The ill-informed often judge a boat by the thickness of the carpet in the saloon. John Bantin travelled by invitation of Tony Backhurst Scuba Travel, 0800 0728221. A seven-day trip on board mv Hurricane embarking at Marsa Alam costs around£1095, including flight from Gatwick.
Some years ago I wrote an article for called A Red Sea Survivors Guide. It was about the differences in liveaboard dive boats with regard to safety. I talked about steel hulls, twin engines, watertight doors, fire-fighting stations, the dangers of cooking with badly sited propane-gas cookers, generators and diver-safety boats. It needed to be said, and many Europeans working in Egypt congratulated me for writing it.
Red Sea liveaboards have since advanced through several stages. First, the foreign operators were driven out by the adoption of extremely cheaply built wooden vessels that were nothing more than glorified dayboats, with few facilities and cuisine that could be as risky in the way it was prepared as it was risky to consume.
That said, the carpets were thick and the prices so low that these boats served to popularise Egyptian Red Sea diving overnight.
Then these wooden vessels became larger, often with en-suite, if problematic, plumbing. Skippers distinguished themselves by demonstrating extreme boat-handling skills with their ability to pick divers out of the water - because none of them had small inflatables available for that purpose.
Standards of catering developed slowly, and there was always a shortage of fresh water for washing. It was almost customary for the supply to run dry during the last couple of days of a charter.
These vessels had greater range than before, and trips began to offshore sites such as the Brothers Islands - until the Egyptian authorities banned the practice for reasons of security.
This was not a matter of national security. The navy was simply fed up with having to rescue vessels that literally fell apart when they were pounded while crossing the open sea.
The word for nail and screw is the same in Arabic, which explains a lot about the quality of the local boat-building at that time.
Egyptian liveaboard experiences could be good. Often vessels had their owners on board, and these particular boats were nurtured in rough seas and managed in such a way that the best was derived from them in terms of safety, comfort and service.
At about this time, the US diving market took a tentative look at the Red Sea. A few boats were built to cater for American divers and these needed to match the sea-worthiness, facilities and service offered to Americans by boat-operators elsewhere in the world.
mv Moondancer, also known as my Oyster and operated on behalf of Peter Hughes Diving, was one of the first. It had cabins with picture windows, pick-up boats and a seaworthy steel hull powered by twin engines, with watertight bulkhead doors below decks.
It also had a constant fresh water supply - American passengers would not understand liveaboards lacking that basic necessity. It was by no means perfect, but it was a revolutionary advance at the time.
Next came mv Excel, mv Tiger Lily and a few other steel boats. Excel, 110ft long, was to represent the luxurious Aggressor fleet in the Red Sea.
But the US market is a fickle one, and soon vaporised in the face of American TVs perception of Middle Eastern troubles. Excel began to look dejected and unwanted, laid up until a far-sighted Egyptian chartered her from the bank that now owned the scruffy hulk.
He saw that the market was becoming more competitive as more vessels were launched. Soon Excel was restored to her former glory, only now at a price per passenger that European divers were prepared to pay. Today, she remains one of the best vessels, in terms of sea-worthiness and comfort, in the Red Sea.
Grant and Sonia were once dive guides on Excel. The Egyptian charterer of Excel had wanted to own the ultimate liveaboard but the bank was not prepared to sell the vessel at what he considered a suitable price.
He considered buying a vessel from Image Marine, the Australian-based builder of aluminium catamarans that have proved popular with divers in the Bahamas, Maldives, Australia and PNG.
But the economics being what they are, he reasoned that he could build two such luxurious boats in Egypt for the same budget. The building of the first, my Hurricane, commenced.
Grant showed me the plans at the time and they looked impressive; but I reserved judgment until I could experience a trip on the real thing.
Hurricane has a steel hull, twin engines, triple generators, a huge capacity for making fresh water, a well-equipped galley, and 11 twin cabins with en-suite facilities.
I was a passenger early on, when refinements were still being made. So what did I find wrong with Hurricane
The en-suite toilet/shower for each cabin was obviously smaller than anticipated. This meant that the doors needed re-hanging to open outwards, so that way, more amply proportioned guests would feel more comfortable.
Douche-hoses added to the toilets would reduce the need to have a wastebin for used toilet paper, something that continues to remind passengers that they are no longer in the first world.
And there was a desperate need for a camera-only work table for underwater photographers - and space for it on the second deck.
During my trip, the rather Teutonic shore-manager was on board, fighting to stop passengers sitting on upholstered seats in wet swimming costumes.
That was all very well in the saloon or mess, but it seemed to be asking for trouble to supply such cushions for sun-deck chairs, when plastic ones would have been more suitable.
Wet costumes continued to be a problem. There were two freshwater showers on the ample dive platform, but this area was awash and inaccessible when the vessel was under way. There was a need for showers to be included on the diving-equipment deck if passengers were expected not to retire below decks to their cabins for a shower after a dive, still wearing swimming costumes soaked in sea water.
The British charterer, Tony Backhurst, took all these suggestions seriously when I relayed them to him. Im sure that improvements have been made since my trip last year.
I didnt complain that some of the soapy water from the Jacuzzi often made its way down onto the heads of those passengers on the deck below who preferred to sit and read when the vessel was under way, and the sea was less than calm.
But I did complain when the sewage-holding tanks were emptied in a bay while most passengers were in the water. One moment of stupidity on the part of a crew-member can ruin a trip. I am assured it wont happen again.
So those are my criticisms. Here is the up-side of my trip. Hurricanes 108ft steel hull sits deep in the water and gives a ride that avoids the rock and roll that can be caused by the Red Seas almost permanent short chop. It was interesting to watch the wooden hulls of other vessels dancing by comparison.
Those who suffer sea-sickness will still need to take their tablets, but at no time were the contents of my cabin re-arranged by unseen forces. Neither did I ever have to chase my underwater camera housing as it slid across a steeply heaving deck. Hurricane was pretty stable.
Steel hulls can be noisier than those of wooden-built vessels, and some passengers complained about this. I was simply glad that the engines sounded as smooth as silk, and that we never experienced that ominous silence that signals a mechanical problem.
The air-conditioning worked well. It was a little on the cold side at times, but that was because I had to strike a compromise with my cabin-mate.
We had no leaking portholes, nor did the plumbing ever fail us. The shower always worked and the toilet always flushed.
The galley, fitted out in stainless-steel, looked clean enough to meet EU regulations on food preparation. Meals were always varied and well-cooked and were served in the spacious dining room or mess. The chef came with Grant and Sonia from Excel.
I never mix alcohol with diving, but I noticed some of the passengers enjoying the price-inclusive wine with their meals. The saloon is less spacious than the mess but has a DVD player and video connected to a giant flat-screen TV. Passengers enjoyed looking at the results from their digital cameras on this, and may never again see them displayed so grandly.
The large aft deck and upper sun-deck with Jacuzzi completes the picture for those whose only interest is the cruising.
Grant was one of the first technical divers to visit the wreck of ss Maidan off Rocky Island. He is an avid closed-circuit rebreather user, but Hurricanes dive deck accommodates everyone, from those who just want to plop in with a tank of air, through divers who want the nitrox supplied via two compressors and a DNAx membrane, to those who want helium in their mix, or pure O2 at high tank pressures, supplied via a Haskell booster-pump, for use with their CCRs.
Tanks are filled where they sit, still fully rigged, between dives. Grant also keeps a supply of 3 litre cylinders and soda-lime so that technical and CCR divers have less of a weight problem when checking in to fly out from the UK.
Grant teaches Dräger SCR courses on board, but otherwise he tends to be a little taciturn and doesnt get involved in dive-deck banter.
Leisure divers will be more aware of Sonia, who tends to be more vocal and takes care of the briefings in her personable way. Both have about seven years of Red Sea experience and a huge fund of knowledge on which to draw.
Ever mindful of safety, Grant and Sonia run a tight diving operation but in an unobtrusive way. Two RIBs are used as safety-cover and for diver pick-ups, and Sonia is a great shark-spotter.
So how does Hurricane measure up when compared with Excel Well, Excel has its merits, and was a favourite of mine, but Hurricane now has Grant and Sonia. So for me, Hurricane deserves the gold medal for best boat in the Red Sea.