Danger Signs of an Unsafe Dive Boat

, Danger Signs of an Unsafe Dive Boat

My Perspective on Safety

Dive boat safety is a concern to me because in addition to being a SCUBA diver, I also am a licensed captain. I hold a 100 ton U.S. Coast Guard captains license, and have over 25 years’ sailing instruction experience.

I love to be a prepared diver, and a prepared boater. Growing up with a boat captain for a father; it seemed most of my youth was spent making sure to prevent something from happening; not reacting!

, Danger Signs of an Unsafe Dive Boat

The Importance of Prior Planning

A boating friend of ours has a favorite phrase, “Prior planning prevents piss poor performance positively.” I think the preparation motto has been the theme of my life.

As a sailing instructor, I’m very used to stepping on to someone else’s boat and operating it immediately. However, there are some things that I will not leave the dock before I check. You can read about them here.

When I step on a “strange” dive boat, as a captain, the same checklist runs through my head, and I listen carefully to the dive briefing and the safety talk.

So, from that point of view, I’m going to tell you about some danger signs that should set off the alarms in your head.

, Danger Signs of an Unsafe Dive Boat

Anyone Can “Call” the Dive

One dive trip my dive partner and I went on, I remembered the adage about “anyone can call the dive, at any time.” I think that goes for going out on dive boats as well. I think the moment you are not sure about a boat, that’s probably the moment to step off and scratch that dive trip.

For the first time, I had to call a dive recently. I had under three minutes of bottom time, and realized my impromptu dive partner was not adequately prepared. My regular dive partner asked it I was going to log the dive – you bet! It counts! And it was good experience to trust that inner voice.

, Danger Signs of an Unsafe Dive Boat

An Iffy Experience

We went out on a boat with a captain who seemed physically unable to operate the boat. For me; that day was simply a calculated risk. I singlehand in races, and I routinely take out charters on my own, with passengers who know zero about boats, and sometimes celebrate heartily.

In this case, I knew that I was physically capable of operating the boat, and so is my dive partner. If anything happened to the captain, and to either of us, I knew the other one of us could handle the situation.

If you cannot answer the same; if you are not sure you could take over, operate the boat and secure all passengers, boat, equipment, and so on, then that one factor should put you back on the dock.

The second warning flag was that the captain was reluctant for us to put eyes on some of the safety equipment. That’s a red flag. Time to get off the boat.

I might get a dippy diver from my dive club on this one; you can read about those in a future article.

, Danger Signs of an Unsafe Dive Boat

Calculated Risk

However, local knowledge told me that we were going to be about a quarter of a mile off shore, in broad daylight, toward the beginning of the day, with plenty of life-saving equipment with us. I chose to continue the drive. It was a calculated risk, and nothing happened.

, Danger Signs of an Unsafe Dive Boat

Pressures to Continue

I could point to all of the pressures, but as a diver, you must be self confident enough to overcome any of these. We were diving with friends, on a boat that they had recommended. There was that pressure of not letting them down, or ruining the friendship or the dive. There was the pressure of having traveled the long distance to participate in this dive. Also, there is the pressure of already having paid for the dive.

I can tell you this, my insurance deductible is somewhere between $500 and $2,000. The dive cost less than that. You will always come out better by scrubbing the dive. I never, ever feel pressure to continue. And yes, I’ve kept charters waiting on the dock several times until safety equipment is produced, checked, and secured.

It costs a lot less in the long run to be alive. You might lose money, you might lose friends, you might lose time, you might lose out on the experience; but you will have your life.

, Danger Signs of an Unsafe Dive Boat

A List of Signs That Should Scrub a Dive

Here are some of the things you should look for on a Dive Boat.

, Danger Signs of an Unsafe Dive Boat

First Impressions Mean Everything

As you were walking up to the boat, from the dock, notice if the lines are neatly tied. Check to see if the shore power cord looks fairly new, no burned-out ends. Does the boat look clean and well-maintained?

Age and maintenance are two different things. There are plenty of older vessels that are completely seaworthy and sturdy and dependable. The maintenance is what makes the difference.

A sign of poor maintenance is a sign that you could run into trouble.

, Danger Signs of an Unsafe Dive Boat
A thorough safety brief aboard “Deep Obsession”

Appearance of the Crew

As you are stepping on board, take note of the crew.

How many are there? Are they standing around on the dock smoking, or are they paying attention to the details. Do they look fit and alert? Do they look like they had a rough night and partied too hard?

In a crisis, someone who is hung over is not going to have fast enough reaction times; they are not going to be able to think clearly, and they could even be a liability.

, Danger Signs of an Unsafe Dive Boat

Actions of the Crew

Does the crew look familiar with the boat, do they seem to have a routine or a system. Do they seem overly nervous or excited, and confident.

Does the crew seem to know where things are, give a decent introduction to the boat safety equipment, or did they skim and skip over it.

Before I leave the dock with a class or a charter, I go over the safety equipment is every time, every day, with every passenger, even if they sailed with me the day before. Before I leave the dock, I go over my own personal Pre-Sail Checklist for Sailing routine.

, Danger Signs of an Unsafe Dive Boat

The Engine

When the captain starts the engine, does it sound smooth, and not reluctant to start.

Pay attention – you are listening for strange noises, watching for belches of smoke, and taking note of other signs of lack of maintenance.

The engine should sound healthy and smooth, with a good output of cooling water. You should not hear any alarms sounding, hiccups, or grinding noises.

, Danger Signs of an Unsafe Dive Boat

USCG Required and Suggested Safety Gear

Before leaving the dock, at the least, the location of the following U.S. Coast Guard Required items should be covered:

  • PFD’s – Personal Flotation Devices
  • Sound Producing Device
  • Type IV Throwable Device
  • Visual Distress Signals (Flares)
  • VHF Radio
  • Fire Extinguishers

Also required, but possibly not something that the crew will cover are:

  • MSD – Marine Sanitation Device – holding tank required if there is a toilet
  • Navigational Running Lights
  • Backfire Flame Control
  • Ventilation
  • US Coast Guard Inspection Certificate
  • Pollution Placards

Consider carrying your own First Aid kit

, Danger Signs of an Unsafe Dive Boat

Here’s a great First Aid kit for on board. It’s produced by MyMedic – it floats, and it is waterproof! It has a 78-piece trauma kit, and the hardware is all stainless steel.

When you carry your own First Aid kit, you know exactly where it is, what’s in it, where items in your kit are organized, and how to use the specific items you have chosen. This is a real benefit over searching for the kit that is somewhere on the boat, and may or may not have what you are familiar with and need.

MyMedic partnered with experts in water sports and boating to create a boat-specific First Aid Kit. They analyzed data for injuries in the water to guide them in choosing which supplies to use, and they tested them extensively. It’s a great starting point, and you can customize the kit, adding your own additional items. For example, I add a few more tourniquets to any kit I carry.

The Boat Medic is sink-proof, dust-proof and crush-proof, which are all really good features for a kit you plan to bring aboard.

Why I like MyMedic for First Aid kits

I can tell you, my dive partner and I have purchased MyMedic items, and found them to be very well-designed, sturdy, and comprehensive. Plus, clicking on my link above or below will save you 10% off your purchase.

In fact, I was so impressed in particular by the quality of their MyFAK – My First Aid Kit bag – that we ordered for our vehicle, and I liked their supplies so much that I recently became a brand ambassador for MyMedic. That’s how much I like their gear and supplies and trust them. Using my code, “KimW” and the link above will save you 10% off your purchase.

Dive Boat Survival

My article 7 Items for Dive Boat Survival covers these pieces of safety equipment in more depth. OUPV – Operators of Uninspected Passenger Vessels, casually known as “six-packs” have these USCG requirements.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary has a good checklist for 6-pack vessels.

There are additional items which are not required, but good to have on board, like the boat hook, First Aid kit, bilge pumps, VHF radio (required over 20 meters), and anchor.

, Danger Signs of an Unsafe Dive Boat

Dive-Specific Safety Gear

There are plenty of items that are not Coast Guard-required, but are
necessary and specific to dive boats.

  • Nonskid decks, handholds, lack of sharp edges, toe/head stubbers
  • Dive platform/ladder design should be safe, no finger pinch spots
    Ascent lines, descent lines for vertical control of speed
  • Deco bar for safety stop
  • Current lines floating behind the boat – also called Turkey line or Swim line
  • Tag or Head line – line from stern to anchor for ease of travel
  • Gear stations with no finger mashers, tank security, space to gear up
  • Oxygen for decompression illness
  • Radar
  • Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon – EPIRB
  • Two engines – or even a main engine and a kicker
  • Crew in addition to the captain, could be the Divemaster
  • Dive platform assistance is good to have
  • Captain should be licensed
, Danger Signs of an Unsafe Dive Boat

Boat Routine

The Dive Boat’s routine should include both a boat safety briefing, and also a dive briefing. The dive briefing should include site depth, visibility, currents, potential hazards, entering and exiting the water procedures, and the “recall” signal and system.

The Dive Master should participate pre-dive by overseeing equipment dons while assessing skill levels and comfort levels.

A Diver Count System should be used when there are over six divers – a roll call or ID tag system. Notice if the system is tight, lax, or nonexistent.

If you have any additional items I should have included in the list, please comment below! I’m always looking to improve my plan, and plan to improve.

What to Read Next: Pre-Sail Checklist for Sailing

Updated April 16, 2019.

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