SCUBA DIV­ING FOR SAILORS

YOU CAN TAKE IT WITH YOU WHEN IT COMES TO TANKS, REG­U­LA­TORS AND EVEN COM­PRES­SORS

SAIL - - Contents - BY DAVID DOD­GEN

Veteran cruiser David Dod­gen ex­plains how he and his wife made scuba div­ing an in­te­gral part of their re­cent Caribbean ad­ven­ture

There morethe abil­it­yare than few to sail­ing things com­bine­and peo­ple scu­bathe two en­joy div­ing. while do­ing And­out out­door­son for a many, 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.

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!

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 (bauer­comp.com), 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! s

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.

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

There are few things as re­lax­ing or re­ward­ing as glid­ing along the ocean floor in full scuba gear

The au­thor’s wife dons her gear in prepa­ra­tion for tak­ing the plunge The au­thor an­chors the “truck” at yet an­other re­mote dive site; note the curved board­ing lad­der

The au­thor fills a tank with air in prepa­ra­tion for the next dive (left); his com­pres­sor (be­low)

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