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July 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 27, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Problems with the Siren Fleet

divers must evacuate two liveaboards in less than six months

from the July, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

On June 6, the Oriental Siren was making its final diving voyage (unbeknownst to everyone on board), from the Malaysian island of Labuan to Layang Layang in the Spratly Island chain off the Borneo coast.

"Although we were scheduled to head for Layang Layang, a 185-mile journey, on the afternoon after a wreck dive, the captain decided not to because he was unsure of the weather," Undercurrent subscriber Sean Bruner (Tucson, AZ) reported to us of the last days of that final voyage. "The boat had made a rough crossing coming back from the last trip, and had arrived the same day we met it in Labuan, so the captain did not want to risk another rough crossing. We sheltered behind a small island for the night. The next day, we had a nice dive on the same wreck we had done the day before. We were scheduled to do a second dive on a different wreck, but the captain decided he wanted to head for Layang Layang while he had a weather window. The crossing had been estimated for around 16 to 18 hours."

Subscriber Sherri Wren (Palo Alto, CA), who was also on the trip, said a divemaster told her about the rough 24-hour crossing from Layang Layang. "He said it was so bad that they did a visual hull inspection at the dock, but everything apparently was fine. It was a nice day when we started the journey. I had a cabin in the front, and didn't think the crossing was bad."

But when Bruner woke up to use the bathroom during the night of June 6, he noticed water on the floor. He assumed water had slopped out of the shower, so he went back to bed, but he did notice one strange thing. "When a wave hit the boat sideways, I would hear the distinctive thump, but it was followed by a splash or sloshing noise that was coming from inside the ship. Water would then flow into the cabin from underneath the shower stall."

Wren also work up early, around 3 a.m., to feel water right next to the bed, "but it was a not a lot, so it didn't concern me."

"The captain, who spoke little
English, sat huddled in front of the
dingy . . . he had totally checked out."

At 4 a.m. on June 7, Bruner went upstairs. "I could see into the engine room, as its door was propped open, and there was a lot of water on the floor. When I got up early on the previous two mornings, the boat was deserted. This day, it seemed like the entire crew was running around. I saw Arndt, the German cruise director, and he said we should be in Layang Layang in a couple of hours. Then the boat was slowing, and there was considerable activity by the crew, with much shouting in Thai. At some point, Brian, Arndt's Irish assistant, came into the dining room and announced there was a 'bit of an emergency' and we were to put on our life jackets. He said one of the two bilge pumps was down, and we were taking on water."

Around 5 a.m., the divemasters started knocking on cabin doors, telling everyone to come upstairs and put on their lifejackets. "Of the 10 crew, most were Thai who spoke little English, so most of the comments were coming from Arndt and Brian," says Wren. "They said the boat was taking on water in the rear, they didn't know from where, and crew was setting up an auxiliary pump because the main one was irreparable. They were on the phone to Worldwide Dive and Sail (WDS), the ship's operator, and made a mayday call to the Malaysian army, but got no reply."

Then the engine died, the lights went out and the boat was dead in the water. As dawn was breaking, the call was made to abandon ship, and passengers were allowed to go to their cabins to gather essential items. Bruner retrieved his shoes, credit cards and medications, and found a disturbing sight. "The cabin was now under a foot of water. At first, I couldn't find my money belt, and I frantically searched around. I calmed myself, found it, but I didn't bother to get my computer or anything else. We had been told to take nothing, so I left everything behind, a decision I would later regret."

The seas were rough, with eight- to 15-foot swells, and the skies were dark, but luckily it wasn't raining. According to Mary Sittlinger, another passenger who wrote about her Oriental Siren experience in a letter to WDS, the boat was approximately 15 miles from Layang Layang, where there was a Malaysian naval base, but while Arndt continued to make regular Mayday calls, there was no response from the navy.

Guests and crew clambered aboard the dinghies, and the life rafts were activated, but both life rafts deployed upside down. "One was blown onto the side of the ship and the crew was able to right it," says Bruner. "They then spent 20 minutes attempting to right the other, but finally gave up and it was never righted."

Wren says it was unclear who was in charge of the rescue. "The captain, who spoke little to no English, sat huddled in front of the dinghy. He could have directed the Thais, but he had totally checked out. So it was the divemasters and the passengers who had to make the decisions."

Wren and Bruner were two of the 11 people in the dinghy, along with the checked-out captain and Steve, a former British navy engineer, who said it was a good idea to head to Layang Layang, where they could alert the navy and rescue the others. "Although it was a risky move to separate the two groups, it was eventually decided that's what we would do," says Bruner. They headed into the 15-foot seas, getting soaked as waves splashed over the bow. "One wave almost swamped us," says Bruner. "We had to refuel three times from a jerrycan, and the engine sputtered at times."

An hour later, the dinghy limped into Layang Layang. No naval boat came to meet them. Instead, they were met at the dock by a navy man, who asked for their passports. "When we told him we were shipwreck survivors and there were another 15 persons awaiting rescue, he asked us why we hadn't towed them behind us," says Bruner. "It was clear the gravity of our situation hadn't sunk in."

Wren agrees that the navy was absolutely unhelpful. "I told them there were more people to save, and they said, 'No, it's too dangerous. You go back out.' Steve, the Brit, argued with the navy man who had "greeted" them at the dock to mount a rescue. The man replied it was too dangerous to take out the navy's dinghies, which were about twice the size of the Oriental Siren's. Eventually, the navy agreed to set out, just as the life raft limped in with the other 15 aboard, including Sittlinger and a Japanese couple who were clearly shaken up from their experience. "Little Mari had curled herself up in a fetal position at the bottom of the boat, and I believe she passed out," Sittlinger writes. "To make matters worse, there were statements in all the local newspapers the next day that the Malaysian Navy was involved in a high seas rescue where they found 26 people clinging to life rafts. "

On the same spit of island was the Layang Layang Dive Resort, which wasn't much more hospitable. "The staff was nice but the manager was horrible," says Wren. "He would not help us unless he had a line of credit from WDS. Even after he had that, I'm sure he jacked up prices, but at least we had a place to stay." The next day, the Malaysian air force sent a C-130 troop carrier to fly the shipwrecked crew and passengers back to Labuan, but not before the navy posed them standing in front of the boat for a photo.

No naval boat came to rescue them.
Instead, they were met at the dock by
a navy man asking for their passports.

While Malaysia's military wasn't too helpful, Wren says the U.S. State Department was exemplary. "When we landed at Layang Layang, I called my husband to ask him to contact the State Department. Within minutes, he was connected to the deputy counsel of the embassy in Malaysia, who was then quickly on the phone with me. He asked, 'Are you OK? Do you need anything? What can I do?' And he checked in with me throughout my journey back to the States. So if you are in a bad situation overseas, the people at the State Department do exist, and they're instantaneously available to you."

Wren and Sittlinger say WDS's response was also exemplary. At the Layang Layang resort, the office opened a bar bill and let passengers buy clothes from the gift shop. After arranging for the Malaysian Air Force carrier, the owners met them in Labuan and worked nonstop to get everyone on flights back to their respective countries, then followed up with phone calls. Wren says WDS offered to refund her trip. Both she and Sittlinger said they would sail with WDS's Siren fleet again. But Wren has one criticism, and it's with the command structure on the boat. "If there is a crew that does not speak English, then the divemaster should say, 'I am the designated one in charge now.' It's not a great idea to have a captain who doesn't speak English if you're trying to sell to an English-speaking market of divers."

And there perhaps lies the problem. WDS is known for its strong marketing to English-speaking divers, and for expanding its fleet of liveaboards across the Indo-Pacific. Is it moving too quickly with expansion and marketing, and too slowly in making sure its ships are safe and its crews are trained to handle bad weather and dive-related emergencies?

We reported in our February issue about WDS's Mandarin Siren sinking in Raja Ampat in December, after a possible electrical fault in the laundry room caused a major fire and sent the five passengers into a life raft (they were rescued soon after by sister ship the Indo Siren). Again, WDS's reaction was quick -- hotel rooms, toiletries and clothes were paid for, flights home were quickly arranged.

When divers arrived for a Philippine Siren voyage in March, they were told the trip was canceled due to an engine failure. WDS marketing manager Susie Erbe told Undercurrent a new engine had to be installed, and guests were offered a full refund and either alternative vacation arrangements or a flight back home.

With engine problems and two liveaboards scuttled within less than six months of each other, questions arise about the safety of the Siren boats. True, liveaboard fleets have glitches, parts need to be replaced, boats need to be rehauled, but rarely do you hear about situations as bad as what has been happening to Siren liveaboards this year. Some previous passengers say it goes beyond the condition of the boats to the nonchalant behavior of WDS management, from liveaboard crew all the way up to its owner.

After hearing about the Oriental Siren, an Undercurrent subscriber who asked to remain unnamed wrote on the ScubaBoard forum about her harrowing experience in January 2011 aboard the Mandarin Siren. "Guests were put in the water at Sardines, a dive site in the middle of the ocean, during a huge thunderstorm. I politely asked the guide if we could turn back and dive back at Mioskon, as I felt that would be far safer, but my request was ignored. I still don't understand why the decision was made to sail to Batanta Island through open water without any shelter for our last day, when such a huge storm had already set in and was not getting any easier. The guide wouldn't listen at the time, and we set sail. It was the longest four hours of my life. The Mandarin Siren almost turned over, the tanks were horizontal, the crew were screaming on the back deck, with some of them unable to swim, and I was told there was water in the engine room. All the guide said was, 'We will be there in half an hour,' but that half- hour turned into two hours at least. Guests were being sick around me, and books and the coffee machine were flying around. When we finally arrived to safety, the guide said the office was aware of our location, but there was not much concern, as everything was still intact. There was more concern about the empty spaces that didn't sell on my trip."

"I never felt as unsafe as I did on
that Indo Siren trip. When I got
off the boat, I was so tempted to
get down and kiss the ground."

Julie Klassy (Anchorage, AK) was on the Indo Siren's maiden voyage in April 2011 to Komodo, with WDS owner Frank van Der Linde aboard, and says crew took divers out in dangerous conditions and were very nonchalant about it. "Only one of three divemasters had any experience in Komodo. Sometimes the current was so strong, the boat could not get to dive sites, but it let divers, some of them inexperienced, go dive in these conditions." One woman was caught in a downcurrent, pulled down 100 feet and yanked back to the surface in 12 minutes, but the crew didn't offer her first aid. "They said, 'Go get a glass of water,' but no first aid, no blanket, not even asking if she was OK. They said they had oxygen on board, but they'd have to report to Divers Alert Network if they broke the seal, and they didn't want to do that."

One day, when a fellow diver asked her if she was doing a second dive, Klassy declined because she was physically and mentally exhausted. "The guy replied, 'This is 'diving by Frank' -- he'll take you down in terrible conditions, you manage by luck and sheer force of will to return, but Frank is ready to go back again.'

"This was the first time I had ever been on a boat where I felt like my safety was at risk. The crew would sometimes admit the dives were a little dicey, but they wouldn't change anything. They'd say, 'Well, this is what it's like when diving in Komodo.' Well, when you're in that situation, you're typically familiar enough with that area to redirect divers to a less dangerous area nearby, but this crew was not at all familiar with the area." Klassy did talk to Van Der Linde about her concerns with struggling divers coming up terrified from dives. "I felt the response was that I was the bitchy American who was going to make a big deal and everyone else was fine with it -- but they were not, because I talked to them."

Jenny Collister, owner of the dive travel agency Reef & Rainforest, booked both Bruner and Wren on that final Oriental Siren trip. She has worked with WDS for the past six years, and has not had any issues because the company responds to problems and concerns immediately. "Wooden boats that go out on remote locations for months on end take a beating in those conditions, but WDS reacts immediately. They phoned me the second they heard about the Oriental Siren, so I was completely in the loop. The owners want to do right by their clients and, for the most part, I've heard nothing but rave reviews." As for the non-English-speaking crew, Collister let WDS know that they definitely need to have a Western cruise director on board ships to deal with the language barrier, but Asian crew generally have an eager-to-please mentality. "They don't want to spoil these nice people's vacations, so they go out in bad weather. It's a cultural thing -- they always want to tell people what they want to hear."

But a prominent dive travel agency in the U.K., feels differently, and has stopped working with WDS due to concerns about the boats and the overall business operation. One of its staffers was aboard the Mandarin Siren and saw there was no backup means of propulsion. The rig was not suitable for sailing, just for looking good in the promotional pictures. Van Der Linde replied that the boats all sailed, and the crew were fully trained sailors. But the truth came out aboard the Philippine Siren, where a small rudder was used in conjunction with the motor, not the kind of rudder needed to sail, and the crew admitted they were not really able to sail. Because some of the Siren boats operate in open sea in remote areas, the safety of using a Phinisi with only one truck engine for open-sea crossings is questionable.

The staffer also finds it interesting that WDS doesn't publish any technical specifications for its boats on its website. The agency is also concerned about WDS's fast expansion. While its ambition and drive for quickly building boats and distributing them over the best dive destinations is admirable, it's also fraught with pitfalls. Local knowledge is an important component in the dive travel industry. The lack of that was highlighted with the incident on the Oriental Siren.

As for that boat, WDS announced on June 26 that it is officially lost. "A marine surveyor was sent to Layang Layang, and a full investigation was conducted," says a statement on the WDS website. "The final report is not yet received; however, we believe it will state that the vessel was structurally sound. It is suspected there was a substantial breach in the hull below the waterline. The most likely reason for this was a collision with a cargo container or submerged debris while travelling to Layang Layang." WDS says it has leased an alternate yacht and will continue to run the Timor-Leste season from August to November, as planned. The press release continues, "Since returning home, many of the guests have written to thank the Worldwide Dive and Sail crew for their handling of the emergency, even to go so far as to say that the Siren Fleet 'will more than likely end up the safest organization to dive with.'"

Klassy is one diver who disagrees. "I never felt as unsafe as I did on that Indo Siren trip. When I came off the boat, I was so tempted to get down and kiss the ground. I feel like WDS just got really lucky. I read what happened to the Mandarin Siren and then the Oriental Siren, and I believe their luck is running out. They've had enough close calls, so the big emergency here is that they're not specifically focused on safety, and that leads to these repeated emergencies that put divers at risk."

-- Vanessa Richardson

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