TopKayaker.Net: Guide To Kayak Diving

kayak diving

Choosing Your Dive Kayak: Important Performance & Safety Considerations by Rocky Daniels
Copyright © 1998, 1999 Rocky Daniels. All Rights Reserved
Edited by TopKayaker.net with permission

The following information is a compilation of opinions I've reached after much trial and (painful) error. Take it with a grain of salt mixed heavily with a dose of common sense and you should be fine. I'd also recommend seeking out other sources of online information (check the links on Rocky's site & under Kayak Diving at the Fish/Dive tab) as well as giving serious consideration to getting some hands on training under supervision of a qualified kayak diving instructor.


I. Kayak Types

Today's popular form of sea kayak used as a diving platform is the Washdeck (aka Sit-On-Top) hull design. Rather than having a hole like the traditional style kayak into/through which the paddler inserts their bottom half and tries, thereafter, to keep dry, the Washdeck style kayak has a butt bucket (depression) on top of the kayak and recesses for feet and legs. Other than that, you're fully exposed to the elements. Perfect for diving from, no?

There are two major styles of Washdeck kayaks with variations and cross- pollination galore. The most common style is exemplified by Ocean Kayak's Scrambler models. It has no large hatches big enough to slip in a speargun or set of fins. Instead, it has front and rear "tank" (equipment) wells. The hull is heavily chined and these boats are very very stable.

Ocean Kayak Brand Scrambler

THIS is THE dive kayak you'll see in the dive magazines and at dive resorts. Personally, I don't much care for them. They have much less carrying capacity, equipment of any size must be stowed on top and secured against loss, they are lousy to paddle, and they're not suited for long distance paddling.

The other popular style is seen in Ocean Kayak's Scupper Pro. Utilizing a more traditional sea kayak hull design, this boat has a large load capacity with plenty of internal storage for tanks and equipment.

They have been available in two configurations: rear tank well, in current production in the U.S. or rear hatch, presently produced only in New Zealand (available through GoBananas in Honolulu).

Ocean Kayak Brand Scupper Pro TW 2008 Ocean Kayak Brand Scupper Pro Two Hatch

The rear tank well appears "friendlier" to a diver because it's possible to dress a tank before launching, strapping it behind the paddler, and dumping it over the side as soon as you arrive at the dive site. The big problem is that you lose ALL of the rear storage capacity inside the kayak. That's a major loss and one I'm not sure I'd make.

Cobra Kayak Tourer

Someone has recently pointed out Cobra Kayak's Tourer model which might have successfully combined the best of the Scupper Pro's two rear end variations. I'll let you know just as soon as Cobra provides me with one to try

Aquaterra's Prism, aka Perception's Illusion, is similar to a Scupper Pro but neither are available new. It has less carrying capacity, is more stable when empty, and is quite a bit cheaper.

Perception Kayak's Prism

When lightly loaded (freedive gear), it's faster and more stable that the Scupper Pro boats. When heavily loaded (SCUBA gear, weight belt, anchor), it rides lower in the water and paddles like a barge. On the plus side, it's top deck is flat (unlike the Scupper Pro) and that allows you to strap a dressed tank to the front or rear deck on top the hatch. It makes the boat tippier but that's only a problem when conditions are bad enough that, for me, diving from a kayak is not much fun anyway. Another advantage of the Prism is that it was designed to take a rudder.

A serious alternate, especially for freediving, is the Necky Dolphin, now discontinued: a really clean looking boat that, in my opinion just misses the mark enough to seriously handicap it (caveat). It's slightly too short, has a rear hatch between the rear equipment well and cockpit that might prove very useful, but has a front hatch so small as to seem almost useless. I doubt you could slip a set of fins inside.

Necky makes the Spike, also discontinued, an almost identical looking boat that is a downsized version of Necky's Dolphin. Why they'd downsize a too small boat escapes me. But it is pretty.

Were I in the market, I'd be looking for a boat that has all of the following features:

  • kayak hatchBIG Front and/or Rear Hatches
    Big enough to accept a fully dressed tank easily. The Scuppers come close to having hatches big enough to allow a tank to be dumped inside but they're still just a little too small. I don't understand why nobody has added extra hatch dimensions to make these things work easily for scuba divers. When someone does, the equipment wells are instantly obsolete. Pictured Left: Scupper pro hatch

  • Rudder
    I believe a dive kayak needs a rudder. Ocean kayakers (the serious guys, not the company) will tell you a good kayaker doesn't need a rudder. And they're probably right. But I'm not a good kayaker. I'm still working on being a good diver. Until the latter is achieved, I like a rudder. The local sea conditions can make paddling without a rudder quite a chore.

  • Long length = speed, speed = ease of paddling
    Give me 5 meters with a hull design that shortens the water line in a lean to assist turning.

  • Wave ski bow
    The wave skiis I'm familiar with are long and narrow with the very front of the hull flaring at the bow. This bulbous bow assists the boat in catching swells/waves. Swells travel through the water at 25 to 35 mph; when I catch one, it moves me just a wee bit faster than I can paddle.

  • Clean Rigging
    This minimizes the number of deck lines. Get tossed in the surf and deck line become your mortal enemy; if you get tangled up by one, the best outcome will be no fun and the worst gets very grim very quickly. Also, nothing on the deck (loops, tiedowns, handles, ...) should provide any place you can slip a finger into unless you consider your fingers as luxury accessories.

II. Kayak Color    

The "right" color for a dive kayak is simple: the gaudier the better. Yellow, lime green, bright orange, or any of those really ugly, bright marble finishes are great. Blue, dark green, black, camo, ... are a really bad idea for a dive kayak for a couple of reasons.

For one, like bicyclists on a busy road, you want to be seen by other boaters. That includes the other boater in a power launch who's been drinking too many beers during a long day fishing in the hot sun and who's highest motivation for the moment is to get back to the dock. A kayak that blends nicely with its surrounding environment is a distinct liability where boating is busy.

Another reason is that finding your kayak when you come up from a long dive can be surprisingly hard. The combination of you being very low in the water, the kayak being very low, and swells can make finding the kayak an exercise in patience. Based on personal experience, it can sometimes take a few minutes to locate the thing, by which time, your heartrate and adrenaline are pumping. About that time, I can guarantee that you'll absolutely agree the most beautiful colors in the world include Yum-Yum Yellow, Screaming Mimmie Orange, and Loud Lime Green.

III. Equipment Handling

The tank and BC are assembled on shore and strapped into one of the equipment wells. If you have no significant internal storage (Scrambler, etc.) then the rest of your gear is stowed in a bag and strapped down in the other equipment well. With the Scrambler style kayak, you'll probably only carry one tank at a time so there's no worry about changing tanks. With the Scupper Pro, Prism style kayaks, you might carry a 2nd tank (or even a 3rd in the Scupper Pro) that has to be changed out on the kayak between dives.

The problems with this are the same as those encountered by divers using Scupper Pro style boats without any equipment wells. Basically, the tank, BC, and regulator are assembled within the space provided by opening a hatch. Obviously, you're pretty vulnerable during this process, it's recommended that you have your fins on to increase stability and control, and it's not recommended that you do this in rough conditions.

At Tom's TopKayaker Shop:
dive flagDiver Down or Alpha Flag w/ Pole
Two sizes available. Non-reflective, not suitable for night diving. Comes with 2-piece pole, 4 feet long assembled. Pole has a tie for securing flag.
dive mountDive Flag Mount And Dive Flag Deck Mount. Any one who Scuba dives snorkels or swims should have a flag mounted securely to their kayak.
dive mountNot only will a dive flag provide you with a safety zone from power-boats, but you will not have your kayak towed away, as abandoned, while you are underwater.

If you have internal storage for gear (Scupper Pro, Prism), my suggestion is that you remove one or two pieces of gear at a time, resecure the hatch, put the pieces on, reopen the hatch, get the next piece, ... It is kind of tedious but beats losing all your dive gear if the boat should roll. Note that most of the times I've fallen off my kayak have been while it is anchored and a swell comes through. Funny things can happen that turn out not to be very amusing.

As far as my routine, I paddle to a dive site with my dive jacket off. Paddling with a 7mm jacket on is very exhausting. Wearing a lighter wet suit, it's no problem paddling with a jacket on.

At the dive site, my first action is to put the tank overboard. Second, don my fins; with fins on, stability greatly increases. Then I'll go through the process of putting on gloves, hood, weight belt (I do it on the boat though it can be hung over the side and donned once you're in the water), and mask. I hang accessory gear off the side (flashlight, spear gun, stringer, game bag, ...). Then I slip into the water. BC is donned in the water. It's also doffed in the water at the end of a dive and secured to the kayak. I climb back up on the boat, get rid of the weight belt, mask, hood, and gloves. Then, using the leverage provided by my fins, thighs, and upper body, I drag the tank over the side onto the boat. If you have an equipment well (Scrambler, Scupper Pro with rear equipment well), this should be no problem for anyone able to pickup their own tank on dry land. Fins provide a surprising amount of leverage.

IV. Safety Notes

  • Boat handling in rough conditions should be something you get reasonably proficient at. The easiest way to do this is to go play in the surf zone with a completely empty boat. Be sure to remove all deck lines, wear a helmet, and be sure you've a buddy watching you. With those precautions, kayak surfing (aka, butt surfing) is a blast.

  • Life vests are required equipment by the Coast Guard. I always carry one but never ever use it. My wetsuit provides enough buoyancy while still allowing me the option of duck diving under should a boat propelled by a breaking wave be bearing down on me...

  • Helmets aren't usually necessary unless you're surfing, playing in rock gardens, or checking out sea caverns and tunnels. If you have a kayak but never surf, bang around wash rocks, or enter dank, dark places, you're missing half to three-quarters the fun. Get a helmet!

  • I always keep my fins accessible on the deck of my kayak. I've needed them once when they were inside the boat and couldn't get to them. I won't ever make that mistake again.

  • NEVER get between a loaded kayak and shore. The force of waves propelling a 40# kayak with 20# to 60# of gear can be very dangerous. On a related note, beware of crowded beaches where people are likely to "help" you during a landing. San Carlos Beach/The Breakwater in Monterey is a really good example of a place where everyone is quite friendly and unknowledgable enough to get seriously hurt helping you.

Rocky Daniels
Rocky is also the author of:
Sea Otter Survival Challenges and
Their Impact Along the Pacific Coast
here at TopKayaker.net.

More Writings by Rocky Daniels


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