It’s 7am and we’re launching from Sodwana Bay. This is the first time in my life that I’ve been on a boat. In front of me is the skipper, a guy in his late twenties. He looks exactly how you would expect a skipper to look. We all sat down, feet in the straps and holding on for dear life. The skipper turned around and said, “So what would you like, a wet boat ride or a dry one?” I thought to myself, “Hell, that’s nice. This guy is good.” He turned back around, faced the waves and slowly drove us forward. A minute later and all of a sudden we are off like a rocket. I looked at the waves and wondered how we were going to get through them to the other side. Like magic, the wave flattened out next to us and we slid over to the other side. “That was easy,” I said and thought to myself that anyone can do this.
13 years later,and I am the guy standing in front of the boat with the typical skipper look. Looking back, I had everything right the day I was on that boat as a fearless 12-year old; except for the fact that it is all but easy to get through the surf, and waves don’t flatten out just because you ask them to. I have listened to hundreds of stories from people who have had bad diving experiences – the skipper is almost always mentioned as part of the story and some divers rate their dives according to the launch and the way the skipper drives the boat. I have done a few thousand hours out at sea and similar to myself, many other skippers launch boats almost every day of the year.
Our aim is to get you out there and back in the smoothest way possible – we will do it four hundred times back to back without a mistake, but then you have bad timing on one wave and everyone is upset. All of a sudden the skipper is a cowboy, he doesn’t know what he is doing and the story of the worst dive ever is told to all and sundry back on the beach. When we stand in front of the boat we require some help. I can get the boat through the surf, and I can do it so that everyone gets wet, or I can do it so that everyone stays dry, we can do it at full speed, we can do it the way we like, but we cannot put your feet in the foot straps and we cannot hold onto the ropes for you. We also can’t keep an eye on the waves nearest to you to make sure that you don’t fall out of the boat. You hear these things every time you get on the boat. We are not trying to be nasty, we are not trying to be funny and we are not arrogant, we just want you to still be on the boat when we get to the other side of the wave. We have other things on our minds – like where the waves are, where they will break, where they’ll flatten out, and where we will get through – it detracts from our focus to have to worry if you have your feet in the straps.
We push the boat in the water, we get the ladies to jump up and once we are deep enough we ask the guys to jump in. This is not just called whenever we feel like it; we actually time these jumps with the waves. Once you jump, the boat is floating freely – I cannot drive or control the boat until everyone has jumped. So if you hang in the water for 10 seconds after I have asked you to jump, you put the other people on the boat in danger – the boat can wash back and get stuck on the sand. Skippers don’t shout at you – they ask you nicely to get on the boat, but if you don’t jump when they ask you to, they might get upset because they will miss the window of opportunity and everyone else is bound to get wet. So to avoid this situation, skippers will raise their voices to get you on the boat.
Once we exit the shore break waves we enter a flat section. This is where we wait for the perfect opportunity to get out of there as safely as possible. This is not a time for divers to look for their fins, neither is it a time to find your equipment and go sit across from it. I don’t look behind me while I am standing there – I am looking at the waves. I am focusing on the things happening in front of me, and if I see a gap, I drive. This is where you need to be seated with both your feet in the foot straps. Once committed, we need to go. If we turn around it gets complicated. If we do turn we turn hard. Everyone not holding on is at risk of being flung from the boat. There is a 98% chance that we will have a smooth ride all the way out there, and a 2 % chance that we will get wet. We prepare divers for the worst situation, so please listen to the skipper – it is for your own safety. That said, going on a boat dive has, and always will be an amazing experience.
This reminds me of an incident in Malongane. I was launching the second boat, and as the first boat launched I looked up and saw Steve, one of the instructors, sitting right at the back of the boat, relaxed and forgetting that instructors can also fall off boats. The next moment the skipper did a sharp left turn and Steve flew through the air, taking a glimpse of the ocean the way that seagulls usually do.