Options for choosing a wreck diving reel


Cave divers will tell you: reels can be awful things… they jam, foul, tangle, warp, drop, swing, trap, ratchet, keyhole, bind and insist on buying you tequila shots when you should be home in bed. However, a reel is an essential tool for cave divers and can also be helpful, versatile and comforting for wreck divers too. The secret is knowing how and when to deploy a reel and which type of reel is the right one for the job at hand since there are so many to choose from.

Let’s start by itemizing the common jobs a reel and line can be used for during a wreck dive.

Emergency Up Line: The anchor pulled out of the wreck and when the divers return to begin their ascent to the waiting dive boat, there is no line. Wreck divers might also need an emergency up line if poor planning or bad luck has put them into a siphon-effect situation.

Siphon-effect is where a dive was begun by swimming with a strong current, and when the dive is turned, perhaps at thirds, the team members have insufficient gas to make it back to their entry point.

Temporary Up line: similar to the above but a planned action.

Guideline: Either a continuous line to surface – during a wreck penetration – or as a navigational aid in poor visibility. Guidelines are comforting too when diving an unfamiliar wreck when a team needs to ensure they can find their way back to an ascent line.

Survey line: Knotted line is used to measure distances when doing rough initial surveys on a wreck or area of architectural, or archeological interest (which is just about any wreck and sunken artifact). Artifact recovery: A reel is essential to control the lift bag’s drift.

Jon line: A great contingency item. A small reel or spool can get a diver away from a crowded deco area in a moderate current while keeping her from drifting off into the blue.

Drifting deco: A liftbag or Diver Signalling Marker Buoy (DSMB) shot from moderate depth is used to mark the position of the divers below during a live boat drift.

Line receptacle: Sometimes, a wreck diver just needs some line to make a temporary repair or fast “in water modification” to something – someone? — and that reel donates a piece of ‘string’ for the job.

One might argue that each of these jobs calls for a different type of reel, and while that may be the case in some extremes, let‘s ask the question: Is there one reel that will do all these jobs?

Well, there might be. Let’s explore what types of reel are available.

What’s available?

To begin, we need to know that reels are made with either an open or closed face design. Open-faced reels are the most commonly used. The line sits in the open and this allows a user to get her hands on any entanglement and fix it.

Closed-face reels have a cover over the spool to reduce the risk of line jumping off that spool and getting hopelessly tangled. Closed face reels effectively reduce line snarls, but they have a serious disadvantage… they must be dismantled to get at the line if something happens to it.

Perhaps I should have written WHEN something happens to it. I think you get my bias. In my experience, most divers opt for an open-faced reel.

Entanglements and having line jump off the reel to form bird’s nests can both be avoided by keeping tension on the line. This is a basic skill and should be learned by anyone who intends to actually use a reel as opposed to carrying one around for show and tell.

Essentially line entanglement – what a closed spool “fixes” – becomes less mission critical for someone competent with a reel. And in my opinion being unable to get at the line without a wrench and a screwdriver — the case with closed-face reels — is a show stopper.

As well as the Open/Closed model types, reels come with different styles of handle. The classic or standard handle and the more compact “Jasper” handle.

Reels also fall into four size categories whose names are based on their roles in cave diving. From smallest to largest these are: jump/gap, cavern/safety, primary, and explorer. Primary and explorer reels (and occasionally smaller models) are commonly available in closed or open-faced designs.

Traditionally, a jump reel holds about 40 metres (130 feet) of thin cave line ( #24). Few wreck divers carry this size but it can be useful in wreck surveying. Wreck divers — and many cave divers — have replaced this small reel with one or two spools… something we’ll get to in a few paragraphs.

A cavern or safety reel is the one design that many cave divers carry by default. It holds about 60 metres (200 feet) of #24 line or about 40 to 45 metres of #36 wreck line. This reel’s main applications in wreck diving are centered on simple penetrations and I think most experienced wreck divers – like their cave-diving brothers and sisters – have a safety reel somewhere in their kit. I have several safety reels and the one I used most is a compact Jasper handled model from Ralph Hood loaded with #36 line knotted every 3 meters (about 10 feet). It does double duty: sometimes it’s a measuring line, sometimes as a guideline for penetrations. And sometimes on a penetration it helps measure how far I went!

A primary reel can hold roughly 100 metres (330 feet) of cave line or about 75 metres (250 feet) of wreck line. Primaries are big and a well-designed primary reel is the most versatile reel you can buy. And often the most challenging to carry and deploy.

I have a few primary reels and they are from various manufacturers. They get much more use when I’m cave diving but a good primary can be used as an emergency upline (making sure it carries enough line to reach the surface with enough scope to account for the current!) Or it can be used for penetration. Or as a jon line. Or to send a artifact to the surface.

I think if you were to ask, most wreck divers would say that a primary reel is their first choice… so it’s aptly named.

Finally there is the explorer or exploration reel, which will hold 300 metres or 1000 feet of line or more. In a cave situation, this is used for laying guideline in newly discovered passage. I’ve had one in my hands for that purpose and it was a little like swimming upstream pushing a barrel full of ferrets that had been fed huge quantities of amphetamine.

What I mean by that is explorer reels can be big and wobbly and difficult to manage. They are not on my A list for wreck diving unless I one day get to do a 1500-foot penetration of a sunken behemoth.

The only category of reel not yet mentioned is actually not a reel… just a spool.

A spool is a plastic – and now available in stainless – bobbin designed to hold various lengths of line from 20 metres to 50 of #24 line. With no moving parts and nothing to jam, a spool is the best tool for several important jobs, and as such is the only “guideline” reel I take in the water with me on every dive.

For me, there is no silver-bullet answer to the question: Which reel is the right one for me to buy. However, a spool is not an option: is a necessity. I often use a spool to fly marker bags when doing drift deco. I’ve used one as a guideline when a reel brought along for that purpose jammed. And I have used one in four or five other common and uncommon applications.

Spools are  a great tool but they have the disadvantage of being awkward to reel lots of line in and out and in and out again… but in a pinch, it’ll even do that.

Which brand is best?
As I write this, there are probably 15 to 20 manufacturers of reels for wreck and cave diving. I’d like to recommend two or three brands but that gets more than a dozen marketing managers really, really peeved and… actually, it’s counter productive in a much more tangible way.

Most manufacturers respond to market forces and a model that may be a terrible investment because of its poor design and manufacture, may be replaced with something absolutely brilliant from the same manufacturer six months after you get this book.

Of course, the laws of nature being what they are, the opposite may also happen. So no brand favorites.

We can however, look for general features that good reels share.

Clean, simple design and manufacture, to my mind is feature one. The benefits are that a simple reel is simple to use. Pay particular attention to how the spool locks and unlocks, and how easy it is to play out and recover line.

If you dive in cold water and wear drygloves or thick wet gloves, wear them when you are shopping for a reel.

Usually, the more gadgets a reel has, the more likely it is to foul, jam, stop working and frustrate you. The reel in figure one is made by a Canadian company called GUTS. It’s very simple, just a frame/handle, spool, some line and a place to attach a loop of shock cord or a resident bolt snap. Oh, and a big, easy to operate with dry gloves, locking nut. It’s well built and well finished… that’s to say, its bits fit together well and there are no sharp edges to rip holes in dry gloves or latex seals.

Second shared feature for a good reel is material. Good reels tend to be made from materials that can stand a high-level of abuse… verbal, physical and psychological, but especially heavy on the physical.

Given a situation where a cheap plastic reel fights a set of fully loaded steel doubles for a seat near the platform of a moving dive boat, the tanks win every time.

Shouting and saying bad things to a reel, which has just magically produced a bird’s nest of tangled line at 60 metres, will do very little lasting damage; however, a reel made from stainless and brushed aluminum alloy will withstand the resulting “percussive maintenance” on nearby rocks or bulkheads.

Plastic on the other hand will come away needing attention.

I also look for reels with spools that are well balanced and substantive, and are fitted with large winding handlees.

While the apparent weight of a metal spool lessens in water, its mass is unchanged and its mass contributes to its inertia. Once one gets this kind of spool spinning, it tends want to continue spinning. With a reel that features a nice solid spool, line recovery seems much easier and the rotation of the spool runs truer, and that results in line lying down on the spool more evenly.

I also find that heavy spools also help to keep line and under constant tension.

Third feature is bulk… not mass, bulk. Compact is good. If in doubt, go for compact. There is no set rule that says a practical reel must have a size ratio to spool capacity of 2:1 but maybe there should be.

What I mean by this is that if a reel holds 20 meters of braided line but it can’t fit into a cardboard box that’s 25cm per side, it’s bulky. There is a lot of wasted space in its design. Look as the reel in figure two. It’s from a Florida manufacturer called Halcyon. It’s got one of the best size-to-spool ratios around. Compact and sleek.

Learning to use a reel
Forgive the cheap pun, but using a reel is really not as easy as it looks… especially under water.

The first step is preparation. Unless a reel is purchased from a manufacturer who actually sells wreck-ready reels, the first move for most wreck divers will be to strip line from a new reel and replace it with something thicker.

Most reels come carrying cave line (#24), which is too thin for the majority of wreck diving jobs. So #24 braided nylon line is commonly replaced with #36 — which is a good all-propose wreck line.

Number 36 wreck line is about 1.5mm or 1/16th of an inch thick. If you are going to dive in extremely tough conditions where line wear is a serious consideration, you might want to use the thicker #42 braided line as a default. The exception to this is on small reels and spools which may warp when loaded with heavy line… and in any event will likely not hold enough to make themselves really useful.

Some divers use the thicker line on a wreck reel because it can be reassuring to be looking at something a tad more abrasive resistant – which the thicker line is — when you have gotten yourself completely lost deep inside the bowels of a large twisted marriage of rusting steel, organic waste products, and a few loops of electrical wiring.

At this point it is nice to know that #42 is less likely to part should your movements sweep it across rotten wood and metal or the pointy ends of the gang of zebra mussels that gave you the evil eye as you swam by on the way in.

Regardless of the size of line you choose, inspect it regularly and replace it if it shows signs of wear or weakness. It’s not a bad practice to replace line on often-used reels whether or not the line shows signs of trauma. And replace it all, no knotted remnants!

Even if your reel came loaded with #36, the chances are it was loaded with too much line.

Most braided nylon line swells a little when it’s soaking wet and this causes the line to spill over the side of the spool and tangle. So unless you intend to carry your line and reels in water-proof bags, check to see if there is some spool showing above the loaded line.

Exactly how much spool will depend on a couple of variables, but I commonly have about 10% of the total spool depth “put aside” for line swell.

Swollen line can also distort a plastic spool to the point that it will not spin properly. This problem may also be a side effect from winding line very tightly.

A well-wrapped, well-loaded reel has nice line separation and lots of space. (Take a look at the reels and spool in figure 3 to get an idea what I mean.)

That said, one does need to know how much line is on any particular reel. Especially if as some point, it might be used as an emergency up line. Logic dictates that there is no point in sending a lift bag up on 40 metres of line if you’re on a wreck at 55 metres and the current is running at two-knots.

The place to learn how a reel works, and how you work with a reel, is on the surface.

If you are lucky, you have a large garden at home with lots of trees and space to work complex patterns with reels and lines.

This practice, with eyes open, eyes closed, lights in hands at night and so on, is essential. If you have small garden, curious neighbors or live on the 20th floor of a 32-floor apartment building, a quiet public park should work.

Just don’t do as a buddy of mine did early one morning in a small green space on the Michigan side of Lake Huron. Don’t zig-zag line to and fro across a well-used bike and roller blade path. At least not without setting up a hidden video camera to catch video evidence of the results of your selfishness.

Get used to walking while letting line out. Keep tension on the side of the spool with a finger or thumb so that line does not bag out behind you.

Practice throwing loops around tree limbs and lawn chairs. When you are proficient, try it at a run.

When you have that mastered, head off to the local dive site and expect to be humbled at first. But persist.

There is no substitute for practice.

Running line requires coordination and a little forward thinking. But once you have it, you’ll look like Spiderman… or at very least a competent wreck diver.

7 thoughts on “Options for choosing a wreck diving reel

  1. Pingback: Thailand Tech Diving » Blog Archive » Choosing the Right Wreck-Diving Reel

  2. Thanks for the article; especially the learning how to use reel part was really helpful and beneficial for me. With the info. that you gave, I used reels much more beneficial way.

  3. Thanks for the post. For a recreative diver like me, your post is an excellent introduction to the world of reels and lines. I actually intend to buy one for recreative penetration wreck dive, that is within the 40-metre limit. According to your post, # 36 lines is a good all-purpose wreck line. Now, my question for you is the following: would a 27-metre # 36 line good enough for recreative penetration wreck dives, or would it be too short? Alternatively, would a longer # 24 line be good enough for recreative penetration wreck dives? I’m considering any of these two alternatives in the light of what I see in the market at a reasonable price for me,
    Thanks a lot in advance for your reply.

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