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September 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 30, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Palau Siren Grounds and Floods

thatís five disasters for eight Siren boats in six years

from the September, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Many liveaboards cruise the Asia-Pacific, but it seems to be the Siren fleet that has the most dramatic mishaps there -- and the most damaged or sunk vessels of any liveaboard fleet, period.

Take its latest victim, the Palau Siren. While anchored in Wonder Channel, which leads to Jellyfish Lake, on the evening of August 3, it struck a reef, due to strong waves and rough seas, and was severely flooded. Mik Jennings, marketing manager for Worldwide Dive and Sail (WWDAS), which owns and operates the Siren liveaboards, told us half the divers were on a night dive when the Palau Siren dragged anchor and was pushed onto a submerged reef. "As one group of divers were diving at the time, we had only one skiff to try to pull the boat away from the reef." One couldn't do the job in a tough current, and by the time the second skiff returned, the Siren was stuck fast against the reef. "Unfortunately this happened on a spring tide," says Jennings. "As the tide dropped overnight and the wind speed increased, the boat began to list in the shallows, so as the tide rose again, she began to take on water. By daybreak, she had become partially flooded and immobilized." All the guests were evacuated to Koror. WWDAS is working to right the boat, pump her out, and move her back to Koror for an inspection and eventual refurbishing so that she can be back in service early next year.

But questions remain. If strong winds, rough seas and rushing tides were the cause, should not the captain be prepared, knowing that their anchor can't hold the heavy boat, or anchoring far away from harm's way, or not diving the area at all?

WWDAS does a good job responding to people's questions, ours included, and it was quick to correct errors in a Palau newspaper article about the incident (no, the boat didn't sink), and reply to people's concerns on online forums, claiming "In regard to previous incidents, our insurer has sent out an investigating surveyor on each occasion and felt that they were isolated, unrelated incidents in which the crew followed correct company procedure." We can't verify that claim.

A Checkered Past

It started in 2009, when the Siren Fleet's first vessel, the Siren, sunk after apparently being struck from the rear by a freighter during a night crossing. One crew member died.

2012 was a bad year. Just before New Year's, five passengers aboard the Mandarin Siren were diving in Raja Ampat when they surfaced to find thick smoke coming from the liveaboard. Everyone was picked up by sister ship Indo Siren, but the Mandarin went down in flames. WWDAS says the fire was due to the electrical fault of the tumble dryer in the laundry room, and mandated that operating dryers would no longer be left unattended, and lint filters would be cleaned after every cruise instead of every six months.

Five months later, the Oriental Siren had a rough crossing from the Indonesian island of Layang Layang to the Malaysian island of Labuan. The captain decided to head back to Layang Layang on another dive trip -- one passenger was told of the crossing and that the crew did a visual hull inspection at the dock and thought it looked fine -- but the boat took on water through a cracked hull overnight, and at dawn, the call was made to abandon ship. Everyone got on dinghies and headed into 15-foot seas, limping into Layang Layan an hour later. No one was hurt, but the Oriental Siren was declared a total wreck. WWDAS says the breach in the hull was below the waterline (thus invisible to visual inspections) and probably due to "a collision with a cargo container or submerged debris while travelling to Labuan."

Five major liveaboard disasters in six years? Maybe it is pure dumb luck, but statistically, that's something other than just being unlucky.

2015 is another bad year. In March, Typhoon Masak hit the Truk Siren, which was driven onto a reef, as was the Truk Odyssey. But while the Odyssey was freed and repaired, the Siren was hit by looters, who then burned it (WWDAS is replacing it with a new boat next spring). Now five months later, the Palau Siren is out of commission.

Of the Siren Fleet's original eight boats, only three are sailing now. While some of these incidents may be chalked up to just bad luck (certainly the Truk Siren), it seems crew errors played a role in the other incidents. In our July 2012 issue, we wrote about the Oriental Siren sinking and concerns with the Siren Fleet, citing previous passengers' perceived issues with the crew even then.

Finding Good Crew Can Be Tough

The Fiji Siren, the Indo Siren and the Philippine Siren are still sailing, but some readers have expressed concern about the latter, a traditional Phinisi with sails. Henry Osborne (Boston, MA) was aboard with his dive shop's charter trip last spring. "Halfway through, we got into bad weather and the main engine broke down. The 22-year-old cruise director said the boat only had one engine, so we'd have to sail back to homeport. Our group leader asked if the captain had ever piloted by sail before on any other vessel. He said no. Then he was asked if he had steered the Siren by sail, and he replied he had been the captain on this boat for nine years, and they had never sailed it. Our leader told him, 'We will get off the boat right where we are,' and our group of 22 divers disembarked onto the little sand bank with all our belongings. We were picked up four hours later by a British research vessel. Normally, the trip back to port with the Siren would take six hours, but because of the storm, it took the boat 68 hours."

Jennings says WWDAS only hires qualified people for positions requiring professional certifications, giving everyone a Policy and Procedures manual to follow, and now gives all employees a 40-question general exam and 10-question, position-specific test that they must pass to show not only they've read the manual, but also understand it. Jennings says all Siren boats have ongoing training and practice, and are updated based on past real-life boat incidents. After the Oriental Siren sinking due to the hull breach, "it's company policy that all our boats have a water-pumping capacity of at least 10,000 liters per minute, with all main engines running in conjunction with NS50 pumps and all back-up engines in conjunction with NS80 pumps. We also have standalone Honda engine-driven pumps for removing water from the boat and/or for firefighting. We also now carry hull-breach kits that crew members are trained to use, and are also drilled with monthly. We have also reduced nighttime cruising where possible across the fleet to reduce risk."

While WWDAS seems to respond to each incident, trying to correct things and improve their practice, we can't lose sight of the very simple fact: five of the Siren Fleet's eight boats are no longer operating because of accidents, the latest happening last month. What's a diver to conclude about this fleet? Starcrossed or negligent?

This Is Not Just WWDAS's Problem

Frank Wasson, owner of the M/V Spree that does Gulf of Mexico trips out of Key West, FL, often gives his point of view as a liveaboard owner on ScubaBoard forums. While he generally defends WWDAS, he doesn't always see eye to eye with them, saying someone from WWDAS "chewed him out" online a couple years ago "when I mentioned that if the 'flag country' WWDAS officially sailed its boats under [it's Thailand] was a real flag state that actually cared about maintaining compliance, and not some bunch of yahoos who performed the annual inspection for a box of frozen chickens and a fifth of scotch, we'd have a lot fewer sinkings, burnings and groundings. That doesn't apply to just WWDAS boats, but to any boat headquartered in some Third World place that allows that kind of safety culture to exist. I may also have mentioned that hiring fishing boat captains who have no background in diving and little in common with their guests, including language, makes folks get uncertain instructions and guidance during an emergency, and therefore, more folks have the potential of getting hurt."

WWDAS assured Wasson its boats are maintained to the high standards of Lloyds Register Yacht program, but Wasson says that is "a nice way of saying they can get insurance, but that's about it when it comes to safety, and that their captains meet all flag state requirements for carrying passengers. But if the flag state requirements are inadequate, it allows an owner to shrug and say 'Well, we meet all of the requirements.'"

Wasson told us that this is not just a problem for the Siren Fleet. "The recent spate of Aggressor and Dancer Fleet problems drives home the argument that without an owner's presence (notice how Wayne Brown is spending a lot more time on the boats recently) or at least direct involvement in the daily operation of the boat, the crew, who have no ownership, will cut corners, and they will accept 'normalization of deviance' issues that the owner likely wouldn't. When Paul Haines owned Aggressor Fleet's boats, the captains had a small stake in their boats, which accomplished two things: The Captain wasn't on a six-month contract hamster wheel, so he or she was more likely to stay with their boat -- and it also made them less likely to run their investment up on the rocks." If crew were given more of a financial incentive or a better chance to climb through the employment ranks, maybe they'd better tend to the boats.

Excellent Customer Service -- But That's Not Enough

Where WWDAS really excels is customer service -- no diver we've talked to has complained that the main office didn't take good care of them after an unfortunate incident, or short-changed them when reimbursing for damages and travel expenses. That's why most repeat guests and dive travel agencies will continue to book trips. One dive travel agent (who wants to stay anonymous because he does business with WWDAS) tells us, " I have to give credit to them because they take the necessary actions, and quickly, to appease impacted guests. I've had a few conversations with guests on other trips where mishaps occurred (and did not make the press), and they said they intended to return because of the good value WWDAS provides. With what seems like an unusually high number of incidents over a short timeframe, there have remarkably been no injuries and no deaths."

But five major liveaboard disasters in six years? Maybe it is pure dumb luck, but statistically that's something other than just being unlucky. How many other non-Siren boats have been hit as hard during that time? Besides the Truk Odyssey and three liveaboards that sank within three weeks in Thailand, WWDAS's home flag country (read our article about that in the March 2014 issue), surely there have been others we don't know about. But if even a fifth of all serious liveaboard disasters in the past five years have been Siren boats, that's beyond statistical probability for bad luck.

No one can pinpoint the precise cause of every failure or predict the future, but for a fleet -- whether they are fishing boats, whale-watching vessels, ferries, or cruise ships -- to lose nearly two-thirds of its craft in six years raises a big red flag. It sure gives me second thoughts about paying big bucks to be on a Siren cruise. Sure, no divers' lives have been lost, but a lot of vacations have been spoiled.

-- Ben Davison

P.S.: The damage to its Siren Fleet isn't stopping WWDAS from adding more boats. It's starting a whole new fleet now under its new Master liveaboard brand (www.masterliveaboards.com). The Galapagos Master was the first to debut in June, followed by the Truk Master (to replace the Truk Siren) in February, and the French Polynesia Master at a later date.

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