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Training Fundamentals: Diver Lifts

There are many ways to board a dive boat at the end of your dive. In some areas of the world, ‘diver lifts’ are commonplace. What are they?

Many new scuba divers are surprised by how much their scuba gear weighs. As students climb out of the water at the end of their initial training sessions, after an hour in an effectively weightless environment, the gravity of what they’ve had strapped to their backs comes sharply into focus. Leaving aside any other equipment and accessories, a typical scuba cylinder may weigh 30 to 35 pounds (13 to 15 kg) depending on the shape, construction, brand and pressure rating.

Most novice scuba divers consider their dive complete when they’ve finished their ascent and reach the surface. Usually excited to share their experience, they immediately rush to remove their regulator and mask — some even begin scrolling through photo or video footage before they’re back on the boat. In fact, the dive isn’t over until you’re safely back on board the vessel and the weight of the equipment, including the cylinder, is gone. It’s no coincidence that working dive guides won’t notify the skipper or trip leader that the dive is over until all their divers are safely back on board. However, some divers find even modest, single-cylinder recreational scuba set-ups quite laborious when re-boarding a boat or climbing an exit ladder. This is where diver lifts come in.

Different methods of boarding the boat

On boat dives there are various ways you might get from the water to the boat deck, depending on the dive environment. During drift dives or in environments where there are delicate reefs or shallow waters, or where there are multiple groups in the water, a zodiac, RIB or dinghy will usually pick up divers.

On other dives the main vessel, such as a hard-bottomed liveaboard boat, may complete the diver pickup. This will usually only happen when there is space around the reef or island for the vessel to maneuver into a safe position to pick up divers, allowing the divers a window of time to board while the boat is drifting with the wind and water.

In some diving environments, however, divers use even bulkier and heavier equipment. This may be due to more-challenging or cooler environments where divers need drysuits, hoods and gloves. A classic neoprene drysuit weighs considerably more than a wetsuit, and the increased positive buoyancy of the suit also requires additional weight to achieve neutral buoyancy. Alternatively, some dive sites and environments are synonymous with technical diving. The related demands of technical diving mean that divers will often wear multiple tanks or stage bottles or even a rebreather unit. These different configurations are considerably heavier than a standard recreational scuba set-up. While in the water, the additional weight of these different configurations is slightly less apparent, but they make climbing a ladder to board a boat at the end of a dive more challenging.

Diver lifts: solving the weight problem

Many boat operators working in these more-demanding environments offer diver lifts on their vessels.

A diver lift is a moving platform fitted to the hull of the vessel. The boat’s skipper or crew lowers the platform into the water when the boat is in position to pick up the diver, much like an aircraft lowering its undercarriage. Then, when crew gives the signal, the divers rise one by one, fully geared up, back on deck level, shuffling onto the deck as briefed.

Practicing with diver lifts

Ensure when you initially board the boat you pay attention to the boat briefing. Each diver lift and its procedure is slightly different. Be clear on how to exit the water prior to your dive. As general rules for using a diver lift from a hard boat:

  • When surfacing with your group, stay close to each other. The skipper will be trying to decide on the best position to place the vessel, given wind and tidal movement. If divers are scattered on the surface it makes the vessel’s approach much more difficult.
  • The skipper is generally looking for the surface marker buoy of the dive leader on final approach. Consequently, try to stay behind the dive leader in relation to the boat. In some challenging environments, divers may even form a chain, holding onto the dive leader’s tank or that of the diver in front of them.
  • As the boat makes its final approach ensure your mask and regulator are in place. You’ll need vision beneath the surface and to protect your airway from waves and boat fumes.
  • Stay still and follow the dive leader’s instructions. The skipper will bring the boat into position, exposing the lift side of the vessel. When you get instruction, approach the boat. Keep your eyes on its position wherever possible and take your place at a safe distance from the boat. Leave a little space between you and the diver in front. Often the crew will either throw a trail line for you to grasp, allowing you to hold position or, alternatively, there may be a line running alongside the vessel’s hull. This allows you to take the line with one hand and float alongside the boat.
  • One by one, each diver will board the boat. Stay clear of the lift and remain on the line while the crew lowers the lift into the water. Wait until it’s your turn to board. When signaled, approach the lift. With your mask on and your regulator in, make your final approach. Typically, the lift will also have a grab rail on each side of the platform.
  • When you approach the lift platform, grasp the rails on either side with both hands and plant your fins firmly on the platform, facing the boat. Glance beneath the water to make sure your fin tips haven’t gone beyond the edge of the platform. You do not want them trapped between the platform and the boat’s hull when the crew begins raising the platform.
  • When you have a firm footing, look directly to the crew at deck level and signal that you’re ready to be lifted to deck level — usually a clear nod is sufficient. Don’t remove your hands from the rails.
  • Stay still as they raise the platform and be prepared to take the weight of your equipment again. When the platform reaches deck level, the lift will stop, and the crew will usher you onto the deck. Shuffle carefully back onto the deck until you are clear of the platform. Then — when back on solid ground — remove your regulator and thank the crew for picking you up. Continue to your space on the deck, using available handrails to steady yourself. Don’t pause to remove your fins just beyond the platform, as you will block the path of the next diver arriving at the deck.
  • When seated, remove your equipment as usual.

Dive equipment can be very heavy, particularly as you progress to more challenging diving environments or technical-diver training. Diver lifts are remarkable devices that help divers end the dive safely and smoothly, very literally ‘lifting’ you back on board. Knowing how to use them safely is a valuable skill should you ever encounter one on a boat.