DEPLOY A DELAYED SURFACE MARKER BUOY (DSMB) from shallow water, when youre about to do a deco stop, for example, and you require only a short length of line or a suitable length of webbing.
Unless you have a small drop-weight on one end, however, it can result in hopeless tangles of free line. So you need to wrap the line around a frame, or spool. Deploying a line from deeper water requires more line, and this needs to be wound onto something bigger, either a spool or a reel.
However, rather than the big reels normally used with permanently deployed buoys, many divers these days prefer to take smaller reels, of the type that originated in cave-diving circles, for use with DSMBs at depth.
These reels can be stowed either in a BC pocket or clipped to
a convenient D-ring, while bearing in mind that small reels take a lot more winding-up during and after your ascent than much larger reels.
We investigated what is available and discovered that not all reels were as good as each other. In fact, there are some horrors available out there!
Birds-nesting is a term familiar to anglers. It occurs when your neatly wound line suddenly get irrevocably tangled around the reel-spool. No wonder some training-agencies insist on the simplicity of a spool.
Remember that a line rarely goes up 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.
Our test of 19 small diving reels was conducted on a calm day in still water over a 30m distance. Nearly every reel or spool came with either a lanyard or a piston-clip for carrying it.
Remember: never attach a reel or spool to yourself or your equipment when launching a delayed SMB, or you might get dragged up with it.

 Agir-Brokk Spool £29
This basic Delrin spool has a centre far too narrow for a gloved finger to be inserted as a temporary axle. It proved very hard to wind
the line in neatly, and once all the line was out, the fact that it was not attached to aslippery axle made it very difficult to start winding it back in neatly again. 42m of line.

 Agir-Brokk Top Handle Reel £86
This Swedish-built reel may be too big for some BC pockets but we thought it small enough to include here. It is strongly made in stainless steel and Delrin, but with a design verging on the primitive. It has a friction brake formed from a bolt and wingnut that can be brought to bear on the outer rim of the drum. Its metal handle demands a thickly gloved hand but it has a nice big winder knob. The line deployed smoothly as the buoy accelerated away, but on winding in the line jumped off the spool within the first moments, and jammed around the spool axle

 Diver recommended
Aquatec Reel £25
This all-plastic reel may look crude and cheaply made but were pleased to say it did the job, both in deploying the line and winding it back in, in an immaculate way. It is neutrally buoyant. What more can we tell you 45m of line.

 Beaver Blue Heron £32
Reminiscent of a popular Dive-Rite design, this reel has an aluminium chassis, a jamming brake, and spool-friction adjusted by a huge centre knob that can be tightened. Alas, this knob obstructs access to its puny little winding knob and makes it more or less impossible to get to grips with it. I resorted to sticking a bare finger into the hole in the winding-knob end. Loose winding of the line resulted in it birds-nesting during the process, and soon line came off the spool and wound itself around the axle end. The result was not something that could be resolved under water. In fact, it was a dismal failure. 45m of line.

Beaver Digi Spool £24
  Were not sure about these reels for long lengths of line, and Beaver can also supply them in lesser sizes than this one. Spools may be simple but they are fiddly to use and have a propensity to get dropped, with disastrous consequences. They make the line hard to wind in, too.
A rectangular frame performs better but a little reel stows away easily until you need it. Just hope you dont ever need to deploy line over any distance from such a spool. 45m of line.

 Beaver Puffin Wreck Reel £35
This reel deployed its line smoothly and then we were able to wind it in without any problems. The wind-in ratchet and its release were easy to use. Its winding knob is a bit on the small side for a gloved grip and the whole thing looked very cheaply made. So although it worked faultlessly, we wondered how long that would last. 40m of line.

 Bodaine Mini Reel £38
Mainly made of plastic, this reel is unusual in that the spool axis is at 90° to the grip handle. Unfortunately, this handle proved far too small for a mans gloved hand. It has a good winder and brake/ratchet mechanism. There was lots of vibration during the deployment of the fast-accelerating buoy. When it came to winding in, there was a big problem with birds-nesting of the line, much of which caught around the ratchet mechanism and totally jammed up the reel. 50m of line.

 Buddy Pocket Reel £39
This reel is the only one that truly will sit in a pocket until you come to need it, and then is easily retrieved. Thats because it has no handle, but that also means that it is hard to hold onto when the time comes to use it. There are two versions with different methods of locking, but no brakes or ratchets. During deployment, the hand holding the buoy became a blur because of the vibration, but the line is unlikely to birds-nest because of the way it is totally enclosed on its spool within the reel casing. The handle proved small, and winding the line back in was
tedious. The end of the line is provided with a big O-ring to make finding it within the reel easy. 40m of line.

 Custom Divers Pocket Reel £58
This is an excellently engineered product that, like its larger and much more expensive siblings, will give years of pleasurable ownership. Made from anodised aluminium with stainless-steel fittings, it has a satisfying action to its ratchet mechanism - yet we thought it too toy-like in its dimensions to do its job as well as it could. When it came to winding-in its colourful easy-to-see-and-grip neon-pink line, we found that both the main handle and the knob on the reel were just too small to get a really good grip on. They just need to be a fraction bigger to make this reel perfect. 50m of line.

 Diver recommended
Dive Rite Safety/Cavern Reel £48
This reel is part of a large range of reels that use a combination of primitive stainless-steel chassis and Perspex spool. It has a simple screw-down brake that bears down on a friction disc. It may look crude but we must report that it worked faultlessly, deployed the line with very little drama and wound it back in neatly. 43m of line.

 Diving NikNaks 45m Safety Spool £23
This is another Delrin spool that has all the advantages of simplicity and all the problems that come with that. The central hole was almost too narrow for a gloved finger to be employed as a temporary axle (but better than others) and I found it fiddly to use neatly when the time came to wind up the line. 45m of line.

 Fa & Mi Reel £45
This new-to-the-market Italian-made reel looks very appealing, but looks are not everything. Its handle is not well placed and the whole thing vibrated violently as the buoy went up and the line reeled out. The line was not permanently attached to the spindle of the spool, which caused some problems when deployed to its full extent. Its brake (there is no ratchet) mechanism must be held against a spring in a pull-to-release action while the line is deployed. For this, at less than the width of an index finger, it proved too small for comfortable use. However, it was one of the few reels reviewed here that had a decent-sized winder knob. 40m of line.

 Halcyon Defender Cold Water Spool £34
Among a large selection of spools from this source, this solid Delrin spool has a wider-than-normal centre that allows a gloved finger to be inserted as a temporary axle. It proved easy to drop accidentally during use. With all the line out, it was impossible to start winding in because the material is simply too slippery to make a start. It was all too easy to wind the line about your own fingers, once the spool was getting near full, although it is possible to attach the double-ended bolt-snap to the side of the spool and thus improvise a handle. 40m of line.

 Diver recommended
Halcyon Pathfinder Reel £102
A little big for some BC pockets and a little too expensive for others, this reel is well thought out and beautifully crafted from Delrin and aluminium. The only niggle we noticed was that the winder knob was a little short and could have been easier to grip. We watched the line pay out perfectly during buoy-deployment. Recovery was just as simple because there was no way the line could jam or bird-nest. Faultless. 125m of line.

 Diver recommended
Kent Tooling 50m Wreck Reel‚£58
Of the two slightly different versions of this business-like 316 stainless-steel reel we were sent, we chose the example with the bigger winder handle, but we think this handle was the reason for the immense amount of vibration experienced as the line paid out and the buoy went hurtling up. This reel has a friction brake with a central knurled knob that provides an incremental effect between the spool and chassis. Winding-in was effected without fuss. This is probably the most robust of the reels listed here. 50m of line.

 Diver recommended
Lumb MGE Multi-Function Reel £45
Made in Slough, this is a derivation of a strongly built plastic reel that has been a favourite with British divers for a long time. Its multi-function comes from the reels ability to have a ratchet action, run free or be locked in position, depending on the rotation of the release knob. It has a big main handle that accommodates the full width of a gloved hand, although the winder knob is only just big enough. Winding-in proved no problem. This reel is a little large for many BC pockets. 50m of line

 Lumb Small Reel £24
This is obviously a cheeky copy of the well-established McMahon Small Reel, and as such it operates in exactly the same way. The example with which we were provided had a lesser amount of line and its cheaper construction made us wonder how long it would last. We assumed that it was made in the Far East, but we were wrong. Its British through and through! 45m of line.

 Diver recommended
McMahon Small Reel £42
This is a small version of a standard plastic reel with stainless-steel fittings that has been popular with British divers for a very long time. As such it was almost faultless in the way it performed. There was the very minimum of vibration during line-deployment as the buoy sped away, though we felt that the main handle was a little small for a good grip with a gloved hand. The ratchet releases by thumb-pressure and operates as a ratchet only during winding-in. The line wound in neatly, perfectly guided by a moving fairlead, and I didnt have to think about it as I did it. 50m of line.

 Scubapro Reel £60This aluminium and nylon reel was the biggest disappointment of the test. Its ratchet was hard to release and to keep released. During winding-in of the line, the tension knob of the friction-brake damaged my knuckles and the small winding knob of the spool kept folding in on itself. It was anatomically poor, leading to discomfort during recovery of the line. It proved very fiddly and tended to birds-nest, with line coming off the spool to jam up round the axle. In fact, it was horrible to use. 75m of line.

Agir-Brokk (Underwater Explorers) 01305 824555, Aquatec (UK) 01305 776037, Beaver 01484 512354, Bodaine Developments 01376 349315, Buddy (AP Valves) 01326 561040, Custom Divers 01737 773000, Dive Rite (Sea & Sea) 01803 663012, Diving NikNaks, Fa & Mi (Submerge) 01484 711113, Halcyon (Silent Planet) 01305 824555, Kent Tooling 01227 700015, Lumb Bros 0161 6 815790, McMahon 01453 828666, Scubapro 01256 812636

  At the other end of the line
A surface marker buoy (SMB) should be easily inflated, stay inflated, and stay safely attached to its line.
Of course, it should also be of a colour that those on the surface can see easily.
When it come to late-deployment buoys, there is a lot of choice (AquaTec alone sent us eight), yet all you want is one that rolls up small for carrying and yet is easy to fill and, once sent accelerating on its way to the surface, stays there when it gets there.
The long open-ended sausage is now seen as the most effective shape.
Some buoys, designed for use from the shallower decompression depths, come supplied with a suitable length of line and drop-weight, but others need to be used with a spool or reel, loaded with a length of suitable line.
  Some buoys, such as the example from Aqua Lung, have a small weight to help keep the open end down and trap the air within. If a buoy falls over at the surface, the air will escape and it will soon be on its way back down to meet you, bringing with it a fearsome tangle of previously deployed line.
Buoys with a built-in constriction stay inflated, and a popular example of this is the Buddy SMB. It has a built-in dump valve for enabling speedy deflation when the time comes to roll it up again.
It is almost considered normal to use gas from your breathing supply to inflate a buoy at depth. However, it can be difficult to get the air from an octopus rig neatly into the open end of a buoy.
The DelayedAid is a novel way of solving this problem, and basically forms a funnel, attached to the reel and buoy, into which air is released.
Of course, you may not always have gas to spare, especially if you are sending up a signal for help. Some delayed SMBs have an independent inflation source. This can be a one-off-use CO2 cartridge or a small cylinder, 100 to 400ml in size, which is decanted from your main breathing-gas supply prior to diving.
Obviously it is important to have a supply matched to the buoy in use. Many divers are now using enormous Mother Buoys that can stand proud above the height of the waves and thus be easily seen by surface cover. These need a lot of air to inflate, so an attached 400ml cylinder is essential.
After deciding on the type and the size, you need to decide on the colour. DayGlo orange was a favourite among divers for a long time until scientific tests revealed that yellow was more easily distinguished in UK sea conditions. Now some divers carry both, and establish in advance a colour code with their surface-cover. More often than not, orange means: Here I am and yellow stands for:
Here I am and I need help - please investigate. We stress that these are not internationally agreed signals.
Some buoys are available two-sided, one yellow, one red, to address the problems of those still undecided about which colour is more visible. Whichever colour buoy you choose, you should mark it so that it is clearly yours. There are a lot of divers out there, and a lot of buoys for your surface-cover to follow.
In a surface current, an open-ended buoy will tend to act like a sea-anchor and drag the diver. For this reason, most have a skirt added to fold over and seal the end against water flow.

Youll be noticed in and out of the water with a mighty Mother Buoy

  • Surface buoy with fixed inflation, £20 (Aquatec)
  • Small open-ended sausage with weight, short line, £19 (Aqua Lung)
  • Standard open-ended sausage with constriction, £20-£35 depending on colour and size. (AP Valves/Aquatec)
  • Sausage shape with constriction, £25 (AP Valves)
  • Sausage shape with auto-inflation by CO2, ‚£36 (Aquatec)
  • Sausage shape with auto-inflation by 200ml cylinder, £76 (AP Valves)