Red Sea survival kit

The liveaboard boat you choose for your Red Sea holiday may carry oxygen, but have no means of delivering it. It may have a poorly qualified crew. It may even be unseaworthy. John Bantins survival guide suggests a list of questions to ask if you want to avoid a bad trip.

Every year, more and more divers book liveaboard holidays on boats in the Red Sea. The appeal is obvious. Its our nearest area of coral reef, there are spectacular walls, and a seemingly endless supply of wrecks of all ages to explore.
Undoubtedly, for the serious diver, liveaboard boats offer the most convenient way to dive the top sites. But how do you decide which is the right vessel for your needs
Firstly, of course, you want to be sure that your chosen boat is safe and seaworthy. The Red Sea is infamous among seafarers for its high velocity surface winds and violently short chop. It may be calm in the lee of shore, but journeys to exposed sites like The Brothers islands can be hazardous, and boats have been seen literally to fall apart under the stress of the journey.
How can you know if the boat is a good sea boat Only by asking how many years it has operated and if it has made the journey in exposed waters very often. If you are happy to stay around the sheltered waters of the Sinai or Giftun Islands, this consideration may be of little consequence. Look at a chart of the area, examine where you want to go, and decide if your journey will expose your vessel to the prevailing northerly wind.
Ask how many engines power your chosen boat. Two is safer than one. Ask what is her range and speed. Ask how long the vessel is and how wide her beam. Long vessels cope better in rough seas. Beamy vessels have more space but tend to roll more. It is almost impossible to tell how dry a ship is until you get to sea.
Bigger vessels are not necessarily better. They are usually more spacious, but naturally cater for a larger number of divers. Some, too, have magnificent saloon areas but very cramped aft decks where you have to struggle to kit up. If you want to go in a large group, you will need a large vessel, but if you are a single or a pair, you risk finding yourself in the company of a large number of people with whom you may not get on. Ask how many passengers are accommodated and how.
Remember too that a large number of divers does not necessarily mean crowded sites under water if there is a fast cover boat that can put pairs of divers in at different places. Ask about the type and size of the cover boat.
Often, the only items of diving equipment supplied on board are weights and tanks. If you need anything else, get the confirmation of your request in writing.
Air supplies might be taken for granted. However, check how many other divers will need supplying, and how big the aqualung cylinders are. It doesnt take a genius to work out how long it will take to fill the cylinders to 200 bar after each dive if you know the litres/minute rating of the compressor. This can often be the limiting factor to your diving. Check what sort of compressor it is, too. A small diesel-run job mounted on the prow of a small vessel, howling all day, can make your stay tedious.
Some vessels have group cabins. If you want the privacy of a twin or double cabin to share with your partner, confirm this at the time of booking, not when you are standing disappointed on the quayside, and about to board.
Some vessels have patently too few toilets for the number of people on board. Others have en suite facilities but inadequate water supplies. Ten passengers can easily get through a tonne of water per day - more if someone carelessly leaves a tap running! Some vessels have water-makers. Some rely solely on large tanks, but these can get contaminated by salt water (or worse), so never drink from them, and brush your teeth only using the bottled water supplied.
Find out if your bed linen is to be changed daily or weekly, and if towels are supplied. Ascertain beforehand from the travel agent if special dietary requirements (eg. vegetarian) can be met. Also, ask what additional costs will be charged. Some boats charge for soft drinks and bottled water. Others supply it free. The same goes for beverages such as tea and coffee. All charge for alcoholic drinks, save for the occasional free bottle of wine. Ask before you book.
Air conditioning can be essential below decks during the hotter parts of the year, or in the southern Red Sea. The fact that a vessel is thus equipped is neither a guarantee that it is adequate nor that it is actually working.
Even things like electricity, which you might have taken for granted, can be a problem. Some vessels have inadequate generators or run on low-voltage systems. Some run on 110/220 volts for only very short periods. Check if you can recharge batteries. You may find that those needing a 12-hour charge are no use to you on a particular boat.
If you value your photographs, you will probably prefer to take your unprocessed film home with you. I have yet to find ship-board processing up to the standards of consistency and cleanliness I demand. Surprisingly, many vessels carry little or no navigation equipment. Some do not even have a working compass. Helmsmen often use coastal landmarks or simply follow other vessels. If you hope to dive the more remote offshore sites, like the wreck of the Thistlegorm, check that your vessel has the means to find them.
Emergency equipment may be carried, but this does not mean it will work. This is extremely important in the case of emergency oxygen for divers. I knew of one vessel (now defunct) which boasted two cylinders of oxygen but had no method of delivering it to a casualty. Ask to see the O2 equipment when you first get on board.
Insurance and licences are important too. You dont want your holiday ruined because the boat was not licensed to work in the area concerned. It happens. Ask when booking. Ask what insurance the boat carries, too.
Be sure that the vessel provides the sort of diving you want to do. It is no good booking on a boat that has a majority of passengers who want to do super-deep trimix diving if all you want to do is stay shallow on the reef top. Check that you can do night diving, if that is where your interest lies. Geographical terms of reference used by booking agents can be confusing. The Red Sea is more than 1000 miles long. Know exactly where you are going!
The crew will make or break your trip. If you need a qualified instructor, make sure there is one on board. Ask how many crew there are. Is the engineer properly qualified Is the captain The skipper can affect the well-being of every soul on board. What are his qualifications What is his reputation What sort of character does he have Is he sympathetic to the needs of divers Is he accommodating You might need to search out previous passengers to find the answers to these important questions.
When all is said and done, what can you do if you are not satisfied with what you get
Firstly, try to rectify matters on the spot. Make sure your complaints or reservations are known to the crew.
In the somewhat mercurial world of boats, diving and weather dependent activities, in this case combined with local politics and third world notions of safety, you will find that UK booking agents will always reserve the right to make changes (with a suitable price adjustment) to a particular package right up until the last moment.
Check the small print of any booking conditions. You always have the right to a full refund prior to departure if you do not accept what is offered. However, changes can be hard to reject if you are standing on a quayside far from home.
If you feel you have a legitimate grievance which could not be put right at the time, write to your booking agent setting out your complaints in a coherent manner as soon as you return.
You are protected under the EC Directive on Package Holidays, Package Travel and Package Tours administered by the DTI and you should be protected under arrangements made by your tour operator with either ABTA or the CAA through their ATOL arrangement. Take your complaint to the Trading Standards Office of your local authority.


Checklist
  • What type of hull and dimensions
  • How many engines
  • How long has the vessel worked in the area
  • How many passengers and what accommodation
  • Is there a cover boat How big is it
  • What diving equipment is supplied
  • How many full cylinders are available per day per diver
  • How noisy is the compressor
  • How many heads (toilets)
  • Is the fresh water supply adequate
  • Is there steward service to the cabins
  • Are there additional onboard costs for passengers
  • Is there working air conditioning below decks
  • For how long is 110/220v electricity provided each day
  • Is there a photolab on board
  • Does the vessel have GPS, radar or echo-sounder Will it be needed for your particular trip
  • Is emergency oxygen carried, and a qualified administrator
  • Are ship-to-shore communications other than marine VHF installed
  • Is the vessel fully insured and licensed to work in the area you intend visiting
  • Is there a qualified diving instructor on board
  • Who are the other passengers and what are their diving interests


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