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March 2007 Vol. 22, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Morning Star, Blackbeard's Cruises, The Bahamas

frills-free liveaboard camping on the Caribbean

from the March, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Reader:

Theyll tell you when you book that its camping on the water, but thats exactly what I was looking for. I owed my 12-year-old son, Kyle, a week-long camping trip he had been waiting all year for. Why not combine it with a dive package costing only $900 each for the week? Kyle could complete the junior open water certification by doing the final two dives on the cruise.

Morning Star, Blackbeard’s Cruises, The Bahamas

Cruising the Bahamas in not-so-balmy weather

Our flight arrived in Freeport, Grand Bahamas Island, just two hours before the boats 3:00 p.m. departure, which was a bit of a risky strategy. Blackbeards once operated out of West Palm Beach but shifted their base to Freeport last year to avoid the overnight Gulf Stream crossing and long waits for Bahamian customs clearance in Bimini. Our taxi driver knew exactly where to go and got us there for a $20 fare. A crewmember escorted us aboard the 65-foot, schooner-rigged sloop Morning Star. Once we were aboard, we were told to drop our personal gear and get our dive gear rigged up on the tanks. We then reported to the divemaster for check-in at the main salon where we surrendered our certification cards and were interviewed about dive experience and medical issues. Only then did we get shown to our quarters. Later, we found out about the welcome lunch served up at Blackbeards headquarters -- and thats only because we stumbled across it when we used the bathrooms there prior to departure. It would have been nice if the crew had told us about it either at booking time or after arrival. Since we were one of the last parties to check in, we got cold burgers and dogs.

Morning Star, Blackbeard’s Cruises, The BahamasOur lines were dropped about 3:15 p.m., and to my delight the crew announced we would make a twilight dive and a night dive before moving to our evening mooring. These guys were serious about getting our dives done, a theme that continued throughout the cruise even in circumstances that could have been used as excuses to skip dives.

After a short review and dive plan, Kyle was led by an instructor down to 40 feet on the twilight dive to run through his skills. His final open-water certification dive was completed on day two, and then we finally could enjoy dives together. Blackbeards website stated $15 for each referral dive, but the instructor charged double. I didnt contest the price since I didnt have the brochure in my hand, so I let the overcharge be part of his tip for the week. Once we were at sea, the crew told me they had no PADI forms or temporary certification cards, and that I would need to work with my dive shop back home. Trouble is, PADIs policy states that the dive operation doing the final certification dive is responsible for signing off the diver and sending in the application. Fortunately, Kyle eventually did receive his permanent PADI card after my dive shop agreed to submit the final paperwork and work it out with PADI. I think Blackbeards needs to get this right.

There are three sleeping compartments separated by bulkheads -- the main salon, forward section and the bow (crew quarters are aft). Each compartment has its own compact head with a marine toilet and sink. The heads are manually operated and a bit cranky, so the engineer was often unclogging and repairing them. Kyle and I shared berth number 3, upper and lower single bunks on the forward port side. I took the lower bunk since it was wider and no climbing was required, and a curtain created the illusion of a private cabin. I had a strip of floor about 18 inches wide next to my bunk in which I and Kyle had to maneuver to get dressed or undressed. Four brave souls brought their significant others along, and I cannot help but wonder if the ladies are still on speaking terms with the guys for having talked them into this cruise.

However, one couple did get engaged during the trip. On Thanksgiving Day, the groom-to-be gave the ring to a crewman, who dove to the bottom of the mooring line and attached the ring before any guests entered the water. Toward the end of the dive, the suitor carried his lady to the mooring line, retrieved the ring and proposed on bended knee on the sandy bottom. The answer was yes.

The drone of the generator could be heard in our compartment, but not loud enough to notice. There is a single cramped shower stall for 28 guests, but mercifully there were only 16 of us. I had unlimited warm salt water to soap and scrub with, then 30 seconds (by honor system) of warm fresh water to rinse off with. The Morning Star was kept clean enough for an older, well-worn boat.

Our capable skipper, Grayson Miller, did a masterful job of getting us to three or four dive sites per day. Cold gale-force winds for the last three days of the trip forced him to hug the lee shore of Grand Bahama Island but because it has more than 60 interesting dive sites, Miller made sure we ranged from one end of the island to the other. The boat was unable to make the customary trips to Bimini or the Berry Islands, but no one complained -- we had 18 available dives in five full diving days, plus two dives on our first day. Even when a weld gave out on the generator bracket causing a run back to base for repairs, no dives were lost.

The energetic eight-person crew was all American, no one more than 30 years old. Sailing opportunities on the Morning Star were limited due to heavy weather, but they did hoist the jib and main a few times. Otherwise, we were under motor power most of the time. While under sail in strong winds, the deck anchor for the jib downhaul gave way, almost sending the first mate overboard, but the crew recovered quickly and professionally and no one was injured. The incident put an end to our sailing sessions, but given the heavy weather conditions, no one complained.

The crew let me dive my own profile, and there were never time limits. They filled our tanks to 3200 psi and paid good attention to safety by using an in/out nametag system and ensuring one of the crew was deck commander on all dives. They made sure I didnt take Kyle past his recommended 40- foot maximum depth. On a couple of occasions when dives were planned for 60-foot depths, the divemaster consulted with the first mate or skipper to determine whether Kyle should dive. In both cases, the answer was no, but I appreciated their erring on the side of safety rather than giving us the green light to dive in a marginal situation.

All dives were made while the boat was either moored or anchored; the two Zodiacs were never used for diving. There were no drift dives, probably because there was little to no current, even while gale-force conditions raged on the surface. All my exits were giant strides and I reboarded via the wide ladder at the stern, which I appreciated since Im on the older, heavier side. I never had to change my tanks; I just removed my first stage after each dive and the crew attached the refill hose. One annoyance is that due to the packed spacing of the tank wells, there was no way for two divers to sit side by side on a gear bench unless they were both very compact.

All meals were served buffet style, and we could either eat at the table in the main salon that seated 10 guests or dine alfresco topside on cushionless gear benches with my plate in my lap. Meals were basic meat-and-potatoes cuisine and decidedly non-gourmet (eggs, ham and pancakes for breakfast; sandwiches for lunch; pork chops and spaghetti for dinner), but I wasnt upset since I wasnt paying gourmet rates. Hot breakfast items were cooked too long before serving time so the eggs were cold by the time I reached them. There was a fully stocked fruit bar and fixings for PBJ sandwiches available at any hour. Coffee was brewed every morning and after the tank ran dry, instant coffee (oh well) and hot chocolate were served. Cold milk was available from the fridge. A self-service soda gun produced way-too-watery Diet Coke. All beverages were included at no additional charge, but unfortunately no beer was to be had due to malfunctions. However, the rum punch was put in a cooler on deck every evening as advertised.

On Thanksgiving Day, while Katie the rookie chef prepared her first-ever Thanksgiving feast in a cramped galley, the crew tied up at Shark Junction and began chumming to draw the Caribbean reef sharks. Kyle and I descended via the mooring line to the wreck of a small boat with twin screws, belly up in the sand. A small Southern stingray lounged near the wreck as we settled just above the sandy bottom. Since Kyle had never seen a shark, I led him toward the stern and within minutes two reef sharks appeared. One swam a wide 360-degree around us while we pirouetted to keep an eye on him. Kyle pulled my hand close to his chest as he tightened up with anxiety, but then relaxed once he realized the sharks werent going to bother us. We returned in time for Katies magnificent dinner -- roasted turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.

On a typical day I would dive just after breakfast, twice more in the afternoon, and take a night dive after dinner. There was usually at least one wreck dive per day. Depths ranged from 25 feet at night to 80 feet in the morning, but there were no wall or shark dives because the heavy weather kept us from these sites. The waters were still a warm 80 degrees and visibility ranged from 30 to 80 feet. There were always enough critters to make it enjoyable for Kyle, but the scarcity of fish was striking. The waters have been badly overfished and the coral was overgrown with algae.

Besides the sharks, the only major marine life I saw was loggerhead turtles and small stingray. Despite the lack of fish, guests were encouraged to go fishing with the boats equipment. Any edible fish were dressed and sent to the galley, and inedible fish were kept in a chum bucket to help draw sharks at certain dive sites. One tuna was caught by Mike, a chef on previous cruises now training to be first mate, who prepared some delightful sushi. During one surface interval, the boat motored toward shore to give us a chance to do some spear fishing with Hawaiian slings. Unfortunately, we were anchored in about 18 feet of water to keep the keel clear of the reef. The fish were so deep that the average snorkeler had no realistic chance of spearing anything, much less view any coral tops. While it was an entertaining and welcome diversion, not a single fish was brought aboard from spear fishing, which, with so few fish in these waters already, perhaps was a good thing.

One of my least-favorite dives took place when my buddy, a fellow guest, noticed a yellow fishing line that had been snagged on the reef and abandoned. He decided to make it a mission to retrieve the line that snaked across a considerable expanse of reef, at least 300 feet. I had no choice but to tag along and help my buddy. It didnt make for very interesting bottom time, although accomplishing the pro-environmental mission somewhat made up for the inconvenience.

Daytime temperatures only reached into the high sixties, 11 degrees below normal. Between dives, I taught Kyle poker in the main salon. One time I went to tend to my dive gear and came back 30 minutes later to find him in the middle of high-stakes Texas Hold Em with three grownup guests. Fortunately, he was playing with chips and not his allowance money. On one stormy night mid-trip, we docked in a little-used ship channel cut. The crew and guests scrounged up driftwood and had a roaring bonfire, while the rum punch flowed as freely as the diving and sailing stories. The next night, we motored downwind to the eastern end of Grand Bahama Island, and I watched shooting stars from the Leonid meteor shower streaking across the bow.

The final dive was at Tiny Ts, named for the shallow wreck of a small towing vessel sitting upright with an easily penetrable bridge and two engines lying in the sand nearby. It was fun to hover over the sand and watch yellow-headed jarfish duck butt-first into their burrows, then emerge and spit sand from their excavations. Further on, we found a meadow of hundreds of garden eels, shyly ducking in waves back into their holes as we approached. Kyle and I spent an hour on this dive and no one fussed at us for keeping everyone waiting.

With our diving complete, we returned to Port Lucaya for the final night on board but I had booked a room in advance at the Port Lucaya Resort & Yacht Club (adjacent to our dock), figuring that a room with a shower and bed would be welcome after five days and nights on the water.

Blackbeards is ideal for those who lack a big budget but want a lot of dives, three squares a day, some sailing, and dont care about comfort or privacy. Its not ideal for snorkelers since the boat was usually moored a half-mile offshore in at least 15 feet of water, with very few coral tops nearby. Vets used to the standards of military training will have no problem with close quarters, while those who like some space and pampering will be sorely disappointed. And dont count on any amorous activities. But this is indeed the right adventure trip for the truly young at heart.

--E.W.R.

Morning Star, Blackbeard’s Cruises, The BahamasDivers Compass: Most domestic flights to Freeport make a quick stop in Miami, but AirTran has direct flights from Atlanta for under $100, and from Baltimore for $149 ... Some guests had arrived the day prior by the ship Discovery that sails twice daily between Freeport and West Palm Beach, takes four hours each way and costs $110 ... All-inclusive week-long trips are $899/person, plus a $40 port tax and a $10 National Park fee, good for one year ... Nitrox is not offered ... Bluebeards allows lobstering although Bahamian law requires free-diving catches only; the season runs September 1 to March 31 ... The main salon had a TV, DVD player and a decent stock of movies and books, and there was at least one movie going every evening before lights out at 10 p.m ... Web site: www.blackbeard-cruises.com

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