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June 2003 Vol. 29, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Is Your Live-Aboard Safe? – Part II

can you trust it 500 miles at sea?

from the June, 2003 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

If you're planning a liveaboard trip, what precautions can you take to assure yourself of the safety of the ship and competence of the crew? Frankly, it's not very easy, especially when your craft's home port is in a remote third world location. Still, there are questions you can ask before you book your trip.

First check the ship's registration, or flag state. Don't assume that a ship operating in, say, Fiji is registered there. Wayne Hasson, who runs the Aggressor Fleet, advises, "The ship's registration should be in a country that's a signatory to SOLAS," a.k.a. the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. SOLAS specifies minimum standards for the safe construction, equipment, and operation of ships cruising internationally. Each flag state is responsible for ensuring that their ships comply and for issuing proof of compliance. SOLAS compliance should form a baseline for structural soundness and proper safety equipment for various size vessels, including liveaboards.

But there are glitches. Not every nation has signed the Convention. Vessels that operate only in one country are not required to comply; instead they may be inspected by local authorities who can be notoriously lax in their inspection and enforcement procedures. And, says Bret Gilliam, who owns International Training Inc. (TDI and SDI) and Fathoms Magazine, "For vessels less than 1,000 tons, SOLAS enforcement is virtually nonexistent outside the U.S., U.K., and Norway. Sure, it's better than nothing ... but not much." Flags from many countries, including Belize, Honduras, the Bahamas, Panama, and Thailand, are often referred to as "flags of convenience," because of lax enforcement.

"... you can get a license to operate a 500-ton
vessel with hundreds of passengers and never
once even be required to demonstrate that
you can dock, get underway, back into a
slip, or handle a vessel at sea."

Undercurrent polled a number of live-aboard operators to see if they were SOLAS-compliant. Many were, but we also uncovered an alphabet soup of other regulatory agencies or insurers that promulgate standards for construction and local inspection of vessels, including the U.S. Coast Guard, American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), International Association of Classification Societies (IACS), Bureau Veritas, and others. Most require annual inspections, so you can ask to see a current certificate of inspection. But the quality of those inspections may vary widely, even from port to port. Jeroen Deknatel of Fantasea Divers points out that in Phuket, Thailand, "Local port authorities' rules for safety at sea are substandard and in any case not enforced." As a result, Deknatel believes, "Everybody competes for the lowest prices instead of the best quality. ... Sooner or later Thailand's reputation as a dive destination will suffer because of all these fly-by-night operators." (We reported on the sinking of the Atlantis X in Thailand shortly after divers were evacuated last year.)

For added peace of mind, request a letter recapping the vessel's current insurance coverage. Chris Young, a captain with 12 years experience on big boats, who skippered the Wave Dancer through Hurricane Mitch three years before it capsized in 2001, suggests you look particularly at the vessel's liability limits. He points out that the $5 million limit on the Wave Dancer's policy was far too low to cover the catastrophic capsizing. However, that's a high limit among the live-aboards we surveyed.

The Nautilus Explorer out of Vancouver, B.C., boasts unlimited liability coverage, but most liveaboard policies max out in the $1 million to $2 million range. The Reina Silvia, in the Galapagos, has a limit of only $100,000 per passenger. The Thorfin, in Truk Lagoon, has a separate $3 million limit for "surface concerns" and $1 million for "diver's risk." Gilliam, who also holds an unlimited master's license, points out that these policies frequently exclude coverage for diving activities, which instead are covered under the divemaster's or instructor's liability policy. Some live-aboards consider insurance limits private information and may not disclose them.

Young recommends that you also look into the qualifications of the skipper and crew, as well, and verify the captain's license and the displacement tonnage he is qualified for. The Wave Dancer, for instance, was originally admeasured in excess of 300 tons, but it had been revised down to a lesser tonnage under a complicated series of exemptions. This is a common practice, according to Gilliam, because most nations charge much more to register vessels greater than 100 tons and require hiring a local pilot to take the boat in and out of harbors. Young contends that when it capsized, the Wave Dancer was under the command of an inexperienced captain with a new 100-ton license. (He survived, by the way.)

The history and experience, not just the license, are important for a live-aboard skipper. Gilliam points out that even the U.S. Coast Guard does not require a practical seamanship test. As he puts it, "You can't get a license to drive a car without a practical driving exam, but you can get a license to operate a 500-ton vessel with hundreds of passengers and never once even be required to demonstrate that you can dock, get underway, back into a slip, or handle a vessel at sea." Currently, says Gilliam, a 200- ton license is almost as easy to get as a 100-ton ticket. The Coast Guard is in the process of tightening up its licensing requirements for ships admeasured more than 200 tons, leaving the smaller licenses with even less scrutiny. Most liveaboards fall below the 200-ton rating, and very few have U.S. licensed captains. So it's a good idea to also find out something about the captain's practical experience, over the course of his career and on that particular liveaboard. In our survey, most captains had more than 10 years' experience on the sea and around seven years on their current vessels. But some live-aboard skippers and crews turn over frequently, so it's best to check on the background of the skipper who'll be on the bridge for your particular trip.

Ideally, crew members should have certifications of STCW training in firefighting, first aid, lifeboat operation, personal survival at sea, and responsibility for management of passenger safety, according to Young. Virtually every maritime country is party to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers. However, in most locations STCW training isn't available, so crew training may be done by local authorities or by the live-aboard operator. Of course, the captain and some of the crew must be certified scuba instructors or divemasters, as well.

But no matter what the paperwork says, circumstances may change. Boats and equipment can run down, and seasoned captains and crews may be replaced by rookies, especially in a faltering travel market. If possible, try to contact some passengers who've recently been aboard the vessel and see how they felt about conditions. Were safety drills conducted for the crew and passengers? Were personal flotation devices and lifeboats or life rafts clearly pointed out? Were first aid supplies and oxygen in evidence? Did the captain and crew inspire confidence among the passengers?

It's also advisable to verify the weather and water conditions before you book your trip, if you want to avoid dangerous storms. Then, when all your research is done, consider your own risk tolerance. How many chances are you willing to take?

Once on board, Gilliam recommends that you look for an overall shipshape appearance, including well-maintained paint, clean bottom, clean galley and public areas, orderly engine rooms, well-marked safety equipment, and properly functioning radar, radios, and other electronics. Ask to visit the bridge and look for a well-kept space and a captain who is clean and well-ordered himself. The captain should give thorough safety briefings and answer questions intelligently and cheerfully. Similarly, the crew should look professional and should be able to answer questions completely and articulately. Gilliam points to the Sea Hunter and Undersea Hunter in Costa Rica as examples of wellmaintained and well-run liveaboards. "Safety is good business," he says.

After all, we're all looking for that once-in-a-lifetime dive trip, but not the LAST trip of a lifetime.

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