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April 2005 Vol. 20, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Wave Dancer Tragedy

— Belize releases its final report

from the April, 2005 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The tragic loss of twenty lives on October 8, 2001, when Peter Hughes’ Wave Dancer capsized while moored in Big Creek, Belize, during Hurricane Iris, will long be remembered by divers. Both the Wave Dancer and the Belize Aggressor sought shelter from the hurricane by motoring a mile upstream to the Port of Big Creek, about 75 miles south of Belize City. During the night, the full force of Hurricane Iris’ 150-mph winds struck the port. The Wave Dancer broke away from its moorings, colliding with the Aggressor before capsizing. Seventeen divers from the Richmond, Virginia, dive club and three crew members died, while three guests and five crew members survived.

In January, more than three years after the accident, the International Merchant Marine Registry of Belize (IMMARBE) The Wave Dancer Tragedy — Belize releases its final report published findings of their official investigation. The report was delayed, they said, in part because the Wave Dancer’s insurers commenced legal proceedings against the Belize Aggressor III alleging that the collision between the two vessels was the fault of the Aggressor.

While some of the circumstances of the accident remain a mystery, a few key points of the report follow.

A Horrifying Scene

The chilling accounts of the survivors and the report’s findings evoke a terrifying picture of the disaster: “Due to the very short time between the vessel breaking free from the dock and rolling over, those guests who were still in the salon were thrown from the starboard to the port side. Due to the element of surprise, disorientation and flooding coupled with a sensation of entrapment, death as the result of asphyxiation due to drowning would have ensued in less than two minutes.” Divemaster Bart Stanley noted that guests in the salon “were thrown violently.” Many of the deceased had head injuries.

Stanley was trapped, but thanks to his knowledge of the boat, he swam out, exiting from the “starboard exit door facing the wheelhouse.” He dived back down to try to open the salon door, but couldn’t. Head diving instructor Thomas Baechtold stated that after the vessel capsized, he “came out near the propellers, which were moving. I was blown out of the water by a tornado-like gust onto the mangrove,” about 100 meters.

When 2nd Captain Wouters felt the mooring rope break, he raced to the wheelhouse and tried to gain control of the ship. “The vessel was free and out of control. I made a futile attempt to obtain some sort of control with the engines, but to no avail. . . I then felt that we had gone aground and had heeled to port, which accelerated into capsizing the vessel. I found myself . . . still in the wheelhouse under water. I swam through the wheelhouse door.”

After the boat rolled over, the life rafts were afloat but still attached to the boat. Captain Philip Martin ordered several people into the life rafts and pushed them clear of the boat. He then swam across the 400-ft. channel to the Aggressor, took their tender, and returned to the Wave Dancer. Meanwhile, 2nd Captain Wouters, who was on a life raft, started banging on the hull and yelling to get a response from anyone trapped inside. He quickly helped three survivors into the life raft.

Report Findings

IMMARBE noted that the Wave Dancer was adequately manned with a qualified crew, though neither the Captain nor 2nd Captain had significant experience sailing in Belizean waters during hurricane season. Hughes had hired Martin in February, 2001, then promoted him to captain in May. This was the first commercial vessel he had commanded.

Friday, October 5, Captain Martin received clear instructions by phone and e-mail from Peter Hughes Diving to monitor the storm. The Wave Dancer departed port the following day, October 6, and headed for Lighthouse Reef. The report finds that Martin failed to follow the boat’s Hurricane Plan, which required him to contact the shore managers and monitor the storm. According to the report, “neither the Captain nor the 2nd Captain listened to the local Belize radio stations themselves and were apparently satisfied with receiving morsels of such information from their catering staff.”

The next day, Sunday, October 7, with Hurricane Iris headed toward Belize, Martin decided to remain at Lighthouse Reef, a decision based on his mistaken belief that Iris’ landfall was still projected for the northern Yucatan. Wouters said that he told Martin “it was best to go to Belize City immediately. I attempted to persuade him that we could drop off the passengers at a hotel and we could take the boat to an area deep in the mangrove with just a skeleton crew. He rejected the idea. I returned twice more. Each time the discussion became more heated until we were both shouting. This is the argument I believe several other people heard.”

“ ... voting by guests is nothing more than an indication
of their preferences, but no means by which a Captain
arrives at his decision with regard to safety matters.”

The report faults Martin’s decision, noting that his passengers should have had the opportunity to get off the boat, part of the boat’s Hurricane Plan. Martin had polled the guests, but the report notes that their view “could not have been based on any better knowledge of the weather situation than that which the Captain and/or 2nd Captain possessed . . . furthermore, voting by guests is nothing more than an indication of their preferences, but no means by which a Captain arrives at his decision with regard to safety matters.” With the storm approaching, the only alternative then was to steam to Big Creek, where he tied the boat alongside the Aggressor.

The guests remained on board at Big Creek rather than seeking shelter on shore. While the Hurricane Plan stated “where possible disembark guests,” the report says that the decision “was a considered one . . . in our view, both remaining onboard the Wave Dancer as well as moving to the shore entailed risks . . . “ But it does note that none of the local residents who took refuge in the local bank building was injured.

The report also dismisses the rumors that there had been excessive drinking by passengers or crew. But it does note that Martin failed to supply guests with, among other things, flashlights, and to instruct them to remain with life jackets and remain on the floor in accordance with the plan.” And, “despite the extreme weather conditions, the Captain failed to order the engines to be started and for the wheelhouse to be manned either by himself or the 2nd Captain.”

The report raises questions about how the boat was positioned when moored, with the bow extending 30 feet past the dock, “exposing the section of the vessel to the hurricane winds,” and how the mix of nylon and polypropylene mooring lines may have contributed to the disaster. (Because polypropylene stretches more than nylon, the nylon alone had to bear the entire strain, which suggests that the polypropylene was useless.) However, it concluded that the extreme weather conditions and “tornado-like gusts” prevailing at storm’s peak were the chief cause of the loss of the Wave Dancer.

Captain Philip Martin’s status is under further review, though he is currently banned from serving on any vessel registered in Belize. Second Captain Frank Wouters is banned from serving on any vessel registered in Belize for five years.

Recommendations

The report issued a list of recommendations intended to prevent future tragedies:

* passenger-carrying recreational craft operating in Belizean waters should return to port whenever a hurricane watch is issued;

* every live-aboard passenger vessel operating in Belize should have at least one navigating officer with experience navigating Belizean waters;

* vessels not use mixed mooring ropes, opting instead for all polypropylene or all nylon;

* Belizean nationals serving on live-aboard passenger vessels have written employment contracts to provide the right to disembark in case of a hurricane as well as providing insurance if there is death or injury. (Belizean crew members on Wave Dancer had no contracts and were allegedly told they would lose their jobs if they disembarked before the storm. One crew member did opt to leave and survived the storm.)

Editor’s comments:

We addressed our concerns about live-aboard safety in articles in May and June, 2003. Those articles are available on our website to online members. The complete Belize report is available free at Undercurrent.

P.S.: DAN insurance covered none of the deceased divers. The tragedy was not a diving accident. Hughes was insured for only $5,000,000, and after raising the Wave Dancer, less than $4,000,000 was distributed among the relatives of the twenty dead.

And one important thing to keep in mind: when a serious issue of safety comes smack up against your desire to get in one more dive, let safety rule. Support the captain who makes the call.

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