For many divers, the dream of one day owning their own boat remains just that, a dream. But for those who opt to take the plunge, and who buy wisely, the benefits are enormous: the flexibility of regular access to favourite dive sites; a choice of dive buddies who share the same diving interests and a degree of comfort that matches both the budget and the inclination.
Forget the emotive appeal of actually owning your own boat. The decision to buy is one that requires careful consideration. There’s more to it than knowing your larboard from your starboard. What is considered perfect in a recreational run-about intended for family use in enclosed waters, or for an occasional off-shore fishing expedition, may prove less than ideal in a boat intended for diving purposes.
As a rule of thumb the larger the boat the more varied its applications – and the greater the cost. There are, however, a wide variety of vessels with price tags that put them well within the reach of dedicated diving enthusiasts. Boats that are capable of being transported to a launching ramp either on a trailer, or even on the roof racks of suitably large vehicles. Some smaller ‘blow ‘n’ go’ inflatables can even be carried in the boot of a car.
While price tends to be the governing factor there are other important criteria to consider before deciding on the particular type of craft.
Because a dive boat is subject to greater ‘wear and tear’ than is usually the case with other types of recreational craft, the materials used in its construction need to be tough and forgiving. Knocks and dings from cylinders, weight belts and other diving paraphernalia are unavoidable. What may be nothing more than a minor dent in an aluminium ‘tinnie’, or a scuff-mark on the hard wearing fabric of the new generation of rugged inflatables, can become an unsightly – and expensive to repair – scar on a hull built of fibre-glass.
Ideally the boat’s design and construction should reflect the type of conditions in which it will usually be employed. The ‘flare’, or degree of curvature of the bow, as well as the height of the free board, will help in determining how ‘dry’ the boat remains. In warm, tropical waters a ‘wet’ boat shipping a lot of spray may give an exhilarating ride but prove far less comfortable in colder, southern latitudes during the depths of winter.
The hull shape – either flat, rounded, vee-shaped or any combination of these – will help decide how evenly the vessel rides at anchor. [A major consideration for divers surfacing in a bouncy sea who risk having the full weight of a boat dumped on their head.] A displacement hull – one which slices through the water – is usually better suited to handle a choppy swell. On the other hand a planing hull – one in which the vessel rides more ‘on’ the water than ‘in’ it – offers the advantage of greater speed with the same horsepower, even though it may give a far less comfortable ride in similar open water conditions.
Stability is a major factor when choosing a dive boat. Getting into the water seldom poses a problem. It’s usually a matter of simply rolling backwards over the side. But in small vessels that ride high out of the water – and whose centre of gravity is well above the water line – the sudden displacement of weight as a diver leaves the craft may cause it to rock alarmingly, and even capsize. Exiting from the water, even with the aid of a ladder, may be fraught with similar difficulties.
The more stable the platform the more easily both of these acts can be accomplished, a consideration that lends added appeal to the range of inflatables coming onto the market. With heavy-duty independent air cells resting on the water the low centre of gravity and widely distributed buoyancy make these ideal vessels for use by divers. Several models even feature rigid displacement hulls.
Most manufacturers will also recommend the motor size best suited to each particular vessel. It’s a power/weight ratio intended to give maximum performance under a variety of conditions and while a more powerful – and heavier – engine may give you marginally more speed it will usually be at the expense of safety and comfort.
Ideally, and where space permits, fuel tanks, fuel lines and spare motor [?] should be stowed in a separate stern section to reduce the danger of diving equipment becoming contaminated by fuel.
It’s also worth remembering that a boat rated for, say, six passengers, may well only have sufficient room for four divers and their equipment. Many builders and designers offer cylinder racks and equipment stowage as an optional extra but where these are not fitted avoid the temptation of stowing gear in anchor wells or other areas where it might interfere with the smooth running of the vessel, or deny quick access to the boat’s safety equipment.
Apart from mandatory safety and communications equipment, a dive boat should have provision to display a clearly visible dive flag and be large enough to accommodate a competent non-diving observer/supervisor capable of handling the vessel in an emergency. Under no circumstances should divers ever leave a vessel unattended on the surface.
Many new boat owners overlook the fact that small boat handling requires practiced knowledge and skill. They forget that the open ocean is not the place to begin learning by trial and error. Acquire the necessary qualifications. After all you’re the person ultimately responsible for the safety of your passengers.
Remember, too, that boat dealers and manufacturers are experts in their field. Explain to them in detail exactly what it is that you require of a boat; the type of diving that you do; and the sea and weather conditions in which you intend to use it. They’ll give good advice and help you choose and, where necessary, customise a craft to meet your specifications, expectations and budget.
All that then remains is to equip it with everything essential to safety and comfort, round up a few favourite dive buddies and set out to experience diving’s most enjoyable challenge.
The above – edited – article, first appeared in Scuba Diver Magazine in June 1996