Types of reels
Reels divide into SMB reels suited to open-water activities, and
penetration reels developed specifically for line laying. However,
penetration reels can also be used efficiently as SMB reels.
SMB reels are generally bulkier than penetration reels, partly
due to the pistol grip, an SMB reel is held like a gun and the trigger
prevents line coming off the spool until needed. Some reels let
you recall a line without pulling the trigger, others require you
to pull the trigger to reel in or out. These reels are used for
towing SMBs, deploying delayed SMBs, for line searches, and are
also suitable as distance lines (a guide line to the shot or anchor
rope) in open water.
The gun-like grip provides a secure hand-hold and if the reel can
be locked off and can support the weight of a decompressing diver,
he or she may hang on or clip on to the reel and relax. They are,
however, difficult to use with a dive light held in the same hand.
If you use the reel-line for searches or as a distance line, the
line should be kept below you; if it is allowed to rise above you
it could become caught around your tank or first stage. This area
is out of your field of vision, so either your buddy will have to
disentangle you or you will have to cut the line. Keeping the line
below you means it can only be caught in your fins or a calf-mounted
knife, making it easier to remove. Using a slightly head-down attitude
will help keep your legs clear. Ensure that all gauges and lights
are secured close to your body. Keeping the reel extended to one
side of your body is also useful. If possible, keep your buddy on
your far side, away from the line. In poor visibility you may have
your buddy on the line side, with his finger and thumb lightly encircling
the line (this is called ‘okaying the line’).
Uncontrolled ascent can occur if the reel jams or the line snares
a diver. Before inflating the SMB, unclip the reel. That way you
can release it immediately if there’s a problem. Hold the
reel and SMB away from your body, ensuring it doesn’t get
entangled in any equipment. If there is a current, use it to carry
the SMB and line away from you and your buddy. Use an alternate
air source to inflate the SMB with short bursts of air to control
the rate of inflation and avoid regulator freeze-ups. Put a thumb
over the mouthpiece and block it (filling from the exhaust valve)
or turn the regulator upside-down to avoid uncontrolled free-flows.
These can waste precious air at the end of a dive or hasten a freeze-up
in cold water.
Once the SMB has hit the surface you can reel up to it. Some divers
attach the reel with a tie-wrap or piece of light line that will
come apart if a boat should hit the SMB. Monitor your gauges; if
a reel unravels you can find yourself back in deep water unexpectedly.
An SMB reel can sometimes be stored in the pocket of a BCD for
convenience. Otherwise, clip it to a D-ring. Try to place it so
that it does not drag along the bottom and so that your releases
are still accessible in a rescue situation.
Penetration reels are designed for use in overhead environments
where they will serve as guidelines back to the exit. In cave diving,
accidents are most often caused by failure to use such a guideline.
Penetration reels are held in the same way one would hold a suitcase
handle, thereby enabling the diver to hold a torch in the same hand.
Most penetration reels have a simple screw-in lock that prevents
the drum from turning and paying out line until it is released.
Lines are laid out and recovered in order to minimise tension on
the line, which could pull the line ahead into an impassable crevice
and make exiting the overhead environment difficult-to-impossible.
Divers exploring overhead environments often carry two reels. The
primary reel is used to enter and exit the site or wreck. If the
diver becomes separated from the line, or the line is broken, the
secondary reel is tied off and the diver begins searching for either
the exit or the main line. This ensures that the diver can return
to the point at which he or she became lost, and avoid moving further
away from relative safety. Searching divers may well be able to
find the tied-off back-up line and locate the lost diver. Line handling
includes further skills such as line marking protocols (use of direction
aids), and tying-in procedures (how to tie on to permanent lines
Learn to use the reel in a controlled environment first, such as
a pool. A reel is an important safety aid, but they can backfire
badly if mishandled.
Reels should always be rewound carefully. It is important that
they deploy quickly and cleanly, especially when sending up marker
buoys. Reels can be open-faced or enclosed. When reeling in an open-faced
reel, take care not to let the line bind up on one side of the drum
and spill over on to the axle where it can jam the reel. Enclosed
reels are designed to prevent this. However, it takes only a couple
of minutes to fully unwind a reel and carefully wind it back onto
the spool to ensure it will work properly on your next dive.