If you are cruising in remote locales, cleaning the bottom yourself may be your only option. In a pinch, you can do it by snorkeling and free diving, but it is absolutely exhausting.
One option is to use SCUBA tanks — either on your back or on deck with a long hose — but then you have to get the tanks refilled. You may not find a dive shop to do so in remote locations, and most boats don’t have the space necessary for a dive compressor. If you’re a diving fanatic and plan to do a lot of diving, the space for a compressor may be worthwhile. But for the rest of us, a hookah takes up a lot less space and is actually easier to use for bottom cleaning as there are no tanks to hit against the hull.
Never heard of a hookah? Or only heard of the ones you smoke from? A dive hookah is “surface-supplied air” — basically a compressor that is at the surface with a long hose to your regulator.
We had a gas powered hookah on our previous boat and now have an electric one aboard Barefoot Gal. The gas powered ones come with an inner tube to float the hookah if you want to dive with it — you tow it with you. We thought this sounded wonderful when we bought it, but we found that we greatly preferred the simplicity of snorkeling for a daily activity. We used the hookah almost exclusively for bottom cleaning. The only place that we could store it was on the foredeck . . .
We hadn’t planned to buy a hookah for Barefoot Gal. We had thought that since it is a very shallow draft boat (hull is only 18″), I could keep it clean by free diving when we were in the Bahamas. Yes, I could . . . but an hour of cleaning just wiped me out (and I’m a strong swimmer and very comfortable free diving). I spent more time going up and down to breathe than I did cleaning. That hour got less than a quarter of the bottom done!
Our current hookah is powered by our Honda 2000 generator. It can’t really be used off the boat (yes, it would be possible to put both the generator and hookah in the dinghy and tow it as we swim . . . but it’s unlikely to actually happen).
Since we already had the Honda generator, it’s a much less expensive solution . . . but still not cheap. However, if you’re in places where bottom cleaning is expensive or hard to find, it can pay for itself in a year.
The generator-powered hookah weighs 29 pounds and the compressor and hoses can be stored separately — we keep the compressor inside the boat and the hoses in the sail locker. Since the compressor can walk a bit as it runs, we tie a line from it to a hand rail so it can’t go overboard.
Both our hookahs have been made by AirLine by J. Sink. There are other brands available and you can even find plans to make one yourself on the internet.
The AirLine hookahs aren’t the cheapest, but they use Honda compressors which are easy to service and parts can be found almost anywhere. AirLine also had great customer service when we had a question about our previous hookah.
If you are going to have a hookah, it’s important to have a fairly high-quality hookah as this is literally providing the air you breathe — you cannot use a “regular” air compressor as it will put oil in the air (very bad for your lungs) and you need to have the proper regulators to bring it to the proper pressure for breathing at the surface and underwater. (Brownie’s is the other major brand of dive hookah; they are slightly more expensive.)
There also are some 12v hookahs (and AirLine makes one) but they are designed for the hookah to have a dedicated battery . . . and are more expensive than the ones powered by the generator.
You can get hookahs for one, two, three or even four divers — generally, the more divers you have the less depth they can reach. For bottom cleaning, it’s not really an issue as even with four divers most will let you dive at least 25 feet deep (it takes more pressure to push air deeper, hence the shallower depths with more divers).
NOTE: You need to be SCUBA certified to use a hookah, even at shallow depths. No, probably no one will check. But it’s your life you’re gambling with — SCUBA skills are important in case there is ever a problem (we found that we were much more comfortable/competent snorkelers after being SCUBA certified, too).
We got the hookah from Leisure Pro — the base price everywhere is the same, but free shipping and no sales tax in Florida made it a better deal. This is a basic hookah for one person only and requires at least a 2000 watt generator:
For the electric hookah you’ll need a can of CorrosionX, too:
If you don’t have a generator (and don’t want to get one), the gas powered models are good and are more powerful if you want to have more divers:
- AirLine R260-4 gas-powered hookah for 2 from Leisure Pro (they also have models and add-ons for more divers)
For a gas-powered hookah, AirLine recommends spraying it with Boeshield:
You can see all the hookahs at Leisure Pro here (AirLine also sells them directly, but shipping adds over $100 to the cost, so I prefer Leisure Pro):
Other Tools for Cleaning the Bottom
If you are going to clean the bottom yourself, in addition to your regular snorkel gear, dive weights and a hookah or tanks, you will also need a few other things. No, it’s not cheap to clean your own bottom — but thinking that you can do without gloves, a suit and hair protection is just kidding yourself. It’s a nasty job. Protect yourself from the crud.
- A good pair of gloves so that you don’t cut yourself on barnacles. I’ve been using these from Home Depot for a couple of years and have been really happy — they’ve held up much better than others I’ve tried and are extremely cheap (less than $5 as I write this):
2. A couple of scrapers — 1-1/2″ and 3″ are our favorite sizes and we go back and forth as to whether we prefer metal or plastic.
3. Flat-blade screwdriver to get inside through hulls.
4. Wetsuit or Lycra (depending on water temp) and a hood to keep the crud you’re scraping out of your hair
- Neosport Lycras at Leisure Pro (these are the ones we got — measure to select your size, Lycras are sized small); they have held up really well — read more about them in Sunscreen that Doesn’t Kill Coral
- TYR Lycra swim cap from Amazon — yes, I deliberately chose this obnoxious bright pink so that boats could see me!
5. Dive flag to alert other boaters that you are in the water. In some places, it’s the law to fly one; it’s smart everywhere.
OPTIONAL: We have also found a chain-mail glove to be very helpful to get soft growth off. I simply rub the bottom with my hand encased in the chain mail glove. I wear the Latex-coated glove underneath to keep the nasties off my hand and also to ensure that my hand isn’t cut by barnacles bits coming through the chain mail. Chain mail gloves aren’t cheap and if I had to give up one piece of gear to save money, this is what I’d give up. I only have one of these, not two.
Whether it makes sense to get the gear and plan to clean the bottom yourself depends on where you’re planning to cruise, how comfortable you are in the water and how strong a swimmer you are. I’ve cleaned the bottom of both our boats countless times, and frankly, I’m thrilled when I can hire it out at an affordable rate.