SOME TIME AGO, I was going on a dive in the Caribbean, with the attractions around the 30-35m mark. I was young but fairly competent, with more than 100 dives built up in various conditions in the previous couple of years.
I had been looking forward to this dive for at least six months, and had put in quite a bit of training to make sure I was up to it.
When the day came and I boarded the boat, I was surprised by the experience levels of the other divers.
Most were no more than Open Water-certified with a handful of dives under their belts, and some hadn’t even been in the water for a few years.
The divemaster sat at the front of the boat, as far from the customers as he could get, smoking a funky-smelling cigarette as the inexperienced divers muddled through preparing their rental equipment.
Regulators that in some cases lacked alternative air sources or contents gauges were fitted to tanks and, when pressurised, began to fizz and hiss as high-pressure air worked its way past frayed O-rings.
The operator with which I had booked at the last minute was clearly atrocious, and the potential for something to go very wrong on the dive was off the scale.
Experienced divers will soon sniff out bogus operators like this, but the passengers on that boat simply didn’t know what they didn’t know.

SO HOW DO YOU KNOW whether an unfamiliar dive-centre cares about your well-being? Its website may boast that it regards your safety as of paramount importance, but can you believe it?
Tell-tale signs can provide an insight into a centre’s true attitude to diver safety, and among these is the condition of its rental equipment. If a centre is prepared to let you use substandard gear, you can bet that won’t be the sole cause for concern.
When renting dive equipment, you need to check that it works properly. Easily said, but what exactly are you looking for?
I wouldn’t expect you to go through every one of the points made below before walking out of the shop, but understanding the sort of thing that should trigger alarm bells will boost your confidence…

REGULATORS
A complete set of regulators is made up of a number of required components, each of which should function easily as per its design. Under water, regs shouldn’t appear to be imitating an Alka Seltzer ad, with bubbles bursting from every orifice.
From the first stage there should be a primary second stage, an alternative air source (AAS), a low-pressure inflator hose and a contents gauge. Some models incorporate the AAS in the inflator hose but this is rarely found in rental gear – usually it’s a standard octopus.
Often reg sets have consoles that may carry a depth gauge or even a computer and/or compass. You do need a computer or depth gauge and timing device, but it’s not a requirement to have them all on the console.
CHECK:

  • mouthpieces to make sure that the teeth grips are intact on both the primary and octopus and that, when stretched a little, no cracks or tears are visible on the outside of the piece.
  • hoses for any visible cracking or wear, which is most likely to show at either end, close to the connection.
  • metal parts for corrosion – a hard green or white growth. If significant build-up is visible on the exterior there’s a good chance of a similar amount inside, obstructing all the little components that make the magic happen. Look at the filter where the first stage connects to the tank: if it looks old and tired, with heavy corrosion, the reg has probably not been serviced recently.
  • that the inflator connection is easily operable.
  • that there is no water inside the contents gauge.
  • that, once connected to a tank and the valve opened to pressurise the regs, the gauge needle rises smoothly and drops back to zero once depressurised.
  • that the air comes through nice and easy when you take a breath or two.
  • that there are no freeflows. A freeflow can be a steady trickle, most likely from an old pressure seat, or a violent-sounding continual purge.
  • that there is no hissing caused by leaking O-rings with the valve open.
  • your buddy’s gear for bubbles on the dive, and your buddy yours. If the flow is small it’s unlikely to be worth thumbing the dive over, but a good operation will be able to fix or replace gear on the boat between dives.
    BC
    The BC is a relatively uncomplicated piece of gear. Think of it as a bag with doors that let air in or out and that can be attached to a diver.
    It may also incorporate integrated weights.
    CHECK:
  • that the BC holds air by orally inflating it and listening for leaks or, even better, putting it in water and looking for bubbles.
  • that when attached to pressurised regs, it inflates when you press the inflate button, and stops inflating as soon as you stop pressing.
  • that it is not automatically inflating (if you have time for this). Fully deflate the BC, leave the gear assembled and pressurised for 10 minutes or so, then check for any difference in the volume of air inside.
  • that if you push the pinch-clips together then pull at the strap either side of the release, they don’t give.
  • Velcro for defects. It will be worn and pulled away from the panel to which it should be attached, so is easy to spot.
  • that there is a way to attach the octopus second-stage and contents gauge to the BC to prevent dangling.
    FINS, SNORKEL & MASK
    Have you seen divers do a giant stride off the back of the boat, only to realise that they are missing their fins or mask? This has taught me two things: firstly, I shouldn’t find such mishaps as funny as I do and, secondly, although masks and fins are not generally regarded as as important as other items of dive-gear, you don’t want to dive without them. So they need to be in good working order.

    CHECK:
  • the comfort of fins when worn. If they rub when tried on in the shop, by the time you’re a few minutes into the dive they will hurt, and a few minutes after that it will be agony.
  • fin-straps for signs of splitting and the attachment points for any wear.
  • that the mask-strap is undamaged and so unlikely to snap under water.
  • for any growth inside the mask. A few dark spots are no big deal, but I have seen masks that appear to be developing their own eco-system.
  • that a snorkel mouthpiece is not ripped. If there is an exhaust valve under the mouthpiece, make sure it works properly and won’t let water in.
  • that the connection that holds the snorkel to the mask is good. Usually the rule is that lost or damaged equipment is paid for by the person who lost or damaged it.
    CYLINDERS
    Scuba cylinders have a hard life. They get used and abused by people who just want to suck the life out of them and then cast them aside. Tanks need loving too, so if you’re renting one you need to ensure that it has been well cared for.
    A cylinder should be inspected visually once a year. Among other things, it should be opened up to ensure that there is nothing nasty inside and that it is structurally safe to withstand pressure. Once completed, it should have a vis (visual) sticker attached to it, showing the date the test was completed.
    Cylinders also require hydrostatic testing every five years (though this does vary regionally). When one passes its hydro, it should have the date stamped into the body, usually up near the neck, so make sure it’s in date.
    Before connecting the first stage to the valve, look at the O-ring to make sure it’s not worn, frayed or containing sand or grit. Once the reg is attached to the valve and you turn it on, you shouldn’t be able to hear any fizzing caused by a bad connection. If you do, ask the crew to help you fix it or switch it.

    THERMAL PROTECTION
    Rental wetsuits and drysuits can be a mixed bag. Unfortunately they seem to show wear and tear more than any other items of rental gear.
    As people of different shapes and sizes try squeezing into a suit it gets stretched out in various places, making it less efficient at keeping you warm.

    BAD SIGNS INCLUDE:
  • Holes that should not be there.
  • Pee smells.
  • Zips that don’t work.
  • Being too big or too small. If the conditions in which you’re about to dive warrant a wetsuit, they may also require hoods, boots and gloves. Similar guidelines apply.

    OWNING YOUR OWN GEAR is a huge benefit and makes your diving adventure way more enjoyable, but not owning or travelling with your own gear shouldn’t reduce you to unsafe diving.
    Returning to my opening story, luck was on our side that day, as no one got hurt. Everybody made it to the surface and, once back on the boat, the crew made a little show of throwing raw meat into the water to send some sharks into a feeding frenzy.
    Nearby another dive-boat had just pulled up and was in the process of putting its divers into the water.
    The fact that no one got hurt doesn’t mean that the dive was safe and that the whole thing should be repeated the very next day.
    You don’t have to work through every point in this guide religiously, but don’t take rental gear for granted if you have any doubts about a dive-centre.
    The difference between the most awesome dive you ever do and the last dive you ever do could come down to three quid’s worth of plastic.