By Bob Halstead
It would be a perfect life; I love diving, love being on boats and love adventure. I had moved to Papua New Guinea in 1973, already an experienced NAUI instructor, discovered that very few had dived PNG’s reefs, and that there was no established tourist dive industry.
When the opportunity arose I quit my teaching job and started a dive school and shop in Port Moresby with my wife Dinah. We got a bank loan and had a 20-diver day dive boat built for us. This is Solatai and we used her for our dive school, but also cruised to Milne Bay every November and April, where we ran Scuba Safaris – camping in villages and exploring previously un-dived reefs.
This was hard work, but we were young and fit, and the diving spectacular. Most of the guests were divers who had passed through our dive school and who lived in PNG, but we did get a few international clients. Their praise of the quality of the diving, and the fact that many returned, gave me hope that I could appeal to the larger international dive tourism market that was growing in the early 1980s.
I could see that we needed to get a larger boat with live-aboard facility. Camping in villages was uncomfortable and exposed our guests to the malaria mosquito that bites at night. Sleeping on board a boat, just a short distance off shore, is very safe. We could also venture further and explore the many reef areas in PNG that had never been dived.
I started to sketch a “general arrangement” of my ideal dive boat. First consideration was the PNG survey requirements. All commercial vessels had to conform to standards and had to be inspected during construction. The critical measurement in PNG was the “Registered Length” measured from the bow to the rudderstock. Solatai was built at 9.96 metres, inside the 10m class thus avoiding most of the rules. The next class was 10 to 20m. If we went over 20m the running expenses would skyrocket. If you are building a boat you must study the local regulations!
The bank liked my business plan but was very concerned about building a boat as opposed to purchasing an existing boat. But in the early 1980’s there were not many dive boats for sale, and most of those were converted fishing vessels, and not suitable. I insisted that I had to have a purpose built dive boat designed to my criteria. What’s more I wanted it built from PNG timber in PNG.
We had contacted a wonderful old man, Arthur Swinfield, who had taught boat building in PNG in the 1930s. He was a Naval Architect and when I told him I wanted to build a 20m boat in PNG employing the grandsons of the boat builders he had taught, he was galvanised into action. “I’ve been waiting for this call!” he exclaimed and set about drawing the most wonderful set of plans for the PNG boat builders. He helped persuade the bank to lend me money and in 1984 we started building on Dinah’s land in Milne Bay.
The arrangement I wanted was for 5×2-guest cabins comfortably midships, an aft engine room and a large dive deck. The wheelhouse was forward so I could get a good view of the reefs. I wanted one large, slow – revving marine diesel – and single propeller to avoid the possibility of damage with twin shafts and exposed propellers. A huge amount of thought went in to making the boat reliable with simple mechanical systems I could repair myself.
Building the boat was an adventure – and deserves a book! I managed the construction and fortunately I had had little prior experience – otherwise it is unlikely that I would have ever had the courage to build her. Ignorance was bliss. I started by doing the first things, then figured what the next things were and did them. When there were problems, I did not moan, I got advice and solved them. By December 1986 I had a beautiful live-aboard dive boat and two years of dive group bookings. People started to tell me how lucky I was, and I found the best response was to agree. “Yes” I would say, “thank goodness I found that treasure!”
“You found treasure!” they would gasp, and I would tell them “indeed, I did” and introduce them to my wife.
To start with I was very ambitious. We cruised to all the possible diving areas in PNG and made some great discoveries. Since I was the captain, chief engineer and dive master, and hated to miss a dive, I pushed myself hard. Calm weather made life easier but rough crossings and sleepless nights took their toll.
We learned some interesting facts – for example if I anchored out in calm weather on an exposed reef for night diving, a squall would inevitably blow at midnight. So we started to plan things more carefully, always trying to find secure anchorages at night, and making any long re-location passages without passengers aboard. Still the adventure was amazing, the diving wonderful, and we had a good business. For every day everyone else lived, we lived two.
Inevitably, as happens on boats, equipment would fail and I had to ensure I could keep everything running. This was stressful, but I kept a good inventory of spare parts. We operated for 10 years without a day of diving lost, but eventually I grew to loath continually fixing things.
Privacy became an issue. There is very little privacy on a boat to and I seemed to be on call for 24 hours a day, often to answer inane questions or fix guests’ equipment. Or listen to shipboard romances being consummated on the top deck immediately above our cabin. Most groups were full of interesting people, my social and intellectual life revolved around them, and I have made lifelong friends. But a difficult or selfish passenger could make me miserable, and have a devastating effect on the boat’s morale.
I began to hate my generator. If it stopped in the middle of the night there was this blissful silence – but I also had to get up and fix it. But when it was running the constant background noise was annoying. I could not win that one. Nor the desire for the boat to sometimes just stay still for a minute!
Telita became famous, and so did some of the dive sites we discovered and dived regularly. We coined the term “Muck” diving to show divers the weird and wonderful critters that did not live on coral reefs, and were the first to show tourist divers living nautilus trapped from the deep – and safely released. Our promotions were to experienced divers – we insisted on at least 50 dives before we accepted a booking, and then gave them great diving freedom. These were our ideas and we felt we were leaders.
Inevitably other divers started to buy boats. After 6 years of having PNG virtually to ourselves suddenly there were ten live-aboard boats operating. Most of these were set up in different areas from the ones we had settled into, complimented our operation and we were, and are still, friends with the owners. But to others “our” dive sites became public property and I became frustrated when I cruised to a site only to find another dive boat moored there, busy re-discovering and re-naming it.
Competition is one thing, but plagiarism is another. Unfortunately there are no laws to protect proprietary information when applied to dive sites or techniques. We were not alone with this problem – look what happened on Sipadan – but at the time this quote probably summed up my feelings:
“I am surrounded – on one side by the greedy and the ignorant, who hope to profit by following me, and on the other side by the jealous and the falsely pious, who hope to profit by my destruction.” (Hypnerotomachia).
I dislike working to a routine so each day I would check the weather and make a decision as to where I thought I could find the very best diving for my guests. We never had a fixed itinerary; this meant I had to constantly make decisions. That was OK – I like being in charge – but it has its stressful moments. I still foolishly get upset if, because of some phenomenon out of my control (weather, visibility etc.), I cannot show divers the very best a dive site has to offer, and then they complain. If it rained, it was my fault.
What finally made me start thinking about selling out were the guests who arrived with a list of dive sites and critters they expected to see, no matter the conditions. My grand adventure was turning into a guided tour. Then on one cruise a guest berated me for diving an unexplored reef. I thought he would be excited at the opportunity, but he just accused me of using his money for “my” research.
I did not, and do not, want to dive with people like him. So, after 19 years full time, we sold our dive company. I sorted my slides and wrote some books – and then started helping out my friends in PNG, who needed the occasional break, by running their boats for them – and bringing along my favourite dive guests who still want to dive my way. Burnout has been vanquished. If the generator stops, I let the engineer fix it. My love of adventure and diving is as strong as ever. I do not own a boat, life is good!
PS – If you are thinking of your own dive boat, this might help:
Tips on boats
1. Fast boats with big engines are very expensive to run. Make sure the type of boat suits the area you intend to dive, and make sure service facilities are available. Working from a city such as Cairns is easier than working from a remote atoll!
2. Check the local maritime legislation to make sure you comply, before you build/buy your boat.
3. Comfortable is better than fast or luxurious.
4. Timber boats are quiet, do not ”sweat”, and are very seaworthy, and many traditional areas in the Asia/Pacific region have skilled shipwrights.
5. Any fancy bit of essential electronics on board needs a spare.
6. Do not be fooled by appearances – the heart of a boat is its hull, engine, drive and steering systems, not the varnish on the rails.
7. A decked hull is only one fifth, or less, of the cost of a boat.
Crew are a vital part of every boat, but are the greatest operating expense. Most countries specify the minimum crew numbers, qualifications and accommodation. If you wish to run a large boat, and especially if you are planing to cruise long distances, you will need a dedicated Captain, Mate, Engineer, Chef, Dive Master/Trip Director as well as crew to clean, run dive dinghies, fill tanks and so on. You cannot possibly do this on a small boat. The minimum capacity of a boat with this size crew would be 20 paying guests. To be really viable you would probably need 25 – 30 paying guests.
The boat would be bigger, and hence maintenance, fuel, insurance and other costs and fees would all be higher too.
I chose to have a smaller boat with just 10 paying guests and could make this profitable as I was Captain, Dive Master, and ultimately in charge of fixing stuff, and Dinah was Chef and assisted with deck duties, diving and Mate if Telita needed manoeuvring when I was in the water. We planned ahead to both get qualified to captain Telita by keeping a Mariners Log Book to certify sea time while running Solatai , and taking the necessary courses and examinations before Telita was built. So our crew consisted of ourselves, and 3/4 local crewmembers, minimising crew costs. Whatever crew you employ they need to be energetic, cheerful and enthusiastic in their work.