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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Review: No Safe Harbor by Joe Burnworth

Todd and I were sitting in the airport in Turks & Caicos waiting to go home, and I was talking to a couple that had been on the Aggressor with us. They had met on the Belize Aggressor III, when they both worked on the ship. They no longer worked for the Aggressor Fleet, but seemed to have a lot of respect for the company. I was mentioning to them my desire to visit Belize and I asked them about the Peter Hughes boats, specifically the Tobago itinerary, which has apparently been discontinued since I was researching it. They didn't really say anything too negative about Peter Hughes, but talked for a few minutes about the Aggressor Fleet and how they had always felt that the Aggressor Fleet was top notch in safety. Honestly, I was confused by the conversation, since I really hadn't asked about safety.

Fast forward a week or two. I was researching up coming dive trips, planning to go somewhere in late fall. We had kind of decided on Belize, but I wanted to make sure I had all of the options researched. I investigated the Peter Hughes Tobago itinerary, only to see on Scubaboard someone talking about reading No Safe Harbor before going on a Peter Hughes boat.

Ohhh kayyy...

I looked up No Safe Harbor and saw it was about the Peter Hughes boat Wave Dancer, and that it had sunk somehow. I researched the Wave Dancer, found a bunch of articles about it, and decided not to research the Tobago itinerary again. No Peter Hughes boats for us. I bought the book used off of Amazon for $3 and decided to check it out.

The Wave Dancer was a Diving live aboard boat operating out of Belize. In October 2001, the Richmond Dive Club scheduled a trip to Belize, and part of the group would stay on the Wave Dancer and the rest on the Belize Aggressor III.* As Hurricane Iris, a category 4 storm, approached Belize, both boats took refuge in Big Creek with all of their passengers aboard. As they rode out the storm, the Wave Dancer broke free of its moorings, hit the Belize Aggressor, and drifted out into the lagoon. It listed and finally capsized, killing all passengers except three and many of the crew. Peter Hughes attributed the accident to a freak occurrence. The book, and many witness accounts, say otherwise. No one has taken even partial responsibility for the accident, even though it seems clear that the Captain and to some extent Peter Hughes, were responsible.

This was a scary book for me. I'm accustomed to reading about dive accidents, it's been a hobby of mine for a while now. I read about them and analyze what the diver did wrong and could have done to prevent the accident. In turn, this makes me a better diver and more apt to know what to do when an emergency situation happens to me. This book, though, isn't truly a dive accident. I can't say that the divers on board reacted wrongly in any way. They simply trusted the crew to know what to do during a dangerous storm, and expected the captain's opinion to be correct. I, too, would have assumed that the captain knew better than me. He's a professional. Needless to say, this book really got me thinking about what sort of danger I put myself in when I'm on a live aboard, how trusting I should be with my life, and what I can do to prevent this from happening to me.

My thoughts...
  • There are a lot of live aboard operators out there. Choose carefully. Find out about safety in advance, and make that a priority.
  • When you're on a live aboard, you don't have access to television, newspapers, internet or phones. You are 100% cut off from the world and all information will come from the crew. In the event of a storm, go ahead and get the ship's email and contact someone at home who can give you information.
  • Consider when you plan your trip and realize that planning a trip in hurricane season is a risk. Watch the weather reports before you leave and think about what you would do if you were stranded where you are going. This tragedy happened in Belize, a third world country, and for that reason, the passengers were not eager to leave the ship and go to a shelter. By the time they reached Big Creek (just a couple hours ahead of the storm), the surrounding resorts and hotels had been evacuated and all that remained was a storm shelter in a bank.
  • Remember that ships flagged in countries other than the US do not have to be up to US Coast Guard standards. Inspectors post-accident found the safety of the ship lacking, and the long-range radio did not even work during the trip.
  • Trust your instincts and if something feels wrong, it might be. Question your captain. There were passengers who knew a little something about boats and knew that it would be potentially unsafe to have the boat tied up as it was. When it was moored in Big Creek, it was sticking out into the channel and vulnerable to the storm surge. The Aggressor was tied up better and people noticed, but still trusted the captain.
  • Usually on a live aboard, you're barefoot and casual, but if you're riding out a storm, have your life jacket and shoes on. None of the bodies recovered from the Wind Dancer were wearing life jackets or shoes.
  • If you are in a storm, keep your dive light on you. In fact, keep a flashlight available in your room at all times. In the event of a fire or flood, you can find your way out easier. Divers usually have flashlights with them for night dives. Todd and I had no fewer than 5 with us on the Aggressor, but all of them were up on the dive deck.
  • Listen to safety instructions. I admit, the explanation of where the escape routes were when we were in Turks & Caicos went in one ear and out the other. Although, to their credit, the crew placed a map of the escape routes on our bed after it was made up each morning.
Will I continue to go on live aboards? Of course. Just not Peter Hughes. I'll be careful to choose my ships wisely and continue reading Scubaboard and Undercurrent for my diving information.

As for a review of the book itself, it was well-written, but definitely not worth reading if you're not a diver or interested in this accident. There was far too much detail about the beginning (non-eventful) part of the trip. "And then, they went up and had a rum punch on the sun deck..." We don't need to know that much detail and I ended up skimming some. It was a short, easy read, and read better than reading the government report on the subject. So, I give it a "just ok."

*To my knowledge, my friends from Turks & Caicos were not on the Belize Aggressor III during this event.

More info on the Wave Dancer:

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