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August 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 41, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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What’s Going on with the Aggressor Fleet?

$500 vouchers may not be enough to quiet complaints

from the August, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

What's going on in the wheelhouse at the Aggressor Fleet? You may remember Joel Sill's story, "A Bad Night on the ," in our May issue, his first-person tale of the liveaboard's hull ripping open after it broke free of its mooring at Cocos Island, Costa Rica. Less than two months later, another Aggressor boat had a similar experience. We're getting more reader reports about less-thanstellar maintenance and the crew's attitudes. And then there's the overall irritation with the Aggressor Fleet's overall policy of making up for mishaps with $500 vouchers for future trips on its liveaboards -- but only if taken within a year's time. All this from what was once the world's premier dive fleet.

"Should the boat be in operation if crew are unable or reluctant to go above 1,200 rpm or eight knots in perfect conditions?"

One Undercurrent reader was sleeping aboard the Turks & Caicos Aggressor II in May as it headed full-steam toward Provo when, around midnight, she and her husband were thrown from their beds as the boat hit the reef. "Water was coming into the hallway, so we grabbed our passports and wallets and went to the muster station, where the crew passed out life vests. I was astounded to see waves breaking over a reef a few hundred yards in front of the bow, with the island in sight behind it under a three-quarter moon. We were stuck good (bad).

"The crew told passengers they would try to get the liveaboard off the reef to shallow water, so if or when the boat sank, the water wouldn't be so deep. We were allowed to go back to our rooms to quickly gather our belongings and pack dive gear to put on the back deck. The crew radioed a Mayday, but the only vessel that could help was the Turks & Caicos Explorer. When they finally came, at 2:30 a.m., they had to stay a distance away, due to the reef, and offered their tenders to get us off the boat. We could only take a small backpack each. Using a flashlight to creep over the nearly-exposed coral to shore, we beached at the expensive Amanyara resort, but the armed guards -- probably thinking we were Cuban refugees -- never came to assist us, and the resort did not respond to our calls. So we had to land about 20 minutes later, walk on a rock-filled beach to reach the access road, then walk uphill another 20 minutes and climb over the Amanyara's security gates to the vans that took us to another hotel, where we checked in at 4 a.m. and stayed for two days until it was time to catch our flights.

"We understand the boat was somehow able to get off the reef, and limped into the marina early in the morning. They even made it sound like they could clean up the water in the cabins, fix the damage and do the next charter the following day! I don't think so. The upside is, no one was hurt, and the crew acted professionally under the circumstances. The downside is this was not an accident. They have been doing this run for over 20 years, there was almost a full moon, and they have all this modern equipment that is useless if no one is watching it."

Cavalier Crew Clearly In Need of a Rest

In Costa Rica, the Wind Dancer is making Cocos Island trips again, but Timothy Warner (Chicago, IL), who was on the first trip since the accident, says the boat is not up to par. "My June trip over and back was in very calm seas, but it still took 42 hours there and 44 hours back, due to the limitation of the engines. We were told that seven knots and 1,200 rpm is the limit since the grounding and subsequent damage."

Walker learned of the grounding in a roundabout way. Ironically, Carlos, the cruise director, started the meet-and-greet aboard by informing guests about a death on the Okeanos Aggressor the week before (a diver at the Manuelito's Deep site got caught in the surge and was pulled under the boat; his body was found 80 hours later, in an underwater cave), but nothing about the Wind Dancer's grounding the month prior. It was when Walker later talked to a panga driver that he found out, and how the crew had been working nonstop since, and hadn't had a break in those two months.

The lack of a break may have particularly affected Captain Mauricio, who also did double-shift as a divemaster, as Walker says his good manners were often lacking. "We missed out on dives due to his need to return to Puntarenas by midnight Tuesday morning. He claimed it was because he needed to make high tide but we arrived at 3 a.m. We were also limited to three dives per day with three additional night dives. Quite disappointing given that the other Aggressor boats allow four or five dives a day.

"Then the question came up among those of us aware of the grounding (we purposely kept that info to ourselves so we wouldn't create anxiety among the guests who didn't know): Should the boat be operating if the crew are unable or reluctant to go above 1,200 rpm or eight knots in perfect conditions? Both of the engines were working, but as a diesel-boat owner, I could tell by the way the boat was continuously vibrating, and the smell of diesel fuel heating up while underway, that something was wrong with that drive shaft. But the boat's not going onto dry dock until January. Overall, that's careless thinking."

A Rehaul Needed for the Plumbing -- and Treatment of Marine Life

It seems like it's more than just this one Aggressor boat that needs major TLC. And crew need a refresher on good customerservice skills (or maybe they, too, need more time off?). Michael Lewis (Vonore, TN) was aboard the Cayman Aggressor IV in June and was appalled at the conditions. "The plumbing and sewage management is awful. My cabin (#5) had dishwater and food chunks bubbling up from the shower drain; we also had an awful sewage smell. It wasn't as bad as cabin #7, where it was all but intolerable. Captain Lauren told us the shower problem was only grey water from other showers, but when I said I thought we were getting dishwater from the galley, and pointed out that we were under the galley, she finally admitted that was probably the case. We also had a problem with the AC leaking from under the sink. It kept the floor wet most of the time, even though it was emptied a couple of times during the 10-day trip, and that leads to mold and mildew. Several people had to start taking decongestants and antihistamines toward the end of the trip. This boat is in serious need of a total overhaul in dry dock."

Lewis says Captain Lauren ran a pretty tight ship, but she needs to stop riding rough-shod over her passengers, and to have a more hands-off stance towards the marine life. "While Captain Lauren gave an excellent safety briefing, she said absolutely nothing about being a good environmental steward during the trip. Most passengers were photographers and many of them lay on the coral and harassed the sea creatures to get good photos or video. Since Captain Lauren had encouraged people to pet the groupers earlier in the trip, I imagine most thought it was OK to pet all the marine life. We finally complained after one woman chased a sea turtle, started petting it and pushing it towards the bottom, and eventually panicked it to shoot to the surface."

The Worst Touch: Revoking a Voucher

Despite divers' frequent complaints, it has been the Aggressor Fleet's policy not to refund any money to passengers who paid cash and whose trips were cut short due to boat-related problems. Instead, they offer $500 vouchers to use for another trip aboard an Aggressor or Dancer boat, and they can only be used within a year. For divers shaken up by accidents or injuries aboard one Aggressor boat, the chance that they'll want to go on another is not great. Why won't the Aggressor Fleet just do a show of good faith and return the money?

It's not that easy when you're running a franchise operation, because you don't actually own the boats bearing your brand name, says Nick Perry, a project manager for the travel agency Dive and Cruise ( ). "The Dancer and Aggressor company is essentially a booking agent; all ships under its names are owned by other people and locally operated. The company has contracts with the individual vessels and fills them through its office. So when they offer the $500 voucher, it is actually all they can do without the yacht owner's permission. There are standards to having your liveaboard labeled and sold under the Aggressor or Dancer name, but that is all. Operating procedures and solutions for issues like the Wind Dancer running aground are solved mostly by the local owners, not the booking office. The safety standards, cabin renovations and menu can be influenced by the sales office, but decisions on everything will come from the ground in Costa Rica. Typically the Aggressor and Dancer vessels hold amazing standards and quality of service, but not always."

"What a lousy way to handle people who have been customers since 1986 . . . We feel like we're being penalized for doing the right thing."

Okay, but what if the booking office revokes a voucher it originally offered to a diver aboard a bad trip, and doesn't give a good reason for it? The Aggressor Fleet did that last month to our reader aboard the Turks & Caicos Aggressor II. After the running- aground experience, she was given the $500 voucher. Besides paying for her hotel stay and airport transfer, the Aggressor Fleet worked with her to get her travel insurance company, CSA to refund the percentage of her trip cut short (she wouldn't be reimbursed if the trip interruption was due to an accident or negligence, so the Aggressor Fleet submitted its statement that it was due to an "incident" that resulted in the breakage of the bilge pipes, flooding the cabins and making them uninhabitable). But on July 20, the Aggressor Fleet told her it was rescinding its vouchers because her insurance claim had been settled. "What a lousy way to handle people who have been customers since 1986," she told us. "They said they did this so CSA cannot claim they compensated us. But we feel like we are being penalized for doing the right thing. I guess I would feel differently if [the running-aground] had been a true accident, but it was not."

It's hard to say what's truly behind the Aggressor Fleet's recent spate of accidents (especially because they didn't reply to our questions). The hiring of inexperienced crew members? Or understaffing the boats? Poor management? Even though it's a franchise operation, if the Aggressor Fleet doesn't maintain and enforce rigid standards for each boat, then there is no consistency. That's starting to show -- and its paying customers are the ones bearing the brunt of those bad decisions.

-- Vanessa Richardson

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