no mini swim steps and once up, you have to crawl between stanchion posts and wires. Look very carefully and plan a re-entry route before you jump off a sailboat. The cute little rope ladders that hang over the side are nearly impossible to climb up as they swing under the boat as soon as you try to get any leverage. People who sail tend to be patient types, so they experiment and devise techniques for getting back into their boat. Ask before you leap – if in doubt, try it in skin diving gear first.
Pontoon boats are plentiful in middle America. You probably thought it was a real dud when your folks bought one – you’d have preferred something sportier. But, for diving it is fabulous – a big, flat, stable platform, usually with a metal ladder that drops into the water. The disadvantage of pontoons is their lack of mobility – they don’t usually come with trailers. Pontoon owners are typically lake cabin owners, so hopefully the cabin is on a divable lake! Pontoon boats have plenty of room for friends, family, gear and a cooler. Your diving can be part of a family day on the lake with diving, swimming and picnicking for the whole family.
Inflatable boats have a special place in this author’s heart. They are relatively inexpensive, light, fast, easy to handle, reliable work horses. They carry weight well, gear can be stowed nicely on the floor and people sit on the seats or sides, depending upon how far and fast you plan to travel. And, one of my funniest diving mishaps occurred from an inflatable. Sitting on the side and gearing up, I snapped my wetsuit top’s beavertail in place and quickly executed a backward roll. Unfortunately, I had trapped the rope that circles the inflatable’s edge under my beavertail. I was left hanging by my beavertail from the side of the boat, feet flailing in the air and head in the water. You can’t get yourself out of that predicament. So much for impressing my students!
Will The Boat Be There When You Return?
Some of the problems with small boats are lack of space for extra people and anchors – two key ingredients in ensuring the boat is there when you return from a dive.
When possible, it is a good safety plan to leave a nondiver in the boat. That individual discourages potential boat thieves and can assist divers on the surface. Good anchors with sufficient size and length of line are essential to securely mooring a boat. More difficult sea conditions will require heavier duty ground tackle.
The smaller the boat the more difficult it is to solve the anchoring dilemma. There is not room to stow a very heavy anchor or a long length of line. There is no winch for a mechanical assist to haul up the anchor. Some creative solutions – kayaks are often tied to clumps of kelp stalks or anchoring lines can be carried by divers to the bottom and tied to a wreck or large boulder.
Personal watercraft have a safety feature so when the rider falls off, the machine immediately starts circling the location, rather than continuing forward without its rider. During our experiment, the diver exited the idling craft and descended for a dive. The personal watercraft began circling. Zealous rescuers soon appeared from shore, sure an injured rider must be in the water. Leaving the engine running was one of our “failures” in technique testing. We also had trouble turning off the ski and tying it to a kelp stalk – someone always stopped to retrieve the “lost” Wave Blaster. No matter how you anchor the craft, be sure and take the keys with you on the dive.
Empty boats on lakes must make “front porch” supervisors nervous as many divers tell stories of well-meaning folks “saving” their boat while they are underwater. The solution seems to be to fly a diving flag and anchor the vessel, whether the flag is locally required or not. The flag slows down the rescuers but it takes more than a flag and removing the ignition key to slow down opportunistic thieves, so be sure your insurance policy is paid up. One group of southeastern divers resorted to a large sign left on deck reading “Scuba divers underwater. The boat is OK. Please leave slowly so you don’t hit us.”
How Should Gear Be Stowed?
Very securely. The smaller the boat, the more fully you need to dress on shore. The more gear you are wearing, the less there is to stow or potentially blow out of the boat. The more likely the vessel is to swamp or tip, the less you want to have loose in the boat. If you do take extra equipment, put it in a bag and securely tie the bag into the boat. If the only lesson you learn from this article is never have loose gear in the bottom of a small boat, you will have saved hundreds of dollars – from not having to replace gear that accidentally goes overboard. As a boat rises and falls everything in the boat goes up in the air and drops back on deck. It is a simple concept but one for which divers often fail to plan. Tanks constantly lifting and settling on a boat deck crack the fiberglass gel coat. Weightbelts that slide back and forth wear out the storage compartment material. Once you identify all the places where gear bangs or rubs, you can take steps to tie down, pad or brace. Before you launch the vessel and attempt to go diving, give it a dry run at home. Try to put everything in its place and see if it fits and can be secured in that position. If you are having trouble stuffing gear in a kayak cargo hold while kneeling next to it on land, imagine how difficult it will be to do the same task while kicking at the surface of the water.
Small boat diving gets you to fun places offshore. It is usually a buddy pair activity and takes advance planning. It takes a dash of daring balanced by a big dose of common sense to know when to abort a dive trip. In a small craft you are the diver/skipper and need competent seamanship skills as well as advanced diving skills. There is a slim margin for errors or problems on a small boat, which calls for a conservative reading of the environmental conditions and choice of dive sites. To maneuver on small boats you’ll learn to make slow, deliberate movements and keep your center of gravity low. You’ll dress as much as possible on shore. Your actions will be closely coordinated with a diving buddy and/or boating partner. Constant communication is important to success. In addition to all your underwater activity planning, when using a small boat you need to ensure the vessel will be there to get you safely back to shore.
Consider taking your underwater video camera on all small boat dives – at least you’ll have great comedic footage for your diving library!