To DPV, or not to DPV

Why James Neal believes a scooter is really a toy for divers who never want to
grow up

Author: Pat
14th May 2022
 

SUEX DPV

A DPV, ‘Diver Propulsion Vehicle’, or ‘scooter’ as it is otherwise known, is a tool to get a job done, typically that job involves getting the diver to a destination that isn’t practical to swim to because it’s too far away and can’t be accessed by any other means.

It’s a tool that allows the diver to see things they may not have otherwise have been able to see due to gas or time limitations. Now, take that tool and put it in the hands of a fifty-year-old and watch them turn into a child… which is essentially what happens to me and my various scooter-riding buddies every single time we charge them up and take them for a spin… A DPV is really a toy for divers that never want to grow up! Or is it?

The key to really enjoying DPV diving is having someone else to go with and something to go and see. When I bought my first DPV I didn’t know anyone else that had one and I bought a cheap entry level ‘recreational’ affair that wasn’t really suitable for anything much beyond the swimming pool. Suffice to say it was a waste of money! What it did do, however, was get me to do a ‘DPV Diving’ course and in so doing I got to experience a proper DPV and from that moment I was hooked.

The problem then was the cost. A decent DPV isn’t cheap… and I bought mine without first consulting ‘she who must be obeyed’; The wife – needless to say its arrival was met with my having to give her a good listening to and the promise that I’d never, ever, buy anything that expensive ever again without first consulting with her. I reluctantly agreed and consequently my first rebreather cost me a new kitchen! But that’s another story.

With my DPV I see places that are otherwise inaccessible because they are too remote

I love taking my SUEX VR out for a day’s diving, but it’s not just taking the scooter out for a play, it’s getting to see things that I wouldn’t otherwise get to see, parts of a dive site that are otherwise inaccessible because they are too remote. It’s also about being able to get to a location quickly, I may have a photo in mind that I want to capture and it’s at a depth and distance that the DPV will allow me to significantly reduce any decompression obligations by getting me to the location that much quicker. Conversely, it can get me back that much quicker as well, unless, of course, it should break down. Now I should emphasise that I have never had my scooter let me down, not once. But you do need to understand that should something go wrong you do need to be able to get back to your exit point, on the gas available, which really is significantly more important if you’re underground, and for that you do need to be properly trained to use these things. So it really isn’t a toy!

Marcus Blatchford, DPV and rig

Add to that the fact that if you’re daft enough to use your scooter as an ascent vehicle then you’re very likely going to give yourself a nasty case of decompression sickness!

Proper training is important. You will also quickly learn that you need to be using the right equipment, wearing the correct thermal protection is just one example, if you aren’t then you will soon chill and ultimately become very cold, especially on open circuit, because when you’re scootering you’re not finning, and finning keeps you warm. Whenever I take my DPV out I ensure that I have my BARE scooter vest packed along with my base and SB system mid-layers. The extra thermal layer it provides gives ample protection against any prop-wash that can run under your chest and stomach and will seriously chill the diver as a consequence. I also discovered that the BARE scooter vest really does add an impressive amount of extra warmth and yet it doesn’t require any additional lead weight to offset that thermal benefit!

You also need to ensure that you’re diving with good quality regulators, I tend to use either the Hollis 200LX or the Atomic Aquatics M1s. I particularly like scootering on the Atomics, their expanded performance range meets virtually any diving condition imaginable. Caves, cold, deep, enriched air, the M1 is perfect for both recreational divers ready to extend their capabilities or accomplished technical and speciality divers.

James Neal with his DPV

Their state-of-the-art metals meet proven Atomic designs to deliver reliable performance to fulfil virtually any need or diving scenario, this is certainly the case when scootering as the design of the second stage tends to prevent any air seepage or weeping as a result of the surge protected front cover and super-dry exhaust valve designed for rough water. There’s also an extra-wide exhaust deflector, a thermal heat sink for cold water, and an exclusive Atomic engraved heat-protecting jam nut for freeze protection to cover almost any extreme diving situation. In other words, these things are bullet proof!

With the Hollis 200LX I am able to adjust the inhalation knob, which allows the diver to customise the inhalation effort, and in so doing, can off-set the added pressure exerted on the second stage by the speed of the water impacting it as you are pulled through the water column at speed.

Streamlining of your kit is another essential aspect of scootering underwater. If you look like a Christmas tree, then all that dangly kit is going to cause drag, and drag will drain your scooter’s battery quicker and cause you to fatigue sooner. It’s also likely to get you entangled on something, which you definitely want to avoid.

I like to dive both sidemount and backmount when scootering, for sidemount I tend to be on a Hollis Katana, soon to be replaced with a Katana 2… I can’t wait. The Katana 2 has essentially taken a near perfect sidemount wing and made it even better, I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but it is just a glorious bit of kit to dive, especially if you’re a sidewinder rebreather diver as it has all the hose routing for that rebreather built-in! The only thing I will change will be the dump toggles, as a cold water diver I like to have over-sized toggles with lead fishing weights glued inside them!

DPV ready to go

With backmount, I’m typically on either a Zeagle backplate and wing or a Hollis backplate and wing. Again, I absolutely love diving in this configuration, whether it be a twin set or a single cylinder, but I find it especially liberating on a single cylinder, with a stage. Each of these configurations is combined with a long-hose hogarthian hog-loop set-up for my regs and all my back-up kit is kept in my BARE HD2 drysuit pockets, emergency kit in the right pocket and other bits, wet notes etc, in the left. The only thing I have clipped to my harness D-rings is the head of my canister torch, when not in use, and a spare double-ender for emergencies. My Hollis canister torch has a 90-degree angle off the back and is routed along my left-hand side in order to keep my right hand free to both control the scooter or for any emergency, my being right handed.

One of the things that becomes necessary when scootering is the need to have your equipment ‘just so’, it really does need to be correctly configured or you’re just going to have a hard time and get fed-up with it pretty quickly. So if you’re toying with the idea of buying yourself one, ask yourself if your kit configuration is at its optimum. If the answer is no, then get it sorted first. If the answer is genuinely yes, then happy days… you’ll likely discover something isn’t quite right, but that’s a lot easier to sort than having to adjust lots of things. You’ll also need to learn how to tie a ‘slip knot’, they’re easy enough and a quick online search for a tutorial video should sort you out.

Finding a good instructor is a wise investment, avoid the temptation to go and play… there is a very real potential to cause yourself harm if you don’t know what you’re doing. A good instructor will also be able to help you set everything up correctly, the tow-line needs to be the correct length for example and your harness will need a crotch strap and D-ring; both my Hollis and Zeagle wings came with these as standard. Your instructor should also be able to advise you on where to source certain items, such as a compass with a compensator that you can adjust so that the magnetic interference from the scooter’s motor doesn’t wreak havoc with your attempts at navigation. The Silva C58 is a waterproof compass that has a manually adjustable compensator that allows you to adjust out the strong magnetic interference caused by the DPV’s motor. It is also liquid filled and can therefore withstand a fair amount of pressure. You will also need to find a sensible method of mounting it to the scooter. I found a company in Poland that 3D print a replacement scooter handle that the compass can then be bolted to. This puts the compass right on the nose of the scooter, which is great in some ways, not so good in others. Avoid the temptation to buy the Silva C58 kayak compass, whilst it looks to be the ideal fitting solution, and it is, it doesn’t have the compensator and so it simply won’t work!

Going down the route of fitting a large DSLR camera on to your scooter can be done, but you should first start off smaller, a digital action camera in an underwater housing will get you some superb footage. Give yourself time to master scootering before you start adding large, bulky, camera rigs… they will adversely affect the buoyancy characteristics of your scooter and you need to be able to control your scooter and understand what is happening. You also need to be able to handle all of that equipment and it is best to remove the camera from the scooter when exiting the water. It also helps if you have been able to get your camera rig as near to neutrally buoyant as you can and remember that you will have to add / remove a sea-weight if you’re switching between salt and fresh water environments.

Once you’ve mastered all of that then adding your DSLR, strobes etc shouldn’t be too much of an issue. The best mounting option I found was the ‘Yellow Diving’ mount. This simple solution works with a standard cam band around the scooter body and comprises a two part circular pad that has three locating pins that allows the two parts to separate. You do have to get the top section professionally drilled to suit your camera housing, don’t attempt to do this yourself unless you are an accomplished engineer, if you mess it up you’ll have to buy another one!

DPV with camera rig

The last thing that I really couldn’t be without whilst scootering is my trusty 360 Observe, this simple bit of kit really does come into its own when you’re using a DPV. I keep this mounted on the back of my left hand and simply glance into it periodically to make sure that my buddy is still behind me, it’s essentially like having eyes in the back of your head! It helps to mention that you’re using one as part of your pre-dive briefing or your buddy may otherwise think you’ve completely forgotten about them!

So what is it really like to take to the depths with a proper DPV? In a word… awesome! Let me take you for a scoot…

Clipping the tow-line to the crotch D-ring, signaling my buddy that I’m good to go, depressing the trigger to activate the prop, my scooter springs into life, the tow-line snaps taught and tugs at the harness of my Hollis Katana sidemount wing, the harness takes all the strain, leaving my arm relaxed and able to steer the scooter with relative ease. The prop whirls at a dizzying rate, stirring the water into a frenzy and thrusting it backwards as the scooter surges forward rapidly gaining momentum, the pressure increases on my Oceanic Shadow mask and the 2nd stage, I blow out through my nose to equalise the mask and adjust my breathing accordingly, my SAC rate drops in line with my reduced efforts and I let the scooter do all the work. A squirt of air is added to my BARE HD2 drysuit and the BARE scooter vest locks it in and warms it between the layers of the SB system acting as a vanguard against the biting cold that envelopes me.

The need to equalise my ears is ever present as we dive deeper into the depths, consumed not only by the moment but also by the darkness… levelling off at around 25 metres we race across the bottom in close formation, it feels like a scene from Star Wars, the Death Star trench run as we hurtle along, the resonance of the motors reminiscent of the scream from a Twin Ion Engine (TIE fighter, for those of you either too young or insufficiently nerdy to know what I’m babbling on about!) a stream of bubbles trail behind us, dancing towards the surface as they pirouette away, like the contrails from a group of fighter jets ripping their way through the stratosphere. (Are you beginning to see why these things turn fifty-year-olds into adolescents?)

With my ears equalised I can hear the constant hum from the motor, its pitch gnawing through my head, I can hear that scene from a galaxy far, far away, the sound magnified by the molecules of our watery realm. All my senses are taken up a notch to match the speed at which I’m now travelling through the water. Navigation has become harder, small deviation errors are easy to make and difficult to spot, good visibility is essential… We reach our first target, “stay on target” (sorry, I couldn’t resist!) slowing I allow the momentum to ebb away, closing in, I release the trigger and continue to drift slowly forward in silence, only the occasional eruption of bubbles exiting the 2nd stage exhaust breaks the stillness.

The silence is short-lived, pulling back on the trigger the scooter races forward once again, as I lean into a long arc, we race alongside the wall, like a group of yobs on motorcycles, the only thing missing are the baffleless exhausts and the acne! Maturity is a relative term, as we hurtle towards our next target, a virtually inaccessible section that contains the remains of a long dead wood, submerged in its watery grave, the trees standing prone, lifeless pinnacles of decay that are somehow achingly beautiful in their own haunting way. We start to circle one of the trees, Marcus travelling in direction and I’m going in the opposite direction, we’re like a couple of kids engrossed in the joy of the moment, in the meantime Rick drops below us and is taking a few photos, capturing the spontaneity. (One of those shots was later to receive a commendation in the Underwater Photographer of the Year awards for the British waters wide angle category.)

Unaware of the art that has just taken place we press forward, I’m extremely grateful for the warmth that my BARE thermal layers provide, the thin ‘ultrawarmth’ base layer sits tightly against my skin, on top of this I have the one-piece SB system mid-layer and over that I have the scooter vest. This balance of near-perfect layering creates warmth and comfort, even when motionless in cold UK waters in the middle of winter!

The 5 degree waters encase my drysuit, the freezing fluid exerts a constant pressure on every single millimeter of its surface as it leaches away at my body’s inner-heat fractions of a degree at a time. Slowly the environment tries to rob me of my warmth, as the compression resistant fleece fights back the constant onslaught, the freezing water starting to gnaw away at my core temperature as we continue to hurtle through the water, motionless bodies suspended and dragged behind the scooters as they carve their way through the frigid waters that engulf us.

As we start to circle back towards our entry point we head off in search of the jesters that lurk in the darkness, these macabre and somewhat disturbing installations appear eerily out the gloom to terrify any would-be unsuspecting diver; many have fallen foul, as they make their foreboding presence known, their constant gaze never breaking eye-contact as they send a shiver down your spine!

I bring my scooter to a halt and hover motionless beside my painted companion as he stares blankly out into the void, the sound of my breathing takes on a new meaning as I stare back at the lifeless form in front of me, its creepy features chill my blood as I peer through the viewfinder of my camera, adjusting the aperture, ISO and shutter speed as well as the output on each of my strobes as I try to capture the shot, it feels like it’s taking an age as this ghoulish apparition peers back at me through the lens, I take the shot… happy, I’m glad to leave these fiendish monsters as they disappear back into the gloom.

Our dive time is now nearing 90 minutes and my gas supply is edging ever closer towards thirds, it’s time to make our way to the exit point and complete the decompression obligations that I’ve racked up, my buddies are both on CCR, their ‘penalty’ significantly less than mine by virtue of the fact that their units have supplied them with the optimum gas throughout the dive, I’ve been diving air and consequently my decompression time is significantly longer. I NOTOX gas-switch to a rich mix, off-gassing on 50% significantly reduces my decompression obligations, my buddies hang motionless in the water beside me, taking the occasional photo as the minutes’ tick down… eventually my computer reads ‘deco clear’ and I sweep my hand across the top of the screen and then brush them together signaling that I’m all clear and ready to surface. I get the ‘thumbs up’ in response and we take a final minute to make a safe ascent to the surface.

At the end of a long dive the smiles are typically broad and the banter good-natured, we detach the cameras from the scooters and haul all the kit from the water, exhausted, it’s time for a hot brew, a bacon butty and a quick review of the photographs that we’ve captured. All are pleased with their efforts, none more so than myself, I’m in esteemed company when it comes to underwater photography… Marcus has won the Underwater Photographer of the Year and they have both been commended and highly commended several times. Rick has also dived the Britannic, a dream of mine! Both have been an inspiration and a great help to me, always willing to share tips and invaluable advice that has pushed my photography forward to a point that I am now comfortable experimenting and only ever shoot with the camera and strobes set to fully manual. Marcus in particular has coached me for several years and he’s cost me a fortune in new toys! Aside from the camera, it’s fair to say the scooter is his fault too. He’s garnered his very own hashtag as a consequence:

#MarcusMadeMe

I’m pretty sure it annoys him, which makes me laugh, but the truth of the matter is I am very grateful to him for getting me into so much trouble with ‘The Wife’ because owning a DPV, and being properly trained, has opened up a lot of doors to divers, and dive sites, that I may not have otherwise had the opportunity to meet, let alone dive with. I have subsequently been invited to take part in dives, expeditions and opportunities that may not have otherwise come my way. Owning a DPV has been a gateway to fun and friendships, laughter and adventure, opportunity and exploration. But for me, the most rewarding part has been spending time with other divers that have become friends and on that note I would like to thank my friends, Marcus and Rick for all the fun and games we’ve had and also a special thank you to Rick for allowing me the use some of his photographs in this article. Cheers fellas.

So with all of that in mind, it’s fair to say that a DPV really isn’t a toy, you can have an enormous amount of fun with them, once you’re suitably trained and experienced, but it is a serious tool for serious divers and should be treated as such. Besides, if your other half is anything like mine, thick-skinned and has the patience of a saint, then why wouldn’t you invest in one, you’re investing in yourself as a diver, because everything else really needs to be right first, you need the right kit, the right skills and the right attitude!

 James Neal is a PADI Staff Instructor and Director at InDepth

 
 
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