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Cruising: Sailing and Scuba Diving

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Tor Johnson photography

Scuba diving is a great way of taking your cruising adventures to a whole new level (Photo by Tor Johnson)

There are few things people enjoy doing outdoors more than sailing and scuba diving. And for many, the ability to combine the two while out on a sailing adventure, so that you can just stop at a beautiful island or reef and go diving, only makes them that much more enjoyable. Most sailors might not think a sailboat makes for a good diving platform. And even more divers might not consider a sailboat the best way to get to a dive site. But it can be done, and with the right combination of equipment and skill, you might even be surprised at how easy it is.

My wife, Gail, and I began sailing in 1985 as charterers in the British Virgin Islands. We had been to Puerto Rico the year before, where we had a chance to see how beautiful the Caribbean waters are. So before our first charter, we got our dive certifications, rented scuba tanks and took our first open-water dive by ourselves on the wreck of the Rhone off Salt Island, one of the top-rated dives in the world.

As we did so, we also found ourselves quickly learning the problems and limitations of scuba diving from a sailboat. Getting in and out of your gear on the small decks and in the small cockpits of a sailboat, for example, can be a struggle: so can getting in and out of the water with your scuba gear on, thanks to the high freeboard and small swim ladders typical of most sailboats. Then there’s the question of what to do with the tanks, where to keep your gear and how to get the tanks refilled—all issues that I suspect prevent many sailors from making the jump from snorkeling to scuba diving.

Of course, one way to do away with these logistical problems when cruising or chartering in areas that are popular with divers is to simply contact a dive operator and make arrangements for them to pick you up at your boat and take you with a group to a dive site. We have even found such services available in less frequented areas. However, over the years, Gail and I have also had a lot of success going scuba diving on our own. In fact, we have made scuba diving a part of all our charter trips (except for Greece, where the rules for diving are restrictive); and over time we have learned to work our way around and through all of these difficulties by bringing our own fins, masks, and regulators, and then reserving some tanks ahead of time with local dive shops.

In addition to the fact that this “independent approach” is a lot cheaper, it also leaves you free to explore where you want, when you want and without being tied to anybody else’s schedule. In the BVI, for example, there are day moorings placed near the dive sites so that charterers in larger boats don’t anchor on the reef and/or drop their anchors on the divers below. This, in turn, means you will often encounter plenty of other divers, whether you are alone or with a group. However, while we have found other dive sites around the Caribbean with a few moorings for small boats and others with huge moorings for dive charter operators, most of the time we have been on our own.

Photo courtesy of Divers Alert Network

There are few things as relaxing or rewarding as gliding along the ocean floor in full scuba gear (Photo courtesy of Divers Alert Network)

Independence Day

Eventually, in the late 1990s, after having logged more than our share of charter miles we started to think about long-term cruising in the Caribbean, an adventure that would require becoming entirely self-sufficient in all aspects of diving. Then in 2003, we bought our Caliber 47LRC, Wildest Dream, and moved her to Florida, where she became our dive base. You could not ask for a better design for going both sailing and diving. 

Though the boat was obviously not designed for diving, she still had sufficient storage for our dive gear inside as well as space in the deck lockers for our tanks. I also installed a pair of two-tank holding racks, available from most local dive shops, on the stern rails, which keep four tanks secure and close at hand for when we were ready to go exploring. Being a center-cockpit design, Wildest Dream also had a great aft deck area where we could suit up before going into the water or load the dinghy before venturing farther afield. She also had a swim platform close to the water, a large swim ladder and a great shower for rinsing off the saltwater from both our gear and ourselves.

Our first experiences diving from Wildest Dream were in the waters across the Gulf Stream in the Bimini Islands of the Bahamas, where we were amazed by the perfectly clear water and abundant sea life. However, we also quickly realized that only rarely could we anchor near the best dive sites, which meant some long dinghy rides. Luckily, we had the perfect dinghy to take us there—a sturdy 10ft fiberglass-bottom RIB with a 15hp outboard that we used as much like a truck as a tender.

In fact, she opened up a whole new world of diving for us. Thanks to her size and robust construction, we found we could both get aboard and still load her up with four tanks, our buoyancy compensators (BCs—the “backpacks” on which the tanks are mounted), weights, fins, masks, skins, towels, lunch, water and an anchor, and still travel at a decent enough speed to go to the dive sites. (Don’t forget that you must also have a dive flag and some way to display it!) We could travel comfortably up to 10 miles away, or just explore until we found what we thought might be a good location. We also discovered that a good “look-ie” bucket (a bucket with a clear bottom on it) also helped us scope out prospective dive sites before getting into the water.

One thing we did not have was a good ladder to get back into the dinghy: remember, you are not as fresh getting out of the water after a 45-60 minute dive as you were getting in, and the sides of an inflatable dinghy are pretty high and round. Then one year at the Miami Boat Show we came across the answer: the 3-Step stainless steel folding ladder from St. Croix Marine Products. This ladder is S-shaped to curve around the dinghy tube and balance your weight as you climb out of the water. Better still, it folds in half to allow for easy storage inside the dinghy. Problem solved!

Photo by David Dodgen

Four tanks stand secured and ready for another day’s use

We also soon realized that most good dive sites are quite deep and we did not have enough rode for the dinghy anchor. To solve this problem we bought 150ft of 3/8in rope rode and 7ft of light chain on a folding grapnel anchor. We also put a small deck cleat inside the bow of the dinghy to secure it. Problem number two solved. We could now easily anchor in up to 60ft of water and dive off the dinghy safely.

With all this gear in place we continued diving over the years around the Biminis, the Florida Keys, and Abacos and Exumas, carrying as many as 10 tanks aboard Wildest Dream. However, we still had a problem: where to get refills? In the Bahamas, for example, it can be very difficult to find scuba shops. And even if you do find one, you need to lug all the tanks to and from the shop for fills. Worse yet, it never failed that if you found a good dive site the odds were you might not have full tanks.

With this in mind, we began investigating portable scuba tank compressors, focusing on the company Bauer Compressors, which manufactures small compressors with both gas and electric drives. We did not like the idea of a gas-driven compressor, because of the possibility of the exhaust fumes getting into the tanks during a fill, and unfortunately, the electric motor compressors recommended having an 8KW generator onboard to operate the 3hp electric motor. So for years, we continued lugging around a bunch of tanks. 

Then one day we heard Bauer had modified its electric compressors to use a 2hp motor, which in turn, allowed the unit to run on the smaller 5-6KW gensets typically found on smaller power and sail boats, including ours. Problem solved! Soon afterward, we bought a compressor and wired it to the AC electrical panel, using the 30 amp breaker from shore power and an old 30 amp shore power cord and connector. That way we could fill our tanks either at the dock with shore power or at anchor with our generator. This particular model is manually operated and requires someone to monitor both the pressure and the condensate that builds up when filling a tank. Therefore, every 15 minutes the condensate must be drained and the tank pressure checked until the tank is full. It’s a simple process but keeps the operator near the equipment. During a fill, I set a timer for 15 minutes to remind me to check on how things are going. An automatic system is also available, but the cost was beyond our budget. Still, I tell everyone that while the first tank fill was “very expensive, the second tank fill was half price, and after that having it onboard is priceless.”

To complete the creation of our own floating “fill station” we put the compressor under the forward bunk, where it was out of the way but easy to access. This was also directly over the bilge, so we could simply let the condensate drain hose hang naturally down into the bilge space. When in use, we would extend the air intake snorkel for the unit under the open forward hatch to ensure clean, fresh air for the fills. After that to change a tank all I had to do was lug the tanks from the aft deck to the forward cabin—all of about 40ft!

It normally takes about 20 minutes to fill a tank from 500 to 3,200 PSI for diving. We could, therefore, reduce the number of tanks on board from eight or 10 to four or five. Gail likes the smaller 50 CF tanks while I use 72s, which we put in the tank racks on the stern rails.

Casting Off

A few years after our first excursion to the Bahamas, we left on our trip around the Caribbean. Our route took us down the islands to Grenada, across the Caribbean to Bonaire, Curacao and Aruba, around to Colombia and Panama, up through the Honduran Bay Islands, Belize, Mexico and back to the Dry Tortugas in Florida. And over 18 months, we dove at almost every stop. When a dive shop was convenient and the price was right, we would fill our tanks there. In Bonaire, where the economy centers on diving tourism, we even bought multiple fill coupons for a nearby dive shop. However, we also completed over 100 tank fills with our new onboard compressor, sometimes in the middle of nowhere. We would then load our filled tanks and gear into our trusty dinghy, with our 150ft of anchor rode and cool S-shaped dinghy ladder and set off to explore some of the most beautiful waters in the world.

One final word about safety. Scuba diving can be inherently dangerous. We don’t recommend it for everyone, and even if experienced there are a lot of physical stresses that you will not realize until you are actually in the water. We have aborted dives on any number of occasions when we were tired or did not feel comfortable with a particular site. We have also stayed aboard our dinghy more than once because of sharks (remember the look-ie bucket!). In these kinds of situations, we decided it was better to either find another place to dive or go back to the boat.

Beyond that, all divers receive training as part of their certification classes on the health and safety issues involved with the sport, and it’s important to take these lessons seriously. Many things can happen while diving, and if you are on your own, the consequences become even greater. Bottom line: at all times the sailing diver must be aware of the potential problems and have a contingency plan in place if things ever go wrong. Otherwise, enjoy!

Basic Scuba Gear

Basic Scuba Gear (Photo courtesy of PADI)

Basic Scuba Gear

Although it looks complicated, a complete scuba outfit is comprised of just a handful of easy-to-understand items, each of which has a simple, straightforward purpose.

1. Mask — A good-quality mask covers your nose, so you can adjust for pressure changes by exhaling; it includes a tempered-glass lens for safety.

2. Snorkel — Low tech, but important, a snorkel allows you to breathe easily while at the surface before or after a dive.

3. Regulator(s) — More than just a tube connecting an air tank to a mouthpiece, a regulator is a multi-stage bit of equipment that ensures the high-pressure air in your tank is at a pressure you can actually breathe, no matter what your depth. So crucial is this piece of equipment, the standard setup comes with at least one spare.

4. Submersible Pressure Gauge — Allows you to monitor how much air pressure is in your tank. You can go with either a mechanical unit or a digital one.

5. Dive watch or computer — In the past, a watch was crucial for allowing a diver to track bottom and decompression times. Now a small, submersible computer can do the thinking for you.

6. Tank — Tanks are typically constructed of steel or aluminum. They range in capacity from 45 cubic feet to 150 cubic feet, depending on how much air you’d like to have with you, and how long and deep you like to dive. (And how big a tank you’re willing to lug around.) They need to be inspected annually.

7. Buoyancy Compensator (BC) — Also called a Buoyancy Control Device (BCD), a BC doesn’t just secure a tank to your back; it also contains an inflatable bladder that allows you to control how you’re floating in the water, whether it’s on the surface or down at depth making eyes with a fish.

8. Weights — Carried either on a separate belt or in a BC, they are necessary to compensate for the body’s natural buoyancy so that you can get to depth with a minimum of effort. A quick release is vital in the event you need to return to or stay at the surface in an emergency situation.

9. Wetsuit — Even in the tropics, the surrounding water will quickly suck the heat from even the hardiest of divers when at depth. Wet suits (and dry suits in chillier waters) also help protect the body from abrasion and anything that might cut or sting you.

10. Fins — Although you can snorkel in shallow water without fins, you’re going to need the extra power they provide.

In addition to having his NAUI Dive Master certification, David Dodgen also has his USCG 50T license and works as a yacht broker in South Florida; he and Gail dive every chance they get.

Click here to read: Scuba Training and Safety

May 2017


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