101 Caymanian (Brac) Nights... (Cayman Brac, Fall 1996)

Once again this fall, we were off to Cayman Brac - our 8th trip there.

Since Skip wasn't along this year, so the weather was great :-). During the 2nd week it was calm enough for four days of great South Side diving.


The Brac has apparently hired a new road crew to paint the stripe on the road. For those not "in the know", there's only a few miles of road on the Brac, so it doesn't pay to have a machine to paint the line...its done by hand with a 3" wide roller on a Hogarthian 7ft long handle :-)

The Brac was _very_ quiet this year. Once again, we stayed at the Divi Tiara Beach Resort's timeshares. The "Shoulder Season" is usually nice and quiet, but this year was disturbingly so. While the timeshares were full, the hotel had perhaps ~10% occupancy at best. Reportedly, it will pick up in a few weeks, but overall, business has been off and its hard to financially stay afloat without any guests. My opinion is that the Caymans are caught in a hard-to-sell segment between "value" and "exotic" destinations and the Brac is caught in particular because there's more rooms now over on Little Cayman, their traditional local draw. The new artificial reef, the Russian Destroyer #356 (NED GCA puns are encouraged :-) is reportedly an effort to turn this decline of the Brac around some. More on the ship as a dive site, below.

There's a new hiking trail open up at the Parrot Reserve up on the Bluff on the road to the Lighthouse. Its supposed to take only 40 minutes, but we took 2.5 hours. Its a rugged walk; sturdy shoes & water applies. Nice overlook off the bluff on the side trail, overlooking the "Bubble House". Didn't see any of the endangered Cayman Bracker Parrot (Amazona Leucocephala Hesterna), though. BTW, there's also a new parcel of land that was donated to the National Trust that they are working on to clear a trail through; a work gang got lost in it for 6 hours! (this takes some doing! :-) If you feel like doing some volunteer work swinging a machete while you're on vacation, they'll take the help; ask me offline for the local contact if you're serious.

Real estate prices on the Brac appear depressed/stagnant. The Buccaneer (old abandoned hotel) is again up for sale. A friend just bought a small Northside waterfront cabin for $80K that supposedly was listed at $160K ~3 years ago. A house we looked at 2-3 years ago is still for sale; was asking $170K; now $130K. BTW, most of the $20K lots on Little Cayman near Point of Sand have now been sold, although IMHO they were not a value because when we looked at them, they needed ~$50K in fill to make them buildable. To promote more development on the Brac and LC, the ~25% Import Tariff on building materials has been dropped. Good news, unless you have an existing home you are trying to sell, as this devalues your existing construction.


The food at the Divi Tiara Beach Hotel has had some menu improvements (the Bratwurst is gone, thank goodness :-) and is still all-U-can-eat buffet-style, but when you consider that the veggies and sides are all on steam tables, it has a culinary handicap; I suspect that a vegetarian may get very bored. The main meat dishes are done well (turkey, lamb, prime rib, etc) and a spicy (for a hotel) Jerk Pork dish was added...could use a few more zings :-). Desserts became too tempting after a few days; I gained 8lbs here last year (~5% of my total bodyweight), so I watched my consumption _very_ carefully this time and snuck a few of these in. Lunches could use some work, as they seemed to have fewer choices than in the past, although this could be just the effects of the very off off-season speaking, here.

However, anyone who has taken the short walk up the road to "Captain's Table" (which opened 12/18/95) will find a better meal at a lower price. Divi holds the edge in day-to-day variety, but Len (aka former Divi bartender) and Ron (aka former Divi cook from a few years ago) clearly have the edge on quality and value. They're thinking about offering a meal plan of their own is expected to cost less than Divi's. Since our trip, they now have opened an outside bar which was christened The Anchor.

A slightly longer walk will take you up to Coral Isle and Aunt Shaw's Kitchen, a small place hidden in the back of the bar. Aunt Shaw's serves a good piece of island fare; I was told that they offer a good breakfast, too. I think this is some serious handwriting on the wall for Divi that they have to pay attention to, particularly when it comes to prices.

There is evidence of improvements around the compound. Fresh paint, new appliances, etc. Skip says that there was a lot, but the years are starting to all blend together for me and I can't tell what was new this year or last year. There have been a lot of accumulated changes in the last few years; things remain on the upswing. A lot of money went into the diveboats; renovations of the DLX rooms would have taken another chunk if they are been continuing with them as well (I did not look).

The Staff remains consistently nice. Mitzie (bar) and Terry (diveshop) have unfortunately left in search of better working hours. Molita is on the morning grill most days and her somber silence continues to scare the tourists <grin>. She's usually up to the minute when it comes to the weather forecasts if anything heavy might be coming in, which makes a lot of sense to anyone who is read the history of Cayman Brac in the. Just don't ask Neville about the time he put his feet up on a chair in front of her :-)

Bunny (photo) left last year to become a Fireman; he passed his tests and is now back on the island and while we were there, he came by to inspect Divi's fire alarm system (it flunked as usual). The alarms were repaired it the next week (a bit faster than usual), but they actually installed new hardware this year, another sign that there's a bit more money for maintenance.

Photo Pro Aileen Kane is also leaving, moving to the Little Cayman Beach Resort to become the chief honcho resident photo pro. I've known Aileen for years; anyone heading that direction will not be disappointed in her work, once she gets her legs under her, which shouldn't take long at all.


Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the first regularly scheduled *CRUISE SHIP* will be coming to the Brac this month. Its stops also include Jamacia and Cuba and its a reportedly small ship, so maybe it will not make it financially (we can only hope!). Initially, Divi is going to be where the they will be coming ashore to use a beach/etc, so it is VERY VERY important to know when they are going to be coming in...make sure you get a beach towel early and non-divers should probably plan to either be somewhere else that day or grab a beach chair early before they'll all run out.

Naturally, there are not enough rental cars, taxis or even buses for when the cruise ship lands if many of them want to go tour about the island; it should be fun to watch! :-)


Hurricane of '32 book, available from the National Trust. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

The Hurricane (Scrap) Book (of '88), at the GrapeTree Bar; very good, but lacking any narrative, it really pales by comparison to the '32 storm (of course, they also had 25 feet LESS storm surge).


The diveshop received a big shot in the arm for rebuilding the diveboats. One boat (Ocean Fever or Cayman Fever; I forget) has been completely renovated, including new engines. Tiara Fever was in Grand Cayman at this time getting the same. A merely rebuilt boat (Cayman or Ocean :-) is in very good shape; I really could not tell which boat had new engines and which had merely gotten an excellent overhaul (NO smoke at any times this year). The boat have some nice additions, such as the freshwater shower and a system to prevent the water jug and ice chest from sliding around. I didn't see Island Fever (old Putt-putt) run at all while we were there, but of those boats that I did see run, they're definitely in the best shape in years.

However, the "NED Shoulder Season Rudder Repair Services" were called upon again this year...*I AM NOT A JINX*. Last year, on a trip back from Little Cayman, the rudder's Starboard connecting rod broke and a friend & I cannibalized my 'Murphy Bag' and my UW Camera's Strobe Arm(!!) to jury rig a rudder repair to limp us home. One year later...SAME boat, SAME trip to LC, SAME boat captain... Once again, this NED Engineer found himself doing his bilge-rat imitation and pulling junk from my Murphy Bag. This time, a bungee cord that I carry to help secure my Pony-bottled-rig in tank racks was needed, so this is yet more proof and another reason why carrying a Pony bottle is superior to a Spare Air :-) :-).

Dive Tiara has added the feature that the staff now also _returns_ your dive gear to your hook#...I don't know if it can get much lazier than this unless they do the dive for you too.

But the one complaint that I had with the Divi operation was a night diveboat that was cancelled under slightly unusual circumstances. Divi's policy is for a minimum of 6 divers to be "cost effective" and during slow times, its not unusual at all for dives to be cancelled. This is to be expected and is not a big deal. On this day, 7 signed up, but then 2 divers cancelled late. Does that change things? Maybe, maybe not. To go out anyway with just 5 would have been good service; besides, we all know that diver minimums are usually a bit arbitrary. In any event, a cancellation would not have raised any ire either, if nothing else were to have happened. What did happen was that the dive was cancelled but the diveboat went out anyway, taking two staff members (including the guy who just cancelled the dive) out on a private joyride burning up the company's fuel waveboarding. If its an official policy (IMO, I doubt it) that the company boats are allowed to be used for private recreation, that's fine, but to flagrantly choose to take your joyride with the customer left standing at the dock with a "We're having cash flow problems and its not cost effective" justification is simply stupid. Say what you wish about employee perks, but this one was not appreciated because it was perceived to be at the customer's expense.


I also dived with Brac Aquatics (BA) up the road. They're operating out of the Brac Caribbean Village complex where "Captain's Table" is located and they are working at putting together another building nearby (Brac Distributers/DDDD car rentals). Ironically, as soon as I stepped on board, the engine refused to start. "Wee Dee" had heard about my rudder repairs and she strutted down the dock, wagging her finger at me, shouting "JINX! JINX! Get off our boats!" :-) Well, it was just a minor starter relay fuse which has blown several times before, but I'm adding some 25A bus fuses to my Murphy Bag anyway. FWIW, this was my first ride on BA's Outrunner. In bluewater, its a much nicer riding boat than the Divi boats (as it should be - its much bigger) and when they feel like sucking some serious fuel on a nice day, this boat makes Bloody Bay in Little Cayman in *25* minutes. Yes, that is _faster_ than it takes some Little Cayman dive operations to get around the island to ge to Bloody Bay themselves. BTW, BA's 2-tank AM dive is also cheaper than Divi, even after my timeshare owner discount. Hmm...

BTW, Brac Aquatics was in the news on the Net a few months ago and it looks like they got a raw deal regarding some accusations of "unfair" business practices. For those that are interested, I'll type this off offline and send it out by request only. Suffice it to say that it involved some small town politics that BA merely got pulled into (not instigated).

** One person who is working at one of the resorts is seriously contemplating a penetration dive into the closed off lower decks of the 300+ft long Russian Destroyer (if it is "somehow" made accessible, which is really only a matter of time until some local cuts an opening somewhere). I didn't have a problem with this until I found that they have but ONE small *GAP* reel to use as their line and they feel is somehow adequate.

** BEWARE of Dive Operations offering to sell you a Wreck Specialty C-Card. Ask them how long they have had the Agency qualification(s) to teach this specialty and if the teacher had any wreck experience themselves. I only know of one person on the island who's an experienced Wrecker and I very much doubt there are any others...certainly *NOT* the Class of 1996 that are getting their cards this fall to TEACH this...at least at this point. Maybe after they have moved on to a few more wrecks other than the #356; at this point IMHO, its a case of the blind leading the blind. If I ever spot a real wreck diving reel in use, I will let you know.


How Deep is Deep and what depth is Safe under what conditions is debatable. However, there are good and not so good ways to dive deep on air. Deep dives aren't really anything profoundly new; its always goes on to some extent. Here, I'm talking about dives that were poorly planned, supported and/or executed, thus entailing a higher than necessary risk.

There was a fatality, the body was never even sighted, let alone recovered, possibly due to a botched Search & Rescue. However, the accident occurred on a private dive off of a privately owned boat, so CIWOA rules don't apply.

Nevertheless, such reports are not good for business and it appears like the parties involved chose not to do a good, formal investigation, but would prefer to sweep it all under the rug. It has reportedly NOT been reported to DAN, nor to the Agencies of the involved INSTRUCTORS, which I have been told is a Professional Ethics Violation on their part. This is of particular relevance, as the survivor was a certified instructor.

Insofar as the accident itself, it was two divers trying for 300fsw off of an unattended boat with no hang tanks - just the AL80 on their backs. In contrast, the conventional wisdom on the Brac is that if you are going to do it, you're going to do it right: a deep excursion requires at least a group of seven: two up, two-man safety diver team and a three-man excursion team. There's also a serious hang bar/drop tanks rig and the dive is done on TABLES.

Interesting to note is that the local Caymanians are NOT interested in this; its just dive staff coming from offshore (US, Canada, etc) that have this obsession. What is NOT good news is that they are encouraging others to play in their little sport and peer pressure being what it is...even among adults...they are making some people uncomfortable. One individual told me that they were offered a "guided dive" to 300fsw - never you mind that she has been diving for less than a year...there's some people exercising very poor judgements here. If there's any GOOD news, it is that these individuals need to get their work permits renewed every year, so they can be pushed out if it becomes a bigger problem. But it is such off-duty antics which can only lead to the Caymans...and the Brac...getting a bit of a bad reputation, particularly if they choose to continue to roll the dice and happen to lose a few more times.

Something more that should be added is that after the fatal deep dive accident this summer in Grand Cayman, a very strongly worded message was sent out to all dive operations in the Caymans that said (mildly): "KNOCK IT OFF!". This message specifically reminded them that they all represented the Caymans, their Industry, their Shop and their Certification Agency, Mom, Apple Pie and Baseball - and most importantly, it didn't matter if they were ON or OFF duty. They were all responsible for all of their actions at all times and they were expected to toe the line in setting a good example...and to prevent any future accidents by not giving them any opportunities (excuses) to occur. From a dive safety standpoint, this is a commendable effort where they are trying to police themselves. Unfortunately and quite amazingly, a mere two weeks after this "ultimatum" was when the Brac accident occurred.

I know is that I *don't* know the full story behind this one, but the parties involved have lost a lot of respect of others on the island who do; it sounds like that's the least that they deserve.


All in all, the Brac lived up to its reputation. Mostly dived the North side but as I mentioned at the top, the winds lightened and seas dropped and we got in four days of Brac South Side diving. On the South side, the walls remain rugged and pristine - not too many larger fish around, but that's the norm -and with schools of smaller stuff everywhere. The (photographic) lighting was fantastic (very few clouds the entire time). In the South side shallows, the Elkhorn corals are making a strong comeback from their decimation in '88; they are looking very good. There were lobsters everywhere in the nooks/crannies. I have a ton of film that I'll be spending hours poring over and cataloging.


I did four dives on it, from the time when it had been down for around 5 days until around Day 18. During this time period, more and more new residents were finding homes in various locations about the wreck. The migration seemed to start at the top and bottom from the point of the wreck closest to the reef (stern) towards the mid-level (decks) and foreword along the ship.

On the first dive, the briefing was: "NO penetration except for the bridge". Part of the concern was that they hadn't yet dived the wreck either, plus the boat was still settling into the sand and could shift. The boat sits on a sandy bottom, ~50fsw to the sand in the stern and ~97fsw to the sand at the bow...its facing out towards the wall. Side-to-side, its nearly level and the boat is causing some local current eddies of its own, so watch for currents sucking near portholes, etc.

Progressive penetration (at times, loaning DMs my spare flashlight so that I could take along a buddy with me) revealed more about its layout:

The boat has its topmost 3 decks open, plus 2-3 that are closed off below. Decks #2 & 3 are configured as a central hallway with rooms off to port and starboard. Most...NOT ALL...of these rooms have natural light via portholes; deck #2 is better lit. Deck #3's hallway cleanly exits foreword to the deck below the bridge...some silversides have found this spot already. Both Deck #2 and #3's hallway to the rear ends in a T to another hallway which can be exited to either port or starboard. On one or both these levels, the exit hallway turns towards the stern before exiting, so you may not easily see light when trying to exit. Deck#1 has no hallway, but is just a series of large, well-lit rooms and it goes past a down staircase and into the bridge.

This staircase goes down to Decks #2 and #3 (and further; it is grated off) and provides a midway egress point for them. There are also two turrets aside the bridge that have no tops and have doorways to a lower deck, so the lower decks have a fore and aft entrance/exit, plus the staircase up. These decks are probably around 1/3rd the overall length of the boat at best (~100ft?).

The interior has been gutted of any equipment that might be worth anything. Most ceilings have been removed, but there are a few they missed that will drop. Every light bulb seems to have been removed as well. Reportedly, the lower decks are a mess and may contain asbestos?? There was some fuel oil leaking from the vessel, but it was a small/slow drip; I don1t think its even as much as a gallon per day, which is not bad at all.

I didn't see the 15ft shark that allegedly traveled over with the boat from Cuba. Noone else has seen it yet, either. :-)


On the Port side, amidships, just forward of where "MV CPT KEITH..." is painted on the side, there's a deckspace that has some boat davits. On the wall behind these davits, there's a shallow, wide "room" and directly in front of you in this room is an oval hatch. This hatch was closed on dive#1, but is now open. Its a squeeze into a large, tall and DARK room (I think is has to do with the ship's powerplant's cooling stacks?). The problem is that this hatch is the sole entrance/exit and if closed, cannot be opened on the inside. This hatch should either be locked shut, removed or chained/locked open; as it now stands, a diver can come along and close the hatch on a diver inside. I've reported this concern to a few people; hopefully it will be rectified.

During the day, a penetration line isn't very necessary - the layout is simple, there's very few entanglement risks, enough exits and enough ambient light, particularly if you avoid deck#3. However, the boat's location is ~200yds straight off of the cut at the old Bucanneer Hotel and some people have made the swim. Since the 'Buc is an old favorite Night Diving location...

The closed-off decks have no provisions for accessing them. Inevitably, someone who is determined and has the time will eventually MAKE their own entrance. A safer option would be a chained gate and key sign-out system.


Well that's about it for what I think others would find interesting. Since we've gotten back, some friends have also visited and on the phone they told me these two new tidbits:

November Diving: they had a weird reverse weather flow and they could not dive the North side for two weeks. Southside...EVERY day. (Me groaning now!)

Cayman Airways: a mutual friend we both know was leaving the Brac to go on vacation when the intercom announced that they had a problem with the aircraft and to prepare for a water landing!! Moments later, the pilot asked if anyone on board had a small pocketknife. One was passed forward and a few minutes later, everything was fine and the flight landed normally. Bad sensor??


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