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October 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Dive Vessel Inspections: Not All Insured Liveaboards Have Been Thoroughly Checked

from the October, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In the aftermath of several alarming fires, groundings and sinkings by liveaboards around the world, several Undercurrent subscribers have asked what oversight exists by government agencies with regard to diving vessels. In the U.S., all licensing and vessel inspections are conducted by the U.S Coast Guard. For the most part, the USCG does a thorough and very professional job.

The licensing process requires applicants to show substantial evidence of sea time and practical experience to qualify to take the Master's examination. It's a tough test -- candidates will be challenged on Rules of the Road, safety, fire-fighting, navigation, seamanship and contingencies. Masters (captains) must show proof of ongoing sea time, and renew every five years. Chemical drug testing, a physical, security credentials and a background check are required on each renewal. Unfortunately, no actual "operational" test in maneuvering an actual boat is given. I find this remarkable.

Annual vessel inspections are required where a USCG officer conducts a complete hands-on visit for each passenger vessel operating under a Certificate of Inspection to carry more than six passengers for hire. This includes hull, engines, navigational instruments, safety equipment, fuel systems, marine heads, stability, etc. Additionally, periodic dry dock inspections are conducted. This oversight is excellent, but it should be remembered that "seaworthiness" is mostly evaluated for general passenger voyages . . . not specifically for diving operations. Some USCG districts take a more focused approach to diving, but this tends to vary widely. USCG rules and regulations also apply in U.S. Territories and Commonwealth regions, such as the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

On the other hand, with the exception of vessels under flag from the U.K. and Canada, oversight is virtually nonexistent. This should come as no surprise to most divers. With Third World countries such as Indonesia, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Micronesia, Melanesia, most of the Caribbean and the Bahamas, Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama, Colombia, countries of the Mediterranean, Thailand, etc., there is simply no infrastructure or budget to do a proper job. Nor is there any real process for proper evaluation, screening, testing and continuing quality assurance to captains.

Some travelers may be seduced into thinking that just because a vessel has insurance, it has been required to undergo specific inspections. This is not always the case. Incredibly, some insurance underwriters accept vessels solely with an application, a purported "recent survey," and some photos. This in no way should be a basis for diver confidence because it's difficult to determine what criteria actually were applied. And some vessels specifically do not buy coverage for "in water" activities. Like, duh, diving. I know, this sounds hard to believe, but it's part of the bizarre reality out there. However, if an operator has insurance from a credible underwriter, such as a Lloyd's of London syndicate, it will be vetted properly, and oversight will include operations and maintenance, as well as who is placed aboard as Master. It's worth inquiring if you have doubts.

There is a huge element of trust that must be considered. There is no guarantee that an operator will exercise due diligence to the vessel or its crew. Don't be fooled into thinking that a "big" name company with "fleet" operations will necessarily be safer. Many "fleet" operators -- the Aggressor fleet, for example -- don't own the vessels they advertise and put their names on. Most vessels are independently owned by other parties and merely sign on as "franchise" members. Sometimes a smaller operator with vigilant owner attention can be far better. And safer.

I strongly recommend that divers research the operations they plan on diving with and boarding, with a personal sense of "situational awareness." Look for safety gear (life jackets, rafts, EPIRBS, signaling devices, oxygen units, etc.) and engage the captain or vessel manager in a discussion about emergency protocols and evacuations in the event of an accident. Get the lowdown on search and rescue and abandon ship, and always make certain you have your own portable flashlight in your cabin in case a nighttime crisis manifests.

Some foreign flag vessel operations do an excellent job of assigning captains and crew with specific training protocols and overall vessel maintenance and voyage safety plans. Excellent operators include the Sea Hunter fleet in Costa Rica, the Truk Odyssey, the Bilikiki in the Solomons, the Nai'a in Fiji and Tonga, the Ocean Hunter fleet in Palau, Dewi Nusantara (Paradise Dancer) in Indonesia, Cuan Law in the British Virgin Islands, and I've seen the bar set much higher in recent years by the higher-end vessels in Indonesia. But frequent staff turnover and virtually no government overview still leaves me twitchy about many vessels.

Travel smart. Do your homework. Shit happens.

(First published in January 2016.) Bret Gilliam, a regular contributor to Undercurrent, has been, among other things, a USCG-licensed Master for over four decades and has operated vessels up to 550 feet long and 28,000 tons worldwide.

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