A winder reel is a comparatively low-cost item of dive gear, but with prices anywhere between £25 and £80, it pays to know exactly what's what on the market before deciding which model works for you. John Bantin reels in the contenders
"To make a reel you will require 12.5mm marine plywood about 30cm square, one hexagonal brass bolt 75mm x 10mm diameter, two nuts, four washers, two brass countersunk screws with four nuts and washers to fit, two No 6 brass round head wood screws 12.5mm, and two brass countersunk No 6 40mm." So read the BSAC manual in 1983.
You would also need some marine varnish, a jigsaw, a drill and a certain amount of woodworking skill, plus some Band-Aids. Today you can buy a winder reel from a shop and spend your long winter evenings doing something more entertaining.
We counted nearly 30 proprietary reels currently on the market and, discounting those that are the same item with different branding, or the same reel with differing spool sizes, that still equates to a choice of at least 15 different designs.
The classic BSAC-designed reel was made with the permanently deployed surface marker buoy in mind. Constructed of wood, it floated. This meant that you needed to attach it to your person by means of a lanyard and karabiner. It floated up out of the way as you swam and needed to be located only if you decided to change your depth during the dive or when you made your ascent. This was fine for square-profile drift dives.
Today we find that negatively buoyant reels are more useful, because you can put them down without losing them. This is important when it comes to using a bottom-winder on a wreck or in a cave. As Theseus from Greek mythology used his ball of string to enter the Labyrinth, slay the Minotaur and retrace his steps to safety, so bottom-winders are used to lay a line to mark your way back.
You have to belay a bottom line by tying it off and looping it around convenient points every few metres, so that loose line does not itself become a hazard, especially to fellow-divers, when visibility is reduced.
Negatively buoyant reels are also easier to handle when deploying a surface marker buoy some time into a dive, either to signal to the cover boat that a diver has left the site (such as a wreck) or simply to use as a guideline for making a slow ascent including decompression stops, or both.
It is not thought a good idea to clip a winder reel to yourself at this time, in case things fail to go according to plan and you get entangled and dragged up with the ascending buoy.
All the reels covered here are negatively buoyant, but some more so than others. You certainly need a reel with a little bit of weight so that it drops out of the way while you attend to inflating the SMB. We weighed each reel with the line supplied while immersed in sea water.
Wally Lumb was probably the first to manufacture an SMB reel for sale. He followed the BSAC pattern but used aluminium. "It didn't corrode as long as it didn't get scratched," he told me, "but you needed muscles to lift it." He was put out of that market when McMahon Engineering brought out the same thing in plastic.
If you want the closest thing to the BSAC design, but in negatively buoyant ABS and polypropylene, the current (1) MCMAHON LARGE REEL (100g, recommended retail price £40, Tandem Trading) is it.
It's big and it's bulky but it works. Its 15cm diameter bobbin takes 50m of heavyweight line without appearing even to be beginning to fill. Its coil-sprung ratchet lever and chunky winder knob are easy to use with the heaviest mitts.
It is British-made and I've used one for years without a single freshwater rinse, but its marine-grade stainless steel bolts and fittings show no signs of deterioration. Heavyweight line is nicer to handle, especially with gloveless hands softened by long immersion in water. The only problem is that this model is really only for use with a permanently deployed SMB.
If you want one that can be stashed away in a large BC pocket or clipped to a D-ring for when you want it, you need something the size of the (2) MCMAHON COMPACT REEL (30g, £43), with its 50m of lighter-weight line that feeds through a movable guide and almost fills its 7.5cm diameter bobbin.
Good ideas are always imitated, and you can get a cheaper version of the McMahon Compact that has a more Oriental feel about it. One such is from (3) SUBMERGE (30g, £32), another from (4) LUMB BROS (25g, £30). The latter has the imaginative name "Diver's Reel".
Neither is as well made as the original, and both these cheaper versions have wishbone springs to their ratchet arms. These are likely to need replacing more often and are harder to get at.
With so many products manufactured in faraway places and then badge-engineered in the country of sale, it is inevitable that you will encounter identical products with different labels - and often different prices.
One such small reel is sold with the (5) OCEANIC brand (125g, £29), which is identical to a (6) NORTHERN DIVER SMALL REEL (125g, £35). These both carry 50m of slightly heavier-weight plaited line on a similar 7.5cm diameter bobbin.
They have long winder handles and stainless-steel line-guides, a spring-clip for attaching to a convenient D-ring and an open coil-sprung ratchet. Neither, however, has the solid feel to the plastic of the original British-made McMahon product.
If 50m is not enough line for you, (7) OCEANIC (235g, £33) or Northern Diver (£40) can supply a larger version with 80m of heavy plaited line on a 10cm diameter drum.
This is duplicated in every way by the (8) BEAVER OSPREY WRECK REEL (£33), except that the latter has a tiddly winder knob instead of the easily gripped long winder handle used on the others.
Another reel that has been available to British divers for a long time and was one of the first you could buy ready-made and without fear of getting wood-splinters in your hand comes from British manufacturer MGE of Burnham, Bucks.
Its current design is much improved over the original in that the handle of the substantial plastic frame is now ribbed, there is a sprung-loaded locking pin with the option of ratchet operation and the 10cm bobbin has around 50m of line, fed through a stainless-steel guide to a plastic karabiner. The (9) LUMB BROS MGE REEL (180g, £38 or £45 with ratchet) has been a dive-shop favourite for almost 20 years.
The (10) BEAVER KINGFISHER (110g, £35) combines features from the long-tried and tested (British) MGE reel design with some of those of the imported (Italian) Beaver Osprey Wreck Reel. It has the substantial bobbin style of the MGE and the open ratchet of the Osprey.
The line is equipped with a karabiner, and the winder frame has a spring-clip for attaching to a D-ring.
Perhaps the most seriously engineered reel listed here is from Custom Divers, a company that has specialised in supplying technical divers with all sorts of kit that is robust if not lightweight.
It is no surprise that it is also one of the most expensive (325g, £79). The (11) CDR50C RATCHET REEL is massively made from high-grade black PVC with stainless-steel fittings and carries 50m of heavyweight yellow, pink or white line. Its drum is 10cm in diameter and a bigger version takes 125m of line.
This reel is very smooth to operate and the totally concealed ratchet is controlled by a spring-loaded knob. A precision-made piece of kit, lose this over the side of the boat and it'll ruin your day!
The (12) BUDDY POCKET REEL from AP Valves (35g, £39) is equally satisfying to own, albeit for a different reason. It has no frame and its 7cm diameter bobbin is enclosed within a plastic outer shell. Admiring divers might approach and ask you about your Custom Divers reel, but will be unaware that you are even carrying a Buddy Pocket Reel until you pull it out from its hiding place and deploy it.
That's the point of the bobbin enclosing the line. The line cannot tangle and the wound-in end-loop is easily found thanks to a marker O-ring. It comes with a substantial lanyard - how else would you keep hold of it?
It has 45m of line, and offers the option of a detent that is either spring-loaded or not. Some people prefer a reel that's free to spin when deploying a buoy, while others prefer to be able to let the drum spin freely only when they release it.
The idea of the Pocket Reel is that you keep it with you at all times in a BC pocket so that you never get caught out when you unexpectedly find you need a bottom or SMB line during a dive.
The reel is so compact that you could afford to carry a couple and join their lines if you needed more distance, and at the same time you are freed of the danglies. Like all Buddy kit, the Pocket Reel has been extensively tested by its manufacturer and works.
Cave divers, with their appetite for guidelines and safety lines, were the first to demand a winder reel smaller than that of the traditional BSAC wooden design. They also wanted one that they could put down without it floating above them where they couldn't find it, and they needed to be able to carry several.
Lamar Hires, a pioneering American cave and technical diver, started his company DiveRite to provide diving products that were not then available from mainstream manufacturers.
DiveRite has since provided the generic designs for much technical diving equipment and its reels (and their imitators) are almost standard issue within that fraternity. Each has a one-piece polycarbonate bobbin mounted on a stainless-steel frame and handle. These are designed to mate with other DiveRite products such as the DiveRite MLS light head. They come with a stainless steel spring clip for attaching to a D-ring of a BC.
The (13) PRIMARY REEL (345g, £78) has a bobbin of 9.5cm diameter that will carry either 120m or 76m of line, depending on the gauge. All of these DiveRite reels have an adjustable drag effect brought about by a bolt that can be adjusted to bear down on a lightweight metal disc at the side of the drum.
The Primary Reel is also available with the wound line totally enclosed on the drum (as illustrated, 320g, £111), which prevents bird's-nesting if line is allowed to run out of control.
The (14) DIVERITE SAFETY REEL (275g, £52) is a mini version of the Primary Reel with a 7.5cm diameter drum. It carries either 43m or 27m of line, according to gauge.
The (15) JUMP/GAP REEL (170g, £42) has the same frame as the Safety Reel but a narrower 7.5cm diameter drum and no handle. It carries only 15m of line but has a specialised application in that it is intended to be used to spur from a main bottom line that has previously been laid. Its locking bolt bears down onto the rim of the bobbin.
DiveRite reels are normally sold with low-profile winder knobs that avoid entanglement. These can, however, be quite tiring to use when the time comes to wind in a lot of line. DiveRite offers the option of a larger "coldwater" knob.
Superficially similar but more competitively priced, the (16) BEAVER SWAN (340g, £36) and (17) NORTHERN DIVER LARGE METAL WRECK REEL (340g, £35) have a 10cm bobbin, while the (18) BEAVER MINI WRECK REEL (225g, £32), and identical Northern Diver Metal Wreck Reel (225g, £25) have 7.5cm plastic bobbins. They appear to use what looks like an anodised aluminium frame and handle with stainless-steel fittings which, though well constructed, can lead to corrosion through the electrolysis between the different metals if the anodised layer gets damaged.
These reels need to be rinsed after use in the sea and left somewhere well-ventilated to dry. Unlike some other magazines, we avoid the "test-at-the-desk", but one member of Diver's editorial staff managed to snap off the nylon locking bolt from one of these reels while merely browsing, which does not auger well for use by gloved hands, numb with the cold.
We were also amused to find that the big plastic knob on the bobbin axle appeared to do nothing but obstruct the user from getting a good grip on the winder knob.
DiveRite US-made reels might be made from the highest-quality materials but, in common with their cheaper imitators, they concede little or nothing to the comfort of the diver who might be using them.
The (19) UWR TECH REEL avoids the corrosion problems encountered when using mixed metals in a saltwater environment. It is made entirely from 316 stainless steel - a fact which is reflected in its price (350g, £79).
Its 50m of nylon line can be deployed by allowing the reel to spin freely and its built-in (nylon) ratchet can be used to make winding-in less of a chore simply by making a half-turn on the appropriate knob.
Having two winder knobs on the drum does nothing to make the job of winding in the line easier, however, and I would have preferred a single meatier knob for my poor, weak finger and thumb to grip.
However, one advantage for those slob divers among us is that no maintenance whatsoever is needed!
The (20) MANTA REEL G5 (330g, Lumb Bros around £78) has a frame and handle made from welded stainless-steel rod and a 9.5cm nylon drum with 57m of plaited nylon line. A bolt with a large knurled knob bears down on the smooth side of the drum either to lock it or apply a brake by friction.
The (21) BEAVER CONDOR (710g, £69) looks as substantial as a galvanised shovel. It's not the sort of thing you could stow in a BC pocket, nor would you want to dangle it from a D-ring in case it swung and caused a nasty bruise. It has all the simplicity of a shovel, too.
Its 11cm diameter heavy-gauge metal drum carries more than 80m of line and is mounted on a frame and handle that is even more unbreakable. There is no ratchet. The large knurled knob serves merely to take the skin off your fingers or wear out your gloves as you turn the winder knob.
It's the sort of thing you might find mounted at a stern rail and used to trail a ship's log. Don't get into any end-of-jetty discussions with anyone armed with one of these. It could be lethal!
To conclude our comparison test we left each reel, after its immersion in sea water, in an oxygen-rich environment for three days without rinsing. We then examined each for signs of deterioration by rust. There was none apparent in any of them, except that the brass-plated karabiners, where supplied, were starting to show the first signs of corrosion.
- AP Valves 01326 561040, www.apvalves.com
- Beaver 01484 512354, www.beaversports.co.uk
- Custom Divers 01737 773000, www.customdivers.com
- Lumb Bros 0161 681 5790
- Northern Diver 01257 254444, www.ndiver.com
- Oceanic 01404 891819, www.oceanicworldwide.com
- SEA & SEA (DiveRite) 01803 663012, www.dive-team.com
- Submerge 01484 310130
- Tandem trading (McMahon) 01249 6518