Scuba divers on the Red Sea liveaboard Carlton Queen, which capsized in late April, view the incident and its aftermath rather differently to the operator. One UK diver explains how he escaped a dramatically reorientated saloon, how others had to freedive out, and why arguments flared back on dry land – while Carlton Fleet provides its own perspective
UK scuba diver Christian Hanson has been around boats a lot, everything from “rowing boats to battleships”. A PADI IDC staff instructor at Academy Divers in West Yorkshire, he has also dived the Red Sea many times, including this February and again last month.
“I’m a dive addict,” Hanson told Divernet, before sharing a comprehensive account of his experiences up to and around the capsizing of the liveaboard Carlton Queen.
On Saturday, 22 April, he and his wife had been back in Egypt with a group of friends revolving around a Spanish dive-centre. They were on a similar northern itinerary to February’s, but this time on a liveaboard promoted by operator Carlton Fleet Red Sea as having been “built in 2022”.
In fact it seems this was not a new vessel but an enlarged version of the Carlton Queen that had been operating in the Red Sea for some 20 years. Since its recent emergence from dry dock it had been out only once, carrying kite-surfers the week before Hanson’s trip.
Hanson had in fact sailed with Carlton Fleet before, in 2022, at the suggestion of another member of the group, although on learning that Carlton Queen had gone for a refit they been assigned to another liveaboard called Life Story. All had gone well enough for the friends to book the April 2023 charter.
The 42m Carlton Queen was built to accommodate 28 guests, with six double cabins above and eight below decks. The previous incarnation of the liveaboard had been advertised as 6m shorter, with capacity for 22 guests in 11 cabins. Twenty-six guests had booked for the trip, joining a crew of nine and three dive-guides.
Reasons for a listing boat
Boarding in Hurghada on Saturday, 22 April, Hanson says he immediately spotted that the boat was listing “a couple of degrees” to starboard. He also noted that the saloon doors leading from the dive-deck opened outwards.
A dive-briefing was held that night, “which is unusual – in fact, it was my first-ever night briefing on an arrival day”. The session included the location of the escape hatch for the lower-deck cabins, where to find life-vests and other safety information. The starboard tilt came up, and was explained as being connected with taking on water in the tanks and the boat needing time to settle.
On moving off the next day, however, Hanson estimated that the list had become more pronounced – 5-7°, he reckoned. Captain Mohamed Al Dandrawi Abdul Rahman cited the water tanks and said that, as a new boat, it needed to soak up water to sit straight.
Three dives were carried out, but the list remained. When Hanson got up at about 4am on Monday for an early dive he reckoned it had reached 20-30°. This time the captain put it down to unbalanced use of the bathrooms. The tilt then over-corrected to 5° to port.
“I remember saying to the dive-guide that I hope the captain takes it nice and steady across the strait, as I believe the boat might have some stability issue with its ballast,” Hanson told Divernet.
He believed the keel to be shallow for such a tall boat but, like other guests, a number of whom held yachting licences, he could not believe that the captain “who purported to own this boat” would risk it and the lives of those onboard.
“Clearly there was an issue, but it was obviously manageable because he’d been able to correct the heave,” says Hanson.
When floor becomes wall
After breakfast, Carlton Queen left Sha’ab Abu Nuhas, heading for Ras Mohammed. Hanson was sitting in the saloon chatting to two other guests, a female Dive Master (DM) and a male Master Instructor (MI). On encountering the swell in the Strait of Gubal, he says he saw chairs suddenly shift to starboard before the boat stabilised “pretty quickly”.
Then “the boat swayed to port significantly, then swayed a long way starboard”. He shouted a warning to the others to lift their legs as tables slid across the laminate flooring and smashed into the sofas where they were sitting, which was to starboard near the saloon doors.
“The boat heaved violently to port and that was it – it tipped all the way to starboard and we were catapulted off the chairs and onto the windows,” says Hanson. “We were now standing on the windows, looking up at an almost-vertical climb to the closed saloon doors.
“My immediate thought was that that was the thing that was going to kill us. I remember shouting that we had to wait. I could see that the sofa immediately above our heads was still moving and pulling away from the wall.
“I’m not tall; I needed something to climb onto to reach those doors.” At this point the other two divers were already trying to climb the furniture. “Water was jetting through gaps around the windows we were standing on. It was only a matter of time before they gave way,” says Hanson.
The boat shifted again, releasing a sofa directly above the divers’ heads and knocking the others back down onto the windows. From below decks they could hear the cries of two fellow-guests, a father and son, amid “smashing and crashing everywhere, tanks clattering”.
There would be no way of reaching anyone below, with the stairs now 8m above the three divers’ heads, a vertical climb away on a slippery floor.
Breaking out of the saloon
Fortunately, two sofas had now combined to form a platform, and Hanson managed to climb the hessian backing, hoist himself on top and leap onto a cupboard near the door, bumping his head in the process. He could now see out through the saloon door, and knew he would need to smash the tempered glass.
The waterline was about 3m below him and, with the boat pitching bow-first, engine still running, the cupboard on which he was perched was tilting dangerously.
Hanson swung backwards and forwards on the door-handles to build up momentum, and succeeded in shattering the glass. While he straddled the door-frame the MI was able to climb over him and onto the cupboard before leaning over and attempting to lift the DM. Hanson grabbed her foot and they heaved her onto the cupboard.
The MI shouted for Hanson, who was now touching the water, to go. He swam for it, over the dive-deck and making for one of the liveaboard’s two RIBs, on which he could see his wife sitting.
“The RIB did a man-overboard turn and I was pinned between that and a life-raft. I elbowed them apart and jumped in, dragged the final way in by my shorts.” Carlton Queen’s captain, he noted, was already on the life-raft.
Apart from the RIBs, Carlton Queen carried two 20-person life-rafts. The captain had launched one of these – the other one Hanson was told had deployed automatically, inverted and been swept away.
According to witnesses on the fly deck, when the Carlton Queen had turned over one RIB had crushed the other. The one now in use had eventually flipped out with a deflated stern, leaving the other wedged below the liveaboard.
One fellow-guest was shaking, clearly in shock, so Hanson attended to her. His wife joined him on the life-raft. People were shouting and attempting to do a headcount as the raft filled up fast, and according to him it appeared to be the guests organising the rescue at this point.
Galley staff and some deckhands were hanging off the side and back of the life-raft, some praying, says Hanson. Two of the three dive-guides were occupied trying to help their crew-mates. The third guide he says was “in complete shock”, having been trapped for a time in his cabin by water pressure.
“Having to freedive out through an inrush of water is not an easy thing to get over, so he just sat in the life-raft and looked into space – he was of no use to anyone,” says Hanson. The RIB driver was however assisting the guests.
“The captain told us not to use the flares, but we had a cargo container ship barrelling down on us,” says Hanson. The parachute day flares the captain had tried to stop them using failed to work, he says, but they did succeed in firing handheld flares. The cargo vessel signalled a change of course and stopped.
“We had over 30 people in the life-raft at one point, and it wasn’t stable. It’s fortunate that the VIP Shrouq’s two RIBs arrived to evacuate us.” The diving liveaboard, running out from Sharm el Sheikh, had fortunately been in the vicinity and carried the Carlton Queen guests and crew to safety.
“They treated our shock, gave us warm clothes, food and drink,” says Hanson. The VIP Shrouq crew were later commended for their prompt action by Egypt’s Chamber of Diving & Water Sports (CDWS).
A freediving escape
Hanson later caught up on what his fellow-guests had seen happening. One told him that he had been with the captain when Carlton Queen capsized, and said that he had turned the boat away from a wave before proceeding to launch and board the life-raft.
Another guest, a trainee RIB driver, claimed that the captain had been “aggressively trying to cut the waves”. She had told her father that the boat would overturn only seconds before it did so. Her mother, the only non-diver onboard, had fallen into the water from the fly-deck.
The father and son Hanson had heard below decks had boarded VIP Shrouq in shock, reporting that the only other guest who had been below with them was still missing.
They said that when Carlton Queen turned over they had gone to the cabin where, according to the initial briefing, the safety hatch was supposed to be – only to discover that although it was marked “Emergency Hatch” it was a false door, with neither hinges nor handles.
The father had been injured by a tank falling from the saloon, but his son had managed to drag him out with the help of the now-missing guest, who had told them to go ahead without him. All the son could do to help him was pass him down an air tank.
The man had waited in darkness in the cabins below the saloon – there had been no safety lights working, Hanson was told – and once they had filled with water he was able to freedive out through the saloon. By the time he got clear the lifeboats were almost a mile away, so he had stayed with the liveaboard, and was fortunately spotted waving by a container ship’s crew.
“The captain didn’t know how many guests were onboard, and gave the wrong number to the captain of the VIP Shrouq,” claims Hanson. “He did take a RIB back to find our passports, but on his return said he couldn’t get into one of the guest cabins. We lost everything on board – no passports, nothing. We had what we were standing in.”
After two hours the group were transferred by a fast army patrol-boat to Hurghada. Carlton Fleet had sent a coach to take them to an all-inclusive hotel. “Not separate rooms, three shares. My wife and I had one of the best rooms, a king-size double, one of the only ones that didn’t have bugs.
“The hotel was hosting a wedding for locals, so we had to endure an eight-hour song-fest of Egyptian techno-rock. The bass was shaking the buildings until midnight. You just couldn’t eat the food – my wife had the runs after only one stuffed pepper.
“The CDWS inspector who interviewed me said that it was not a tourist hotel – just very, very cheap,” says Hanson. After what he describes as a “huge argument” with Simona Adelhoch, a dive instructor and administrator at Carlton Fleet, the guests arranged to be upgraded to a 4* hotel on the understanding that the operator would cover the cost.
Adelhoch disputes this version of events, including the claim that the initial hotel, the Sand Beach Resort, was not a tourist hotel. “The company arranged a 4* resort, the all-inclusive La Rosa Waves Beach, which would have been higher in cost than the hotel the group leader wanted to be accommodated in,” she told Divernet.
And she denies that there had been any argument about the move: “I only told the group leader that the company would move them immediately to La Rosa if they wished, which was denied, so the guests were brought to the hotel they had requested,” she says.
“Without passports, everything became complex,” says Hanson. “We needed police reports and lots of money to buy emergency travel documents and the paperwork and photographs for the visa reissue.
“Fortunately the locals of the area, seeing the reports on TV, came together and offered us free clothes, arranged medication and were truly wonderful and helpful.
“The boat company, on the other hand, was just abusive and wanted to get rid of us as fast as humanly possible. When they discovered that the lack of passports was a major hindrance to us boarding a plane the day after, they lawyered up.”
Carlton Fleet wanted the guests to use their own dive and travel insurance to cover whatever they needed, says Hanson, “but, as many of us found out, to our insurance companies this sounded a lot like something the boat’s insurance needed to pay”.
The divers had been covered by Carlton Fleet for the equivalent of £1,250, he claims, so “just getting the coach and the hotel was already impacting their bottom line.”
Effective management of the situation
Divernet asked Carlton Fleet Red Sea about the allegations of guests about the state of the boat in the early stages of the trip, evacuation procedures, their treatment once rescued and whether the boat had been “new” or not.
“While we are deeply saddened about the accident, we are relieved by the safe return of all guests and crew-members to shore,” stated the operator. “The Egyptian authorities are currently investigating the incident, and our staff-members and crew are co-operating with them to identify the reasons for the boat’s capsizing.
“We will abstain from making statements regarding the cause of the accident until the conclusion of the investigation, to avoid misleading the readers.
“The Carlton Fleet team emphasises that Carlton Queen, which was recently renovated, had undergone all required maintenance works, passed all inspections, and was fit for operations as confirmed by technical reports.
“Secondly, the Carlton Fleet team finds itself compelled to address, albeit briefly, some of the ill-founded reports made with respect to the crew-members’ handling of the guests, both at the time of the accident and until their return to their home countries.
“The safe return of all those on board bears testament to the crew-members’ effective management of the situation, which spared the lives of all passengers.
“Fortunately, and notwithstanding any sensationalist allegations made by some disgruntled guests, only three divers sustained minor injuries that were treated in hospital at the company’s expense.
“Carlton Queen’s crew-members followed the safety protocols applicable to the circumstances, leading to the swift evacuation of the boat. The captain fired six flares in the air immediately upon the occurrence of the accident, which alerted a cargo ship to the need for help, prompting it to change its course and secure the area.
“It is confirmed that the life-rafts were released by the captain and another crew-member, who ensured that the rafts remained close to the boat, notwithstanding strong wind and current, until all passengers could board them with the crew’s assistance.”
‘The threats regrettably persisted’
“Immediately upon reaching the shore, the members of Carlton Fleet escorted the guests to a hotel and provided them with clothing and any pharmaceutical products they needed. The following day, to guarantee their comfort, all the guests were transferred to an all-inclusive hotel of their choice.
“We communicated directly with the British consul to assist English guests with the issuance of new travel documents to replace those that were lost at sea while the guests remained in the hotel. We also wrote to all the embassies of the other guests’ nationalities to procure their assistance.
“German guests were driven to Cairo to receive the necessary documents there, after which they were driven by the Pyramids, upon their request.
“Most of the guests travelled back to their countries on 29 April, 2023. Those that were compelled to remain in Egypt until new travel documents were issued were lodged by the Carlton Fleet family in the same hotel they had chosen until their safe return to their families.
“Besides the company’s coverage of all medical, accommodation and all other expenses relating to the guests (including pocket-money, new travel-document fees and flight changes), the team offered to pay the guests additional amounts for inconvenience before the conclusion of the investigation.
“Unfortunately, the company’s offer fell on deaf ears, and certain guests engaged in negotiation tactics and resorted to threats to strong-arm the Carlton Fleet into paying them larger amounts, notwithstanding their signature of releases and liability waivers, and the charterer’s clear instructions that they procure insurance for loss or damage to equipment and belongings prior to boarding the boat.
“The threats regrettably persisted following their safe return to their home countries.
“At last, we are co-operating with the Egyptian authorities to determine the cause of the accident and urge all those concerned to wait for the result of the investigation so that we may determine the next steps.”
Responsibilities and lessons
Carlton Queen and Sharm-based Carlton are among the 173 liveaboards registered with Egypt‘s CDWS, and Divernet asked it about the investigation and whether Carlton Queen had been inspected before it left dry dock. It replied that the incident was being investigated by “the relevant authorities”.
“Safari boats are considered maritime transportation and the entity that is responsible for inspecting the condition of the boats and providing the sailing licence is the Egyptian Ministry of Transportation,” said the CDWS. “It grants the permits after the boat meets the safety and quality requirements set by them – that includes the condition of the hull, engine, firing system etc.
“The CDWS’s scope is to audit the eligibility of the operation to provide diving and water sports activities, and that they meet the safety and quality standards that qualify them to do so. This is done through yearly audits and frequent spot-checks.
“The last audit done by the CDWS for the Carlton Queen was at the beginning of April 2023. The Carlton Queen met the CDWS requirements for providing safe diving and water sports activities.”
New attitude to boat safety
“All in all, it’s been a lesson,” says Christian Hanson. “I was not expecting this at all. You think about fire more than drowning.
“I now look at boat safety in a whole different light. I’m literally going to take a tape-measure on my next [liveaboard] trip and work out whether it’s escapable. If that boat had capsized anywhere else, at night, over the Thistlegorm, we’d all be dead.
“I had suite one, across the width of the boat, and if I’d been in that cabin the water pressure wouldn’t have let me open the door. The way the boat tipped, it would have filled from the door, and the other side only has a porthole. So I’d have had plenty of time to think about drowning before I actually did.
“I’m a certified basic freediver, but I don’t fancy my chances of a finless breath-hold from 8m down, opening a door and swimming up without getting snagged on anything or running out of leg-power.
“In Egyptian law you have to state on the last line of your witness statement whether you think what happened was a criminal act.” Hanson says he hadn’t been sure what to put on that line.
Also on Divernet: Red Sea Liveaboard Sinks At Abu Nuhas