Dan Stabbert of Stabbert Maritime Yacht and Ship knows a bit about the importance of communicating (see “Just Add Water” June 2009). The company buys boats and refits them, specializing in research ships. In addition to running these vessels and managing them, Stabbert Maritime also has an oceangoing tugboat operation and has done refits on seven yachts. “We’ll use them ourselves a little bit and then we’ll charter them out around the world,” Stabbert says. “We’ve done some really cool stuff. We take our guests to some unique places.”
But farflung locales mean increased risk—there’s not always a U.S. Coast Guard station or safe harbor right around the next point. “Most problems come down to people problems,” says Stabbert. “We almost lost a whole complement of guests in the Galápagos and it was a very harrowing experience, but it was mostly a matter of communication and personalities and that’s generally where you lose safety.”
The situation seems to have begun in the excitement of a new adventure. “When you have owners and clients aboard, people don’t want to thwart their wishes,” says Stabbert. “They’ll have a good plan set up and then all of a sudden someone will want to deviate from that. Deviation is excitement—being able to do things differently, that’s why you own these expedition yachts.” Stabbert had done the refit and was managing the boat, which had just traveled thousands of miles to the Galápagos and had a very sophisticated diving package and a crew of 12 and a helicopter on board. They anchored off Wolf Island.
“Generally once you arrive everyone wants to get in the water,” says Stabbert. “A lot of things happen all at once. The helicopter’s starting to fly. You’ve got skiffs in the water, people want to go sailing, and then you’ve got people that want to go diving. We dropped anchor at 6:30 in the morning, and not 20 minutes later, we’ve got the diesel skiff in the water with seven divers and two crew and they want to go to the west side of the island, where the local divemaster said there was some great diving.”
The dive-launch crew called the yacht and said they were doing a brief dive, and that everything was going according to plan. “The divers decided once they were down there—the clients saw some beautiful fish and the current was starting to take them and they pointed and made gestures to follow the current and the beautiful fish,” says Stabbert. “So they changed their plan and didn’t notify anybody, a group of divers plus two very senior divemasters. They were swept by the current along the Southeast side of Wolf Island and they didn’t think much of it, they were mesmerized by everything.”
The dive launch had difficulty reaching the yacht due to weather conditions and an interceding point of land affecting the VHF. After beginning a search, the launch finally was able to communicate the situation to the yacht, and they joined in the search. They located the full complement and got them on board. The divers had been in the water for 3 1/2 hours.
The Lesson: “We determined that there was no contingency for loss of communications that were critical,” says Stabbert. “That’s the maritime business: Something can be odd—if it’s odd all the time you’re okay, but the minute it changes, you need to start paying attention to it.”