By Bob Halstead
“Full Ahead Backwards!” I just love being in charge of a dive boat and giving the orders. Many of them I learned while listening to The Navy Lark on BBC radio when I was young. “Right hand down a bit!”, to a helmsman when turning to starboard, was one of my favourites. Since I was Captain of my own boat for many years, I could do whatever I wanted. Well … not quite. The other thing I say is “I am the Captain of this ship, and I will do anything my wife suggests!” My wise father taught me this, and he was not even a sailor.
Recently I thought about the challenges of successfully running a dive boat. You have to be able to find the dive sites, but this easy with today’s GPS navigation. When I started all I had was a hand bearing compass and sketch book in which I would draw “transits” I could line up to get close to the site. It could be very tricky, but I took some pride in my skill and rarely failed except when the weather blotted out my marks.
If finding individual sites is easy nowadays, deciding the order in which they should be dived is more complex. Let us suppose we have a ten day dive cruise to manage. Where do we go first? My first move was to consult the tide tables. I could tell the smaller neap tides from the larger springs, and plan to dive the sites where too much current can be a problem during the neap period. I also liked to make the first days diving fairly easy to allow for our diving guests to get back into the splash of things. Then, later each day, I have to be able to get to an anchorage.
Sometimes the weather would make the decision easy for me. Strong winds meant heading for sheltered sites whatever the tide was doing. Other factors that would come to play were visibility, marine life, health of the dive sites, depth of the dive and interests of the divers. But eventually I had to make A Decision.
After I made decisions I often found my judgement questioned. Sailing out of Port Moresby to the barrier reef was always a hassle in the trade winds. Early in the morning the harbour could be mirror calm, but looking out to sea I could spot the whitecaps. A land breeze made the harbour calm, but as soon as you pointed the bow at the outer reef the swells told me we were in for a rough ride. I knew then that we would only be able to dive the inshore islands but found that to persuade the guests I often had to head out and slam into a few waves. As soon as they started to don their life jackets and ask about cyclone season I knew it was time for me to turn back to the islands. If they really annoyed me I would make a maniacal laugh and remark about how exhilarating it all is and keep going until they begged to turn back.
Now I do not have the desire to play those games. I make my decision and, unless new information forces me to change my mind, or Dinah corrects me, I head to the declared dive site. If any one annoys me I just tell them that the last diver who did that mysteriously disappeared overboard. Sometimes I get it wrong and find the site is going to be difficult to dive. Now I have to make the really important decision to dive or abort and go somewhere else. Mostly the pressure is on from the guests to make the dive, and I have to go through my own checklist of things that they may have little understanding of.
“How safe will the boat be?” is the most important. I may decide the dive will be safe if I stay on board, particularly if the mooring is not as secure as I would wish. In this case I remind the guests that although we have plenty of divers, we only have one boat and it is a long swim home. Then I need to consider how safe the divers will be considering; their apparent experience and whether they can cope with conditions; how I can get them in and out of the water or dinghy; where they are likely to end up. I have to think about whether the dinghy will be swamped, or even flipped, if the wind is blowing. This is where I can call on 30 years of awful memories. If in doubt, I’ll bail out and take the boat elsewhere even if it means an hour or so delay in diving.
What I am doing is assessing risks and making a prediction as to whether the dive will be safe. That means I predict it will be unlikely, but not impossible, that an accident will occur. I remember that risk can be addictive. Then I think of my “Captain Cook Cup Of Tea Theory Of Risk”. Basically if Captain Cook had had a cup of tea instead of going ashore at Hawaii, he would still be alive today. He would be 277 years old but I hope you see what I mean. Sometimes it is better to sit back rather than take that extra risk. Have a cup of tea. That is a wonderful decision.