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October 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 27, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Maiden Voyage on a New Dive Boat? Forget It

especially if you want Nitrox and air conditioning

from the October, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

If you get a special e-mail from a liveaboard fleet advertising exclusive, discounted rates for a new boat or a boat being moved to new waters, just hit delete. Over the years, we have received endless complaints from divers eager to jump on something new, only to find that the boat sailed without the required dry dock work being completed, or the crew is new to the area, or Nitrox has not been installed, or rain pours through the roof -- and so on.

Case in point is the Carib Dancer, formerly the Cayman Aggressor, which made its debut in May with trips to the Bahamas' Exuma Cays. Michael Joest (Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany) was on the fully booked maiden voyage and says, "The AC didnt work well the first few days, so I preferred to sleep on deck. There sometimes was a strange smell coming out of the heads, but they managed to get rid of that with bleach, the Nitrox compressor didnt work, so no chance on N-dives. The welcome and information on how to handle things was a bit short, 'what if' procedures were mentioned in 10 seconds only, nobody wanted to look at my log book or c-card, which I found a bit strange. All guys working on the boat seemed to be only slowly getting used to their jobs again. The food was three-star, but they offered gluten-free stuff for me. It was a maiden cruise, so naturally all kind of problems appear out of nowhere, which I had no problems with."

But other divers aren't as laid back as Joest, and they expect more for their money. Ellen Rierson (Grand Cayman) went on a late June trip and says, "We all believed there would have been plenty of time to work out the 'kinks' prior to our charter, since there were nine charters before ours. We were wrong. Aggressor posted Facebook updates with photos of a shiny 'new' boat and reports of many new items and enhancements. Unfortunately, it appeared that most of what was done was merely cosmetic. The boat already seemed tired and worn, with several critical on-board system failures. An example was the lack of Nitrox, despite the heavy advertisement of its availability. When we asked why and whether this was a new issue, we were told that the oxygen generator had never worked from day one. According to the staff, Aggressor/ Dancer management was telling the crew to fix it, and the crew was saying they did not have the technical know-how to do such." Other problems: major plumbing issues, inedible food and surly crew (three of them were kicked off the boat at the end of the week).

Rierson sent a letter to Wayne Brown and Wayne Hasson, the Aggressor Fleet's CEO and president respectively, and says she got "nothing more than excuses blaming (non-existent) inclement weather, abrupt staff resignations, and the fact that the boat had only been in the water for a few months. Ironically, we were offered 'free' Nitrox on a future charter. The company's offer of $100 off on Nitrox, provided the coupon provided is used within a year, is nothing but a cruel joke. At this point, I can say with fair certainty that none of us will ever give the Aggressor/Dancer Fleet an opportunity to make good on that offer."

Joel Sill (Los Angeles, CA) was aboard right after Rierson, in early July, and had similar trip issues. He contacted Aggressor before his trip to make sure there would be Nitrox, and got a letter from Brown stating, "The Nitrox was down while we waited on a part but has been fixed, so there should be no issue for you." But when Sill boarded, the Nitrox wasn't working and the crew said they've heard nothing about it becoming available. After the trip, Sill contacted Brown again, with his complaints and those of fellow divers, about the lack of Nitrox, bad food, malfunctioning A/C units, etc. Brown e-mailed all the complaining divers, saying that crew finally got the Nitrox system up the day the divers were leaving, "so at least the future guests that want it will have it. I can assure you that Carib Dancer was top of our list every morning, correcting the items that were found after the launch." Brown didn't offer free Nitrox or anything else with his apology. Sill says, "I was completely unsatisfied with his answers; they felt like they came from a politician, not a diver. My travel agent says he has become consistently so. I won't travel on any of their vessels again."

We contacted the Aggressor Fleet to find out what happened. Wayne Hasson says the Nitrox system works now but admits getting it to work was a big headache. "It was brand new and very expensive, to say the least. We brought down two experts from the U.S. two weeks in a row to fix this problem, costing a lot of money, but they could not fix the problem. It finally got fixed on the third try. We spared no expense to get this system working correctly for our Carib Dancer guests. It was only able to pump to 27 percent, so it was given to guests for free. Canceling a charter because Nitrox is not the full 32 percent benefits no one. It's not easy to operate outside of the U.S. where you cannot always find companies with professionals that can troubleshoot and fix problems with technical equipment of this sort.

Hasson has issues with Rierson's complaints. "While there's always two sides to a story and anyone could argue who's to blame and what should be done, we were threatened from the start by her and her group to give them all their money back or suffer the consequences of what they could do, using blogs and e-mails to everyone they knew just so they could hurt our companies. I'm sorry, but this is unfair and unjustified."

The Aggressor Fleet has gotten good marks over the years for its good customer service, especially when it has had to make amends to customers for dive trips gone wrong due to mishaps beyond its control. Yes, as Hasson points out, it's difficult to get some things done in Third World countries. Also, many Aggressor boats are franchises, meaning the boats are owned by individuals, not by the company, so sometimes issues are out of management's hands, and it has to scramble when things go awry. For example, the owner of the Utila Aggressor recently decided to get out of the dive charter business and sell the yacht, thus, Honduras' Bay Islands is off the Aggressor's list of dive destinations.

So take our advice: If you take a liveaboard's maiden voyage or go on a trip during the first two months, know that you're taking a risk, and be prepared for it. Taking a known boat on an exploratory cruise is one thing, taking a renamed boat into a new area for the first time is an entirely different situation. You'll be the first ones to find things that should be improved -- and probably will be corrected long after you've finished your trip.

By the way, Aggressor is launching the Thailand Aggressor on March 3, traveling both north and south in the Andaman Sea from Phuket. Hasson says the boat is the former Star Dancer and yes, it will be refurbished before starting service in Thailand. Give them at least four months before you climb aboard.

- - Vanessa Richardson

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