A week aboard the S.S. Thorfinn…..
Right after Club Ed departed Fiji in June of 2014, our fearless leader began the research for a Palau and Truk “lifetime adventure”. Engaging the astute services of Florina Barnard, Principal at Pacific Dive and Travel, Cluib Ed booked the Palau Tropic Dancer and the Truk Lagoon Odyssey for our Dive Trip of a Lifetime.
We were set to depart on May 2 of 2015 for Palau and then on to Truk Lagoon. In April of 2015, Typhoon Maysak severely damaged the Truk Odyssey to the point of cancellation of our trip. Florina and Ed swooped in to action, quickly moving our Truk Lagoon Odyssey reservation to the Thorfinn.
Please allow me to say that I am immensely grateful to Ed, Florina, my dear lovely wife Janice, and the powers-that-be for allowing me to return to Truk Lagoon for my last time. I will try to keep this review objective and non-judgmental, but the Thorfinn was “an-experience-of-a-lifetime”. No one knew this bed and breakfast on the water was what it was. The Thorfinn was not a bad choice….it was simply overwhelmed and unable to cater to the needs of this seasoned group of American liveaboard divers. It’s access to the wrecks below made it a far better choice than any of the land-based operation. As of this writing and until the Odyssey returns from repairs, the Thorfinn is living “La Vida Loca”.
The GOOD News:
- The Thorfinn rode out Typhoon Dolphin with nary a hiccup. This 1,100 ton all steel steam-powered ship was rock solid as the Typhoon graced us with gale force winds and scattered showers. The Thorfinn barely rocked at all in 4-6 ft. seas! She is a most sea-worthy behemoth.
- Captain Lance is one of the most experienced and seasoned liveaboard captains we have ever had. He has been in Truk Lagoon for over 30 years and is incredibly well-versed on the wrecks, Operation Hailstorm, and the Chuukese culture. One could listen to his tales for hours.
- The dive guides and skiff crew were superb….Much more than anyone could ask for. Toma and Eric led us to places within those wrecks that we would NEVER venture to on our own. They knew the locations of all the really cool nooks, crannies,, engine rooms, and human body parts deep within the bowels of these forgotten tombs. . The dive guides concern for our safety while venturing withtin was most evident.
- The Thorfinn has their own set of Deco measures which always met up with our computers, keeping us safe. Regular air diving at 150+ feet, the Thorfinn mandated a 2 minute stop at 60’, a 3 minute stop at 30’ and a 10 minute stop at 15-20 ft. This satisfied our dive computers decompression requirements allowing us to safely surface. It was really simple and easy. However, DAN commented that “the dive computers you mentioned were designed for recreational diving and NOT decompression. Without the designated decompression algorithm, your recreational computers should not be trusted.” On all the deeper dives, the guides carried a spare 80 cu. Ft. tank down to the wreck and there was always an 80 cu. Ft. tank on a hang line at 20 ft. under the skiff.
- Our cabin crew was incredibly hard working and did the very best with what they had. The Thorfinn was built in 1954 and had been sunk at least once. They kept our common areas very clean with what they had to work with. There was one wet/dry vacuum with a round 3” hose end….no adapter, nada. They vacuumed the entire ship 3 square inches at a time, nearly every day. They were omni-present and yet un-obtrusive.
The BAD News:
- While Captain Lance is a very experienced seaman, but was not “nice” to his crew. He frequently referred to them as monkey’s and had little to no respect for them in front of us! It made for some uncomfortable moments throughout the week.
- Captain Lance continually blamed someone or something else for the Thorfinn’s shortcomings. “Those monkey’s don’t know how to fill a tank properly.” “They didn’t fix the pipes for the AC units so they could work.” “They didn’t maintain the ice maker so we haven’t had one since 2010.” We felt he should have made a list and addressed each concern at it came up. We all felt he would get better performance if he were to admonish them privately and with more respect.
- Captain Lance gave the longest dive briefings in the entire South Pacific. Frequently he would stray off topic, sharing totally unrelated, although very interesting, anecdotes.. It seemed he loved to hear himself speak, although his knowledge was voluminous. (Perhaps a bit too much of a good thing during briefings – these stories would be better saved for evening social times). As a result, we ended up fairly far behind the planned schedule for the day, simply because the briefings were so detailed and tedious. (a bit too much of a good thing during briefings – these stories would be better saved for evening social times). As a result, we ended up fairly far behind the planned schedule for the day, simply because the briefings were so lengthy and tedious.
- ICE was in very short rationable supply. No ice machine. Ice was made in one dozen cube trays like we all had in the old days, AND, it was kept behind a locked door in a standard refrigerator/freezer in a closet. Each time we needed ice, we also needed a cabin crew member to retrieve it for us – that is, assuming it had not all been consumed. They seemed surprised at our need for it.
- For shallower dives, most seasoned divers dove Nitrox to extend bottom time, and shorten required surface intervals. However, our dive guides constantly dove on 21% air…All the dives. The reason, as we uncovered it, was that . Captain Lance and his Thorfinn charged his dive guides $16 per fill for Nitrox! This leads them to violate NDL’s on nearly every dive, leading to the divers in the boat, waiting for the dive guide to finish Deco stops.
- The language barrier was very real as few of the crew spoke English.
- Food….Absolutely NOT of the quality we expected and that we were used to on previous luxury liveaboards. (Disappointed expectations!) Twice we were served undercooked chicken legs from a NASTY dirty grill. (See photos 1 and 3) And there was NO white meat. One eve, we witnessed the “finished” chicken being basted in the raw chicken marinade on its way to the “done” platter (Note…it was neither finished nor done. See photos….)
- One meal, we were served a 5” square, 3/8” think piece of, what-appeared-to-be, browned beef in a dark brown gelatinous gravy. Only a few of us could cut this mystery-meat in order to consume. Those that did commented “it was too tough to chew” and “this tastes like horse meat.” GROSS! Wish I had a picture. . One in our party passed all-together and had a PB&J sandwich instead. Others didn’t finish it, electing to remain hungry.
- The Thorfinn was built in 1954 and no amount of paint could cover up the severely rusted hull and trim pieces. These were nasty jagged and sharp pieces of metal, capable of lacerations or impalement. . But, thankfully, no one received any notable injuries..
- There was a 30’ section of guard rail missing on the top deck. (See Photo 2) It was supplemented by a 30’ piece of clothes line rope. Incredibly unsafe.
- We were provided towels after diving, but these were rarely, if ever washed. They were simply hung out by and exit from the engine room to dry and refold for distribution. (See photo 3) This left them with a stout smell of fresh diesel exhaust. (the ship’s generator is diesel powered).
- The dive skiffs were a U.S. Lawyer’s dream. First off, there was a smooth slippery piece of blue wood to serve as a step as we entered the skiff from 3+ feet above in churning seas. (See Photo 4Skiff enlarged and Photo 4 Skiff Step Pad)
- Imagine the back end of the substantial skiff moving up and down in 3-4’ seas. (See Photo 5 Boarding Ladder) moving the lower propeller blades up an out of the water. Timing was critical and the lower ladder would raise and then slam shut. Finger loss and general propeller blade laceration was a concern.. Good body positioning skill and excellent timing was required to snag a grip on the ladder in-between swells, to avoid being severely injured by the lower units pounding back into the water. It’s literally a miracle that no one had their head split open in these seas.
- And the hand rails to this boarding ladder were dangerous and very slick. making it difficult to ascend the ladder once one managed to get a grip on it. Certainly NOT safe and often a cause to slip back into the water as the waves threw this skiff about. (See Photo 5Boarding Ladder)
- The alleged “safety boat” was non-existent. (See photo 10Safety boat)
- When walking along one of the hallways of the Thorfinn, it was not at all unusual to see “cracks: in the plastic wall. These vertical cracks were sharp and capable of cutting open a hand. (See Photo 8Thorfinn Wall)
- The hall lighting fixtures were equally in a state if disrepair. (See Photo 7Hall Light Fixture) Who knows how long it had been broken and grimy.
- And my personal favorite….the air conditioner in the dining salon. (See Photo 6AC Galley) Captain Lance would arrive 10-15 minutes into a meal to and magically turn it on. It was off between meals. It was precariously propped level by spare boat parts. It got so hot down in the galley that I asked for a few meals to be brought upstairs to me in the salon. This ritual was repeated 3 times daily and always sent a wave of ironic mirth through the group.
- AC was marginal all through this boat, save for 2 rooms and the main salon. In classic Captain Lance form, it was someone else’s fault.
- Nitrox…Capt. Lance promised 3000+ fills in our initial Captains briefing, instructing us “do not accept anything less.” . In reality, each fill was about 2800 lb. The filling operation was so antiquated and slow that asking for a top-off would delay our departure even further. Nitrox varied between 28% and 32% making us all EXPERTS at adjusting our personal dive computers.. Thank goodness we checked before diving. AND, Capt. Lance tried to charge us $12 daily rent for 100 cu ft. tanks! plus an additional $4 per Nitrox fill, and this had not been previously disclosed during the initial briefing, or any other time, prior. After some discussion of the issue, Capt became very upset and frustrated, throwing his hands up and telling the first mate to remove the charges, as he disappeared to elsewhere on the ship. A simple whip-fill system would solve all.
- On most liveaborads, last day laundry of a few items is usually at no charge, although a tip to the cabin steward usually gets it done. Capt. Lance charged me $27.50 for a few things.
- There was a basin sized camera rinse tank on the main dive deck. This a totally inadequate for todays DSLR rigs, much less 2 boats full. The Thorfinn needs larger rinse tanks and camera tables ON the dive deck. Currently they are 1 deck up, outside of the main salon, flanked with towels. The dive guides need to hand them to us after we complete the precarious skiff boarding procedure.
I was blessed to be able to make this adventure of a lifetime. Visiting the Ghost Fleet of Truk Lagoon will always be at the pinnacle of my favorites list. In the wake of Typhoon Maysak that devastated the entire Truk liveaboard fleet (Thorfinn excepted), we would have had to change to land based operations, and that would have been less fulfilling. That said, the Thorfinn operation has a few obstacles to overcome before it can be considered as a “luxury liveabord” experience. As it is now, it is more of an industrial diving experience, than a luxury experience.
Captain Lance, as you read this, please know that all of my points are there for your own good and eventual rectification. Improve these things, make these changes, put on a little lipstick on the old loveable pig, and you may be ready to become Aggressor Fleet material or at the very least a Truk Odyssey supplement.
Ron Johnson 5-29-15