BRIT DIVERS, STERLING FOLKS THOUGH THEY MIGHT BE, do like a bit of a bargain. The rest of the world, for example, has long since given up using old lilo tubes as SMBs and still expecting to be picked up if the drift turns out faster than it looked. The Red Sea is the paddling pool of the Brit diver abroad, and a quick glance through Diver shows just how many trips are available to that hallowed destination. Some of these look like 'a bit of a bargain'. Not last-minute loadsamoneyoff specials, though there are plenty about, but holidays that look plain cheap. Other trips to the same destination, with the same itinerary, can cost nearly twice as much. Consider the liveaboard. Or, if you get it wrong, the dieoverboard. The fiscally aware among you need to ask this simple question: if the sites are the same, what, apart from enough money for a second trip later in the year, is the difference between a liveaboard costing over a grand and one at£600? Clientele, for one. Expensive boats tend to be booked by couples on a proper holiday. Cheap boats, on the other hand, are booked by hairy-arsed wreckies away with the dive club for a week without the other half. Not that coupledom or hairy-arsedness matters a damn when it comes to the aprés-dive. Downing sufficient lager to incapacitate a coachload of football fans seems to be mandatory, and the more petite the imbiber, the better. BSAC Dave, on board the current doyenne of Red Sea liveaboards in the deep south, believed that such floating gin palaces should be banned. He felt that converted fever ships out of Grimsby, with a fundamental approach to toilet provision and cuisine that extended no further than deep frying, were the diving equivalent of paying your dues, and any soft nancy who couldn't hack it shouldn't be diving at all. His Lady Wife carefully removed the little paper umbrella from her glass and took a sip of her cocktail. She gently pointed out that he was welcome to dive from a condemned herring trawler in the North Sea if he wanted to, but she was quite happy where she was, thank you. To summarise the difference between cheap and expensive boats, let's look at a typical day's diving from each. On an expensive boat, your day begins with a discreet tap on your cabin door, signalling delivery of a cup of tea. Note the reference to your cabin door. You will have been able to sleep in your cabin because it is air-conditioned. At least, it is until it breaks down later in the week. After drinking your tea, you can climb out of your bunk in your own time, use your en-suite facilities, and gently prepare for the challenges of the day ahead. On a cheap boat you are woken by the engines starting up. Money will not have been wasted on insulation, so this will sound like a pair of really big guys clog-dancing outside your cabin. If your cabin is next to the engine room, it will feel as if they are dancing on your skull. Don't try to lie in. Within seconds diesel fumes will begin to fill the space below decks, and getting away with just a headache will be a bonus. You could go for a wash in one of the three shared bathrooms, but they will already be occupied, so you might as well head topside and make your own tea. Obviously, this applies to the first day only. After one night in a shared cabin with more than a passing resemblance to a blacksmith's armpit, you'll prefer to sleep on deck. While you sort yourself out, the boat cruises to the first dive-site of the day. The dive guide won't identify it until you arrive. This is because Egyptian dive-boat skippers find their way across vast tracts of sea without any electronic aids. They might use a compass from time to time, but observation suggests not. In such circumstances, it is easier find out where you are and claim that this is where you intended to be.
Sometimes the skipper might have to find a specific site. This is fine if you are going somewhere easy, such as Ras Mohammed (follow the Sinai coast until you stop going south and start going north), but trickier if your site is in open water and without a convenient marker. Like the Thistlegorm. If you do this site, and every northern Red Sea liveaboard does, you need to be there early or you'll find yourself diving in a string factory of boat lines. Let us assume yours is the first boat on-site. A cheap boat has nothing by way of navigation or position-fixing aids, so the crew locates the wreck by hanging over the side and staring into the water. When they spot the wreck the guide, who has been patiently standing fully kitted on the foredeck for an hour, is given a rope and thrown overboard. Fifteen minutes later, guide and rope are recovered and the process repeated. Then repeated again until eventually the wreck is found and the line tied off. It has taken so long to find that yours is the third boat to tie-in, regardless of how early you arrived. Even then, you get her only because the first two have given you a pair of fairly substantial SMBs at which to aim. On an expensive boat the Captain (note capital letter) could have set the position on the GPS and steamed directly there. Use of the echo-sounder would quickly have located the substantial remains of the wreck, and skilled seamanship would have held your vessel stationary while the guide did the business with the rope. Expensive liveaboards have every modern aid you can shake a light-stick at. Egyptian skippers, however, don't hold with 'em, so even the most expensive liveaboards rely on the traditional method of throwing the dive guide overboard at what seems like the right time.
So we come to the dive briefing. What you must remember about dive guides is that they do the job for love, not money. They are employed on a package basis, including items such as food, accommodation and all the decompression sickness they can take without permanent disability, but excluding items such as a regular wage. Also included is work 'related' to diving. After a day which includes six multi-bounce dives teaching buoyancy control to novice divers, the prospect of scrubbing the dive-centre toilets is something only a real enthusiast could appreciate. Liveaboard dive guides don't have to clean toilets, but their duties don't end when diving ends. The guide on my last liveaboard spotted a loose cam-band, and consequently a slipping cylinder, on the inflatable ride to the afternoon site. As soon as we got back to the boat she organised a cam-band-tightening practice session for the boat crew. The screams as her eagle eye detected minor faults and she took appropriate disciplinary action rather disturbed afternoon tea, but come the night dive she was back at 50m, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and looking for nudibranchs. Her briefings were exemplary, with lovely detailed diagrams and precise descriptions of what we could expect to see. Best of all, when we got in the water the sites matched her descriptions! Until that trip I had always thought I suffered badly from narcosis, when all I was really suffering from was lousy briefings.
But that was an expensive boat. On the cheap vessel which preceded it, the briefing always went along the same lines: 'The sea is that way. Under the water there is a reef. There may be fish.' To be fair, the guide did draw some lovely diagrams. Many were of dive sites, and some were of dive sites we visited, though he tended to do those after we had done the dive. Following the briefing, you go to your place on the dive deck and kit up. Every liveaboard has a system for storing guests' dive gear which allows you to unpack and stow it in a handy fashion. Most liveaboards have a tender for drift dives, so the usual system is for guests to form two groups. On expensive liveaboards, returning guests can choose the group with which they wish to dive. The rest of the party do as they're told. On cheap liveaboards, similarity of kitting-up speed determines who goes in which group. The first group climbs into the inflatable and is motored to the dive site. The inflatable then returns for the second party, and by the time they have dropped in the first party will have finished their dive and can be recovered. On an expensive boat the guests can do their own thing, by and large, and the inflatable follows the bubbles of errant divers, like the world's largest SMB. As soon as you surface you are lifted bodily from the water, your kit is removed and warm towels, a drink and a piece of cake are pressed into your hands. On a cheap boat, the inflatable carrying the second group of divers suffers engine failure on the way to the dive site. The inflatable wallows in the waves long enough to fill to the top of the tubes with water and for everybody, including the crew-member driving, to get seasick.
At this point it becomes obvious that the wind and waves are actually carrying the inflatable away from the liveaboard. Nobody is watching from the liveaboard, so you're on your own. Meanwhile the first party of divers has surfaced. The group is obviously well spread out, and their heads are all but invisible in the swell. Just as things start to look really bad, the outboard miraculously re-starts. The second group of divers needs to go back to the liveaboard because they all feel so lousy, and then the first group can be picked up. Those who can be found, anyway. If, by some miracle, the dive goes well and everyone makes it back to the boat, the guests on expensive boats find attentive crew-members refilling cylinders and stowing kit in their personal boxes. On cheap boats there might, if you're lucky, be a crewman checking that there are as many divers aboard after the dive as there were before. Then the survivors get brekky. On a cheap boat this is bread and soft cheese. If you have taken some with you, there might be marmalade. On an expensive boat you get fresh bread, fruit, butter, marmalade, jam, cereals and more. Every morning. Just don't expect bacon butties. Other meals aboard follow similar lines, with cheap boats offering such delicacies as stew of unknown meat with vegetables and the traditional spag bol. The frequency of spag bol is directly related to the price you paid. The lower the price, the more often you get spag bol. And below a certain price thres-hold, the proportion of spag goes up as the amount of bol falls. Even on a really cheap boat, however, you will find the galley open to inspection, though you are unlikely to appreciate what you see. The cook will be the deckhand, and those hands will not be washed. Neither will he change his clothes all week or remove the ever-present cigarette as he prepares dinner. Galleys on expensive boats are the same, but they put up a wall so you can't see in.
As you eat, the cylinders are refilled for the next dive. An expensive boat has a compressor easily up to the task, plus a spare just in case. A cheap boat has only the one compressor, which needs to run 24 hours a day and hasn't been serviced since it was built. This might give your breathing gas a certain piquant quality. Expensive liveaboards also move on, unless the guests have asked to repeat a site. Cheap boats do a bit more of the 'we did the south side of the reef on the last dive, so we'll do the north side on this next one'. An expensive boat provides a few more dives in the week than a cheap boat, too. When diving is finally ended for the day, you and your fellow-travellers can congregate on the top deck to chat over a beer. All liveaboards provide fridges in which to keep your beer, but on expensive boats they work. Inevitably the conversation turns to diving, and other dive trips your fellow-guests have taken. On an expensive boat the diving was always better last year, or somewhere else in the world. On cheap boats the level of gobsmackedness and general satisfaction will be much higher. And so we finish the day as it began, back in our air-conditioned cabin or on the open deck beneath the stars. If you want an honest opinion, top-end liveaboards are better, but any liveaboard will do nicely.