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January 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 44, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Wooden Hulls, Tumble Dryers and Single Engines

from the January, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

What has my time as a dive guide on a pioneering Red Sea liveaboard and my Hotpoint tumble dryer got in common?

The liveaboard I worked on, the Lady Jenny V, was built of solid German steel in 1936. I traveled with her down throughout the Red Sea in 1992, where, off the coast of Sudan, Eritrea and Yemen, the only charts we had were drawn by Commander Moresby's cartographers 150 years earlier. To say they were inaccurate is an understatement. I remember one reef being seven miles distant from where we expected it to be!

The upshot was, from time to time we heard the ominous sound of the hull grinding on to a remote reef. We'd run aground. The German steel regularly saved our lives, and I became adept at using the powerful pickup boat to help push our vessel off, tug-like, from the bow.

Of course, had we a wooden hull, this routine exercise would have happened only once. Such impact usually breaches wooden hulls.

On one occasion, the Lady Jenny V touched a propeller on the reef, resulting in a distorted prop shaft. She traveled back at a slow pace to her home base in Egypt on the remaining engine. It was fortuitous she had more than one.

So what of tumble dryers? Well, it's no secret that built up fluff can ignite and burn down houses; Hotpoint has recently recalled and modified a vast number of tumble dryers it distributed in the UK for that reason. When you've witnessed how fast a woodenhulled Egyptian liveaboard burns down to the gunnels once it catches fire, you'd think twice about having a tumble dryer on board. Still, the Mandarin Siren fell victim to that fate.

These experiences tell me that to be on any wooden- hulled liveaboard boat far from help carries a risk. Witness the Siren Fleet and its experience with such vessels. Furthermore, those with single engines should also not roam far from shore. Disasters don't happen often, but they are always disasters.

So remote places I wouldn't dive in a vessel with a wooden hull: Cocos Island, Darwin and Wolf in the Galapagos, Tubbataha Reef in the Philippines, the Coral Sea, Palau and parts of PNG. Thankfully, all the vessels I can think of that go to these places have steel (or aluminum) hulls apart from Philippines Siren!

Timber-built hulls have their place. There was a time when the seas around the islands of Raja Ampat could be considered remote. Now 40 liveaboards have a license to operate there. The commonly encountered, Indonesian-built, pinisi-rigged, wooden-hulled vessels probably have safety in numbers. It wasn't always the case. Although some of the most luxurious liveaboards afloat, they generally all suffer from the same defect that would prevent them from getting an international passenger license -- and that's the wooden hull. (One exception is The Pelagian.)

The big wooden-hulled dhoni liveaboards that operate within the atolls of the Maldives tend to travel in the company of a second smaller dhoni (the diving dhoni) and are rarely far from help either. It's the same with any vessel operating within the safety of a lagoon.

The same can be said of the often-crowded nearshore sites of the Egyptian Red Sea. However, if you are taking a trip to the Brother Islands, to Daedalus Reef or to the Sudan, choose a vessel suitable for the job -- that's one with two engines and a steel hull. The Diver's Heaven fleet vessels always took the precaution of storing passengers' documents and valuables in a watertight container in the wheelhouse. It's a sensible idea. They'd learned the hard way after losing a woodenhulled vessel to a fire.

Wood is often the chosen material for locally built boats, whereas steel is more often likely with vessels that have been converted from a previous use. It's something to consider when booking your next liveaboard trip. Ask the question!

-- John Bantin

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