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No Safe Harbor -- The Tragedy of the Dive Ship Wave Dancer

by Joe Burnsworth
Hardcover 2005 Emmis Books, 254 pages
ISBN 978-1-57860-219-3
9.2 x 6.2

No Safe Harbor describes the turn of events that brought the live aboard dive ship Wave Dancer into a small harbor in Belize where it sought safety from Hurricane Iris in October of 2001. The ship, however, capsized and 20 people who had stayed onboard died. The book recreates what should have been a wonderful seven-day dive trip through the waters off Belize and takes a critical look at the background and decisions that led to the disaster.

Author Joe Burnsworth was a passenger on another live aboard dive ship, the Aggressor, that had also taken refuge from the hurricane at the same harbor and dock as the Wave Dancer. He witnessed the tragedy and was so haunted by it that he decided to write the book, his first. While the author was on the Aggressor, he was not part of the Richmond Dive Club whose members had been on the Wave Dancer and the Aggressor, and it wasn't until a year after the accident before Burnsworth contacted the survivors and began his interviews.

With the conclusion foregone and documented in a number of maps and color pictures inside the book, No Safe Harbor describes events leading up to the tragic accident. Burnsworth introduces the passengers of the Wave Dancer, all members of the Richmond Dive Club. He describes logistics of the trip that took place shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks changed airport security and travel in general. We get to know a bit of the history and operation of live aboards, the ships that provide as many as 20 passengers or so access to the best dive spots in the world.

We also learn about the hurricanes that are a threat every year to Caribbean islands, Central America, the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast of the United States from Florida up as far as the Carolinas. While hurricane warning systems are increasingly sophisticated and able to trigger evacuation plans in areas likely to be affected, hurricanes are unpredictable and often change paths with devastating consequences.

Without being overtly judgemental, the author paints a picture of a boat captain whose demeanor and actions put him at odds with his own crew; a ship that is not maintained to the highest standards (broken ice makers, broken radios, unsecured heavy equipment, etc.); and an opaque course of action by the ownership of the Wave Dancer, the Peter Hughes company. At times, the book reads as if the company and captain almost deliberately put the passengers at risk, keeping information from them and proceeding against the protests and cautions of experienced crew members.

Quite obviously, both a ship's captain and its ownership would want to avoid harm at all cost, but in this case both the Aggressor and the Wave Dancer independently ended up in that same not-so-safe harbor in the southern part of Belize as Hurricane Iris changed its course and made landfall in almost exactly that spot. The Aggressor, however, was there first and was moored and secured properly whereas there wasn't adequate space left for the Wave Dancer and it wasn't secured properly. As a result, the hurricane and storm surge ripped the ship loose and turned it over.

Burnsworth describes the harrowing survival and rescue efforts, the aftermath of the tragedy, the investigations and legal issues that ensued, worldwide publicity and opinions, and the efforts of the Richmond Dive Club to deal with the tragedy and carry on.

Overall, No Safe Harbor is mixed reading. There are implied accusations of incompetence on behalf of the Wave Dancer's captain and indifference by management. There is the cryptic text of a number of hurricane advisories, all in capital letters and taking up about 25 pages in total. An interpretation of what the advisories said would have made for much easier reading and understanding, with the full text perhaps in an appendix. While the author does not draw direct conclusions, there is a quote from a scuba instructor and member of the Richmond Dive Club who had made the trip on the Aggressor that "... our friends were murdered by Captain Martin and Peter Hughes...."

After the tragedy, there were ugly rumors that people on the Wave Dancers had had a hurricane party and were inebriated, and general accusations that the victims were at fault. The impetus for No Safe Harbor were, in part, to set the record straight and present what many felt was a more accurate, albeit still vague, description of events. -- C. H. Blickenstorfer, scubadiverinfo.com

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