Tips for Safer Boat Diving

In my 25 years of running dive boats out of Key Largo, Fla., I have noticed that most of the problems divers experience fall into two categories: inattention to detail and inadequate situational awareness.


Male scuba diver with a loose tank on his back
Tighten straps, and secure all buckles and releases. At depth, minor problems can quickly become serious.

Lacking attention to detail can create myriad small problems that may escalate into a big accident. Seemingly insignificant issues should be addressed before you ever arrive at the dive platform. These may include adjustment of your fins or BCD for proper fit or securing your tank to prevent it from slipping. Even something as minor as the position of the power-inflator hose could become a problem; route the hose assembly correctly, and secure it where it can be reached when needed.

Every diver should be comfortable and familiar with his weight system. Weights should be secure, evenly distributed and, most important, ready to be quickly ditched in an emergency.

After assembling your equipment and checking it for proper operation, stow any extra gear out of the way. This makes for safer and easier movement around the dive deck, and it protects your gear from damage or loss. Make sure your tank is secured in its rack and your mask and fins are tucked away. Many boats use bungee cords to secure tanks; always make sure your tank and your buddy’s tank are secured whenever they are moved. Keeping an eye on the bungee cords prevents the brief embarrassment of trying to stand up with the tank still restrained and the significant hazard of an unsecured tank crashing to the deck when the boat rolls.

After your gear is checked and ready for use, please pay attention during the safety briefing and roll call. Not only are briefings required by the U.S. Coast Guard, they also are designed to promote divers’ safety. Briefings often include tips on finding the highlights of the upcoming dives and optimizing encounters with marine life. The local knowledge of the captain and crew won’t do you any good if you aren’t listening.

Situational Awareness

Knowing what’s happening around you is important both above and below the surface.

Diver walks around the boat wearing fins
If you walk with fins on, be careful, and keep at least one hand free.

If you walk with fins on, be careful. Don’t try to lift your feet; slide them along the deck instead. Watch out for obstructions, and take advantage of handholds at all times. Some operators may ask you to carry your fins until you arrive at the dive platform. Once there, be ready to enter the water. On many boats this means already having your mask on and your regulator in your mouth.

On most boats you will use either a backward roll or a giant stride to enter the water. When doing a giant stride, hold your mask and regulator with one hand, look at the horizon, and take one big step. No vertical jump is necessary. Before doing a backward roll, make sure you’re not going to kick anybody as your feet swing upward, and confirm there is no one in the water behind you.

After you hit the water, the crew will appreciate a nice, big hand-to-top-of-the-head OK signal. Use surface signals when you’re on the surface; a small thumb-and-forefinger OK may be confused with a wave for distress.

When you’re near the boat, never turn your back on it. Wind and current can bring you into contact with the hull, propellers or platform in a matter of seconds. Entanglement in the current line is also a common problem for divers waiting to climb aboard. Always keep the line in front of you; if you can see it, it can’t easily wrap around your tank valve. When you need to cross a line, lift it over your head, and turn underneath it.

When you approach the ladder while holding onto a current line, situate yourself on the same side of the line as the ladder so you won’t have the line across your chest as you try to climb aboard. Perhaps the most important precaution around the ladder is to avoid being too close to the diver in front of you. Give them plenty of room and time to get clear; you don’t want to be under them if they slip or fall. An aluminum 80 to the top of the head will ruin any diver’s day.

Diver enters water from the boat
nter the water using good technique to avoid gear loss, regulator free-flow, breaking the seal on your mask or disorientation when you hit the surface.

Follow crew instructions with regard to removing gear at the end of a dive. Some may ask you to hand fins or other gear up onto the boat. While in the water it is good practice to wear your mask and keep either a regulator or snorkel in your mouth until you are safely standing on board. If you should accidentally fall from the ladder back into the water, you will still be able to see and breathe. If you do remove your mask on the surface, pull it down around your neck rather than pushing it up. A mask on the forehead may be taken as a sign of distress, and it’s more likely to be washed off in choppy conditions.

Pay attention, and use a little common sense; boat diving can be a fun and safe way to spend your day.

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2012