Your First Boat Dive

Different boats and divemasters have different procedures. Find out how the boat operates so that everyone is playing by the same rules.
Photography by Mark Lawrence

Look like a pro with this port-to-starboard guide to diving efficiently, politely and safely from vessels large and small.

By John Francis
If truth be told, many new divers fear their first boat trip more than the diving itself. There are the famous perils of the sea, of course, but there's also the fear of being a "newbie" on someone else's territory, of embarrassing yourself in this strange world of "port" and "starboard." Besides, can't captains force you to walk the plank and get married and stuff like that?

Still, you can't really call yourself an open-water diver until you've taken your first boat trip offshore. So we've collected orientation tips from some of the country's most experienced dive boat skippers. They turn out to be friendly folks, actually. Read on, and get your sea legs.

A Day or Two Before | Down to the Dock
The Voyage Out | Into the Water
Back to the Boat | Between Dives
After the Dive

A Day or Two Before

It's all in your mind, a wise one said. OK, most of it anyway. Don't feed your natural anxiety by being ill-prepared. Don't generate mistakes by rushing to get ready at the last minute. You should always inspect your gear well before a dive trip, but it's especially important when you're on a boat with no dive store in sight.

  • What To Bring. In addition to your usual gear, bring a "save-a-dive" kit, including seasickness medication. Tanks and weights are usually provided at vacation destinations, but often not domestically. A good time to clarify your equipment needs is when you phone ahead to confirm your reservation.

    Bring a towel and warm clothes, maybe even a windbreaker or a dive parka­it's colder on the ocean than you might expect, even in tropical destinations where rainstorms can occur suddenly and unexpectedly.

    For all-day trips, you'll need food and water. Some boats provide food and discourage coolers on board, others cheerfully make room for them. Water will be available, but it's good to have a small bottle of your own; dry air and exercise can both dehydrate you.

  • First In, Last Out. Pack your gear bag so that what you'll need first is on top; there isn't room on the boat to scatter all your gear around the deck searching for your other bootie.

  • Keep It Dry. Pack your dry clothes separately, preferably in a waterproof bag, and find out where dry gear should be stored. Everything on a boat tends to get wet unless fiercely guarded.


    Securing gear: Place weights only on the deck.
    Secure all other gear at your assigned station.

    Down to the Dock

    On arrival at the boat, you'll have to sign a release and show your C-card. A part of the deck area aft (at the back of the boat) will most likely be divided into a number of gear stations, one for each diver. This is your gym locker, where you'll store your gear and suit up. Are gear stations assigned, or should you choose one? Do tanks go in your gear station, or elsewhere? Is it OK to board now, or should you wait? Now's the time to ask.

  • Pick Your Station. If you have a choice, pick a station that's near your buddy's, sheltered from the wind, out of the way of traffic and near the entry door or the dive platform. (If you can achieve all that, buy a lottery ticket too­you're having a great day.)

  • Assemble/Secure Your Gear. Remember, once underway, the boat will be rockin' and rollin'. There will be some means of securing your tank, probably a bungee cord. Use it. Put weights on the deck, not on a bench where they can slide off.

  • Pop a Pill. Speaking of rockin' and rollin', if you're worried about seasickness start taking medication now; later, when you feel sick, will be too late. Eat something bland, like bread, crackers, a banana. Stay away from grease and doughnuts.


    The Voyage Out

    On the way out to the dive site, the boat's captain or mate will give a short talk on the rules of the boat, how to use the marine toilet (head), the day's weather forecast, etc. Pay attention, and ask questions. In fact, don't be reluctant to admit to the captain and divemaster that this is your first boat dive; they will keep a friendly eye out for you. They realize that you're the customer and want you to be happy. If they don't, you've learned something valuable when it comes time to book your next dive trip.

  • Feeling Queasy? Get into the fresh air and fix your eyes on a stationary object on the horizon. If the urge becomes imperative, surrender to it; you'll feel better immediately. Use the boat's rail, on the downwind side near the stern. Don't use the head, a trash can or the camera tank. And don't feel embarrassed; you're not the first.

  • Dress Early. Give yourself plenty of time to don exposure protection, weights and the BC/tank unit, but do not start before the crew indicates it is OK. That way, you'll feel confident instead of rushed, and you'll be less likely to forget your weight belt or fail to start your dive computer.

  • Keep It Together. Keep all your gear at your station. Make room for other divers trying to walk by. Check your buddy's gear at the station, not at the entry door.


    Getting into the water: Carry your fins to the entry point, and put them on while steadying yourself on someone or something.

    Into the Water

    The divemaster will give an orientation to the dive site and explain the procedure for entering and leaving the water. Typically, divers will enter the water one at a time through a door on one side of the boat or from a swim platform at the stern. The divemaster will check your gear quickly, take your name or number, and give you an OK to enter. But different divemasters and boats have different procedures, and it's important that everyone follow the same rules, so pay attention.

  • Hold On. Gear up fully at your station, but carry your fins to the entry door. You are top-heavy and a boat at anchor sometimes rolls unexpectedly, so always leave one hand free to steady yourself.

  • The Giant Stride. Is your air on? (It's surprising how many divers forget.) Wait until the previous diver clears the area and the divemaster gives the OK. It's often a long way down, so inflate your BC no more than one-quarter to halfway and hold onto your mask and regulator. Don't jump with a camera or speargun; instead, ask a crew member to hand it to you. Once in, clear the area immediately for the next diver, then perform your in-water check.


    Getting back on board: Remove your fins and hand them to a crew member, and then clear the platform for the next diver.

    Back to the Boat

    During your first dive, try to keep in mind where the boat is. Use your compass and natural aids for a sense of direction, and don't let the current carry you too far away­you don't want a long surface swim back to the boat. Typically, you'll board the boat by ladder on the platform at the stern. There should be a crew member there to help you.

  • Don't Crowd. Wait for your turn to mount the platform. The procedure will be one diver, or two, at a time.

  • Keep Clear. The platform moves with the weight of the boat behind it, so keep it at arm's length until you're ready to move onto it. Do not let it come down on top of you. In rough water, wait for the platform to submerge, then quickly pull yourself onto the center of it.

  • Fins Only. After handing your fins to a crew member, clear the platform for the next diver. Anything else you remove is likely to be swept off the platform. Walk to your station (carefully) and then take off your weights (if not already off) and BC and tank. Even when there is a ladder, the crew on some dive boats will offer to take your weight belt and BC/tank unit in order to make your climb up as easy as possible.


    Between Dives

    After preparing your gear for the next dive, you have three tasks: stay warm, take on fuel and rest. Most divers remove or peel away at least some of their exposure suit in order to get dry. Wind can chill a wet diver even in the warm tropics. Your goal is to return your body to its pre-dive temperature.

  • More Air. On boats without compressors, you'll need to change tanks. Do this now, before you start relaxing. On boats with compressors, you usually signal your request for an air fill by removing your regulator from the tank or hanging some kind of tag supplied by the boat on the tank's valve.

  • Eat, Eat, Eat. You need calories for both warmth and energy. If it's not provided, bring your own fruit, bagels, granola bars, etc. Greasy burgers are not the best fuel, and they don't comfort a nervous stomach.

  • Keep It Dry. Some boats permit wet exposure suits in the lounge/galley area, others try to keep those areas dry. Find out the rules for the boat you're on before entering the cabin.

  • Camera Care. There's usually a special place for storing cameras between dives. That keeps them away from flying weight belts. Do not use a camera rinse tank for your mask or anything else.


    After the Dive

    While some boats, especially live-aboards, offer three and even five dives a day, many experienced divers will not try to do all of them. Your exhilaration may urge you on, but if you're at all fatigued it's better to end the day's diving one tank early than one tank late. Put away your gear, change and rest.

  • Put Your Toys Away. Mom was right. Break down your gear and pack it now, before you change into dry clothes and get comfortable.

  • Wash & Dry. Many boats offer freshwater showers, but the water supply is usually limited. Don't hog the shower, and don't use it to rinse your gear. Some even have hot tubs, where the same rule applies.

  • Rest. It helps to off-gas nitrogen. Besides, you've usually still got to lug your gear off the boat.


    How to Be a Great Dive Buddy

    It's likely that your first boat dive will also be the first buddy dive you make without the direct supervision of an instructor or divemaster. Whether you buddy up with a stranger on the boat or you bring your own buddy, follow these 10 rules for a trouble-free partnership.

    • Define a Comfort Zone. Max depth, time, activity level and water conditions should be within the comfort zone of the lesser of the two divers, even though a more experienced or fit buddy may be restricted by them.

    • Select Compatible Activities. Planned buddy activities do not need to be identical, but they should be complementary. Sightseeing and videography go well together; close-up photography and spearfishing do not.

    • Build Cooperation. Avoid the leader-follower syndrome. Share responsibilities and duties so that each diver can take on aspects of both leader and follower.

    • Increase Awareness of Each Other. To reduce stress and the likelihood of separation, use a slight touch, listen to bubble sounds, give a brief sideways glance, even hold hands.

    • Plan Together. Every dive plan should include the dive's purpose and activities, direction and route, cutoffs for depth, time, air or decompression, and how to change the plan.

    • Limit the Group. Buddy groups can include up to four divers, no more. Threesomes and foursomes are safe and effective if each buddy fulfills his/her responsibility to the others.

    • Check and Double-Check. In addition to pre-dive buddy checks, you should also share your experiences after diving and observe each other for any difficulties.

    • Learn to Communicate. Regardless of what form of underwater communication you employ­hand signals, slates, underwater voice units­the key is to agree beforehand which to use and how.

    • Stay Together. The keys to staying together are to dive side-by-side, stay on the same side as much as possible, head in an agreed-upon direction and stay aware of each other.

    • Monitor Air Consumption. No two divers use air at exactly the same rate. Return from a dive based on the air supply of the person with the least air.