Many boaters use their boats not just for cruising or fishing, but also as a platform to launch fun water-sports activities such as swimming, snorkeling or wakeboarding.
In regions blessed with clear water, interesting underwater terrain and abundant sea life, scuba diving from a boat also is a popular pastime. But as Capt. Will Beck, owner of Sea Tow Palm Beach (Florida) and a certified scuba diver for more than 40 years, can tell you, this adventurous underwater sport requires training and experience, not only for the scuba divers, but also for the operator of the boat.
At Sea Tow Palm Beach, we often see scuba divers who’ve asked a friend with little or no boating experience to run their boat for them while they dive,” says Capt. Beck. “It’s just patently unsafe, because the boat operator might not know how to use the VHF radio or GPS, or can’t re-start the engines after turning them off.”
Tip #1 therefore, is always to scuba dive from a boat with an experienced boater at the helm, whether you own the boat or it belongs to the operator.
Tip #2: The dive or “diver down” flag, a distinctive red flag with a white stripe running from its upper left to lower right corner, is an essential safety tool to have aboard the boat whenever you go scuba diving, along with a means to fly it from the vessel’s highest point. In addition, divers can purchase a dive flag mounted on a float or buoy to tow along with them during the dive. Passing boaters who see the flag must avoid it by a minimum distance mandated by the state where they are boating; in Florida, that distance is 300 feet, unless you are in a narrow navigation channel such as an inlet, when it goes down to 100 feet.
“We see an awful lot of divers who go out without dive flags,” Capt. Beck says. “In other cases, passing boaters don’t understand or recognize that they have to keep their distance – or they are on autopilot and not looking out!”
Tip #3: In order to stay visible to boaters, he recommends that divers bring a “safety sausage” along with them every time they dive. “It’s an inflatable orange wand, about four or five feet in length,” he said. “Upon surfacing, the divers can hold it up so other boats won’t hit them and their own boat can locate them more easily.”
Tip #4: “Stay on top of the weather,” advises Capt. Beck. “We’ve had divers go into the water when a big front is coming down the coast. When the front hits, the divers are ten minutes into the dive, and they don’t realize there is driving rain on the surface. The boat operator panics because he can’t see the divers, and calls Sea Tow. We’ve gone to assist so many times in this situation.”
Tip #5: Capt. Beck also cautions people who take scuba divers out in a boat to learn about the local currents. “When the divers are in the water doing a drift dive, sometimes the boat operator will lose them because he doesn’t understand the current. An inexperienced operator will maintain a position by a buoy, and the divers will resurface in a completely different spot. If he puts the boat in neutral, on the other hand, the boat will drift with the current in the same direction as the divers and it will be close to them when they come back up.”