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January 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 28, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Maiden Dive Boat Trips: Another Liveaboard Owner’s Point of View

from the January, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In October's issue, our article "Maiden Voyage on a New Dive Boat?" carried stories from two Undercurrent readers about their experiences with the new Carib Dancer, and why divers should give brand-new or rehauled liveaboards time to settle into their itineraries before booking a cabin. Frank Wasson, captain of the Florida-based liveaboard M/V Spree, disagrees, saying our story isn't reflective of all dive boats. Here's his letter:

* * *

Vanessa Richardson's characterization of new dive boats in new dive destinations unfairly paints the industry with a broad brush. Perhaps some liveaboard operators do indeed rush vessels into service without properly shaking down the boat, but for many independent operators, our reputation is our only marketable asset. We compete against large corporations with seemingly limitless advertising budgets, and we can't afford to have a trip come back with the problems described in the article. U.S.-based liveaboards are held to strict standards of operations by the U. S. Coast Guard, and a letter so publicly transmitted as the letter by Ellen Rierson would be the death of an small operation. [Note from Ben: Ellen Rierson wrote to us about her bad experience, which we printed in our article, and also posted her back-and-forth with the Aggressor Fleet on Scuba Diving's online forums, which is what Wasson is referring to.]

Witness the demise of Nekton Diving Cruises. The crew had gone unpaid for as many as six months by some accounts, and the tip share had not been distributed for even longer. The crew got on Internet forums to dissuade passengers from coming onto the Caribbean-based vessel, citing harsh working conditions and telling stories about the material readiness (or unreadiness, as it were) of the vessel. About a month after those posts started to appear, some of Nekton's long-time customers began posting stories of how disappointing their more recent trips had been. At that time, the Rorqual had been out of the yard for two years and was due for refit, and the Pilot was in the yard for refit, but no work was progressing.

There are many U.S. departures offering liveaboard services to the Bahamas from reputable operators. Maybe not on a vessel as posh as the Carib Dancer, but certainly on vessels that offer good value for the dollar. Any U. S.-based operator that tried to put a vessel in operation right after a complex overhaul without at least testing the systems beforehand would find itself searching vainly for customers in short order. That said, the only thing guaranteed about a boat is that things will break and crew will quit, likely at the least opportune time. The job of management, both on site as well as in the home office, is to make customers think that nothing is amiss. The captain may be playing the part of the duck (calm on the surface, paddling like the dickens under water) to ensure that the customers' experience is nothing less than stellar. The other advantage of a smaller operation is that the person who can make decisions regarding compensation for a less-than-stellar trip is right there on station and can see personally the breakdown that has occurred.

I had the good fortune to be offered a tour of the Carib Dancer by Wayne Hasson while it was in the yard being prepared for its new itinerary, and I have to say I was impressed with what he [and Aggressor Fleet CEO Wayne Brown] had done to the boat. Remember, this boat is built from an older hull that takes a lot of care to keep floating safely. It was evident to me that the Waynes had spent considerable cash getting the boat ready to safely enter service. The key word here is safely. Although the Carib Dancer on the voyage in question may not have been up to Dancer Fleet standards, the boat didn't sink in a minor storm, or catch fire and have to be abandoned, as has happened recently to another large liveaboard fleet. I didn't hear any complaints about vessel safety, or that any dives were missed.

The most important part of any dive trip is that all passengers returned to the dock in the same condition they left, none the worse for wear. This seems to be a case of poorly-managed expectations rather than a case of a bad dive boat. It's unfortunate, but not all dive trips go exactly the way we plan.

[Note from Ben: Yes, the divers did get home safely, but when we travelers pay big money for week-long ventures on a boat from a reputable fleet, we expect the boat and the trip to meet fleet standards; . In the case of the Carib Dancer, it was clearly not up to snuff during the first many weeks of voyages. Trips like those we described ought to be like previews of Broadway plays, where the patrons pay less and expect they are still seeing a work in progress before opening night. For liveaboards, a few weeks at discount rates to ensure that all is in order and the crew is trained should be standard operating procedure. And as for the Nekton Fleet, Undercurrent reported on continuing problems with these boats for many years, from booking issues to leaking cabins, and passengers' overall dissatisfaction.]

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