Sunday, February 5, 2012

Blackbeard's Cruises - Everything You Wanted to Know - A Series

When I first thought about signing up for a Blackbeard’s Cruise, I was concerned about determining if this is the kind of trip I would like.  I am the kind of person that obsesses details, so I was a little nervous about just going on the trip based on a few comments from the internet and recommendations from a friend.  I’ve written this multi-part blog to share the experiences of a “Nervous Nellie” with everyone else craving more information than what is found on the Blackbeard’s web site or one page fact sheet.

http://www.blackbeard-cruises.com/

When I took my first cruise I was very apprehensive about enjoying it.  Once you are on this boat, there is no turning back if you don’t like it.  For some of us, when it is a struggle to get away for a week of diving, you don’t want to waste a week on trip that you don’t enjoy.  Keeping all of that in mind, I took the plunge based on strong recommendations of my friend and comments posted on the internet.  
Yes, I completely endorse the Blackbeard’s experience!  Nowhere else can you get the kind of diving value than on a Blackbeard’s Cruise and nowhere else is diving as easy as suiting up in the back of their boats and just taking a few steps off the side of the boat into the ocean.  Their custom boats make repetitive diving easy.  Your tank and equipment are stored just steps from the edge of the boat and the ladder.  Consider most other dive operations will charge you somewhere between $75-150 for a two tank dive.  Over five days of diving averaging 3-4 dives a day, this could add up to $600-1100 for the trip plus your hotel/condo and meals.  On Blackbeard’s it is inclusive.


What’s the trade-off?  You are housed in bunks with a three or four inch foam mattress, virtually no bunk storage, in very close quarters with about nineteen other divers with an allowance for one thirty second fresh water shower per day.  If you’ve served on a ship or submarine, I imagine you’d find it all familiar.  Well, it is close to camping if you are used to staying at a comfy hotel or a resort with towel service.  But, it is also a great time.  There is nothing like a week of just diving, sleeping and having all of your meals served up.  There is plenty of time for rest, sun bathing, and diving.  You can dive up to five times per day!  Where else can you get that kind of bottom time?
I’ve taken a trip in August and a trip in December.  Both trips were out of Nassau, and I arrived the afternoon before each trip to ensure that my equipment and I arrived in time and didn’t miss the boat.  I was a single diver both trips and traveling alone.  I never had a problem finding a dive buddy as many other divers are also traveling alone. 
Friday: Arrive in Nassau and check in at hotel to relax.  Start motion sickness medications now just in case.  They are better if they are in your system for 12 hours before the boat departure. 
Saturday:  Arrive at the boat at noon and check in with the Captain, get your bunk assignment and start bringing your stuff on the boat and arranging it. You can leave your suitcase and extra clothes and other stuff locked up at the dock while you are at sea.  Get checked in with the Dive Master in the Galley, bring your certification card, DAN insurance card and sign your Blackbeard’s waivers. Lunch is served now in the galley too – help yourself to cold cuts, sandwich fixin’s, macaroni type salad and chips.  Get your BCD and octopus set up or try on your rental gear now before you leave the dock including your weight belt because if it is summer and you have daylight until after 7 p.m. you might get in a dive today!
You should have started your motion sickness medication 12 hours in advance of the boat departure.  It is good to get a full dose in your bloodstream because the hardest part of the trip is likely to be just after you leave dock for the next six hours.  Do yourself a favor and take the meds even if you think you won’t need them because it is better to do it and not be sick than to not do it and be green-faced and sick for the next 8 hours.  If you are seasick anyway, you’ll want to be up on deck near the back of the boat in case you toss your cookies.  Going down below will make you even sicker, so it is better to be up on deck. 

Decent rain gear is essential for the trip.  If you are sick on deck and encounter a bad rain storm, you’ll want to have some good rain gear that will keep you dry and warm.  It is one thing to be seasick, but quite another level of misery to be seasick, wet and cold for six or more hours.  If it is a rough crossing with lots of waves, you could also have lots of sea spray on deck that will also make you wet, cold and miserable.  Be prepared.
When everyone is checked in you’ll get a safety briefing, equipment briefing and a review of everything you need to know for the trip and meet your crew.  The crew consists of a Captain, First Mate, Dive Master, Engineer and Cook.  They work in shifts so you might not see them all at the same time.  During check in with the Dive Master you’ll put your name on two pieces of tape.  One is put on a Velcro strip used to indicate if you are off or on the boat.  The second is used to mark your cup – assigned to you for the trip.  Of course, you can also bring your own travel mug and water bottle.  I brought both to have a bottle of water in my bunk and a big ol' covered drinking container up on deck to cut down on the number of refills I'd need to fetch. 

At 3:00 the boat will depart the dock and cross the Yellow Bank from Nassau to the Exumas.  If the weather isn’t too bad and you have daylight hours during the summer, you might stop at Periwinkle Reef within visual distance of Nassau and dive a very shallow reef – about 24 feet to try out your gear.  This is a very pleasant stop with an easy to navigate reef.  If you go slow, you might circle the small reef two or three times before you are out of air and ready to head back to the boat.  I’ve seen an 8 ft nurse shark here in the sand next to the reef in addition to a handful of cushion sea stars in the grassy patch under the boat mooring.

Your Cook will be whipping up dinner in the galley and dinner will be served in the early evening.  They usually ring a bell in the front of the boat to notify the passengers that a meal is ready.  There isn’t enough space for everyone to eat below deck at the same time, so you can either take turns or you can carry your food up on deck via the ladder.  Be careful!  Always face that ladder and maybe work with a buddy to hand your food and drink up on deck unless it is very windy and then your meal is likely to blow away.  Wait for the second shift but be timely as the crew has to wait for the passengers to eat before they can eat at each meal.  I think the crew works very hard, so try to respect their desire to eat hot meal too. 

Meals are served on a tiny buffet (about the size of a small kitchen counter) next to the kitchen and you’ll have to squeeze by other passengers to line up.  Food storage on the boat is an art.  Fruit and potatoes are hanging from hammocks above the table, on the wall and under the table.  Food is stored in the floors.  Extra food left on plates is dumped into a slop bucket that is later dumped overboard to feed the fish.  Non-food garbage items are stored in garbage bags on deck.  There is a beverage hose near the buffet where you can get soda or soda water and there is a super heated water tap so you can make instant hot tea or hot chocolate.

Seating is on a set of two picnic tables and benches bolted to the floor.  Now it is time to get cozy with strangers.  Make room for folks to sit down and get to know everyone.  For me, that is half the fun – meeting new people from all over the country and the world.

Sleeping and Bunks:  While you will be miles away from civilization, there is no denying that you will be in tight quarters with 24-26 other people if you include the crew in those numbers.  Maybe the only time you will have some down time – or privacy is in your bunk.  Almost all of the bunks have a curtain for visual privacy, but let’s face it.  If someone sleeping in a bunk nearby is snoring or talking, you will hear them.  Did you remember your ear plugs?  Mp3 player?

Blackbeard’s tries to group the girls together in upper and lower bunks as the do for the guys unless you are traveling as couples.
There are double bunks and single bunks.  In fact, there are more double bunks than single bunks – but the single bunks vary in size from 24-36 inches wide. There are six bunks that are 24 inches wide – and that is pretty small.  If you are a pair in a double bed, then you are also getting 24 inches per person.  You had better know your other half very well and like them too.  The clearance between bunks is very small, so small you can’t sit up straight in bed.  You are always hunched over in your bunk if you are not lying down.  The bunks do not have mattresses like you might have at home.  They are 4 inch thick foam mattresses over a wooden frame.  I think this is the part they refer to as camping at sea.  I am a bit of a princess when it comes to sleeping comfort.  I'm a side sleeper, so I was a little uncomfortable.  Next time I might bring an extra camping pad to add to the bunk. 

Each bunk with the exception of two have a curtain that pulls across for privacy.  Those other two bunks without a bunk curtain do have a curtain that goes across both of the bunks from the rest of the boat, so there is certainly some privacy there.  This is good, because it may be the only place besides the shower where you can change your clothes without flashing your neighbors.  On my last trip, I happened to get assigned to one of those bunks.  One way you can give yourself a little extra privacy or darkness if your bunkmate has the light on, is to take 5 giant binder clips and a very thin beach towel.  You can clip your towel to the bottom of the bunk above you and the towel will create that extra privacy.

Each bunk has a shelf at the foot of the bed, a mattress sheet, bed sheet, blanket and 1 pillow per person. This shelf is pretty small and it is all of the storage space you are provided for your toiletries, swim suits, clothes, books and everything else you think you’ll bring on the trip.   Most of the bunks have an outlet in the bunk or next to the bunk to share with your bunkmate.  This is great for charging batteries for your camera, MP3 player, a small fan or laptop computer.  There is also a push-button light for each bunk so you can stay up late reading when your neighbors want darkness for sleeping.  If you were the kind of kid who liked to take a blanket and throw it over a table and play fort, this will be comfortable for you.  If confined spaces make you uncomfortable or claustrophobic, then you will not enjoy this.
There are six double bunks in the galley.  This might be the noisiest place on the boat most of the time – but if you are a traveling single, you get a double bunk – so you have more storage.  When it is time to eat – you are right there, and if you are thirsty in the middle of the night, then you will be close to water.  The Captain will enforce quiet hours, so you don’t have to worry about party animals hanging out in the galley all night. The shower and a head are located in this space too.  Certainly pros and cons to this space.
The next compartment forward might be the most private.  Just two double bunks on each side of the boat with an actual door!  This is where Blackbeard’s try to book couples traveling together.  Makes sense to me.   Just outside the door there is a head and the ladder up to the deck.  The front compartment has 8 bunks – the most of anywhere and a head just under the ladder up to the deck.  The bunks in the front of the boat are the smallest singles.  Because of the curvature of the boat below deck, I think the lower bunks look larger or deeper, but they are farther forward because of the curve of the hull.  Each of the lower bunks does stick out further than the upper bunk, which provides a footing for climbing into the upper bunk.  If you get a lower bunk and don’t want your bunk mate to put their wet or dirty feet on your mattress, bring a small plastic tablecloth for them to step on instead of your sleeping area.  It also makes a good waterproof area to sit down when you have a wet swimsuit or are laying in your bunk to change out of your suit.
In spite of being in the general compartment near several loud snoring men, I had little trouble sleeping each night.  Maybe it was the sound of the waves hitting the boat when we were docked, the motion sickness medication making me drowsy or the physical exhaustion from 3-5 dives a day.  So, don’t get too worked up about noise from others.
Next thing you’ll know, the large bell on the boat will be ringing signaling it is time for breakfast and your first dive of the day to follow.

More to come about Blackbeard's Cruises in the next blog. 

4 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into sharing. My wife and I look forward to it and the small tips you've provided may pay off huge in comfort.

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  2. Great blog, I've been researching liveaboards for awhile, especially Blackbeard's... this is the kind of article I was hoping to find. Lots of great information, thanks.

    Tony

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