When you start planning to go cruising you seek advice from professionals, friends, newsletters, articles and any other resource you can find. You gather all of the information then you distill it into a plan, find that you need a 100’ boat to store all the things you think you need, refine the plans and set-out to implement the plans hoping that you can get it done before you are too old to leave.
Since a cruising sailboat spends most of its time surrounded by water and one of the major activities that cruising sailors participate in is snorkeling and diving, we decided that we should outfit our boat for these activities. Of course little did my wife Karen know that the simple plan of outfitting a boat for some leisure time activities and some less leisurely charges would get out of hand.
Somewhere along the way, I became a NASDS Open Water Instructor and an IANTD Advanced Nitrox Instructor. I have logged hundreds of dives (much to the displeasure of my trainers I have given up logging them regularly). My wife and I, and now our three-year-old daughter, have been living on our boat since 1992 and cruising since 1994. Since Rebecca has entered our lives, Karen and I rarely dive together. Of course, even before Rebecca, I had a higher need for bottom time so much of my diving was and still is solo diving. There are times I dive with friends from other boats, but the reality of the situation is many cruisers learn to solo dive. [Even if you are trained and equipped as a “Solo Diver,” Oceanic Ventures does not advocate solo diving. We have always felt divers are safer in the water if they have a dive buddy or partner. This means you should find fellow cruisers in your anchorages and go diving with them. Solo diving means you are placing yourself at a much higher risk.]
In addition to scuba diving, I also enjoy spearfishing while snorkeling and can happily spend hours swimming around a reef watching fish behavior and hunting for dinner. Cruisers have the advantage of living in some of the most beautiful waters of the world and, on Enchante’, we’re in the water almost every day.
My recommendations for scuba diving and snorkeling are based on my experiences as a cruiser and are for what I’ll call independent boat diving. By this, I mean diving or hunting out on a reef far from the support of a dive shop. You should know I don’t sell equipment. Basically this is information I wish I’d had when we were preparing our boat for cruising. There are numerous manufacturers of scuba diving and snorkeling equipment and many of their product offerings will fill the bill; so, with the exception of one or two cases, I won’t recommend specific manufactures.
Your first priority should be to establish a relationship with a good dive shop. Tell them what your plans are, listen to their recommendations and decide if they seem interested in your adventure and are capable of providing you with long-range support for the next several years. Before we left Texas for the Caribbean we discovered Oceanic Ventures in Houston. After several years, we’ve become close friends with Ann and Eric and don’t hesitate to recommend them to other cruisers. They have personally been involved in helping to outfit cruising boats and reliably provide far-flung support to cruisers. Since they own a sailboat, they have a good understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish. It probably bears repeating that I don’t receive any commission from their shop. In fact, they’re almost certainly going to disagree with some of my recommendations. You can trust them to do as good a job for you as they have for us.
Presumably, you’re still enjoying civilization as you prepare to cruise and have, no doubt, considered buying equipment over the Internet. While you can probably find cheaper prices than through a dive shop, you need to be cautious. Unless you know an awful lot about dive equipment, you can easily end up with junk. You will also find warranty support to be an issue since reputable manufacturers sell through their dealers and expect those dealers to honor their regional boundaries. You won’t have the benefit of discussing equipment choices or the chance to insure a proper fit when you shop over the net. It’s also very important to make a couple of trips to the dive shop’s pool to make sure everything is working properly, that you understand how to operate your new gear and you’re comfortable with the fit. Your first dive in new equipment shouldn’t start with a back roll off a moored dinghy looking down at the face of a wall that plunges several hundred feet.
It’s important to realize that once you’ve dealt with a store you’re considered a customer and can expect support from them wherever your travels take you. A good shop will know how to ship equipment to “yacht in transit“. Perhaps, should you be anchored at a popular dive destination, they might even be able to arrange for a group of vacationing divers to bring equipment to you at considerable savings over FedEx.
Don’t even think about buying equipment from such sources as garage sales. You need new, reliable equipment since you’re going to be venturing far from the services of a repair technician.
Okay enough of that! Let’s get onto the equipment list.
Air Delivery System (a.k.a. a Regulator System)
A typical cruising, sport diver has a couple of special requirements for an air delivery system that doesn’t involve turbulent airflow, external adjustment of the 2nd stage or the latest and greatest bells and whistles. Your requirements are for a rugged system that requires a minimum of tiny little parts when it’s rebuilt.
Both your dive shop and the equipment manufacturer recommend you rinse your regulator thoroughly and have it serviced annually. They’re talking about equipment used once or twice a year on dive vacations. Out cruising, you’ll put more dives on your system in a year than most divers do during the entire time they own it. Water is precious out here so you’re going to skimp when rinsing gear. And it may be a two or more years before you’re around a dive resort with a service technician you’ll trust. In this environment, reliability is more important than how slick your system looks or slight differences in how it breathes at depth. I’m sure you’ll find the top manufacturers all make very reliable equipment and you don’t have to buy their top of the line model. Stick with a quality brand and be sure to ask how complicated the rebuild is. You might also consider a system with a “sealed 1st stage” to reduce exposure to salt water.
I really don’t have much to say about BCs. I’ve been partial to integrated weight systems because I find them more comfortable and a lot easier to dump in an emergency. You might also consider a couple of additional pockets and “d-rings” since some of your diving is going to be doing simple boat maintenance, such as replacing zinc’s and cleaning barnacles off the prop, and you’ll appreciate a place to put tools and parts.
I can make both sides of the argument about dive computers for cruising divers. I’ll let you know right up front that I wear a computer. I justified the purchase because of my technical diving. I appreciate the confirmation and backup to my manual dive planning when I’m doing planned decompression stop diving. Having justified spending the money, I must say I enjoy the computer immensely on sport dives.
First the ” I’ve gotta have one” argument. When you’re diving completely out of contact with a decompression chamber or any treatment facility, you simply cannot afford to ignore dive planning. If you manage to get a DCS hit (okay, bent) out in the middle of nowhere, you’ve got a serious and painful problem. Be honest with yourself. Are you going to plan every dive to insure you’re within safe limits? Do you even remember how to work with the tables? A computer, assuming you know how to read it, automates the planning process and keeps you safe.
Here’s another argument for diving with a computer. Being an instructor, I taught dive table calculations till I could do them in my sleep. I even had the “no decompression time limit” memorized for the most common depths. When cruising, I typically have a surface interval of around 24 hours; so repetitive dive planning doesn’t ordinarily enter the picture. Still, my computer is a great benefit during a typical dive and here’s why. The tables require you to dive a square profile – descend to the planned depth, spend the bottom time, head to the surface making your shallow safety stop. All very rigid diving and not at all like the way you’re going to actually dive. A typical dive goes more like – drop down to 60 feet for a 20 minute tour of the wall, slowly work back up looking at coral, spend a few minutes enjoying an eel at 45 feet, turn around a couple of times trying to find your dive buddy and join her back at 50 feet, swim along for another 10 minutes or so until you decide to turn and head back to your dinghy, swim 20 minutes at 40 feet to get back to the mooring line. Your dive plan has to say you spend something like 60 minutes at 60 feet and are close to a decompression limit. A computer would have followed your actual profile and let you know you have several minutes to lay in the sand at 20 feet watching a seahorse that you noticed.
Here’s the “don’t need one” side. A vacationing diver has one goal – cram as many dives into a single week in paradise as possible. The only way to max out the number of dives is to use a computer. You’d go nuts trying to work with a table and the dive boat isn’t necessarily going to take you to a suitable spot for your planned dive. On the other hand, as a cruising diver you can take all the time you need to see a location. More that one dive a day is fairly tiring and why bother. Plan your dive for the heat of the early afternoon and enjoy the best lighting conditions while you’re cooling off at 60 feet. Stick with a 24 hour surface interval, stay well within the table limits, don’t stop to look at any seahorses if you’ve reached your planned bottom time and you should be just fine.
This is a personal decision based on discipline. I’m delighted to have converted to using a computer. I’m a safer diver and enjoy more flexible profiles without worry. I must stress that some of the locations you’ll be enjoying are several days’ travel from a chamber or treatment center and a computer could be considered a very good insurance policy.
Mask & Snorkel
You absolutely must have a quality dive mask with tempered glass and
Silicone skirt. I’m not fanatical about caring for my mask. It gets rinsed but it lives in the cockpit were it receives occasional damaging sun. Maybe once a year I get around to spraying the skirt and strap with silicone. It’s six years old, has spent thousands of hours in both the ocean and that nasty chlorinated pool water, and it still works like a charm. I’ve calculated the cost at fractions of a penny per hour. Don’t even think about the cost of your mask or other snorkeling equipment. Considering how long it lasts it’s almost free.
Try on several masks at the dive shop, doing the “inhale to see if it sticks to your face” test do insure they fit. If the shop isn’t very interested in finding you the right mask, you’re not dealing with the right folks. Ask if you can take two or three mask to the pool to check fit and comfort. Once you discover the delights of exploring a shallow reef, you’re likely to spend a couple of hours or more snorkeling. If your mask is a good fit, you won’t notice it’s there. If it doesn’t fit, it will drive you nuts.
If you are like a lot of people and perfect eyesight is something others have; you can have the lenses in the mask adjusted for your eyesight. This is accomplished either by replacing the lenses with corrected ones or having lenses “bonded” to the mask. Your local dive shop can assist you with this process.
Add a “Slap Strap” or similar product to your mask. This is a wide, neoprene cover for the strap. It increases comfort and stops the hair pulling of the normal silicon strap. At $ 15 or so, it’s well worth the money.
Also, buy a dry box for your mask. When you’re not going to be swimming every day, like those miserable times in the boat yard, your equipment will go into a locker. The mask will perversely work its way to the bottom of the locker and will be damaged by the weight of everything else if not protected by a stiff box.
There really isn’t too much to say about snorkels. A bent tube gives you a bit more clearance at the surface, a large diameter makes for easier breathing and flex tubing near the mouthpiece adds to comfort. For complete comfort, consider adding one of those “boil and bite” orthodontic mouthpieces. These are marketed as regulator mouthpieces but you’re going to be breathing through your snorkel a lot more than your regulator. A bright neon tip helps your buddies find you should you swim with others.
Booties & Fins
Avoid those silly fins that fits like a shoe – the back rips or your foot slips out and your fin is gone. Stick with proper booties and a sturdy set of fins. You’re going to be standing in the dinghy while traveling to and from your dive or hunting site. That’s right, standing up, legs spread, hanging on to the painter with one hand, steering with the tiller extension and roaring over the water with your 15hp at full throttle. Standing gets you out of the constant spray and gives you enough height to see reefs in the distance and avoid coral heads in the shallows. You’ll appreciate the grip of your booties as you fly along. Try on a few pairs of booties to insure a good fit.
For years I wore my nice stiff fins, a pair of “Blades”, for both diving and snorkeling. They started out a nice neon yellow/green so students could find me underwater. After years of service, they were bleached almost white by the sun and still going strong. Recently, I added a pair of fins specifically designed for free diving and was amazed by the difference. These fins are longer, narrower and more flexible than SCUBA fins. They don’t have the power to move your bulky, high drag SCUBA equipment through the water, but they will give you much greater speed and ease of movement in your streamlined snorkeling configuration.
You can certainly get by with one set of fins, provided they are designed for SCUBA. Buy a good pair and ignore the price. Like your mask the cost will work out to a fraction of a penny per hour.
Go ahead and buy one of those little dive tools with a blunt tip and permanently attach it to your BC for SCUBA diving. Then buy a six-inch or so, pointed dive knife to do double duty as a boat knife in the cockpit and for spearfishing. Figure out a place to keep it near the companionway and, while your at it, put a fid / shackle tool and a Leatherman tool in the same spot. If you get involved in hunting, you’ll eventually want to “finish off” a fish or do some other gruesome task and a blunt dive tool just won’t do.
I’ll disagree with the dive shop here and recommend you head to Home Depot’s gardening center. Buy several pair of cotton gloves with the black bumps all over the palm and fingers. These gloves hold up very well in salt water. You’ll use them while working under the boat, handling the anchor chain and hunting. These won’t offer any protection from cold water, but the water in the tropics stays around 80 degrees. You want inexpensive, durable gloves.
Reels and Spools
A small reel of line is indispensable for a cruising diver. Buy one, put a clip on the end of the line and store it with your dive equipment or stick it in the pocket of your BC. I can guarantee you’re going to drop something over the side and a carefully planned, circular search pattern is the only way you’ll find it. The reel will more than pay for itself the first time you use it and that’s probably going to happen sooner than you expect.
Skins and Wetsuits
I don’t get cold readily in water. Karen gets chilled quickly. You need to learn how you’re body type responds to diving. Keeping in mind tropic waters run around 80 Fahrenheit, I use a 3/5-mil wetsuit for long night dives and lightweight dive skins during the day. You’ll appreciate the wetsuit after a night dive when you have a dinghy ride in the chilly evening air. The diveskins are for protection from the sun more than anything else. When you’re snorkeling, your back and legs are almost constantly exposed to the sun. You don’t realize the burn is developing because the water keeps your skin nice and cool. Always wear a diveskin when you’re snorkeling. You’ll wear them out and they don’t take up much room so take a couple of spares. I have five skins onboard right now – buying “in bulk” will sometimes get you a bargain.
We carry two SL-4s and two SL-6s. They serve double duty as boat lights and dive lights. If they’ll take submersion to a couple hundred feet, they’ll certainly do well onboard. They’re well sealed, bright and have no rusting parts. We would have all SL-6s but we purchased the SL-4s before we realized just how general purpose these lights were.
Since Carl wrote this article, technology has changed and one of the biggest shifts has been in lighting technology and battery technology. The new lights are brighter, heat-up less and last longer. One example of this new technology is the Kraken NR900Z which has 900 lumins and lasts for over three hours on a single battery charge (and yes it uses rechargeable batteries). These can be use above water as well as below water. There are other examples of lights that work for divers as well as above the water and your local dive shop can help you select the right model for your application.
Forget Hawaiian slings and rubber band guns and buy yourself a Mares
Cyrano pneumatic speargun or one of the smaller models. With a sling, you have to be close enough to almost poke the fish. Rubber band guns are a pain to load, require constant maintenance, hurt when they break and aren’t nearly as powerful as a pneumatic gun. The Mares is well designed, powerful and only requires rinsing. I’ve used mine for years and it has never required any special attention. Just store with the tip town to keep the O-rings lubed.
I would call this a highly optional piece of equipment, but when you need one, coming up with an improvisation is pretty difficult. When I was inexperienced at both cruising and diving, I put myself and two other divers in a fairly dangerous situation. We arrived at the anchorage in Bonaire just before nightfall. Our engine overheated coming into the harbor so we sailed into the anchorage and weren’t able to back down and set the anchor. It was also getting dark and I didn’t bother to dive on the anchor to ensure it was set.
This collection of problems, errors and the very poor holding in Bonaire led to us dragging during the night. In the morning we discovered our 75 pound CQR had slid along the 20 foot bottom of the anchorage, fallen down the vertical wall and was hung on some coral about 50 feet down. A hundred feet of chain was tangled around pieces of coral adding to the problem. Fortunately, I suppose, the anchorage is off the main town in Bonaire and has been in pretty bad conditions for years. Diving here you’ll find an interesting collection of auto tires, batteries, engine blocks and assorted trash contributed by the town. So we didn’t feel too badly about being snagged on the wall, but we did need to clean up the problem before doing too much damage.
We started by putting our second anchor, a large Bruce, into our dinghy and carrying it to the anchorage. Then the three divers put on their equipment and started to job of retrieving the heavy anchor and all that chain. Here’s where we did something stupid that could have easily gotten one of us hurt. To lift sections of chain and the anchor the three of us would get a good grip, fully inflate our BCs and start swimming up the wall. When the section of chain was untangled and stretched as far as we could get it, we would deflate, choose another section and repeat the process. Obviously, when inflating, we were hanging on with one hand. Should someone have lost their grip, they would have shot immediately to the surface and, in their surprise, would have been unlikely to remember to exhale forcefully on the way up. A rapid ascent from that depth could have easily led to an embolism and a bout of decompression illness.
Now we carry a 100-pound capacity lift bag. It folds tightly, requires little room and makes retrieving or moving heavy objects a simple task. Like all new pieces of dive equipment, ask for some instruction on the use of a lift bag. Join your dive shop on an open water outing and get some practice – there are techniques to learn.
Scuba Diving Reference Library
The bible for fish identification is Paul Humann’s three book series – Reef Fish, Reef Coral and Reef Creatures Identification. There is a companion CD that can make learning the fish more fun than flipping through the pages of the book.
We also have found the little book “Divers and Snorkelers Guide to the Fishes and Sea Life” by Joseph Stokes to be very useful. In fact, if I just wanted to learn the names of the fishes, I would choose this simple book over the more technical Humann series.
Another book that teaches while your having fun is “Marine Biology Coloring Book” by Thomas Niesen. You can easily fritter away a rainy day working with this book and a box of colored pencils.
“Watching Fishes – Understanding Coral Reef Fish Behavior” is a fascinating book. This book discusses why reef fish are more colorful than their open-water counterparts, why a two-ounce damselfish has the nerve to attack a diver when a 200-pound grouper won’t, what causes fish to form schools, and so forth. This book really sparked my interest and appreciation of fish that keeps me continually interested in diving.
Not a whole lot to say here. We carry four, 80 cubic foot, aluminum cylinders. We also carry a small, 30 cubic foot “deco bottle”. Dive shops are usually happy to fill your cylinders for you and will normally give you a price break if you open an account and pay for ten or so fills in advance. The deco bottle comes in handy for making a quick “slap on the regulator and snorkeling gear” dive to inspect the bottom, untangle a line from the prop and so forth. It’s also an excellent backup air supply for a solo diver. I’m not a big fan of the widely advertised Spare Air and a backup supply. If you aren’t into technical diving and don’t know how to calculate the capacity of cylinders, ask one of the instructors at your dive shop how many breaths you can take on a Spare Air at 60 feet. Compare that answer to the capacity and usefulness of a 30 cubic foot cylinder with its normal valve. Your dive shop can show you how to rig the small cylinder so it’s easily carried. And yes, this is another opportunity to learn something in the pool.
- Mouthpieces for regulator and snorkel
- Strap for mask
- Backup mask, fins and snorkel – yours will wear out eventually
- Complete strap assembly for fins
- Low pressure hose
- High pressure hose
- Extra spear, a couple of tips and an O-ring set for the speargun
We recently returned to the States for a prolonged visit with family and to outfit Enchante’ for a cruise to the Pacific. During the upgrades, we purchased a gasoline driven compressor and built a deck box to store it in. Since we spend considerable time in isolated areas far from dive shops and their compressors, we love the ability to fill our own cylinders. The noise can be a bother to your neighbors in the anchorage, but we don’t anchor that close to other boats anyway.
Should you decide to go this far, I strongly suggest you contact Eric at Oceanic Ventures and let him help you configure your compressor. He has the contacts in the industry to configure the compressor properly for more than occasional use. You will also want some training on using the compressor before you leave.
So that’s it, my discourse on outfitting a cruising sailboat for diving and snorkeling. The best advice I can give you is to take your time and find good quality equipment that works and can be serviced anywhere in the world. And don’t forget the pool practice and training. Your investment up front will pay off as you venture out into the beauty that awaits cruising sailors.