Some years ago I was asked to write a feature about the worst liveaboards in the world. It was easy for me. I didn’t need to do much research. I simply wrote about the ones I had experienced and, shamefully, even one that I had worked on as a dive guide. We all tend to be rather naïve when making purchasing decisions. We are led by marketing hype, brand image and, quite frankly, the features that are important to us personally. When we chose which liveaboard to take a diving trip on we are often keen to confirm that the cabin will be large and comfortable enough, the food will be to our taste, and that the vessel looks like our idea of the sort of luxury yacht that will make our friends and neighbours envious of our holiday. Quite rightly so. However, recent tragedies that have happened in the world might give us pause for thought. Who would have thought that a magnificent luxury cruise liner would run into a reef near an Italian island and turn turtle? Who would have thought that a modern Boeing 777 would simply disappear in flight? When we choose a liveaboard we should remember one very important aspect; it isn’t simply a hotel that we choose to spend a period of time in. It’s a vessel that is floating on the surface of the ocean and that only by the grace of Archimedes’ principle.Coming back from a dive to find that your mothership no longer exists is an experience that will live with you forever, but it has happened. Abandoning a vessel during a trans-ocean crossing is not something that I’d recommend as a character-building experience. Swimming with nothing more than you were wearing in your bunk (mainly nothing) because your vessel went down in the night might save your life but it takes the edge off your vacation. You might think that these are extreme examples but, without pillorying any particular liveaboard operation, they have all happened recently and on more than one occasion. So what tips can I give you to help in deciding which liveaboard is best for your needs? I’ll leave the details of creature comforts to you to decide on and deal with aspects that you might not have thought of, bearing in mind that all boats float on and are at the mercy of the ocean. Firstly, there are mainly two types of hull construction, wood and metal (usually steel but sometimes aluminium). Wooden vessels are quick and cheap to construct and easy to repair – but then they need to be. Back in the early ’nineties, the steel hulled motor yacht that I worked on, as a dive-guide, in the Sudan ran onto the reef-top nearly every night when the wind changed and the impossibly difficult skipper refused to accommodate that idea when we moored up. If we had been in a vessel with a wooden hull, it would have been damaged, possibly fatally, the first time but the heavy German steel of our vessel took it out on the reef each time rather than the other way around. We crew only had the regular task of pulling it off as soon as we heard the first tell-tale groaning sounds that were only matched by our own as much needed sleep was interrupted. Today, most Egyptian liveaboard are built from wood and despite being finished to afford the height of luxury for the passengers, the Red Sea is littered with the remains of those that ‘touched’ the reef. That said, nothing sinks quicker than a steel vessel full of water, which is where watertight doors become essential. If a vessel is divided into sections separated by watertight doors, safety in a worst-case scenario can probably be assured. I remember the owner of one newly-built steel vessel proudly showing me round and pointing out such a watertight door at one end of the companionway below decks but being unimpressed when I in turn pointed out that the stern end had no such protection and was effectively open to the sea. After some years of operation, that otherwise lovely yacht. Mv.Oyster, lies on the seabed near the reef it hit at speed. Hull shape can be important too. If the vessel is likely to meet anything more than a glass calm sea, it will need to be a ‘dry’ boat in that water does not pour down the decks and it should not roll so alarmingly that the passengers are left clinging to their bunks. Wooden vessels tend to bob on the surface while steel hulls plough through the waves. Wooden vessels are lighter and can be faster while steel-hulled vessels are often more ponderous but more stable in rough water. Ask about the sea-keeping qualities of the vessel. Safe open ocean crossings demand the safety of two engines. A vessel without motive power is a vessel at risk. If your itinerary remains close to shore and help should you need it, a single-engine vessel will probably be safe enough. A good example of this is any vessel working within the weather-protected atolls of the Maldives where the mothership is usually closely permanently accompanied by a large ‘diving dhoni’. Other examples might be vessels working within the calm lagoons of Palau or Truk (Chuuk). Consider the intended route, ask how many engines a vessel has and make an informed decision. Should it be intended to make a long ocean crossing such as that made out to Cocos Island or Aldabra Atoll, a single engine is one too few. I have been amazed to see a local bangka boat, constructed mainly from bamboo poles and fishing line, powered by a single improvised truck engine, hundreds of miles from shore at Tubbataha Reef in the Philippines. Some popular vessels that were designed with a single engine in the style of those you might see working safely within the close knit islands of the Indonesian archipelago, have recently been fitted with an auxiliary engine to satisfy safety requirements but I wonder how easily, in the event of need, they are steered by a propeller set well to one side of the rudder. You’ll want to know about generators and water-makers because running out of either electricity or water can be very inconvenient but the loss of generators can be disastrous (I know!) so you need to know that the vessel has more than one. Much of the vessel’s essential equipment depends on the ability of the generators to deliver. Thankfully, most vessels now have good navigation equipment but it still depends on the crew’s ability to use it. Back in my day as a crew member aboard the mv.Lady Jenny V, I always marvelled at the way the passengers slept soundly in their cabins while we made night crossings. Apart from the captain and I, the crew were all ‘backpackers’ working their passage in exchange for some free diving. None of them were competent to drive the boat but they each had to take a turn in the wheelhouse. We had auto-pilot, radar, a compass and the new-fangled GPS so it should have been simple but it seemed to me that every night when I took over I needed to avert an otherwise imminent disaster. One night all the passengers fell out of their bunk when our ‘engineer’ suddenly realised he was about to hit the shore and turned the vessel so abruptly he nearly sank it. It should never have happened. Ask about the competency of the crew. Communications equipment is vital. Does the vessel have a powerful marine VHF radio and are all the passengers briefed on a Mayday procedure before setting off? It’s not good having the means if the only person who knows how to use it is incapacitated or fallen overboard. Are the life-rafts regularly serviced? I was recently on a fabulously well-appointed boat but realised after a couple of days there were no life-rafts. (There are now!) People never like to think about these things. Let’s hope you never have to. Finally, what medical facilities are there and what happens in the event of the need for an emergency evacuation? All good passenger vessels, whether small liveaboard motor yachts of vast Italian cruise liners should give the passengers a proper safety briefing before leaving port. Evidently the passengers of the Costa Concordia were due to get one on the third day of their trip and that was after disaster had happened. Ask the questions and get the reply in writing before you book.