The origin of this post is a Facebook discussion about lift bags. After reading all of the varying methods and opinions, I decided to add my thoughts to the conversation. Those thoughts are here in addition to a few things I did not post on Facebook because they were not germane to the conversation. I hope newer divers and students will find this useful.
I give preference to 400′ reels with #36 line. The heavier line reduces the length to probably around 250′ or so but the trade off in durability is worth it. I also avoid reels with complex mechanisms. Spring loaded snaps, latches or locking mechanisms just add to the complexity of something that should be as simple as possible. Don’t read this as a condemnation of any particular style of reel. I just think that a spool in a well constructed frame controlled with a bolt is pretty much as safe and simple as it gets.
I always carry 2 reels and 2 bags or SMB’s (Surface Marker Buoys). I prefer one of each. My SMB’s always have enough lift to get me off the bottom in the event of a catastrophe. They also have my name on them and the words “Diver Below” so boaters won’t think they are just lost floats. You should not be able to pull an SMB under the surface once properly deployed. If you can, get another one. Bear in mind that while a lift bag may have more lift, an SMB has less drag in the water. This will make a big difference in strong current.
My reels have bolt snaps tied to the bottom of the handle as opposed to the double enders they usually come with. This is to lessen the chance of losing them and to facilitate clipping a second reel to the bottom of the first reel should you encounter a current sheer (currents moving in opposite directions in the same column of water). This will cause the bag to travel horizontally and if your deco is long and begins deep you will most likely be dragged past your first stops if you do not do this.
Bags are always deployed from the wreck, no matter how deep. If you wait until you are shallow to deploy the bag you will most likely be lost. Currents in South Florida are quite severe and it is not unusual to drift 5-6 miles or more on a long deco.
Whatever emergency signal protocol is decided on, communicating it with the Captain and crew is paramount. Every team and boat will usually have their own protocols. If you don’t communicate which one you intend to use the probability of a problem increases exponentially. Never assume the crew will recognize a certain color or type of bag as an emergency signal. It and any associated nuances should be discussed in detail before the dive. The crew should have a clear picture of what to look for. My preference is to send up a second bag on an already deployed reel and bag combination. Do this by clipping the second bag’s bolt snap to the already deployed line and putting air in it. Be sure to pull the line taut and the bag will rise to the surface easily and quickly. There can be no mistaking this signal which is why I prefer it.
Re spools – they are great navigational tools but they are not appropriate for deploying a lift bag from depth. They are the wrong tool for the job. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but a simple reel is much easier to manage.
I clip my reels and bags to a D-Ring that is easily accessible and hopefully minimizes their impact on trim. Wherever stowed, I need to be able to access it easily and quickly. I also try to anticipate my needs. If deep and in a raging current I want to have the second reel ready to attach to the first in the event a current sheer drags the bag or SMB horizontally. I always deploy with my back to the current and in a position that will clear the wrecks superstructure.
I also use the bag / SMB as a tool to take me to my first stop as opposed to allowing the reel to play out and then begin the task of unnecessarily reeling in line. To do this I deploy the bag and when it gains velocity I lock up the spinning reel with my hand over the spool (never use the lock down screw for this – it needs to be very easy to release). I have the reel in one hand and my inflator in the other and when I approach my first stop I release the reel and dump gas. I can stop immediately using this method.
Deployment of a lift bag or SMB on a deep dive can be extremely hazardous if done incorrectly. While there are several acceptable methods what is most critical is to minimize the risk of entanglement. First, your back must be to the current so any potentially loose line will drift away from you. If you are not sure which way that might be, release a few feet of line and see which way it drifts. Turn so it drifts away from you and your back will be to the current.
When you are ready to deploy the bag it is best to be horizontal. This minimizes the risk of entanglement because there is a smaller area exposed to the ascending line. My preferred method is to get horizontal and secure the bag to the reel. Then unlock the reel and let the bag drop 5-10 feet below you. Next lock the reel and drop it while bringing the bag back up. You are now horizontal with the bag in hand and in front of you and with the reel dangling a few feet below. Holding the bag away from your body put just enough gas in it to make it buoyant. You should be able to hold it in place similar to a kids helium balloon if necessary. When ready, release the bag while “OK’ing” the line and when the reel rises to your hand release the spool locking bolt and deploy as you would normally. This method minimizes the risk of entanglement.
If you have a buddy with you the 2 man method is safest. The man with the bag puts his back to the current and gets to the side and a bit above the man with the reel. When ready, the man with the reel signals the man with the bag to deploy it. When he does so the bag will rise above and away from both divers ensuring there will be no entanglements.
When working a reel anywhere, but especially in high flow situations it is very important to keep the line taut at all times. If you allow it to go limp it can easily wrap itself around you, a potentially dangerous and at the very least embarrassing situation.
Lift bag skills are very important to the technical diver. Often, divers are shy about deploying them because they don’t do it enough. Don’t be. That bag can save your life not only as a marker buoy but as an alternate form of flotation. BC’s and Wings can fail. Dry suits can blow gas out the neck seal and can be unwieldy as your only form of flotation. A diver skilled in the use of a lift bag can get himself safely to the surface using it alone or in combination with a failed Wing / BC or dry suit. Consider it your “ace in the hole” or a get out of jail free card.