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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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October 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 40, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Choosing a Safe Liveaboard

donít just pick one for the large cabin and camera room plugs

from the October, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Some years ago, I was asked to write a feature about the worst liveaboards in the world. It was easy. I didn't need to do much research. I simply wrote about the ones I had experienced and, shamefully, even one that I had worked on as a dive guide.

Many divers tend to be rather naÔve when making travel decisions (unless, of course, they read Undercurrent). They are led by marketing hype, brand image and features that are important to them personally. When they choose a liveaboard for a diving trip, they are often keen to confirm that the cabin will be large and comfortable enough, the food will be to their taste, and that the vessel looks like their idea of the sort of luxury yacht that will make their friends and neighbors envious of their dive trip. Quite rightly so.

However, recent tragedies that have happened in the world might give us pause for thought. Who would have thought that a magnificent luxury cruise liner would run into a reef near an Italian island and turn turtle? Or that a modern Boeing 777 would simply disappear in flight, or that another would be brought down by a missile? When we choose a liveaboard, we should remember one very important aspect: It is not simply a hotel, it's a vessel floating on the surface of the ocean, and only by the grace of Archimedes' principle.

Coming back from a dive to find that your mother ship no longer exists is an experience that will live with you forever. Abandoning a vessel during a trans-ocean crossing is not something I'd recommend as a character-building experience. Swimming with nothing more than what you were wearing in your bunk (mainly nothing) because your vessel went down in the night might save your life but it takes the edge off your vacation. You might think that these are extreme examples, but they have all happened recently and on more than one occasion. (As proof, read my most recent story, "Fire Aboard !" in the August issue.)

So what tips can I give you to help think about choosing a safe liveaboard?

First, there are mainly two types of hull construction, wood and metal (usually steel but sometimes aluminium). Wooden vessels are quick and cheap to construct, and easy to repair -- but then, they need to be. Back in the early '90s, the steel-hulled motor yacht Lady Jenny V that I worked on as a dive guide in the Sudan ran onto the reef top nearly every night when the wind changed, and the impossibly difficult skipper refused to accommodate that idea when we moored. If we had been in a vessel with a wooden hull, it would have been damaged, possibly fatally, the first time. But the heavy German steel of our vessel took it out on the reef each time rather than the other way around. We crew only had the regular task of pulling it off as soon as we heard the first telltale groaning sounds that were only matched by our own when our much-needed sleep was interrupted. Today, most Egyptian liveaboards are built from wood, and despite being finished to afford the height of luxury for the passengers, the Red Sea is littered with the remains of those that "touched" the reef.

That said, nothing sinks quicker than a steel vessel full of water, which is where water-tight doors become essential. If a vessel is divided into sections separated by water-tight doors, safety in a worst-case scenario can probably be assured. I remember the owner of the newly-built steel MV Oyster, proudly showing me around and pointing out a water-tight door at one end of the companionway below decks, but being unimpressed when I pointed out that the stern end had no such protection and was effectively open to the sea. After some years of operation, that otherwise lovely yacht lies on the seabed near the reef it hit.

Hull shape can be important, too. If the vessel is likely to meet anything more than a glass- calm sea, it will need to be a "dry" boat -- water should not pour down the decks, and it should not roll so alarmingly that passengers are left clinging to their bunks. Wooden vessels tend to bob on the surface, while steel hulls plough through the waves. Wooden vessels are lighter and can be faster, while steel-hulled vessels are often more ponderous but more stable in rough water. Ask about the sea-keeping qualities of the vessel.

Panorama Explorer: Sunk on Its Maiden VoyageI was once in the Red Sea on board the maiden voyage of the motor yacht Moon Dancer, a member of the Peter Hughes Dancer operation. One passenger expressed disappointment that the sea was so rough. The newly arrived American captain, with lots of experience in the Caribbean, told her he couldn't understand it. "The Red Sea was usually flat calm," he said.

Surrounded by deserts on all sides, that body of water is subject to gale-force winds most of the time. Close to the western shore, it may be calm, but out at sea, it's famous for its short chop. It's only calm for two short periods in the year when the wind changes from north-west to southeast. That's an example of when the experience of the skipper and crew can be vital. Don't be afraid to ask how long the skipper has been in charge. This particular captain might have been otherwise extremely competent, but he was obviously deficient in knowledge of local sea conditions, and it wasn't long before he was substituted for an experienced Egyptian. Your life can be in the hands of the skipper. You might remember that in Belize back in 2001, the MV Wave Dancer sank in the night during a hurricane. Twenty passengers and crew members lost their lives when the captain failed to make the correct judgement in disembarking the passengers before the storm hit.

Safe open ocean crossings demand the safety of two engines. A vessel without motive power is a vessel at risk. If your itinerary remains close to shore -- and help should you need it -- a single-engine vessel will probably be safe enough. A good example of this is any vessel working within the weather-protected atolls of the Maldives, where the mother ship is usually closely and permanently accompanied by a large 'diving dhoni.' Other examples might be vessels working within the calm lagoons of Palau or Truk. Consider the intended route, ask how many engines a vessel has and make an informed decision.

Should it be intended to make a long ocean crossing, like the one to Cocos Island from Costa Rica, a single engine is one too few. I have been amazed to see a local bangka boat, constructed mainly from bamboo poles and fishing line and powered by a single improvised truck engine, hundreds of miles from shore at Tubbataha Reef in the Philippines. Some popular vessels that were designed with a single engine, in the style of those working safely within the close-knit islands of the Indonesian archipelago, have recently been fitted with an auxiliary engine to satisfy safety requirements. But I wonder how easily they are steered when the propeller of this extra engine is set well to one side of the rudder.

You'll want to know about generators and water-makers, because while running out of either electricity or water can be very inconvenient, the loss of generators can be disastrous (I know! It happened when I was aboard the MV Kairos.) You need to know that the vessel has more than one generator. Much of the vessel's essential equipment depends on their ability to deliver.

One night, I ventured up into the wheelhouse of the Turkish liveaboard Artemis and discovered to my horror that it was unattended, with the wheel simply lashed in place with rope as we motored onwards. Thankfully, most vessels now have good navigation equipment, but it still depends on the crew's ability to use it.

As a Red Sea dive guide back in 1992, I always marvelled at the way the passengers slept soundly in their cabins while we made night crossings. Apart from the captain and me, the crew were all "backpackers" working their passage in exchange for some free diving. None of them was competent to drive the boat, but they each had to take a turn in the wheelhouse. We had autopilot, radar, a compass and the newfangled GPS, so it should have been simple, but it seemed to me that every night when I took over, I needed to avert an otherwise imminent disaster. One night, all the passengers fell out of their bunk when our "engineer" suddenly realized he was about to hit the shore and turned the vessel so abruptly he nearly sank it. It should never have happened. So ask about the competency of the crew.

Communication equipment is vital. Does the vessel have a powerful marine VHF radio, and are all the passengers briefed on a Mayday procedure before setting off? It's not good having the means to make an emergency call if the only person who knows how to use it is incapacitated or fallen overboard. Are the life rafts regularly serviced? I was recently on the fabulously well-appointed boat MV Orion, but realized after a couple of days, there were no life rafts. (There are now!) People never like to think about these things. Let's hope you never have to.

Finally, what medical facilities are there, and what happens if there's the need for an emergency evacuation? All good passenger vessels, whether small liveaboard motor yachts or vast Italian cruise liners, should give passengers a proper safety briefing before leaving port. Evidently, the passengers of the Costa Concordia were due to get one on the third day of their trip, and that was after disaster had happened.

Ask the questions and get the reply in writing before you book.

John Bantin is the former technical editor of DIVER magazine in the United Kingdom. For 20 years, he used and reviewed virtually every piece of equipment available in the U.K. and the U.S., and made around 300 dives per year for that purpose. He is also a professional underwater photographer, and most recently the author of Amazing Diving Stories, available at

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