Gear Advice for New Divers
*Note: I readily point out I am no expert in diving. In fact, why is this newbie diver offering up a gear guide at all? What does he know!?
Well, yeah, good questions, good questions. I am just a guy who went through all the newbie gear purchasing stuff in the past couple months and who wants to pass on tips to newbies embarking on the gear purchasing stuff phase, from a newbie who just did it. It reflects my experience and what I value in gear, and I could be wrong. At least I put my money where my mouth was… haha. But seriously, take what you want from my findings and do what is right for you. Good luck.
Hi new divers!
I am taking a break from trying to understand my new dive computer to offer up a summary of my gear purchases as a novice diver equipping himself. If you are new to diving or at least new enough, then taking the step from renting every dive to shelling out for your own equipment is a not insignificant step. I certainly spent a LOT of time lurking and reading and researching before I bought anything. If you are going through that now… your poor checkbook…
I started diving seven years ago, had a blast in the little bit of the dive season I had left after doing my basic open water course, and then never touched scuba again until this year. Life, right? I dive local only, in Lake Erie. So cold freshwater.
Once you know you want to integrate diving into your life – or make it your recreational focus – you start wanting to have your own stuff. Especially seeing as that “stuff” is literally life-preserving equipment for scuba, without which we could not dive and the failure of which puts one’s lifespan on a rather short timer. So yeah, it’s nice to have your own stuff.
Also, basic scuba classes don’t do much to help you decide what gear you need, much less how to pick from all the different options. My advanced class didn’t do much of anything there either. That leaves a new diver to rely on the advice of divers you know or internet advice. Either can work, but if you don’t know other divers, say because you are new to diving and have not joined your local diving community yet, then you are looking at LDS (local dive shop) or internet advice. Fortunately there is a lot of good advice on forums like Scubaboard.com.
Dive shops are hit or miss. I like the people at mine, but lots of people in dive shops have only limited knowledge of the wide range of dive gear available to the diver, and I have also heard of straight-out nasty people running dive shops.
Local Dive Shop
My opinion on LDS’s is that they are important to support because they have that $10-$20k compressor system that fills your tank with clean, safe air. They also generally have a small stock of gear that can save your dive trip if you only had online sources, and generally they run classes and dive trips to help get you in the water. So they are good resources for divers. On the other hand, they are pretty much the most expensive source for gear. In a world where no retailer sells at MSRP, they do. But they can bring a lot to the table in hands-on support. So it becomes a question of what you can afford and what you place value on.
If you can afford it and your LDS has the brands you want, absolutely buy from them. If not, I suggest giving them at least some of your business but don’t get tied up in knots over it. Your LDS is not a non-profit. Don’t use them as a gear advice resource if you know you are not going to buy their gear, but don’t be embarrassed by buying elsewhere either. Your LDS is going to be better off by you diving more, and you will be too.
The three biggest money savers I have seen are: don’t repurchase gear, look for used gear and big sales, and consider long-term costs. The first is simple. A good bcd or reg can last decades. However, that assumes that you got what you like in the beginning and don’t decide to pick something else a few years down the road. I am not talking about the jump from rec diving to tech diving. I have no experience of that. I am talking about spending $300 on a bcd you don’t really like and switching to a BP/W a year later. Obviously the best way to avoid this is to try things before you buy, but that is often not an option. In that case, you’ll have to do what I did: do your research, ask your questions, and make your best guess. Also, buy once, cry once. It hurts, but it is cheaper than buying twice on gear that can last a long time.
Used gear – check Scubaboard.com’s used section and local resources. Ebay and Craigslist offer opportunities for the saavy shopper.
The final point is why I didn’t buy any used gear despite wanting to save some money on used stuff: long-term costs. A reg set needs to be serviced every year or every two years and normally will set you back $150-$200 every service. Hydro and visual for a tank is $50 easy. New stuff that doesn’t need immediate service is very competitive against used stuff that does and needs shipped (another $20-$30) because of that. Look for those deals, but consider all costs.
DIY: Everyone has limited time and money. Using your diving dollars well is important to most folks. It certainly is to me. unfortunately there is little scope for DIY savings in the most expensive dive gear. That is not to say someone with some machining skills could not make their own stainless steel backplate or something; they certainly could. But very very few people are going to be able to whip up a backplate AND a wing from scratch and trust it with their lives. Even for those that can, I would not suggest starting one’s diving career DIY.
The Gear: Basics
Now, obviously we all start with the basics from class: snorkel, fins, mask, and some sort of weight belt. Assuming these things all work, no need to change them when gearing up. There are a lot of other things shouting “give me money, give me your money.” I will say that if for some strange reason you have an old high-volume mask it is worth it to switch to a modern low-volume one, or if your masks leaks or fogs even after you cleaned it with an abrasive and applied anti-fog, do yourself a favor and get one that works. But assuming all your stuff does work, you are good to go here.
I had a low-volume mask, snorkel, fins with spring straps (unbreakable, because why on Earth would one ever want to lose a fin?), weight belt, rubber snorkel keeper, and mask anti-fog. Check.
Wetsuit & Friends
I guess if you want you could get the BCD first, but I think the wetsuit makes more sense. Especially if you are a big guy like me and renting a suit that fits you is a PITA. Anyway, I bought a $180 3mm full wetsuit from my LDS, because I have polar bear blood. Research on suits is worth it, though, because an excellent 3mm suit can be warmer than a cheap 5mm suit, and the thinner the suit the easier it is to control your buoyancy and the less water resistance you will have in the water. I had the dive boots, gloves, and hood (in my case a cap, again, polar bear) already. These things are extensions of the wetsuit and should be considered alongside it. For people more sensitive to the cold than polar bears, more consideration should be applied here. If you’ve never researched wetsuits, do it. You’ll be surprised at how much better the good ones can be.
Drysuits are expensive and need to fit you well. If you are someplace that you can’t dive without one then it is what it is. I don’t know much about drysuits but honestly I don’t think they are something a new diver ought to jump into buying. If you are cold all the time in a 7mm wetsuit, though, it is not hard to guess that a drysuit is in your future. You can easily buy all your other dive gear for the cost of a drysuit.
Core Diving Gear
Buoyancy Control Device
Now for the Core Gear. I like to work from the inside out on gear, and the base gear item is your BCD. It carries your tank, it carries your air bladder for buoyancy control and surface flotation, and it carries your accessories. I consider being able to have everything arranged just so to be a matter of safety. It is mostly convenient, but when one is doing a life-risking activity I think it is well worth calling it safety. NAUI preaches about task-loading now, and that is a good way to think of it. One ought to be able to grab any critical piece of equipment – reg, octo, knife, spg – without having to stop and think about where it is. If things are getting difficult, one will have enough to do without fighting one’s own gear.
BCD’s start with “do I want my air bladder on my sides or on my back?” I had an instructor who swore by traditional jacket bcd’s, but as for me, I want that bladder on my back. Proper trim lets one dive with one’s body horizontal, and it is a lot easier to do so with the bladder, aka the floaty bit, above one’s body. This is a personal choice, though.
If you decide to go with a rear bladder you can get a jacket bcd with a rear bladder or a version of the classic backplate and wing setup. These include a soft backplate with wings, soft backplate with integrated wings, various plastic/carbon fiber/etc backplates, aluminium backplates, steel backplates… anyway, a lot of options here. Whatever the details, the BP/W system works by attaching a strong plate of some sort (or strong pad) to your back, with an air bladder mounted to that, with an air tank (or two) on top of the bladder holding the bladder firmly to the plate via the tank bands. The plate in turn attaches to your back via a harness of some sort, ranging from the simplest (called Hogarthian) to what looks like a backpack style harness all the way to jacket style harnesses with pads. Most BP/W users seem to settle on the simple Hogarthian harness. It is simple and can kind of mold to your body after being fitted and broken in, rather like unpadded leather boots after a water soaking if you have ever done that.
I got a BP/W from DeepSeaSupply for about $500 including shipping and am very happy with it. The Hogarthian harness did require some time fitting it on land and some more time in the water, but after that it feels like a pair of your favorite jeans.
Great, you say. There is a lot of money spent. Am I done?
LOL! Next thing on your list: the regulator. Ugh, expensive! Well, being able to breathe is important. Cliff notes version: Most regs are made by just a few factories, but according to the design made by the companies with their name on the reg. You need a first stage, second stage, octopus, and Submersible Pressure Gauge (SPG). The first stage will be either diaphragm or piston, sealed or unsealed, unbalanced, balanced, or overbalanced, and supply air at about 135-140 psi to your seconds. The seconds (octo is also a second, and can be the same design as primary second or different) take that air and put it in your mouth at ambient pressure. They can be underbalanced or balanced, and use a piston or a diaphragm. SPG’s show your tank pressure. They can also be part of a console with depth gauge and other stuff. Finally, everything is connected with hoses.
Match your reg set to your diving and budget. First stages need to be sealed if you dive cold water to protect against freezing from the endothermic reaction of gas expanding from high pressure to low pressure. If in warm water, it doesn’t matter, but some people still like their firsts sealed to keep out sand and salt water. Diaphragms seal more reliably than pistons, but top-end pistons can supply more gas than diaphragms for really deep diving. Overbalancing is for deep divers to get air or whatever mix they are breathing more easily. Balanced firsts supply air at their intermediate pressure (+ ambient) from the first breath to the last. Unbalanced (underbalanced) firsts are simpler and they become slightly harder to breathe once the tank pressure drops low enough. Some people actually prefer this as a warning of very low tank pressure, but I am firmly in the “rely on your SPG” camp for that sort of thing. For cold water rec diving I went with diaphragms. You also have a choice between Yoke and DIN fittings. DIN is stronger, but Yoke is far more common. For starting out, go yoke. Tanks are about the last thing you ought to be worrying about now, and rentals use Yoke.
For seconds, you want your primary balanced (unbalanced is somewhat cheaper and again, some people actually prefer it) and your octo underbalanced. A balanced octo is fine because you can adjust it not to freeflow – an underbalanced octo should not freeflow without adjustment.
SPG’s are a personal choice. For a BP/W setup I like not having a console, so a simple brass SPG is great. However, not having a depth gauge mandates having a dive computer or a separate wrist-mounted depth gauge (Dive computer all the way here).
Hoses are simple: braided flex hoses or rubber hoses. Both have pros and cons, but there is some concern about internal hose degradation in braided flex hoses right now. I’d be cautious about the maker of the hoses until it settled. More immediate, though, is that the hose length needs to match the bcd. Jacket bcd’s use short primaries, long octos, long inflators, and long console/SPG hoses. That is what most rental regs will be like. BP/W setups work better with long primaries, short octos, shorter inflators, and short SPG hoses (google DIR setup for lengths). So make sure you get what you need. If you want to do something different from these basics, make sure you carefully consider what is comfortable for you. Hoses can be changed later, but it is always better to get it right the first time if possible.
Also important to keep in mind: service. Regs need service every one to two years and it will run $150-$200 every time. This is probably the biggest reason to buy from your LDS – they can quickly fix a misbehaving reg and get you diving. Otherwise you would have to mail it out for servicing. However, some LDS’s don’t handle reg service. In that case there is little advantage to buying regs from them. The mail service companies will generally be cheaper to get reg service from too. New regs can include free parts for life depending on the manufacturer. Parts vary considerably in cost, but expect to spend $50-$70 in parts for a first and two seconds every service. (This is included in the previous service cost estimate. When you check prices for service fees though, be aware that fees generally leave out parts cost.)
Oh, and you will want a decent case (hard or soft) for your reg set. They are valuable and worth keeping safe. Also you should order an IP Gauge, which will let you find out the Intermediate Pressure (aka what the first stage is putting out) to diagnose reg problems. Not buying from your LDS increases the responsibility you bear for keeping your reg running well, but every reg owner ought to shell out the $10 for an IP gauge. Of course, if you will never in a million years use it then just be sure you bought from your LDS. 😉
I ended up buying a Deep6 Signature Single Tank package for $565. I needed a sealed first stage which ruled out a lot of sets. I was looking at used Mk25’s from Scubapro and a $400 set from DiveGearExpress but when I added up all the service costs the Deep6 set (which includes free first service and locked in service fee from date of purchase) was the same price as the cheaper set with better performance. I also avoided paying a big mark-up for a logo, which is always nice. IP gauge was $9 from DiveGearExpress.
Next, dive computer. You could dive without one if you went with a console, but if you didn’t then you don’t have a depth gauge. You need you know how deep you are, and a DC will do that for you. People with two DC’s like to use two DC’s for backup, but that is overkill when you are new and need to buy a lot of gear. If you are spending a lot of money on a big dive trip it is a different story – divers use two or even three to protect against a ruined trip – but normally, I think one DC is enough to deal with.
My suggestion is to consider the algorithm, the reliability, the price, and the useability, in that order. When you dive a computer you are ON ITS ALGORITHM, not your tables, and you need to do what it tells you or you may very well get bent. You might get bent anyway, DC or tables, because diving, but if you blow a deco obligation… well, don’t.
Algorithms are designed for a purpose, so pick the right one. DSAT is designed for warm water, shallow, repetitive dives. It is considered very liberal, and for what it is designed for it will give you most bottom time, but go deep and in deco and it will punish you. PZ+ is for cold water diving and is my favorite from what little I know. Then there are the RGBM algorithms, which are tweaked according to microbubble theory. From what I have seen Mares is just a bit more conservative than PZ+, while Suunto and Cressi are very conservative. That can be a good thing, especially if you are out of shape and on a cold or stressful dive. I prefer a middle of the road algorithm and adding my own conservativeness with a longer safety stop, but that is me. Also, DC’s always can be set to be more conservative, but not more liberal. YMMV.
Reliability is a bit tougher to learn about. Reviews are good, but newer DC’s are not going to have the long track record you will prefer to see. Suunto became the most popular DC because of its unsurpassed reliability, but I have heard newer DC’s are not as tough as its previous ones. I have also heard Oceanic can have issues with reliability. I really don’t know, but personally I steered clear of both of them.
Cost is next, and you can get a solid recreational DC for $200 on sale. If you want you can get a Mares Puck for $150, but the last issue, usability, is why I didn’t.
Single-button DC’s are often considered to be a pain to use. Also, using a bungie mount is prefered over a strap due to the strap’s single point of failure, and if you dive a drysuit the bungies stretch to stay on the suit. Some DC’s have built-in bungie mounts, some have aftermarket mounts, and some (watch-style DC’s) cannot be used with bungies. Some DC’s are noted for being a pain to remember how to use. I have dove one Mares DC and studied an Aeris DC manual to learn how to use it. The Mares was so much easier it is not even funny. Check out the reviews for ease of use, and I also suggest checking out the manuals online if you are on the fence.
I suggest getting an inexpensive DC for now and getting a better one later, because at some point you will probably want to dive with a primary DC and a backup. That is one reason to pick an algorithm you like now, but it is not a dealbreaker for later.
I bought a Mares Smart DC for $200 on sale from Scuba.com. It is not my ideal DC, but it is plenty good enough, and I have dove it and like it so far. Any DC will give you more bottom time than tables, even a Suunto or Cressi.
Core dive gear is great and all, but it is like the shoes, shorts, and shirt part of going for a walk. But not every walk is up and down the driveway. When it is time to get out of the pool and hit open water, you need more stuff.
Float and Flag
Boats. This is all about boats. If you want to feel queasy for the rest of the day you can go look up what happens when a propeller and a diver intersect. Don’t do this, though. I saw a picture two months ago and it still bothers me. So if you are diving and there are boats, you need a dive flag to mark your position to boaters. In the US you need the red and white dive flag; anywhere else it is the Alpha flag. Because flags do not float you need to mount it to something that does. A bit of google-fu reveals that there are actually a lot of things that float that are used for this.
My opinion is that you ought to match your float to your diving – like every other piece of gear, really. Diving in ocean swells and waves? Those plastic torpedo-shaped floats are your friend. Calm lake? The covered inner tube float is very popular, and is a champ at holding stuff for you while you are out diving with it. You don’t need one though; plenty of divers do fine with a pole with a flag on the top end, a plastic foam ball or even just an empty bottle stuck or tied in the middle, and a couple of pounds of lead on the bottom end. I stuck a dive flag on an old RC boat. The point is, just use something. The flag itself is under $20 and the rest can vary between a few bucks for a pole and a bottle to $100-$150 for a top-notch F&F. If you want to make a big model submarine and put a flag on it that works too. My point is that making a F&F is easy to do.
Also, your F&F needs an attachment point on the bottom so you can tow the thing from underwater. Divers I know seem to prefer either a cheap plastic winder ($5) or a cheap plastic wreck reel ($20) for towing. The later generally comes with its own line. If not, you want braided nylon (not twisted) line to fill it. Small braided nylon is listed by number, not diameter. #24 or #18 is plenty for a F&F; #36 and #48 are thicker and used for penetration guide lines. There are also more advanced lines that can be purchased at additional cost, but I would not bother unless you had a good reason to do so.
I bought a dive flag ($10) from my LDS and stuck it on a yellow driveway marker pole (for my warm-weather readers, it lets you see your driveway in snow) I had lying around and stuck that to an old foam RC boat I built for RC fishing. I then screwed in a brass eyelet to the boat’s wooden keel and my plastic wreck reel ($20) ties on to that. It is surprisingly stable when not being grabbed as a floatation device. I intend to build a DIY model boat out of coroplast to replace it at some point, but this is sheer whimsy on my part. Anything that floats will probably work.
Have a good sense of direction? Great. Now how good is it while blindfolded and in a current?
Underwater nav requires a compass, oil-filled and rated for diving. They can be as cheap as $30 and as expensive as $150+. I prefer a bungie mounted wrist compass. Bungies I have talked about, and the wrist mount because I am not a console guy and the separate clip mounting adds one more thing to your D-rings that doesn’t have to be there.
I got my compass from DiveGearExpress (Tech Compass, $39) and have no complaints after using it twice.
Match the knife to your diving area and its entanglement hazards. If you have a BP/W with a Hogarthian harness you should have a small knife on your belt. Otherwise, you should have something somewhere. After your first few dives most divers treat the knife less as something awesome and more as an annoying piece of safety gear they are stuck with. I have never used my dive knife, but if I ever do I may owe my life to having it. So don’t overlook it.
There are mounting options for your legs, arms, and BCD mounts. I favor the BCD mount just because – if you own your BCD – you be sure of never forgetting it. If I dive in an area where fishermen use metallic line, I will add a pair of diving scissors to handle that threat. Dive knives don’t have to be big, and they don’t have to be small. They don’t even have to be knives. They just need to cut whatever the thing is that keeps you from moving. Unless that thing is your dive buddy trying to take pictures. Shutterbugs are another topic entirely.
I had a titanium knife from years ago, but I now dive with just the SS knife on my BP/W harness that came from DSS. Use silicone grease on any steel dive knife to preserve it. Titanium does not need greased, but it is a softer metal.
You need one to do your basic scuba class. You need one to snorkel with. You might even want one to breathe more easily in bigger waves on the surface. But a snorkel has zero usage for actually diving. Some people always dive with one, others consider it more of a hazard than a help. Count me in the latter group. I have a snorkel, it always travels with me in my dive bag just in case I need it, but I have not gotten it wet since basic. YMMV.
You need them for night diving (two, actually). You may want one for peeking into shadows while doing day dives. Your new dive light will be an LED light, almost certainly a Cree LED regardless of the company that makes the housing, and yes, more money will get you a better light. LED’s get sorted at the factory by quality, and the better the quality of the individual LED the more it sells for. Sort of like a LED mine, in that sense, but with LED’s instead of diamonds. Anyway, there is no such thing as a top-notch LED at a cheap price. However, the housings that protect the LED and the electronics that run it also figure into the price – and the same rule generally applies. Top-quality LED’s are sold for relatively high prices to companies that will (sensibly) mate them with top-quality electronics and mount them in high-quality housings.
Fortunately, we rarely need top-quality lights. Good quality is pretty amazing as it is, and they keep getting better. You can buy a solid light that will serve equally well as a primary or backup light for about $55 from DiveGearExpress. You can explore a variety of handles and form factors at your LDS or one of the online retailers, for about $100-$200 for a very good primary and $50-$100 for a backup. You can also spin the wheel on a cheap (<$30) Chinese-made dive light from Amazon.
I spent $22 on one to try out as a backup and it easily outshines my old (pre-LED) Princeton Primary dive light. I did have to clean it out throughly and lube the O-rings before I dared get it wet, however. Mind your O-rings. If you don’t understand how an O-ring works use some Google-fu and find out. It is the basis for how diving gear keeps the wet stuff and the air stuff from having a party, and you will also learn how to keep your O-rings happy. Hint: keep them clean and with a sheen of silicone grease, and replace when needed.
Make sure your light is a spot light – that means it focuses the beam into its center. Flood lights are for use with cameras, not regular diving. Flood lights can be very expensive. Canister lights are also expensive ($600-$1500), but unless you are tech diving you won’t need one. Also make sure that at least your primary is rechargeable, because batteries are expensive over time. If you buy rechargable batteries spend the extra few bucks to get good ones (or more accurately, avoid the hit-or-miss cheap ones that can end your dive and ruin your nice new dive light.)
Add in $7 for a little LED beacon. They go on your tank help your buddy keep track of you. Some divers like two, one for the tank and one for the chest.
I dive with an old Princeton primary and aforementioned cheap backup, plus LED beacon. If I dive at night a lot I will upgrade the primary. The backup has been in the water a couple times and works well.
Surface Marker Buoy
Open water divers should have a Surface Marker Buoy. If they are diving in open water with a current that could sweep them away they should have a BIG Surface Marker Buoy. It is very simple – a tube of bright material that can be inflated to make a diver on the surface easier to find. SMB’s cost $30-$100, and are generally 3′, 4′, 6′ or 10′ tall. Six feet is about standard.
There are also Delayed Surface Marker Buoys, which are the same thing as an SMB except that they can be inflated underwater and deployed to the surface while a diver is underwater. They are mostly used in boat diving to let the boat know where to pick you up while you sit out your safety stop. They can also be used to signal your position to boat traffic if you are not close to a F&F or dive boat with a flag, to help you hold a safety stop, or as an emergency signal for a diver in trouble (though that would be highly situational). DSMB’s are generally $100-$150.
You ought to have an SMB for open water; DSMB’s I would skip until I actually had a need for one, though if I was looking at a $100 SMB I would just get the DSMB.
I have an old Mares DSMB that looks more like a mushroom than a sausage. It will do for now, but it will be replaced eventually.
The finger reel is the simplest and cheapest way to have a useful amount of line in control while diving. Emphasis upon IN CONTROL. Line that is not IN CONTROL is not an asset but a liability, and one that can get someone entangled and hurt at that.
You can get a decent plastic one for $10 or a smooth anodized metal one with a rounded finger hole and flared edges for easy clipping for $150, and many prices in between. You use the finger reel with a DSMB or for gap marking, or just to run a good circle pattern in a search and recovery drill. They are useful and inexpensive (for a basic one).
Unspool it once you get it and add a measuring knot every 10 feet, with a double knot at 15 feet (for the safety stop). You may also need to take off some of the line the reel comes with so you can clip into the edge holes. You use a stainless steel or brass (SS is better) doublender to clip the reel to a D-ring. Instructions are readily available online. This is optional gear, but needed for Search and Recovery and DSMB’s.
I bought a plastic one for $12. I have yet to use it, so no real opinion on it.
I have not used one of these for its intended purpose, so I will simply say it is optional, but you can get one for $20 from Amazon and use it with your F&F and then have it on hand if you ever need a long line underwater later. The good wreck reels start at $50 for a basic stainless steel model with a resistance setting and if you ever do tech diving you are going to be spending $100-$300 to get some really solid ones. But wreck reels are not something a new diver needs, other than if you want to get a small plastic one to tow your F&F.
I have the $20 from Amazon version for my F&F and to have a simple wreck reel if I need one. I definitely prefer it to a winder for my F&F, and I think that is a good enough reason to have it.
Get one. It is not critical gear, but it is very useful and very cheap. $6-$20 cheap, and the cheapest ones are just as good as the most expensive. It is a question of form factor. I use a wrist slate, which I really like and I actually find myself taking a note about something every single dive. It is also great if you need to ask a quick question to your dive buddy that is not covered by hand signals. Unless you both know sign langauge, of course. Also buy a small pack of Mr. Clean Magic Erasers, which are the best thing to wipe off the grease pencil marks. I cut a little section from one of the foam erasers and keep it in my dive bag for this purpose.
My wrist slate was $12 from DiveRite and the Magic Erasers are under $3 for a pack.
Any diver knows about weights. They are made of lead and surprisingly expensive if dropped in the water. New divers have the most. They are like magnets for lead. I was a new diver and I loved lead so much I carried 24 pounds of it. Then I decided to get balanced and calm and trim, and I found out that my 24 pounds of lead was 22 pounds too much. Yup. Now, in fairness, my BP/W accounted for 6 pounds of ballast removed in the form of its SS backplate. The remaining 16 pounds of lead, though was just dead weight. I so miss giving all that lead a ride on my weight belt… NOT.
In order to reduce your ballast, the first step is to get comfortable enough in the water that you are not breathing in giant lungfuls of air like a goof and making your dreams for leaving some lead in your dive bag moot. So, go diving. Then you can gear up and go testing.
The general approach is to add and remove weight until you are at eye level in the water with 1000 psi in your tank or something like that, but it really doesn’t need to be complicated at all.* I just went into the shallow end of a pool and dumped all my lead on the edge of the deck. Then I experimented with my breathing control – full lungs, 3/4, 1/2, 1/4, mostly empty – and observed how it made me move up and down. Interesting. Then I added weight, one pound at a time. I had to buy a couple single pound weights to do this, in addition to what I already had. One pound was not enough to send me under, but two did it quite nicely with me breathing from the top half of my lungs**, averaging about 2/3 full. I then stared at the remaining 25 pounds of lead sitting on the edge of the pool in disbelief.
*For thick wetsuits the depth compression factor may make you want to do this in the eye level method. Most wetsuit compression occurs in the beginning of a dive, so weighting a thick wetsuit to be negatively buoyant on the surface may leave you overweighted. Aim to be neutrally buoyant at 15 feet and 1000 psi in the tank. You can calculate for the air weight if you are doing this with a full tank, and it is likely that the difference in air weight between 3000 psi and 1000 psi will be about the same as your buoyancy loss from wetsuit compression from the surface to 15 feet.
**People will also encourage you to NOT breathe just out of the top half of your lungs, and I agree that such encouragement points the way towards superior breath control and ultimately the further ability to reduce weight and lower gas consumption. I also note I am not there yet and I will darn well keep breathing from the top half of my lungs until such time, thank you very much, and weight accordingly.
Next I went to work on trim. Proper trim enables you to maintain a horizontal diving position without much effort. It aids calm breathing by requiring less effort to keep in position and lessens the work needed to fin along the bottom by presenting a more streamlined profile. In short, it is very worthwhile to develop good trim.
Some people will say that a good diver can achieve good trim through proper technique. I do not doubt that this is the case. I am also an novice diver at best and I have no interest in intentionally handicapping myself underwater. So, trim weights. This is as simple as moving the lead from your belt or thereabouts to other places to get horizontal. You can also adjust the height of your tank to get in better trim, but I have not nailed this part down yet. Moving it up puts more weight towards your head, but an AL80 ends up positively buoyant so that means your tank will change its trim weight during the dive if you are using it for trim. HP steel tanks do not have this issue.
Lead stays the same weight, fortunately. I found that I had to hold my hand with the weights all the way out in front of me to balance me with two pounds. (Wetsuits matter too; shorty suits have nothing on the lower legs. If you are leg-heavy and using a shorty, start with a fullsuit if you can.) I added two more pounds for a total of four pounds and held them on the top of my BP/W shoulder straps. That worked and I was able to firmly attach them with Gorilla tape. I am technically overweighted by two pounds but it is worth it to be in trim – at least until I get my neck weights. ;-)* My trim is not perfect yet, but trim and buoyancy are art as well as science, so… MORE DIVING!
*For the humor impaired, never put weights on your neck.
Tanks are the last thing I will buy. I know what I want though. I will get a high pressure steel 120 cubic feet tank for around $350. Tanks need a visual inspection every year (cheap) and a hydro every five years ($50 or so). Water that gets into a steel tank can turn it into scrap metal in a matter of weeks. However, steel is stronger than aluminum, which is the other choice for tanks. However, aluminum tanks are a little more forgiving of maintenance lapses and much cheaper than steel ones. Why steel, then? Simple: buoyancy characteristics.
Steel tanks stay negatively buoyant throughout a dive, even if empty. Your rental AL80 will be positively buoyant at the end of your dive and you will probably have to wear additional lead to counteract that for your safety stop, depending on your wetsuit. Steel tanks are also lighter for a given volume than aluminium due to steel’s higher strength. Finally, properly cared-for steel tanks will last longer than you will. There are steel tanks still passing hydro with dates from before WW2.
Finally, tall divers can comfortably dive longer tanks like the HP120 and have more gas available, and that is a nice option. This is not to say larger tanks are the solution to short bottom times. The best solution is to calm down, get comfortable, and watch your air consumption rate drop and your bottom times go up. Once you get over that new diver gas hog hump you can look at bigger tanks to extend dives. Very experienced divers can have very low Surface Air Consumption (SAC) rates and dive long and comfortably on standard AL80’s. Of course, some people are always going to have a higher SAC and that’s okay. HP120 tanks for everyone!
Eventually as a diver you will probably have multiple tanks. But as I said, for a newbie it is the last thing I’d worry about. There are so many other skills and gear purchases to get through first, and by the time you reach buying your first tank you may well find that your dream HP120 is not half as appealing as a HP100, which is shorter than an AL80 with all the benefits of being a steel tank. Who knows? All I know is, I look forward to finding out.
Once you have all this shiny new gear you need a place to store it. Up to you. But what I will say is that when you move it you need to forget that soft duffel you probably used for your basic class. All I carry in that thing is my wetsuit stuff and fins. The reg, DC, BP/W, and weights all go in a wheeled travel bag. It makes carrying that stuff so much easier, and you probably have one you never use lying around in a closet somewhere. If not, cheap ones go on sale all the time at local stores.
I also have a small plastic box for all the little things you need to take with you: anti-fog, C-card, silicone grease, pens, LED beacon, etc. Finally, I have a second Tupperware box for my reels, lights, logbook, and dive slate. It is cheap, protects its contents, and keeps things organized. Of course there are lots of ways to keep things organized, but you need something.
When you pull up for a dive and are trying to get geared up with your new gear for the first time it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Before you were just using rental gear that you had little control over. You did as instructed during class, completed your checks, and dove. Now you have control over everything, which means a lot of things to be responsible for. I suggest doing a pool dive if you are integrating a lot of new gear into your diving system or doing weight and trim testing.
Also come early to dives when you are starting out with your new gear until you get comfortable with it. It is easy to forget things when you are feeling stressed and rushed. I made detailed checklists that I used for my first couple of new gear dives – and if I ever need them they are with my logbook in my dive bags.
Last of all, never forget that the point of having your own gear is so you can be MORE comfortable and thus safer in the water, not less. But don’t be discouraged if it takes a few dives with your new stuff to get there. I am still making tweaks every time I dive and figure out something else needs adjusted. Now if you will excuse me I have to move my LPI hose to the other side of my first stage – and I don’t think you’ll need three guesses to figure out how I realized I installed it on the wrong low-pressure port. 🙂 See you in the water.