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March 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 29, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Choose Your Dive Boat Wisely

three Thai liveaboards sink in three weeks

from the March, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

If you're going on a dive trip overseas and opting to go out with a local dive operator while there, choose wisely. From boat explosions to boat "captains" who don't keep track of divers, Second- and Third-World dive destinations are rife with accidents that injure or kill visiting divers.

Take Thailand, which had three local dive boats sink during three weeks in January and February. On January 29, the Ranong-based liveaboard Aladdin, en route to the Andaman Sea for a four-day dive trip, sank near Koh Tachai after its hull was holed "when it ran over something in the water which was rammed into the hull by the propeller," one of the divemasters aboard told the Phuket News. Fortunately the Phuket-based dive boat Peter Pan was close by to rescue all on board the Aladdin, which sank so fast that passengers had to leap for their lives, many of them having no time to put on life jackets. (The priority for some passengers aboard the Peter Pan was apparently to take plenty of still and video footage of Aladdin passengers jumping off the sinking ship.)

On February 9, the MV Blue Star, belonging to Chalong Sea Sports, caught fire and sank in Burmese waters while on a week-long dive trip. All 20 people on board were rescued by a passing fishing boat, though they lost their belongings; a great deal of expensive dive gear went down with the 90-foot boat. Pekka Torri, principal of Chalong Sea Sports, said the fire may have been the result of an electrical fault but he couldn't confirm it.

The sinking most recently publicized actually happened on February 2, but the incident was kept quiet, with only rumors circulating around the local dive shops, until the Phuket News confirmed it 12 days later. Fifteen French tourists and five crew members were rescued from the MV Bunmee I liveaboard when it caught fire and sank approximately 37 miles southwest of Koh Lanta.

Details only emerged after one diver on board, who asked to be named only as Xavier, contacted the Phuket News about the incident. He said the boat left Phuket around 10.30 p.m. on February 1 for a fourday dive trip to the southern sites of Hin Daeng and Hin Muang. Four hours later, someone on board smelled smoke and alerted others. As smoke began to pour into the cabin area from the engine room below, and people were forced out to the open deck. "There were flames, then the crew used an extinguisher," Xavier said. "After that, the fire was hidden by the large amount of smoke."

Everyone evacuated to the top deck, where they realized the electrical power was out. This meant no more radio, and being so far out to sea, there was no mobile phone service. Xavier said someone (obviously a very talented person) on board made an emergency battery using the boat's dive lamps, and managed to get the radio working again, but no one had an accurate idea of their position. "We were scared, of course, especially because we couldn't alert anyone to our difficulties," Xavier said. "In addition, the lifeboat didn't inflate when it was thrown into the sea -- the crew tried for 20 minutes before it inflated."

Someone on board managed to use their iPhone to get the GPS location, and around 20 minutes later, the Bunmee I made VHF contact with a fishing boat. "One hour later, the fishing boat found us, and we saw the boat burning before sinking," Xavier said. The fishing boat brought all back to Chalong Pier, arriving around six hours later. "No one was injured, but we lost almost all our belongings," Xavier said "Twelve of us lost our passports, and then had a 12-hour bus trip to Bangkok to get a temporary travel document before taking the plane back to Paris." The Phuket News made repeated attempts to contact the Bunmee I's owners, Andaman Scuba, but all calls went unanswered.

So why do so many dive boats in Thailand catch on fire? One local dive company owner, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the newspaper that it's not just dive boats, it's all tourist boats. "There are three problems: First, the market is so flooded with bad, cheap copies of electrical equipment that it is impossible to buy good, genuine parts, so the parts you buy are not so reliable.

"Second, there is a lack of skilled electricians on the island. Some of them think they know what they are doing, but they don't really. And third, we're in business, we're in competition. So repairs at this time of year often have to be done at night, fast, and under pressure."

The lesson here is that considerable risks are involved any time you set foot on a local dive boat. Ken Knezick, president of the dive travel agency Island Dreams Travel in Houston ( www.divetrip.com ), says, "We must choose our dive operations with great care, and caution should apply to day boats just as much as it does to liveaboard operations. In the U.S., we're fortunate that our Coast Guard takes a hands-on role in assuring the safety of all commercial and passenger-carrying vessels. This sort of scrutiny and oversight may well be lacking in the far-flung regions we visit on our remote dive travels. "

His recommendations:

* Only do business with well-established operations that have a successful track record.

* Listen carefully to the safety briefings. Store your passport, wallet and other critical documents in a waterproof pouch that you can access at a moment's notice.

* Know where your life jacket is stored, and where to find exit hatches and emergency muster stations.

* Mark the locations of fire extinguishers and life preservers.

* If you see anything out of the ordinary, call attention to the captain or cruise director immediately.

* Where safety is concerned, assume nothing.

Regarding the Peter Pan passengers snapping shots of their frightened fellow divers jumping ship, Knezick said, "I found it interesting that the bystanders on a nearby vessel thought the best they could do was to video the sinking for their Facebook feed. I should hope I'd have put down my camera and jumped in to assist with the rescue. How about you?"

-- Vanessa Richardson

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