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May 2003 Vol. 18, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Is Your Liveaboard Trip Aboard a Safe Vessel? Part I

what the experts discovered about the Wave Dancer

from the May, 2003 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

When the Wave Dancer capsized in Belize in October 2001, 17 divers and three crew members died. Only the captain and two other crew members survived.

The divers aboard were, no doubt, certain they were in good hands. The Wave Dancer was a member of a luxurious fleet of boats, where hot towels after every dive were just one of the many amenities. They paid top dollar, they got top service, and they expected the best.

When the captain tied up in the Big Creek hurricane hole to ride out Hurricane Iris, they were certainly not looking forward to riding out the severe weather. At the same time, one can only surmise that they believed they were aboard a seaworthy vessel -- fully capable of riding out the worst weather -- and in the hands of a competent captain who knew what he had to do in the midst of a hurricane and did it. If you have ever been aboard a Hughes boat, an Aggressor, or any other number of top-of-the-line liveaboards, most likely you felt the same way.

Was your trust well placed?

As part of a lawsuit (since settled) against Peter Hughes Diving by the family of a deceased crew member, the craft was inspected by Hector V. Pazos, P.E., a naval architect and marine engineer and president of Ocean-Oil International Corp. This is a marine accident investigation service with offices in Palm Harbor, FL, and New Orleans. Some of the Dancer had already been salvaged by the Dancer's insurance company.

Pazos' post mortem report reads like a laundry list of things that could go wrong on a liveaboard ... and, in this case, did. The following are excerpts from his report. He conducted his examination two weeks after the sinking.

In the steering compartment, "there are 14 inches of liquids and mud indicating that the bulkhead is watertight. ... The bitt that was pulled out of the vessel's port side was 'sitting' on a horizontal aluminum bracket ... indicating a bad welding or no welding at all between the bitt and the horizontal bracket. ... There were several loose items such as large batteries, paint buckets, and miscellaneous items, and substantial mud, indicating that the hatch(es) were either open or they became opened during the capsizing."

The space forward of the steering compartment "was dry, hence the watertight bulkheads are okay ... almost no mud, indicating that the manhole covers were secured."

In the engine room, "several large pieces of equipment were NOT secured (welded or bolted) and are in disarray, indicating that most of these items ended up on the underside of the deck during the capsizing. The loose equipment would have contributed to the capsizing by increasing the eccentricity of the transversal center of gravity. ... The water maker was found loose just under the main deck at centerline. The water maker pump is loose against starboard side. The air compressors are loose close to centerline. The nitrox compressors are loose. Many spare parts and some spare pumps are displaced from their original location. The floor plates are all displaced. ... It appears that the intake louvers were not covered by [hurricane panels] because the engines were running and because there is substantial mud in the engine room, which may have entered the engine room through the intake and exhaust louvers. Also, mud in the engine room may have entered through the starboard escape hatch in which the dog [a device to fasten it] is missing. The hurricane panels found in the storage rack have no rubber gaskets."

In the laundry room, "there are several pieces of equipment missing (most probably removed by salvors), with their foundations and/or retaining plates indicating that the missing equipment was not secured: i.e., two freezers, two washing machines, one clothes dryer, and several loose pumps. All this loose equipment may have contributed to the 180-degree capsizing capsizing by leaving their retaining plates and sliding to one side creating a transversal shift of the center of gravity. ... There was substantial mud in the laundry room indicating that the louvers for the air condition equipment had no hurricane panels, but also indicates that the watertight door used to access the laundry room from the main deck was most probably open or became open because it has only one dog."

In the under-deck passenger quarters "there is a substantial amount of mud throughout the under-deck passenger quarters, which indicates that the watertight door separating the laundry room from the under-deck passenger quarters was open, and the mud that entered the laundry room also flowed to the under-deck quarters."

"All this loose equipment may have contributed
to the 180-degree capsizing by leaving their
retaining plates and sliding to one side creating
a shift of the center of gravity."

In the crew quarters under the main deck, "there is an escape hatch in the aft-port state room, located on the main deck without means to climb to the escape hatch from the crew quarters. The hatch was apparently covered by carpets of the main deck, making it difficult or impossible to open it even if a means to reach the hatch existed. ... This is an infringement of USCG Rules which require two means of escape." [Note: the boat was flagged in Belize and did not operate under USCG rules.]

Above the main deck, "there are two 20" x 20" one dog square hatches to access the steering compartment, which were most probably not secured during the capsizing. ... There are two engine room escape hatches which are: single dog type and have 20" x 20" x 10 3/4" coamings, but the dog of the starboard hatch is missing. Hence, most probably was open during the capsizing. ... The access door to the laundry room is a two-dog door, but has one dog missing. ... The access door to the centerline passageway in the main cabin is a light, nonwatertight type door (has no dogs). ... The emergency sliding door, just forward of midship on the starboard side of the main deck has a ... latch system [that] is extremely light and is activated by gravity."

"The gaskets in all watertight doors were either damaged (had gaps), or were overcompressed. ... The vessel had several appliances (refrigerators, ovens, etc.) that were distributed at several locations (pilothouse, galley, main deck, under deck, etc.), which apparently had no means of restraint or securing fittings, and therefore most probably were dislocated during the listing of the vessel creating a shift of the transversal center of gravity, and therefore accelerating the 180-degree capsizing. ... There was a second anchor on board, located under the skiff, close to the stern. This second anchor should be in the Peter Hughes Warehouse in Belize. It should be noted that the fact of the existence of the second anchor is important because, having two anchors available, the Wave Dancer should have been positioned some 20 to 30 feet away from the dock, using one anchor forward-starboard and the second anchor aft-starboard. This would have allowed the necessary elasticity of the port mooring lines secured to the dock bollards and pile, and therefore permit the vessel to move up with the storm tide.

"The lack of flexibility of the mooring lines resulted in the failure of the aft-port bitt, an event which initiated the sequence of events that ended with the capsizing."

To generalize from the surveyor's comments, it seems apparent that the integrity of the craft was not ship shape. Second, a whole host of items were not bolted down. Third, the captain failed to prepare the boat properly to ride out a hurricane. Fourth, the Wave Dancer shouldn't have been tied to the dock, but anchored.

We asked Peter Hughes to comment on the report, and this is what he wrote us.

"We are not certain that all litigation relative to the Wave Dancer tragedy has been concluded and consequently have been advised by our counsel not to engage in a lengthy debate about the merits of one surveyor's opinion over another in the press. We wish to note that Mr. Pazos' opinions were given in a litigation context: he was the 'expert' hired by certain claimants to try to think of ways in which it could be asserted in court that the vessel was unfit for her intended purpose. With the settlement of the claims, Mr. Pazos' opinions, which in many respects are faulty and based on erroneous assumptions about the circumstances surrounding the accident, will never be the subject of cross-examination in a court of law. No court has accepted or endorsed the views expressed by this litigation 'expert,' whom I assume was paid handsomely for his 'work.'

"We live everyday with the tragedy of the Wave Dancer. However, Mr. Pazos' views notwithstanding, we know that at the time of the accident the vessel was tight, staunch, strong, and seaworthy in all respects and that the accident occurred without the fault of the vessel, its operator, owner, or crew."

Peter Hughes' fleet is one of the more well-regarded liveaboard operations in the world, yet 20 people died aboard the Wave Dancer. With all the attention to details of service, all but the most experienced ocean travelers would have to assume they were in safe hands. After reviewing the surveyor's report, we speculated about what a traveling diver might do to ensure that the liveaboards he selects will get him through the worst of circumstances. While we weren't especially encouraged with some things we found out, we do have important tips coming in the next issue.

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