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June 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 30, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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A Bad Night on the Wind Dancer

divers and crew endangered as reef rips open hull

from the June, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

There has been a spate of leaking and sinking liveaboards in recent months. For examples, see our March 2014 story "Choose Your Dive Boat Wisely," about three liveaboards in Thailand that sank within three weeks of each other last year, and last month's story about a typhoon that hit Truk that sunk the Siren and badly damaged the Odyssey. We believe it's important to keep our readers apprised of liveaboard dramas, and Undercurrent subscriber Joel Sill (Los Angeles, CA) had such a tale while aboard the Wind Dancer at Cocos Island in late April. After he made it back to the U.S., he wrote his story and shared it with us.

* * * * *

On the evening of April 29, we were moored in Chatham Bay, Cocos Island. All the divers and some crew were having dinner in the salon; it was the night before heading back to the mainland at Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Suddenly, we heard the terrible sound of steel scraping, which increased as the ship starting banging up and down. I have been on boats that have run aground, and the sound is unmistakable. Everyone hurried to the dive deck, which is also the Muster Station. Looking astern, I could see we were smashing up on the rocks of what I believe was Manuelito Island (I'm not sure because it was dark and I don't know how far we drifted). The jagged rocks were covered with barnacles and foaming over with the typical surge. My first thought was, "If we have to go in the water, this is not a safe retreat," then I vaguely wondered about black-tip sharks.

The sound of scraping and smashing increased. It seemed we were being pushed higher on the rocks by the surge and now pinned on our starboard side, with the bow pointing down. The crew was in full emergency mode, trying to ascertain Wind Dancer 's condition and what action to take, and yelling frantically back and forth all over the ship. While nervous, they were trained, followed procedures as best as possible and did a superb job of keeping everyone calm. One of the crew from the galley instructed us to put on our life jackets. We went to our cabins to grab them, and some of us put on wetsuits ,and stuffed phones and passports in waterproof bags. The couple in cabin 4, which is forward on the starboard side and below the waterline, said there was a large hole in the hull in their cabin, with water pouring in.

From my vantage point, the crew attacked the problems with two simultaneous approaches. One team worked outside outside to get the ship off the rocks, the other tried to stop the leaking inside. I later found out that they came up with a solution to use both Zodiacs lashed to the bow, crank the outboards to the max and pull the Wind Dancer free. This was all being done in the dark, in the surge and mostly with flashlights. It worked: The crew managed to pull Wind Dancer off the rocks. But once freed and afloat, the ship started to nose down and list to starboard. I went to Cabin 4 and saw that the hole was bigger than a basketball, but fortunately accessible for temporary repair.

Once off the rocks and with the boat taking on water, one divemaster told my cabin mate we were going to sink. That caused serious agitation, but he may have been correct at that time. Fortunately, no one panicked, and we all stayed calm with the help of the crew, who worked diligently through the night. They started large pumps and began patching holes. One of the two rudders was sheared off. The crew was able to use the crane, capture it, then lash it to the crane base. When I asked about the other rudder, I was told it was leaking from the through hull bearing but could be repaired with a spare bearing. They managed to roughly patch the hole in cabin 4 though it kept leaking like a slow faucet. After a sleepless night (some of the crew were underwater, fixing the hull in scuba gear, for seven hours!), the captain and crew assessed all the damage . Water had leaked into the engine room and incapacitated one of the engines, but the Captain said he was confident we could get to port if he traveled slowly with the one engine and not autopilot, which might stress the remaining rudder. He also said there were contingency plans for the the Okeanos liveaboard to meet us if needed.

By now, the divers had several questions like, "Where the hell was the park ranger?" We were told no park ranger (there are now a few on the island) answered our Mayday. Then we found out that the nearest park ranger said his radio could receive but not send transmissions. (The park fee is $490 and evacuation fee is $30 a person.)

Some newer divers may have been emotionally damaged for life from the incident -- how far does a voucher go to cure that?

The next morning we headed to Puntarenas, all a bit tentative but grateful to a crew who helped avert what could have been a deadly incident. Luckily the seas were flat. Back in port at Puntarenas, the Wind Dancer owner came onboard, made apologies and said that after an indepth investigation, he would somehow compensate the guests. In May, I received a letter from Larry Speaker, vice president of operations for the Aggressor Fleet (which manages trips for the Wind Dancer), and a $500 voucher toward any future Aggressor or Dancer Trip for the two missed dives.

But a question remains: Was anyone on the bridge or on watch when the ship broke free from the mooring? If so, could this incident have been avoided? Several guests have sent me emails wondering what is going on with the promised investigation and explanation, but there has been no word.

They also feel it's unfair they were arbitrarily given a $500 Aggressor/Dancer voucher when they paid cash for the trip. I, too, feel it's inequitable. It's a simple show of good faith for dive operators to just return the money and not force people to take another one of their vessels after such a harrowing experience. Some newer divers may have been emotionally damaged for life from the incident -- I witnessed the wife of a newlymarried couple shaking, crying and justifiably terrified. How far does a voucher go to cure that?"

* * * * *

We contacted Larry Speaker to ask for an update on the investigation of what happened on the Wind Dancer, but he said he wasn't allowed to speak to the media.

For any liveaboard going to a remote dive destination -- and Cocos Island is certainly one of the most remote -- crew and passengers aboard are on their own if trouble happens. To be prepared in case the worst happens, Ken Knezick, president of the dive travel agency Island Dreams Travel in Houston ( www.divetrip.com ), offers these recommendations for divers, and they start as soon as you go aboard:
* Listen carefully to the safety briefings. Store your passport, wallet and other critical documents in a waterproof pouch that you can access at a moment's notice.
* Know where your life jacket is stored, and where to find exit hatches and emergency muster stations.
* Mark the locations of fire extinguishers and life preservers.
* If you see anything out of the ordinary, call attention to the captain or cruise director immediately.
* Where safety is concerned, assume nothing.

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