DIVE-BOATS GET BIGGER, if not better, every year. The economies of scale drive owners to demand ever-bigger vessels. Passenger lists of 22 or more are becoming normal, where a few years ago a 10-berth boat was considered sizeable.
There are few if any liveaboard dive-boats that have been designed and built with the exact purpose of carrying divers in mind. Marine architects have their own ideas and these usually follow certain traditions, so that even if their clients are specific about their needs for a dive-boat, they tend to revert to standard practice.
For example, it would be very hard to build a boat in the Maldives that did not owe some of its design features to a traditional dhoni, just as it would be difficult to build a boat in Egypt that was not related in some way to the needs of a private yacht-owner or a fishing crew.
Most liveaboard dive-boats started life as something else; usually as a private yacht, or a support vessel of some kind. Those vessels under US flags often started life servicing oil-rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, for example.
Boats get adapted, and some adaptations are more successful than others. So what are the requirements for the perfect liveaboard dive vessel I would suggest a strongly built hull, probably made of steel, with a high prow for good, dry sea-keeping qualities and stabilisation so that it doesnt pitch and roll in the least sea.
At the same time, it should work without drawing too much water, so that it can approach close to reefs. For the same reason, the steering position should offer the helmsman a good view of what is happening near the bow.
Multi-hulled vessels can give exceedingly stable conditions when parked in the lee of a reef but a disturbing ride out in the open sea.
Twin engines for both manoeuvrability and safety are essential, but these need to be mounted, together with the prop-shafts, in such a way that an inordinate amount of sound is not transmitted through to those on board.
Marine architects still persist in making saloons larger than are actually needed, with aft areas often too cramped to make a perfect dive deck. That is because their usual millionaire clients want luxury akin to a palace rather than a working tool for the job. They tend to think gin-and-tonic rather than compressed air and seawater.
They also attach a lot of importance to the external lines of a vessel, when in fact those on board are oblivious to them. Dive-boats should be about function rather than appearance.
Rarely does any liveaboard have adequate diving facilities for the number of divers it can carry, though boat-owners would argue that this is not the case.
Similarly, only a few liveaboards have a good way of picking up their annexe boats to carry them over the longer distances between dive sites. Watch out for the boats equipped with cranes or Hi-abs. A couple of US-operated vessels can actually winch a pick-up boat aboard complete with its load of divers, and deliver them straight to the aft deck.
Once you have rigged your gear for the trip, it should stay that way. Tanks are filled either where you left them in the pick-up boat or at their place on the tank-racks on the dive deck.
Fixed-percentage nitrox supplies by membrane system are almost the norm nowadays. If you need the more esoteric gas supplies of the technical or closed-circuit rebreather diver, your choice of vessel will be more limited. Very few vessels have an oxygen booster pump. The Aggressor fleet recently announced that it would no longer cater for rebreather divers, as the demands were too great for a small minority of its customers.
The days of liveaboards without en-suite facilities are almost over, thank goodness, but the standard of plumbing is rarely good enough to be able to flush paper down the loo. Its a rare pleasure to travel on a vessel with efficient vacuum systems.
Bathrooms should be spacious enough, with grab-handles provided, in case the earth moves while you are in there. Water supplies should be copious too but, alas, often are not.
Every liveaboard worth using has an efficient electrical system with at least one stand-by generator, just as it should have water-making and water-storage facilities adequate for the number of people carried. Cabins themselves are becoming equipped with single and double beds instead of space-saving upper and lower bunks these days.
A cabin equipped with a fridge is not terribly useful unless it is stocked. Its hard to pop out for supplies when youre at sea. A television in your cabin is useful only for anti-social types, as is an in-cabin stereo system.
On the other hand, a good screen is a joy when the saloon is so equipped. It gives passengers a chance to show off the fruit of their labours with their cameras.
Only the best vessels have proper facilities for photographers and video-makers. These include clean and protected workstations with air guns, good lighting and charging sockets. Most importantly, a capacious freshwater rinse-tank dedicated to camera use is a must.
What do you do between dives Get ready for the next one is a good answer. However, some people will want to get tanned, and a well-equipped sun deck is almost guaranteed.
On-board Jacuzzis rarely seem to be switched on these days, however. They may look good in brochures but there is a popular belief that they may also precipitate decompression illness.
The provision of safety equipment such as EPIRBs, life-vests and life-rafts should never be overlooked, but too often the passengers are more impressed by the quality of the carpet than the quality of their personal safety.
The standard of cuisine is of the utmost importance. Diving, eating and sleeping will be almost the only things you do on your voyage, so its important that the meals are to your liking. Thank goodness the days of being catered for by fishermen rather than professional chefs with proper galley facilities have gone.
Liveaboards are getting bigger, because as fuel and other prices rise it is becoming the only way in which operators can trade effectively. That is not necessarily a good thing. Big boats might handle a rough sea better than smaller ones, but when you get to the dive sites they will disgorge a proportionately larger number of divers into the water.
A vessel that takes only six passengers may have cramped facilities on board but will offer less crowded conditions when you are under the water, as long as it visits uncrowded dive sites.
Finally, remember that no boat is the same as a building on terra firma. No matter how big it is, or how well designed, a vessel is still floating on water and moves at the mercy of the seas. The picture of your cabin in a brochure might look like a hotel room, but it will not resemble anything like that immediately after the vessel has been through a rough sea.

hspace=5 Familiar to many DIVER readers, these two boats represent the many third-generation Egyptian-built vessels to operate in the northern Red Sea, including close to the border with the Sudan.
Hurricane (right) is built of steel and offers the sea-ride associated with a heavy, strongly built vessel, while Emperor Majesty is the acme of the boatbuilders achievements using wood, with an interior opulently finished in fine veneers.
The cabins of the 36m Emperor Majesty (above) are slightly more luxurious and take 20 passengers, while those of the shorter Hurricane represent the best use of space for 22 passengers. All have en-suite facilities. The saloons on both vessels are enormous, though the pursuit of an outwardly impressive profile has left the dive decks adequate for space rather than as functional as they could have been.
Hurricane accommodates the needs of trimix divers, and nitrox is available by membrane system on both boats, as it is on all the worlds finest liveaboards.
Inflatables are used to deliver divers to and from those dive sites where it is not feasible to manoeuvre large vessels.
The extremely low cost of an all-inclusive diving holiday on liveaboard vessels in Egypt is attributed to very low building and running costs and can mislead the travelling diver into
a distorted view of what things should cost elsewhere.
It is cheaper to dive in Egypt than almost anywhere else in the world and we should all appreciate this incredible value for money while it lasts.

  • www.aquacatcruises.com, www.mikeball.com

    hspace=5 These liveaboard catamarans are built from steel. They carry slightly fewer passengers than Aqua Cat and Spoilsport, but as they operate in areas known for strong currents they use annexe boats.
    So that cosseted passengers need not worry about stepping into this from the main vessel, the whole annexe boat is picked up complete with divers and taken to the water or back to the deck using a cradle and a system of hydraulic rams.
    Like the other catamaran operators mentioned above, the Aggressor Fleet aims to offer complete luxury to its clientele.
  • www.aggressor.com

    hspace=5 The islands of the Seychelles are a difficult area in which to operate and the standard of interior finish of this Hamburg-built former North Sea research vessel reveals that. However, there can be no doubt of the seaworthiness of its steel hull, and that is what is needed for long passages through the turbulent Indian Ocean.
    Indian Ocean Explorer cruises between Mahe and the outer islands of the Seychelles as far as the distant island of Aldabra. If you are happy to spend time aboard a vessel that has basic accommodation and travels often with its decks awash, youll enjoy your cruise. This is no luxury yacht.
    New Swiss management has introduced some improvements, including a camera table for use by some of its 16 passengers, and large inflatables that can be lifted on board by crane as pick-up boats.
    Aldabra is a unique protected eco-system with more indigenous giant tortoises than the Galapagos and an enclosed lagoon the size of Manhattan.
  • www.ioexpl.com

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  • This 250-ton ugly duckling becomes a swan the moment you set out to sea. Her high prow is ideal for making the long ocean crossings between Punta Arenas in Costa Rica and Cocos Island, and her 30-day endurance is limited only by the food supplies she carries.
    From time to time, 750 miles are added to the schedule and the Colombian island of Malpelo is included in an itinerary.
    Originally a submarine-support vessel that has been almost completely rebuilt to incorporate the needs of diving charters, Sea Hunter still has the strong steel hull designed to take on those big ocean swells.
    With recently revised accommodation for 18 or more passengers, the cabins are cleanly functional rather than luxurious. There is no doubt that you are on a boat. However, each has en-suite facilities.
    Function is at its most efficient here, with all the water onboard being fresh, even that which cools the engines and flushes the toilets. This gives added reliability, and that really counts on long hauls.
    The owners are both keen divers, one a rebreather pioneer. They have attempted to provide the ultimate diving platform without compromising comfort. The saloons may not be as spacious as others (below right) but the galley is as big as the cafeteria-style dining saloon.
    The dive-deck (below) is of exceptional size, with room for camera-tables and space allocated to servicing rebreathers.
    A massive crane hauls the two fast pangas on board for long journeys, but otherwise long hoses allow the crew to refill tanks in these pick-up boats between dives without having to haul them up from where the diver left them.
    With an eye to complete safety, every diver is provided with a personal position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB). It is also the only liveaboard we know of that has its own 475m depth-rated submersible!
    A smaller sister vessel, Undersea Hunter, has become a favourite with film-makers such as Howard Hall and has been almost dedicated to that purpose in recent years.
  • www.seahunter.com

    hspace=5 Bigger is not always better. These vessels represent an alternative way to dive from a liveaboard. The first is a two-masted ketch, the second a Grand Banks cabin cruiser (Moonlighting, above). One was last operated in Burma while the other last cruised the waters around PNG. Both take only six guests and have only two or three crew.
    Conditions are somewhat cramped (Colona 2, below) and facilities are only basic, yet travel with five friends and you can have a whale of a time. Thats because the itinerary can be altered on a whim - yours - and when you hit the water you are likely to see only the divers with whom you travelled.
    Both vessels have dinghies for going ashore, though these are not used for diving. The skipper or mate manoeuvres the main vessel to pick up passengers following a dive.
    The man who steers the boat will pump the tanks and cook your lunch. Hell probably also come diving with you. Hell certainly do some fishing between dive sites, and fresh fish and sashimi will often be on the menu.
    hspace=5 You may find yourself doing your ablutions on deck, and you may have to squeeze into a small bunk bed, but it can add to the fun provided you are travelling with like-minded people. Its probably less of a good idea for the lone traveller who intends to take pot luck with the other guests.
    Operated by their owners, such smaller vessels are run not so much as a business as to suit a lifestyle, and lifestyles move on. Its possible that neither vessel will be available for charter by the time you read this, but if they are not others will take their place, as more adventurous boat-owners turn to making a few extra bucks to sustain trips around the world by offering diving charters.
  • www.colona.net, www.papuanewguineatravel.com

    For the best guide to international liveaboards, regularly updated, see the Liveaboard Guide