Treated like a VIP
Mark Evans is a dedicated Red Sea fan, so when the opportunity arose to join prolific author and photographer Lawson Wood – on his first trip to Egypt in several years – aboard the VIP One liveaboard, he jumped at the chance.
Lawson Wood is a bit of a legend in diving circles. He first visited Egypt back in the 1980s before there was any kind of tourist infrastructure in place, diving with the real pioneers, such as Alain Sobol and Rolf and Petra Schmidt, so he really saw the dive sites at their very best. He was also a dive guide for several years on the equally infamous Lady Jenny V – the first liveaboard to ply the Red Sea waters – during which time he ventured on to the Ghiannis D as she was sinking, and was there when his captain discovered the now-well-dived wreck of the Carnatic.
I have known Lawson for many years and, when he announced that he wanted to go back to Egypt and show some of his American friends his old stomping grounds, I jumped at the chance to join him. We contacted his old friend Alain, and business partner Guy Haywood, and jointly charted their luxurious liveaboard VIP One for the middle of July – the height of the action on Ras Mohammed’s famous wall. We both agreed that if you are going to show off the Egyptian Red Sea to those from the other side of the Pond, you might as well do it in style! A quick call to Dan Lion at Longwood Holidays and all our flights were booked – now all our friends had to do was get to the UK from the good old US of A!
Mix and match
The big day finally arrived and we all congregated at Gatwick Airport to catch our flight out to Sharm el Sheikh. Thankfully, everyone from the States had made it, and were now eager to sample the diving in an area sadly seen as being ‘too dangerous’ by many of their fellow Americans. I hoped that after their trip, they would take back great stories to prove to their diving buddies that Egypt is a fantastic and safe – or as safe as anywhere is in the world at the moment! – destination blessed with some of the best diving around.
A five-hour delay didn’t help, but eventually, after a relatively comfortable flight, we landed in the desert heat of Sharm and were soon ensconsed in an air-conditioned bus to take us to VIP One’s mooring at Travco Marina. Dive guide James Williams was there to meet us, along with several of the crew, and within half an hour, everyone – and their luggage – was on board.
We had a real mixed bag of divers – from the UK, we had Lawson and his wife Lesley, myself and buddy Neil Gaffan, Sport Diver Test Team member Paul Cushing and his wife Zoe, and Caron Warner, who is British but is currently sunning herself permanently in Grand Cayman! From the US we had Clint and Lisa Briggs, Jack and Mary Kennedy, Eileen Sahlin and Robert ‘Doc’ Adelman. Rounding out the group was Johnny Bravo himself, Dave Vacchino from Canada.
This is the great thing about the world of scuba. Once we left the dock we had a wide range of different cultures and opinions entrapped in a small space, but everyone bonded through their common interest – diving. Anyone who has been put off going on a liveaboard in the past because they think they might not get on with their fellow passengers should take note…
Ras Umm Sid
The obligatory check-out dive was carried out on Ras Umm Sid, a local dive many Sharm divers will be familiar with. While it cannot hold a candle to the likes of Ras Mohammed or the Tiran reefs in terms of the condition of the coral, it is still brimming with marine life and is very colourful, especially compared with your average Caribbean reef scene. All of our American divers came out of the water suitably impressed. Jack and Mary were particularly taken by the smaller denizens of the Red Sea reefs, including clownfish, burrow-dwelling shrimps and gobies, and nudibranchs of all shapes and sizes. After nearly an hour scouring the reef, they exclaimed: “That was amazing, there is so much to see!” They were so excited, all I could think was ‘wait till you see Ras Mo…’
Ras Mohammed, or Ras Mo as it is known to regular Red Sea visitors, is simply one of the most-spectacular dives in the world. The best time of the year to visit is the end of June to the beginning of August, as this is when the massive shoals of snapper, unicornfish, batfish and barracuda can be encountered on a daily basis, but it is still an awesome dive at any other time of the year.
We did the standard Ras Mo cruise – jump in near Shark Reef, drop down the wall and go with the current across the ‘saddle’ between the reefs and then finish the dive around the back of Yolanda Reef looking at the toilets and bathtubs left when the Jolanda wreck sank and went over the drop-off.
The sheer wall vanishing into the depths is an impressive sight in its own right, never mind when it is shrouded in huge shoals of fish, and I can still see our US divers whipping their heads around through 360° trying to take everything in at once as they descended.
The majority of the group stuck to the wall, soaking up the riot of colour formed by the delicate soft corals and monstrous gorgonian seafans, and enjoying an encounter with a large hawksbill turtle and a massive giant moray. Myself and a handful of others headed off out into the blue – we wanted a close encounter of our own, but with the ‘men in grey suits’.
Now let’s get this straight – according to a variety of respected shark-identification books, there is no ‘oceanic blacktip’ shark. So that begs the question, just what are the sharks that everyone has been seeing badgering the shoaling barracuda off the Shark and Yolanda Reefs? My own belief is that they are maybe an endemic version of a sandbar shark, or perhaps extremely chunky silky sharks. Whatever species they are, they are certainly impressive-looking sharks and they are not afraid of divers – our group spent 40 minutes with three of them in the blue surrounded by hundreds of barracuda and they repeatedly made close passes, allowing us to get a good view of them.
Most readers will be familiar with this famous wreck, even if they have yet to dive it, so I am not going to bore you with all the details of the sinking, etc. Suffice to say, if you are doing a northern wreck safari, this is the highlight of the trip – yes, it really is that good. It may not be a patch on its old self after years of diver and diveboat abuse – Lawson was appalled at the damage that had been done since his last visit – but it still knocks the socks off anything in the Caribbean.
We wanted to allow our North American friends plenty of time to savour this awesome wreck dive, and after a quick discussion with James and the captain, Darin, we arranged to arrive on site mid-afternoon – just as the dayboats were leaving for home. This meant we were able to do a ‘reccy’ late afternoon and get our bearings for the night dive, and then the following morning we did a full exploration of the holds and its famed cargo of military supplies, followed by a final dive on any bits which had caught our attention.
If you are on a liveaboard and can manage a similar arrival time, you will be able to have the whole wreck to yourselves – and the handful of other safari boats which have had the same idea!
Lawson and I hoped that our new Red Sea divers would be blown away by the Thistlegorm, and even though many of them were not diehard wreckies, they all still enjoyed the opportunity to explore this underwater museum. Clint and his trusty video camera were everywhere, trying to capture every inch of the huge vessel on film!
The Straits of Tiran
Most Sharm-based liveaboards tend to make the Tiran reefs their last port of call before returning to dock, and VIP One is no exception. We dived Jackson and Thomas, and they made a fitting end to our week in the Red Sea. The walls are an absolute explosion of soft and hard corals, all fed by the constant current, which makes diving here such a blast. During his briefing, James did say that the current could be quite strong in certain parts of the dive, but its power still caught many of our divers unawares. A few of them likened it to some of the best drift dives in Cozumel – only with more fish and more colour. I didn’t have to heart to tell them that it was a relatively gentle drift as far as the Tiran reefs go – I have been in the water off Jackson once when we were screaming along at a rate of knots and you just buckled up and went for the ride.
Our final night was spent in the Na’ama Bay Hotel, located conveniently right at the end of the Main Street in Na’ama Bay – and only a two-minute walk to the iconic Camel Bar! You can stay on the boat until the morning of your departure, but Lawson and I opted for the hotel to give our North American friends the chance to soak up some of the Egyptian atmosphere and culture.
Within a few hours, I had Clint, Lisa and Dave sampling apple shisha and Sakara Gold – not exactly typical Egyptian culture, but definitely British diver religion! – and Doc off enjoying a McArabia burger at McDonalds (you can take the American out of America…) and bargaining up a storm in the souk. Lawson and Lesley had fun wandering around and hooking up with old friends, though it took them a while to find out where they all were, the place had changed so dramatically since they had been there last!
At the airport and on the flight home, Lawson and I chatted to our US buddies to gauge their reaction to their first Red Sea experience. Jack and Mary said they’d really enjoyed the diving and the destination, and that they would be up for a return visit, perhaps on a liveaboard to the Deep South, and Eileen and Doc were also impressed by the boat, the diving and the myriad varieties of marine life. Clint could barely contain himself – he was already talking about organising a trip through his dive shop to come back out and do the exact same itinerary. So, mission accomplished. While hordes of North American divers are never going to make the pilgrimage over to Egypt, at least we’d shown a handful just what all the others are missing out on. They may have the Caribbean just a few hours away, but add on a couple of hours and we can be in the Red Sea – and I know which diving experience I prefer…
IN A BOX
The 29.5-metre VIP One was launched back in 1996 but, thanks to a proud crew and diligent maintenance, upgrading (the engine room was entirely refitted in 2005) and dry-docking, she looks just as good now as the day she first touched the water. While she cannot compete with the cruising speeds or super-yacht styling of the latest breed of Red Sea liveaboards, where she does excel is in the pampered experience you have on board. The friendly crew caters to your every need, and the chef, who has been on board for many years, serves up one delicious meal after another – this is true gourmet dining. This feeling of being treated like royalty continues below decks – the air-conditioned cabins are spacious, well fitted-out with polished wooden drawers and wardrobes, and en-suite. Best of all, there is only accommodation for 14 guests, yet most boats the size of VIP One cater for at least 20, so you have plenty of room to relax on the sundeck or in the air-conditioned lounge.
Diving-wise, air and nitrox are available, the dive deck is spacious and well laid-out, and there are two zodiacs to ferry divers to the main sites.
Sharm el Sheikh
Where is it?
VIP One (www.vipone.com) operates out of Travco Marina, a ten-minute drive south of Na’ama Bay on the Sinai Peninsula.
How to get there?
Longwood Holidays ( ) are the sole representatives of the VIP One in the UK, and they can organise your complete package, including flights and transfers. There are other liveaboards operating out of Sharm offering similar itineraries.