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February 2024    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 50, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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What's Happening with Liveaboards?

caveat emptor rules, so act accordingly

from the February, 2024 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In the late fall of 2023, the Belize Aggressor IV ran aground and its hull was severely damaged, and the Indo Siren was destroyed by fire. Nobody was hurt, but in both cases, passengers lost possessions, and, in some cases, passports.

In the last five years, Undercurrent has reported that several liveaboards were destroyed by dramatic fires, running aground, or capsizing. In a few cases, tragically, lives were lost.

That list of disasters includes destruction by fire of the Hurricane (Egypt), the Scuba Scene (Egypt), and the Red Sea Aggressor I (Egypt). The Carlton Queen (Egypt) and the Dream Keeper (Philippines) capsized and sank. The New Dream (Egypt), the Seawolf Felo (Egypt), the Emperor Echo (Egypt), and the Vortex (Mexico) ran aground. And one can never forget the Labor Day 2019 fire that destroyed the Conception (USA) and killed 34 people - the worst liveaboard disaster of all.

In the previous 10 years, Undercurrent reported the loss of 11, including the WAOW (Indonesia), the Overseas (Egypt ), the Truk Siren (Chuuk), the Oriental Siren (Indonesia), and the Mandarin Siren (Indonesia) by fire.

The Wind Dancer (Costa Rica), the Palau Siren (Palau), the Galapagos Aggressor (Ecuador), the Emperor Fraser (Egypt), and the Turks & Caicos Aggressor II ran aground. The Siren (Thailand) was in a collision.

(And though not part of this time scale, we should not forget the tragic 2001 sinking of the Wave Dancer (Belize) and the 20 lives lost.)

New Dream Liveaboard

What has been going on with liveaboards?

That's an important question. Around the same number were lost during the last five years as in the previous 10 years, and during a couple of years of COVID most weren't working.

The owner of an extensive fleet of liveaboards in the Red Sea and Indo-Pacific told Undercurrent, "It's a numbers game. There are more and more boats. Statistically, there are fewer boats in operation being lost than ever before. There are just too many boats there."

And that may be true. When I wrote in UK's Diver Magazine in the 1980s about the loss of Colona III to fire, it was one of just a handful of liveaboards operating in the Red Sea. Now, about 175 operate there, more than anywhere else.

But that doesn't adequately explain why so many high-end boats, catering to people willing to spend $4000 or more for a week aboard, have such serious safety issues. It may be more in line with what one owner, scathing about the safety issues of others, told us: "At every dive show, I make a PowerPoint presentation to charter companies. One section of my presentation is on IACS class and safety, redundancy, etc. Not a single person has ever asked me a follow-up question. All questions are only related to prices and commissions."

Liveaboard Safety

Evidently, safety is something far from travel agencies' and wholesalers' minds when selling a trip. And divers don't ask many safety questions before booking, presumably because they assume that the ship's owners and booking agents are confident the liveaboard is safe.

Liveaboard safety is about both the crew and the craft. Is the captain competent? Experienced seamen making passage avoid shallow reefs and wreck sites, sure signs of potential dangers. But that's where divers want to visit. Liveaboards habitually visit hazardous marine areas. Is the crew trained in all safety matters? Have the passengers been versed in their duties? And is the ship safe? That's a complex matter, ranging from having wired fire alarms in the cabins to properly storing fuel and having complete regular inspections to satisfy the specific vessel licensing authority.

We weren't always welcome either; we were shot at three times and arrested once.

Back in the Day

I crewed on the MY Lady Jenny V liveaboard for six months during a 1992 hiatus from my regular work. I recently spent a week with my old Red Sea skipper, now retired, discussing liveaboard safety against the background of the trip we did together, traveling the Red Sea from Egypt through the waters of Sudan, Eritrea, and Yemen, to Djibouti. The diving was out-of-this-world, but the Red Sea has many famous diveable wrecks, indicative of the dangers of navigation.

During our journey, we rarely saw another liveaboard. No rescue services were available anywhere, and we were far from the main shipping lanes. We weren't always welcome either; we were shot at three times and arrested once.

I was in charge of the diving, and the skipper was overall boss. Our vessel occasionally touched the reef in the night when the wind changed direction, and our mooring was no longer in the lee of the reef, but our sturdy German-built steel hull, built in 1936, stood the test. We had frequent mechanical troubles, exacerbated by occasional friction between crew members. But never were the passengers endangered or even aware of the problems. We were determined that nothing untoward would happen to our guests and took steps to ensure that. I'm amazed we got away with it.

Despite having an autopilot, the helm was always manned whenever we were underway. Crew patrolled the boat 24/7, so any problem would be immediately spotted and addressed. Some reefs were actually several miles from where they were shown on the charts, meaning we always risked running into one, so sharp eyes were maintained, watching for breaking waves or light-colored sea - the tell-tale signs of shallow water.

In short, the boat was professionally run and subject to international shipping regulations for a vessel that went beyond the immediate coastline.

Scuba diving safety, however, was not ideal. We had no therapeutic oxygen for any decompression emergency. Nitrox had yet to prove its value, so we filled the scuba tanks with plain air. No crew member had any medical training, though we operated far from civilization.

The intense heat meant water coming in to cool the engines was a heady 90F. The engine room was so hot my rubber-soled shoes even melted on the ladder down to it. The crew couldn't afford to stand around there.

Mechanical breakdowns were frequent, and it was up to the crew's ingenuity to solve them. I remember driving the vessel from Sudan to Hodeida in Yemen, steering by means of two electrical plugs on trailing cables plugged into a trailing socket, one for left and one for right because the relays in the autopilot had failed. We had drifted for three days among Sudan's reefs before our Scottish engineer dreamed up this temporary, if inelegant, solution.

We had functioning life rafts and lifejackets but only one dive tender with a single temperamental outboard motor. Though more than half a century old, the vessel had been built to European standards. Alas, much of the heavier equipment fitted for her later role was installed on the vessel's starboard side. That included the crane for lifting the pick-up boat, the compressor, the generators, and even the heavy oak salon table. This meant we had to move the fuel oil strategically between tanks, port, and starboard as it got used, or the vessel would list at a quirky angle.

We were shot at one night in Egyptian waters because a patrol had mistaken our vessel for a fishing boat illegally operating in a marine park. We were shot at as we hurriedly departed Port Sudan after it was discovered the ship's papers had gone back to the UK with the owner by mistake. We were shot at by an Eritrean People's Liberation Front vessel when we approached Massawa (the vessel, passengers, and crew had been arrested there the year before), and we were temporarily arrested in Hodeida, Yemen, before the owner flew in with the ship's papers. We were also fined for not flying the correct flag for the recently reunited North and South Yemen.

Many passengers now expect hotel-level comfort.

A group of passengers meant to join us in Hodeida were detained in Sana'a for a week because they carried an insufficient number of entry visas. Their booking agent had failed to realize that departing port to go diving equated to departing the country and the boat return was a new entry. The incoming passengers were not happy.

A year later, a military helicopter sent a burst of machine-gun fire alongside the hull when it was at the Seven Brothers (Bab el Mendab), the gateway between the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. (It was 30 years before the Houthis started causing trouble there.) The captain retreated hurriedly into international waters. Dr. Eugenie Clark was on board then. You can read the full story in my book, Amazing Diving Stories.

No lives were lost during the decade the vessel operated in the Red Sea, but it went out of business when the Egyptians discovered the diving business could be lucrative and began to charge half what the Lady Jenny V charged. It all comes down to price, and soon the British-run boat and the few others like it were gone.

Today's Liveaboards

Though we are more savvy now about smoke detectors and emergency exits, many liveaboard dive boats today are not licensed to go more than a few miles from their home coast, yet some do. To be licensed, they must meet international safety regulations, which increases the cost to the end user.

Maybe the surge in popularity of liveaboard diving has attracted a different type of passenger, one who would never put up with the deprivations of true expedition diving 30 or more years ago. Many passengers now expect hotel-level comfort.

Regardless, liveaboards are still a case of "buyer-beware." Passengers need to be savvy in providing for their own safety, asking the right questions, and establishing safety procedures before the vessel leaves the dock. Even then, the safest-run boat will be at the mercy of wind and tide, so don't complain if you are not provided with the exact itinerary you were expecting.

A sailor's proverb: "Worse things can happen at sea." The captain's first duty is to ensure the safety of the vessel and its passengers.

- John Bantin

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