Six Top Tips to Improve Liveaboard Safety

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At the beginning of September 2019, the world's media was filled with the horrific story of the MV Conception, a liveaboard which caught fire off the coast of California, tragically killing 34 people on board. A recent fire on a Red Sea liveaboard resulted in the death of one diver but went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media, and there have been others. Incidents are rare, but they do happen, so are there any particular safety tips that divers should consider when choosing to take a liveaboard and spend their holidays out at sea?

1) Research

Like most of the tourist industry, word-of-mouth goes a long way when it comes to booking your next dive operator. Check out review websites but, as always, be wary of reviews that are either obsequiously positive or vitriolically negative. Scuba diving Internet forums where you can connect with previous visitors can perhaps offer better and more detailed advice but are also prone to the occasional negative troll. If there are questions you have that are not satisfactorily answered, do not hesitate to contact the owner or operator of the vessel for further information

2) Health and Safety

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Lifejackets - make sure you know where they are, how to get hold of them, and how to put them on.

Although there are international standards for maritime safety, adherence to the various codes of practice will vary between locations. There are so many variations of what may or may not be required that it would be virtually impossible to cover them all when booking a liveaboard. At the very least, however, there should lifejackets accessible in each individual cabin, with smoke alarms present and fire extinguishers easily available.

3) Briefing

Along with the standard information given out on a boat briefing, such as the location of emergency oxygen and first aid equipment, all liveaboards should include a physical tour of the various access and exit points to and from each of the decks and saloons on board. The location of lifeboats and how to release them in the event of an emergency should be discussed, and a fire drill where everybody is sent to their cabins to fetch and don a life jacket and meet at the muster point should be mandatory. Pay attention to the briefing and make certain you don't miss out. Unless you've booked a group vacation, it's often the case that divers will arrive at different times of the day. Even if that's 3 o'clock in the morning, make sure you get that briefing before you set sail. Once you've had the briefing, take a wander around the boat yourself, and ask questions about anything you might have missed or can't locate.

4) Pack a Grab Bag

Fires on boats spread incredibly quickly. Should a fire break out while you are belowdecks, perhaps asleep in your cabin, pausing to rummage around in your luggage for your phone and passport could prove to be a fatal mistake, and attempting to return to your cabin once you're topside almost certainly will be. Some divers like to pack a small dry bag with essentials - passport, wallet, house keys, phone and charger - and keep it close by. Some comments on discussion forums have suggested including a bottle of water, dive light and even snacks, just in case.

5) Portable Smoke Alarms?

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The Cavius travel alarm is a 3-in-1 smoke detector, motion sensor and personal protection alarm

Some people have taken to carrying portable carbon monoxide (CO) detectors when travelling - this has certainly extended to the dive community, and there are plenty available. Smoke alarms are a different matter. You can't just pull the one out of your kitchen and pop it in your kit bag. There are two forms of smoke detector - ionising and photoelectric (also called optical). The ionising type are mildly radioactive and may not be allowed in airline luggage. Portable photoelectric smoke alarms are available and 'travel alarms' do exist but in a very limited scope. There's very little information about their availability or efficacy - most commentators suggest it's a bit over-the-top to travel with one - but it couldn't really hurt to carry a keyring mounted travel alarm, could it? Small portable alarms such as the Cavius above cost around £50 -

6) To Charge or Not to Charge

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Does this look familiar? Smartphone and camera battery chargers competing for sockets and space.

It has been suggested that the tragic fire onboard the MV Conception was started by a lithium-ion battery that exploded while charging. Suggesting that charging batteries are to blame for other liveaboard fires would be entirely speculative, but given the known dangers of lithium batteries, not unreasonable. Although incidents are very rare, e-cigarettes and mobile phones have been known to explode or catch fire, causing serious injury – even fatality – in some cases. It is forbidden to carry lithium batteries in airline holds unless properly contained – indeed, the Samsung Galaxy Note 7's battery was considered to be such a liability that it was banned entirely by many airlines. 

At any given time, liveaboards are likely to have a large number of batteries charging at the same time – with saltwater an ever-present hazard. Cameras, video lights, torches, laptops and smartphones, with perhaps 25 or more divers on board, each with four or five devices, plus the crew, plus spares – the numbers start to add up. Many of these devices will be left to charge unchecked, especially overnight. While incidents may be rare, a lengthy discussion is needed as to how best to deal with this particular problem. In the meantime, it might be suggested that overnight charging (or any charging) in cabins should be avoided unless somebody is present and awake; that charging equipment should not be left unattended for any length of time, and that dedicated and fireproofed charging stations should be made available if not already present.

In Conclusion

Some Internet comments suggest that taking precautions such as carrying a portable smoke alarm is a bit over the top, and clearly, most batteries do not explode. While speculation over the cause of individual incidents is best avoided until the release of official enquiry reports, there are nevertheless some important safety tips that – in the extremely unlikely event that something does go wrong out at sea – may help save lives.



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