About scuba divers: There are those who care only about how many feet. They tend to have helpless grains of sand amassed in their innies, covered rather poorly by faded, ill-fitting "Divers Do It Deeper T-shirts. They take pleasure in seeking out anything with ears and saying, "My dive is the longest on record.
About charter guests: There are those who care only about how many feet. They tend to congregate in tiki bars, wearing more weight in the chains around their necks than the average diver carries around his overly buoyant belly (see previous paragraph). They take pleasure in seeking out anything with breasts and saying, "My boat is the longest in the harbor.
They could never appreciate what makes diving aboard the 111-foot Broward Strait Jacket such an exceptional charter experience.
During the week I spent cruising around Sint Maarten and Anguilla courtesy of the boat's owner, we dropped the hook next to charter boats pushing 200 feet LOA, and we never dove below 20 feet. Visibility was mediocre, until a storm churned sand into what underwater light remained. Not that it mattered; my mask kept fogging up, probably thanks to my head cold.
And yet, this week was the best diving trip I've ever done. As any experienced diver will tell you, the actual diving is only part of the package. Great dive trips are built by bookending each half-hour underwater with comfortable accommodations, fine food and unique entertainment. Exceptional dive trips, such as mine aboard Strait Jacket, combine all of the above with crew, gear and extras that cater to the crowd.
"The nice thing about this boat is that it's an affordable luxury yacht with more amenities than you'd find on other boats, said first mate/dive master Drew Avirett. "It's not just the diving. It's the after-diving activities.
Relatively few luxury charter yachts offer diving. One reason is liability. Another is the demand diving makes on the crew. There's gear to be prepped, loaded, unloaded, hosed down and put away. Still another reason is money. There aren't a lot of people able (or willing) to serve as crew and dive master, and those with both skill sets demand bigger paychecks. And, any boat with a dive master must be outfitted with gear. That's an avoidable expense for owners who tell clients to rendezvous with local dive operations.
I have spent time aboard a handful of charter yachts that offer diving, but in every case, scuba was secondary to the yacht's general program. I often found myself fully geared up and squished into a RIB with a half-dozen other guests traveling to a site, only to return to the tender a half-hour later to face the unflattering challenge of "beaching myself back into it. Diving off the yachts themselves was awkward at best; most motoryachts with cockpits or afterdecks big enough to allow multiple divers to gear up at once devote the space to a fighting chair or dining table. Take it from me, maneuvering around a Murray Brothers chair in fins, weights and a tank is akin to waltzing through a Waterford crystal store in snow skis and a flowing velvet robe.
The beauty of Strait Jacket is that her design, outfitting and crew cater to guests who dive, while still offering plenty for spouses and friends who, on other vacations, would end up as "dive widows.
Our group spent a lot of time on Strait Jacket's flying bridge deck. It has a settee big enough for a crowd or an afternoon nap, a bar with comfy stools and a frozen drink machine (Bahama Mamas were available on demand) and three helm seats that let guests chat with the amiable Capt. Kevin Thompson while under way. The hardtop's sunroof opens directly above the jacuzzi, which doubles as a sunpad.
Active guests who don't dive can paddle around in one of Strait Jacket's two kayaks, called Yellow Jackets, rev up one of the two Yamaha wave runners, called Ski Jackets, or explore the area in the yacht's 15-foot Novurania, Life Jacket. Our group enjoyed the kayaks, but we had no need for Life Jacket; we preferred tooling around in the 34-foot Intrepid, Sport Jacket, that this yacht tows as part of-not in addition to-her $40,000 base rate.
The Intrepid is a key part of Strait Jacket's diving program, which also stands out because of the bigger boat's features and crew. The swim platform on the big boat is spacious enough for several divers to move around on, in full gear, and is just one step down from the cockpit, which is open. I geared up with six other divers, and we all had room to move freely. The swim platform has pop-up cleats, and there is a hot freshwater shower just inside the cockpit.
Avirett is a fantastic dive master, the kind you know you'll have fun with because he knows what he's doing. He is a PADI rescue diver, a PADI medic/first aid provider and a DAN oxygen provider-not to mention a darn nice guy. Even during our first dive, he handled all seven of us with grace and confidence. I'm a fairly experienced diver, and he let me do my thing. Another guest, who hadn't dove in a few years, refused to let go of his hand even after we submerged. He showed her the same respect he did me, and by the end of that first dive, she asked if he had time to take her down again-that afternoon.
"You have to know you're ready, know your equipment and know the fact that humans are unpredictable, he told me later. "God forbid an emergency does happen, we have all the (safety) equipment and we're trained to use it.
But back to the Intrepid, which obliterated the "not-so tender experiences I've had on other yachts. It also served as our chariot when heading ashore for evening entertainment-a smooth, comfortable ride sure to be appreciated by women who've boarded RIBs in a skirt or sarong in the past. I recommend a trip to The Dune, Banky Banx's place on Anguilla. He has an exceptional voice, Bob Dylan crossed with Bob Marley, and his often hilarious autobiographical songs, such as "Busted in Barbados, will compel you to buy his $20 CD. Unfortunately, it doesn't capture the sound of his little black dog, Gypsy, which howled backup throughout the performance we saw.
We laughed about the evening over breakfast the next morning on Strait Jacket's afterdeck (she has no indoor dining table, only a country kitchen-style galley). Chef Jay Lawlor served us chocolate-filled croissants, fruit salad and eggs made to order, in keeping with his style of preparing simple, delicious meals.
"I don't want people to feel like they need instructions to eat what's on the plate, he said. "I don't put a lot of stuff on the plate to make up for inadequate food.
By the time you read this, Strait Jacket will be positioned for her summer season in the Bahamas. The captain has worked on and off in those waters for 15 years, and his first mate is well versed in the area, as well.
"You've got some of the best diving in the world in the Bahamas, said Avirett, who crewed aboard other charter yachts there. "Everywhere we went, we hired local knowledge, so I learned from them.
Keep an eye out in the Bahamas this summer for smiling people shunning the T-shirt shops and tiki bars.
You might ask them how it feels to care only about how deep their experience has been.
Contact: The Sacks Group, (954) 764-7742; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.sacksyachts.com, or any charter broker. Strait Jacket charters for $40,000 per week, plus expenses, for eight guests. Her rate decreases by $2,500 without the Intrepid in tow.