REELS AND SURFACE MARKER BUOYS used to be the exclusive preserve of divers who immersed themselves in moving water with poor visibility. That includes the waters off the coast of Britain.
British divers of the past used to spend their long winter evenings making wooden reels to a pattern described in the BSAC manual, the then "bible" of diving.
The quality of the home-manufacturing was variable. Made of marine-ply, the finished reel also floated, but these devices were commonly seen at British dive sites.
Wally Lumb, then a scrap-metal dealer from Lancashire and a keen diver, made a reel from stainless steel to the same pattern. It weighed a tonne, but everyone wanted one.
It wasn't long before an enterprising manufacturer combined heavy-duty plastic with stainless-steel parts to mass-produce the reel and take the market by storm. I still have one, and use it regularly.
The popular use of the Delayed Surface Marker Buoy (DSMB) in the late 1980s revolutionised reel use once again.
Instead of coming up a fixed shotline, wreck divers, engaged in longer deco stops, would float on the current while they made their slow way to the surface, their position securely marked for the skipper of the boat that was to pick them up.
After a few incidents with lost divers around the world, warmwater divers soon took to sending up a buoy at the end of a dive too.
Getting lost inside an overhead environment such as a wreck poses a real hazard, so divers have taken to employing guidelines deployed from reels and belayed in the same way as those used by cave-divers.
Such line-laying is an art, and all divers need to be shown how to do it safely and effectively.
The upshot is that the simple winder-reel has become an essential part of any diver's equipment. A well-laid line or properly deployed SMB or DSMB can make the difference between life and death.
Much of this depends on the choice of a good reel. The question for me was how to compare 15 different reels side by side.
Sending up 15 DSMBs and winding in the line? Well, I didn't feel like making 15 side-by-side ascents, so I came up with a different solution.
I took all the winder reels down with me in a weighted crate. I also took a single Buddy DSMB with a very large karabiner on its strop.
I had a short length of bungee cord attached to the crate. I attached the handle of each reel to this
using a second karabiner, and fitted the loop I made in the end of each line around the first karabiner on the DSMB.
The DSMB and reel was therefore captive, and I was able to fully inflate the buoy each time from the exhaust port of my regulator.
Once it was straining at the leash, I released the spool of the reel, and the DSMB disappeared at the maximum rate of knots to the surface.

HERE MAX, MY DOUGHTY ASSISTANT, fielded it and released enough air from it to allow me to wind it back down, replicating an ascent without my actually going anywhere.
This allowed me to notice any tendency to over-run and "bird's nest" as the reel span free, and to wind the line back in with a similar tension to that of a diver keeping a line taut during an ascent.
Bird's-nesting is a term familiar to anglers.
It occurs when your neatly wound line suddenly gets irrevocably tangled around the reel-spool.
Remember that a line rarely goes up completely vertically. The buoy will be subject to current and wind, so you will need a lot more line than the depth from which you plan to deploy it. Think in terms of 50% extra.
Never attach a reel or spool to yourself or to your equipment when launching a delayed SMB, as you might get dragged up with it.
Many of the reels described here are available in larger sizes for longer lengths of line. These 15 represent only a small selection of what is available on the market. They are arranged in price order - from £18 right up to £105.


SCUBAPRO SPOOL £18 15m
Spools are meant to simplify the process of sending up a buoy by being convenient to stow in a pocket and easy to understand how to use. This 7.5cm-diameter spool has been spoiled by an attempt to "improve" on the original concept. The designers have added a fold-out handle and a winding knob. Doh!
Firstly, you must be sure to engage the piston-clip provided through both the loop in the end of the line and the holes in the spool, or you will simply discover a terrible knotted mess in your pocket when you come to use it.
Attaching the line to the DSMB by means of this piston-clip can result in line falling off the spool in the process.
Allow the spool to rotate freely while the line unravels and the buoy is deployed.
Then the designer expects you to unfold the handles and use it like a tiny reel as you ascend. I can assure you that after the first experience you will simply wind its line onto the spool without using these features.
Some things are simply for buying and selling, but not for using.

LUMB MORAY £24 40m
I at one time assumed that this very economically priced reel was made in China, and had my wrist slapped by the British manufacturer for my trouble. It's obviously a cheeky copy of the McMahon compact reel, but with a couple of differences.
The spring on the ratchet lever is concealed, so we couldn't tell if it was made from short-lived mild steel or stainless, and the moving line-guide is set in a slot that allows the line to wind up onto the ratchet if you aren't careful to avoid this.
The small 7.5cm-diameter spool allows the 40m of line to pile up to the point of being in danger of overflowing. If I owned this reel I'd shorten the line to, say, 25m.
Otherwise, the comments made about the more expensive McMahon Compact overleaf apply.

LUMB CONGER £30 60m
Take the Lumb Moray and improve it, and this is what you'd get. It seems to be made of better-quality plastic, although this might be an illusion because it's all-black. It was certainly nicer to use, with its curved handle, and there was no tendency for the line to pile up on the ratchet part of the reel, thanks to
a thoughtfully designed and positioned line-guide.
It could do with carrying 10m less line to be sure of avoiding problems with line piling up on an overloaded spool.
I was slightly suspicious of the tiny spring on which the ratchet-release depended. This is not the sort of thing you'd want to break if planning a long hang at a decompression stop.
The buoy went up and the line deployed without a hitch, however, and it was easy to wind back in, thanks to a sensibly shaped winder knob.

SEA & SEA CAVE/WRECK £33 45m
The name of this reel implies that it is not intended for use with a DSMB, but only as a line-laying reel. The aperture in the handle of this plastic and stainless-steel reel has been shaped to give a secure grip, at the expense of being a tight squeeze for a large gloved hand.
The 8cm-diameter spool is full to the brim, which can lead to some untidy spilling when winding in the last few metres of its braided line, but the winder handle is long, and easy to get to grips with.
My only reservation was that the tiny self-tapping stainless-steel screw that was attached to one end of the ratchet-release lever spring, and screwed into the plastic of the handle, looked as if it might come loose one day, which would make the thing worse than useless.
This is a reel that will work well until that day when you find you have a tangle of unravelled line with which to deal.

BEAVER KINGFISHER £35 70m
Business-like is how I would describe this inexpensive yet effective plastic reel. The 11cm-diameter spool, with a meaty, easily-gripped handle and stainless-steel line-guide, has an oversized ratchet-lock with a coiled spring that is visible to help you spot signs of corrosion, should it occur.
The Kingfisher is marred only by being set on a rather short recessed axle that is actually nothing more than a short bolt. This means that the spool tends to wobble on the two-part plastic handle.
The ratchet released, I sent the buoy on its way and the fairly heavyweight line deployed without
a hitch. When the time came to wind it back down, the line rolled onto the spool neatly. What more can you want? Well, perhaps a little more guarantee of longevity in the product.

BEAVER PUFFIN £35 40m
Almost identical to the Sea & Sea Cave & Wreck reel, with similar doubts about the screw that holds one end of the ratchet-lever spring, this reel deployed its line smoothly and I was then able to wind it in without any problems.
The wind-in ratchet and its release were easy to use. The winding knob is very much on the small side for a gloved grip and the whole thing looked very cheaply made. So although it worked faultlessly, I wondered how long it would last, and whether I'd want to rely on it for a long hang.

MCMAHON COMPACT £35 50m
Realising the demand for a smaller reel that didn't get in the way when not in use, McMahon came up with this design, which apes its very effective older and larger sibling. It's constructed in a similar way, but the dimensions have simply been reduced.
However, to get 50m of line onto a 7.5cm-diameter reel, the manufacturer has resorted to using a finer gauge line that runs through a sliding line-guide. This is not so nice to handle, and can tend to be wound in too tightly onto the spool, leading to momentary sticky points during the following deployment.
It's not a fatal design flaw, but it simply serves to highlight the perfection of the original design. Features of this reel such as the handle and winder-knob are only just big enough for a man's gloved hand.

MGE NON-RATCHET £38 50m
A design of reel that has stood the test of time, this one is too big to stow in a pocket, but has the ease of use that comes with its large scale. The 11cm-diameter spool is made in chunky plastic, with a usefully sized knob, and the line runs through a U-shaped stainless-steel guide.
There is no ratchet per se, but a spring-loaded piston engages with holes in the spool to lock it off in a positive no-nonsense manner (a ratchet version is available). The frame on which the spool is mounted hides these holes and combines with a handle that is both grippy and tough, yet lightweight.
The deployed buoy dragged the line off the spool, which became a blur, and I was able to wind the buoy back down and the line back onto the over-capacity spool with little excitement. In fact it verged on being boring!

BEAVER OSPREY £39 80m
Bigger and beefier than the smaller yet otherwise similar Puffin reel, the Osprey has a bullish spool 10.5cm in diameter and 6.5cm across. This one uses a heavier-weight line than the Puffin, but otherwise suffers from the same possible problems, namely the ratchet-lock relying on a little self-tapping screw and the rather small winder knob.
In fact, if I had laid and belayed 80m of bottom line, I'm sure I would have got very fed up with trying to grip the silly little knob of the spool as I reeled it back in.

MCMAHON LARGE £40 50m
This is the original plastic and stainless-steel reel based on the BSAC and Wally Lumb's design. The company supplies a full inventory of spare parts that might need replacing one day (mine never have).
The reel works in a satisfying manner. The line is deployed and wound back in without a hint of a tangle, because the 15cm-diameter spool could take more than 100m of line if needs be. However, its over-capacity means that there is no tendency to overspill.
This reel has a huge line-guide and ratchet-release. Winding-in involves using its over-large handles.
The line was of the widest gauge of any of the reels featured here, and as such very pleasant to handle.
In fact everything about this reel is over-sized, which is its only real downfall. It's enormous!

BUDDY POCKET £40 40m
First thought of by David Parker, the man who gave you Britain's Buddy BC, this little reel is one of the most misunderstood items of diving equipment available today.
Its purpose is to be carried discreetly in a pocket, and in the event of a diver finding himself unplanned in an overhead environment, he can pull it out and lay a line, secure in the knowledge that the line is as free and untangled on its spool as the day he put it there.
The whole of the line is wound inside the casing, and to find the large O-ring that marks its end means winding on until it appears, before winding back a little to allow it to pop out.
The first thing you must do on buying one of these reels is to unwind all the line and reel it back in, because it might been pulled tight when it was installed by machine during manufacture.
Of course, the Buddy Pocket can also be used to deploy a DSMB, as I did, but the enclosure for the bobbin is hard to grip, and the handle is both tiny and low-geared.
The line-lock button must be securely depressed during buoy deployment, and there is the option to dispense with it entirely. Put one of these in your pocket for the days on which you dive without a conventional reel.

SCUBAPRO RATCHET £62 50m
When you've been under water for an hour and sent up more than a dozen DSMBs, one could be forgiven for getting tired and emotional.
However, pulling this reel from the crate and attaching the DSMB gave me pause for thought. Was Scubapro having a laugh?
This reel was uncomfortable to hold in the hand, because the plastic and aluminium handle was so thin, and the ratchet-release was almost impossible to understand.
I found that I needed to push hard with my water-softened thumb on the sharp edge of one metal corner of the handle to allow the line to release.
There is a knob that engages a screw into a small hole to make the reel permanently free to spin. I suggest that you need to engage this before sending a buoy up from any depth, otherwise an inadvertent release
of this uncomfortable grip could see you grabbed by the buoyancy of the onwards-and-upwards buoy, and sent up with it.
It looks the business, but it isn't.

KENT WRECK HYBRID £74 50m
John Perrin started making reels for himself, but many well-known technical and cave-divers liked them and asked him to make one for them, to meet their personal requirements.
This almost indestructible stainless-steel reel is a case in point. It's a simple spool on an L-shaped bracket, with a spring-loaded knob that will engage in holes in the spool to lock it for long hangs.
I found the L-shaped handle slightly uncomfortable to hold, and would have preferred to use the optional S-shaped version.
That said, the buoy went up and the line deployed without a hitch, and it was a doddle to wind it back down again. It can also be supplied with a friction brake.
All Kent Tooling & Components reels can be supplied either for right or left-handed use, and are supplied with a set of spares.
They will withstand the harshest treatment meted out by divers.

KENT NARROW RATCHET £92 50m
For those of you who enjoy the satisfaction of owning something that comes from the Stephenson or Brunel schools of design, this ratchet-reel is a marvel of traditional stainless-steel engineering, made by a man who is obviously passionate about what he does.
I imagine a lot of new owners will sit at home playing with such an item, because it imparts so much pleasure in its operation. It's rather like watching the action of a long-case clock!
Under water, the buoy was deployed without a hitch, and was wound back down on the heavy-gauge line just as easily. The ratchet mechanism of the reel is operated by a thumb on a long lever, returned by a concentric spring.
This lever can be locked to allow the spool to spin freely by engaging the spring-loaded knob so that its pin engages in a suitably large hole provided in the frame.
The handle on the 9cm-diameter spool is long enough to get to grips with, with a heavily gloved hand.
There is one penalty to pay for this style of engineering, however. This reel weighs more than a kilogram.

MANTA JUNIOR £105 50m
The most expensive of the reels compared here, this US-made reel combines a 9.5cm-diameter nylon spool with an anodised aluminium handle with stainless-steel fittings. Don't ask about the effects of corrosion caused by electrolysis between these different metals. We didn't have it long enough to find out.
The design is a different take on getting something to engage in a notch in the reel to lock the line. There are only two notches, but if you felt that the locking positions weren't close enough together, it would
be simple to cut a couple more.
How did it perform? It's big and bold, and worked flawlessly. It's too big for a pocket, but it's heavy enough that it will dangle nicely from a D-ring.

CONTACTS: AP Valves (Buddy) www.apvalves.com; Beaver Sports, www.beaversports.co.uk; Kent Tooling www.divingproducts.co.uk; Lumb Brothers www.lumb-bros-das.co.uk; Manta www.manta-reels.co.uk; McMahon www.mcmahon-engineering.com; MGE Sub Aqua www.mgesubaqua.co.uk; Scubapro www.scubapro.com; Sea & Sea www.sea-sea.com