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Dive Boat Etiquette – From Yachts to rubber ducks

Text by Claudio Di Manao

Most diving on planet Earth begins with a diving boat.  However, unlike VIP divers on luxury yachts or liveaboards, average divers often have to deal with cramped spaces, dangling dive ladders, and the overall hustle and bustle of crew members, divers and equipment on board a dive vessel before and after every dive.  What's more, there is a potentially bumpy launch to and from the beach to consider.  All these factors can create a highly hazardous, unstable environment, precipitating trips, bumps and falls, some of which may cause serious injuries.

So, this article aims to explore the most common causes of injuries to avoid them - hence the name of the article: Dive Boat Etiquette.  Harmony and order on board ensure comfort and are the foundation of safety.Text by 
Shoes can be a significant issue on boats.  Most people don't like walking around barefoot, but on the other hand, shoes can damage boat decks.  Some boats may have expensive teak decks, delicate paint, or - on the other hand – ugly, nasty-looking nonslip mats.  It may seem trivial, but every boat has its own set of rules about shoes: when to wear them; when not to wear them; where to store them, and where to let them dry.  Crew members may omit explicitly instructing you about the rules about shoes in advance.  Then, the next thing you know, you are being scolded for something you just didn't know.  The bottom line: find out in advance - ask!  

Once everyone is ready to dive, dive booties are no longer a major issue.  However, there is the odd occasion that someone forgets something in the boat's hull and quickly runs into a dry zone to get it – with their booties still dripping wet.  Not good…!  As I said, shoes and boats are not always good bedfellows.

Taking a seat
Commercial, multi-seater dive vessels are generally meant to fill up from the back to the front.  This makes obvious sense, as entry and egress can then be undertaken in the most orderly fashion.  However, not all divers have the situational awareness or courtesy to follow this rule, which makes for some unintended delays and bumps.  If given a choice sitting somewhere between halfway and the rear third of the boat is generally a good rule of thumb: it's not too close to the bathrooms, with its odours - biological and chemical, and it is usually the least bumpy area of the boat, especially if the sea is a bit choppy.  The seats closest to the entry point are typically reserved for those with difficulties getting in on and off the boat and the dive leaders.

The dive briefing is frequently given en route, making sense for them to be sitting in front.  In brief, avoid the very back and the very front of the boat, especially those who suffer from motion sickness do not want long delays in getting off the boat.

The boats you'll encounter along South African shores are usually simpler and frequently single or double hull semi-inflatables --- affectionately referred to as "rubber ducks".  The divers sit on the pontoons or sometimes on seats in the case of slightly larger vessels.  The convenience of having a little more space to stash some of your dive gear – is terrific!  Just a word to the wise here: be sure to put your weight belt down first in the designated box at the back of the boat: Many a dive mask has been smashed during the hustle and bustle of equipment moving around.  If you have a box to keep your mask in, consider bringing it.

In many cases, especially on smaller boats, divers simply roll backwards from where they are sitting to enter the water.  On larger vessels, however, they may be required to move to the back of the boat and hop off with a giant stride.  If possible, remove your fins, so you are more steady and don them just before entry.  If this is not possible, be very careful as you move to the back of the boat, ensuring that you don't trip over your fins or have forgotten something – like your mask or weight belt.  Nothing irritates fellow divers as much as someone needing to return for something they've left behind at the last minute.

Generally speaking, the rear end of the dive boat is the most stable, and the bow is the most choppy.  So again, the rear third of the boat is typically the ideal spot to pick from, leaving the tail end of the boat for those with back problems or generally just wanting a less bumpy launch.  Bear this in mind, especially if you have back issues.  One disadvantage in sitting at the back of the boat is that it is often laced quite heavily with diesel fumes that may provoke motion sickness in susceptible individuals.
Every diver who has done more than a few dives has learnt that anything that dangles free and loose will get snagged on something.  Ropes get entangled at the first opportunity they get.  So try to dress as trimly and compactly as possible.  On the other hand, heavier and more fixed dive gear components often display the opposite behaviour, they come loose and pinch and snag everything, from a diver's fifth finger to the most expensive dive computer.  So, always be situationally aware, and anticipate problems before they occur!  Usually, and fortunately, the injuries of reasonably minor, but Divers Alert Network has occasionally had to evacuate divers due to injuries resulting from cylinders crushing feet and dive ladders amputating fingers.  

At best, the general state on a dive boat is somewhat chaotic and disrupted.  So don't be surprised if this is your experience.  This generally settles once everybody is found their place and their dive gear is safely stowed, or they are kitted up and ready to enter the water.  Please do everyone a favour and ensure that your dive cylinder is adequately secured.  Your weight belts are stored as instructed by the crew.  It is also wise to have a weight belt with a unique colour or design, as it is not uncommon for them to inadvertently end up with a foreign owner who typically will have neither the same circumference nor weight appropriate for the particular belt.  Try to keep your equipment's area as small, compact, and tidy as possible.  The more expensive the equipment is, the closer you should keep it.  Always be sure to dive with your own dive computer, especially if it's a rental, which means that there may be several computers that resemble yours.  Using someone else's computer will either put you or the other person at risk due to excess nitrogen levels.

Unless the boat ride is unduly long, it is best to get dressed fully in your wetsuit.  However, it may prove uncomfortable if it's a lengthy ride or the conditions are very hot.  So use common sense.  Keeping one's belongings compact and in order has a remarkably calming effect on everyone.  If necessary, practice donning your gear in small spaces.

Changing swimwear
With the typical two-dive-a-day routine, swimwear stays on for the day.  However, it is not necessarily the most comfortable gear, and some people tend to get rashes as a result.  So this brings up the matter of changing swimwear.  The amount of modesty varies significantly amongst different ethnic groups.  Some cultures are almost indifferent to being completely naked in the presence of complete strangers: Scandinavians, Germans, Swiss, Dutch, Spanish, Japanese, and Papuans are often practically impervious to the sensibilities of others.  South Africans, on the other hand, are typically a lot more conservative.  Learning to dress and undress with the use of a beach towel as a makeshift dressing room is an invaluable skill and worth practising at home before trying it in public.
Dry zone vs Wet zone
boats are usually divided into so-called dry-and with zones.  The entire below-deck area, and in many cases even the sun-deck or upper deck, are almost always considered dry areas, where you should not enter while wet.  There may be exceptions, but it is wise to confirm this with a crew before making any assumptions.  The climate may also influence where people spend their time between dives.  Excessively cold or hot climates may tend to keep people indoors.  And never forget that overcast days are often the cause of severe sunburn.  If climatic conditions force you to use a dry zone is a wet one, be thoughtful enough to use towels and other means of keeping the areas dry as possible.  Even where it is allowed to enter with the costume still wet, it is always good to spread a towel to protect precious plastic cushions from unsightly spots and ripples.

Drinking water and rinsing water
Even when used on a temporary basis, drinking and eating utensils are usually claimed for exclusive use by the individual using them first.  More than one dive trip has become unpleasant due to individuals not observing this unspoken rule: "Choose what you intend to use and stow it rather than show it"!  If you choose to drink directly from the bottle and tear all the labels for identification, don't be surprised to find that many others will have the same idea.  It may sound petty, but taking a sharpie with you or another writing instrument and marking your utensils clearly with your name is a small but remarkably important ability.  

Always remember that fresh water is precious while at sea.  Whether it is taken on board in the form of containers or generated whilst on board, it is as precious as drinking water in the desert.  Please don't waste it; when possible, bring your own; avoid glass containers as far as possible; choose robust, easily identifiable ones; and pack them away, so they don't wander off when you're not looking!  Freshwater is also often used for showering.  It is equally important to be frugal and respect the needs of other divers.  Strange though it may seem: divers don't like salt!

If you choose to use sunscreen, make sure it's coral-friendly.  Sunscreens harbour several hazards: (1) they are a potential slipping hazard ; (2) they are toxic to most corals ;(3) and, believe it or not, they contribute significantly to global warming.  As far as possible, make use of hats, shading and sun filtering clothes.

A classy diver can be recognised by how much he does NOT fill his plate.

Objects with a passion for flying
Hats, caps, sunglasses, and water bottles have an inherent desire to fly off dive boats at the most inconvenient time.  Be aware of this, not only they may be expensive, and you plan to use them, but also because of the pollution they cause.  In addition, you may now be without the means of necessary hydration yourself.  If you use disposable plastic bottles for drinking water, crush the plastic bottle as far as possible, and then screw on the cap, so it stays shrivelled.

Doing so saves space and makes them less likely to be blown off the boat.  If you have the opportunity to hang up your wetsuit, it's best to do so with the zip closed; a sudden gust of wind can easily dislodge a wetsuit and blow it out to see without warning.

Passages and manoeuvres
On a boat, never stop at a waypoint.  If you do, make sure you leave enough room for a crew member rushing to go through.  Manoeuvres, such as anchor housing, cleats, lines and, in sailing boats, masts and winches, should be kept clear of wetsuits, towels, and people.  It is best to ask the crew to show you where you can stay without getting in the way and where you can hang your things up to dry.  During manoeuvres, do not offer to help without asking.  Doing so may put you at risk and frequently be a nuisance rather than a help.

Doors and portholes
Doors, hatches and portholes should be left closed or secured with hooks and clips.  Few things are as irritating as the rhythmic slamming of a hatch or porthole that has not been secured.  Apart from the noise, the open hatch may present a significant risk, even causing the amputation of a finger.

Marine toilets
One would think using a toilet should be a simple affair.  While this is mainly true, boats present several complications.  For the most part, they resemble what you'd expect, but they are two devices that divers frequently struggle with.  Typical marine toilets have a handle and a lever.  The handle is used like a bicycle pump, pushing and pulling, but then follows the critical function of the mysterious lever:  Depending on how it is positioned, it will drain or pump the toilet with seawater.  The functions cannot occur concurrently, the toilet first needs to be primed, and then its contents are launched by the lever!  Marine toilets are not designed to manage toilet paper and rapidly become clogged.  So without becoming too graphic, take note that there is usually a basket with a lid next to the toilet where this is deposited after use...  You get the picture.  Admittedly, it is far from elegant, but that's the price you pay for a functional marine toilet.  Some more luxurious boats may be able to hold the waste, but many don't.  Don't make any assumptions.  Ask or check first.  A word to the wise: don't use the toilet while the boat is stationary…

Moving around
Many divers, especially the more experienced ones, develop such a symbiosis with their equipment that they tend to forget they are wearing it.  This is a recipe for bumps and bruises.  All this means is that you should plan to wear heavy dive equipment for the shortest possible period before entering the water but follow the same principle when returning on board.  Pack your load as quickly as possible and get out of the way.  If the boat has a ladder, plan your ascent right to the top without anyone blocking access at the top or halfway up.  Apart from creating a bottleneck, the sudden pitching motion of the boat may cause serious injuries.

If you decide to bring hot drinks on board, don't walk around with them where they can spill on other people.  Use appropriate thermos flasks and be thoughtful in using them.

Experienced divers might think that the tips offered in this article are obvious, and they certainly should be to them.  However, remember that there was a time when you were a novice, so be courteous in guiding those who are still 'finding their fins'.  

This article aims to help less experienced divers improve their Onboard Happiness Index, and to reinforce what more experienced divers take for granted.  The most important piece of advice comes last.  In the words of Douglas Adams, author of famous Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and avid diver): "Don't forget your towel".


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