Back to Basics: How to... Boating For Beginners / The Rules and Etiquette

The progression from diving from the shore to diving off a boat is a big one. The ability to travel to otherwise inaccessible spots, and cover more ground, makes boat diving potentially far more rewarding. Add to that the fact that you get to dive in close quarters with other divers, and you end up learning a lot more than when you just walk down the beach for a shore dive.

The problem is that ‘breaking into’ a group of divers who either have boats or access to boats, is harder than it was fitting in with the cool kids at school when your Mama dressed you funny. So when you finally get a break, the last thing you want to do is blow it. With this in mind, I’ve learnt a few things about the etiquette of boat diving along the way (mostly by making these mistakes and blowing it).

These tips will help you make a good and lasting impression, and hopefully you will get invited back to dive time and time again.


• Remember that you are a guest and follow the boat’s rules. The Skipper, captain, or the guy who owns the boat always has the final say in everything from the plan for the day to who dives first.


• Be punctual. The quickest way to ensure that you don’t get invited back is to be late or not pitch up without letting the guys know. In my experience there are few second chances here. So be on time, and don’t waste time.
• Have your kit organised the night before. The last thing you want is to have to turn around for something you left behind or have to borrow a snorkel that miraculously disappeared. Instant grounds for top man duty!
• Treat the boat better than you would your own, You do not want to break or damage anything.
• If you do break something, then you fix it. If it needs replacing, you replace it with a newer, better version that before.
• Make sure that your licenses are up to date. If you have a run in with the authorities, it will inconvenience your hosts and they will also get tarred with the same brush as you.
• For the same reason, don’t break the law by shooting undersized fish, or species that are off limits.
• Find out the ‘modus operandi’ before you get in the water. For instance, are there fish that the Skipper does not like to take or have on his boat? It is easier to find out beforehand, rather than experience an awkward moment when you get told off for doing something wrong.


• Don’t ever write down someone’s GPS or landmarks. Even worse, never take other buddies back to the same spot. Breaking trust in this way will ensure that no one will want you on their boat. Ever.
• The same goes for blabbering. You might be all excited because you smashed a fish at this epic spot you were shown. But don’t go and post your trophy pics on Facebook, with names and directions, and let the whole world know about your (former) dive buddy’s favourite spot.
• Sometimes it’s not about the spots, but more about specifically how they are fished – from specialized techniques, to insider info on variables such as time of year, wind, current etc. If you have been let in on something that might have taken guys years to figure out, don’t go and tell everyone. These things can be as precious as GPS marks.


• At the end of the day when everyone is exhausted, never let the Skipper clean the boat alone. This is the best time to be proactive and create a good impression. Make a point of finding out how he likes the boat cleaned, then go the extra mile.
• Often it’s more than just the boat that needs cleaning. Don’t leave the owner cleaning the salt off vehicles and scrubbing out fish containers.
• Offer to clean the fish. If you have no idea how to fillet a fish, ask to be shown how. It’s a win-win situation: you learn, and they get their fish cleaned. Everyone’s left smiling.


• Be ready to pay for fuel and other costs, whether it is launch fees, road tolls, food… the list goes on. The boat is already a massive cost, so don’t be shy with paying. Also, have cash ready. Never have to be chased for the cash.
• Don’t ever wait to be asked for cash, by then it is too late. Make a point of offering right up front.


• No matter how excited you are to get in the water, offer to be ‘top man’ or drive the boat on the first drift.
• Make sure that you doing your share of top man duties. If you’re top man a little more often than the others, remember that you’re the new kid on the block, so don’t complain.
• When top manning, NEVER EVER GO TO SLEEP! That’s how divers get lost or how a small problem becomes a big problem – like having to evacuate divers from over zealous sharks. You can’t respond quickly to an emergency if you’re taking a nap.
• Always know where your divers are, and if you are busy sorting something out, make sure you can hear or see the guys from where you are working.
• Don’t buzz around the guys diving. Work out the way the boat is drifting in the wind and current. Drive up from the divers so that you still have them in good sight and let the boat drift back and then past them. Only start up the motors once you feel you are getting too far away to adequately respond to the divers. Also, don’t then drive up right next to them on the way back up. Do an arc around them, ensuring that you don’t make unnecessary noise and disturbance while they are hunting.
• Try to keep the sun behind you. If the sun is behind the divers it will be difficult to see them.
• When top manning, make sure that the deck is clear. This includes stowing unused guns, fins and ropes, and washing fish blood off the deck before it dries.
• Keep your gear tidy: a net or small bag to stow your mask, gloves etc is a good idea. There is nothing worse than a diver who is untidy and leaves all his equipment lying everywhere. Knowing where all your gear is will also make you more efficient, and guys won’t be waiting for you to sort your gear out.
• If you are throwing anchor, be the guy dropping and pulling the anchor back up. It is the boat owner’s privilege not to pull the anchor. And yes, this does mean that you will be the last off the boat.
• When picking up divers, you should motor over to them from up current/wind (wind behind you), cut motors when 5 to 10 metres away and then let the wind/current push the boat towards the divers. Never make tired divers swim for a boat drifting away from them.
• Remember, put your brain in gear first, then put the motor in gear. Props can kill. Check that the props are clear before starting the motor.


• Dive safe! Especially if you are diving in water conditions that you are not familiar with, alongside divers that can dive deeper and longer than you. Don’t be tempted to push yourself or prove yourself. Dying is a surefire way to ensure you’re not invited back, and if you dive like a reckless cowboy you will find that no one will want to dive with you.
THIS IS IMPORTANT. Many close calls, blackouts and cases of divers disappearing have occurred when guys were diving in better conditions than they were used to. It is easier to dive deeper and beyond your abilities in cleaner, warmer water. This is complicated by the fact that you are now chasing fish as well. Dive safe and well with in your means.
• Don’t go off on your own mission, stay near the other divers. Make sure that you are always close enough to give or receive assistance.
• Always have something that marks your position. If you don’t have a float and buoy line and you are diving with an untethered reelgun, then take a flasher and float, preferably with a flag. This way, your dive buddy and boat will know where you are at all times.
• As important as it is to be close to your dive buddy, it is also important not to sit right on top of him. If you are shoulder to shoulder and a fish swims in, who is going to go for the fish? Keep a safe distance so that you do not cramp other divers. And never bomb dive another man’s fish! As a general rule, the diver who is already down has first opportunity on the fish.
• Be mindful of what fish are being targeted. Don’t start shooting the first little fish that comes to you at the expense of chasing off larger fish the more experienced guys may be stalking. This is grounds for instant dismissal.
• When it is time to pack up, move spots, or go up for another drift, don’t be that guy who always does another ‘last’ dive. If the Skipper has decided to move on, then it’s time to move on.
• If you are diving with buoy lines, wind them up before the boat reaches you. If you don’t wind up your line there is a chance that the boat may drift over it, and you will waste time untangling it from the motors. Some guys wind the line on their gun. I prefer to wind up on my arm using a figure of eight. You will be much faster when releasing the line on the next drift, instead of having to unwind the line from your gun.
• When waiting for the boat to pick you up, stick with the other diver/s. It makes the job of the top man so much easier if he can get close to all the divers at the same time. This means that you shouldn’t start swimming towards the boat as it approaches, as you will create distance between you and the other divers and they will then also have to swim. As soon as you get to the boat, it will need to stop motoring. If the wind is blowing, the boat will only drift further away and the other divers will have even further to swim. (Just by the way, this is my pet peeve.)
• Never pass a loaded gun up to the boat.
This is by no means a definitive list of dos and don’ts… but it’s a good place to start when it comes to learning your boating ‘manners’ and ensuring that you do get invited back. Every group of guys will have their own way of doing things. For instance, launching off a beach into surf is completely different to a harbour launch and both will have their own set of protocols and rules. Use this article as a guide and make it your business to find out how the guys you are with like to do things. Add to that a dash of good old fashioned common sense and you’ll have no problems finding – and keeping – your place in the boat diving crowd.