Trip Report The Juliet Liveaboard in Bimini, the Bahamas, June 2021

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Ironborn

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I enjoyed my first trip on the Juliet liveaboard for its Bimini itinerary in the Bahamas. I now understand its popularity and loyal customer base. The boat and its excellent crew provided a rewarding experience at a moderate price, despite some of the boat's less endearing physical features. I might be open to a future trip on this boat on another itinerary. I found that the underwater environment of the Bimini region of the Bahamas yielded a much more fulfilling dive experience than that of the Exumas, the destination of my first Bahamas liveaboard trip on the Bahamas Aggressor. Bimini and the Bahamas in general provide a reasonably accessible option for U.S. dive travelers as travel restrictions remain in place in many other destinations. I concur with most of the observations of Trailboss123, whose recent excellent trip report I just saw as I was about to post mine. The only major differences were that I had better weather and thus got to do more of the best diving on the Bimini itinerary, and some of the boat's physical features affected me more. Please see my Instagram account for images from this trip and a sample of what we saw. I will include links to images in the body of my report to illustrate my points.

Why and How I Went There

Bimini and the Juliet had been on my radar for quite some time. I had heard/read that Bimini had a particularly rich underwater environment, perhaps more so than other parts of the Bahamas. I was also interested in the Juliet due to its reputation and popularity and as a medium-priced alternative to both the higher-end Aggressors and their ilk and the cheaper and more Spartan Blackbeard's liveaboards in the Bahamas. The Juliet and its Bimini itinerary became an even more appealing option for me after my relocation to Miami (where its Bimini itinerary begins) and in light of continued international travel restrictions. I live just 10-15 minutes away from where the Juliet docks in Miami, but even those who live elsewhere in the U.S. would benefit from needing only a domestic flight for this trip. The Bahamas had just recently waived COVID-19 testing requirements for fully vaccinated travelers, which made that country more convenient as an international dive destination. Another advantage of doing the Juliet's Bimini itinerary in and out of Miami is that the current U.S. COVID-19 testing requirement for passengers on flights into the U.S. does not apply to boat passengers. The risk of getting stranded and quarantined overseas, however small, is unacceptable to many travelers (including me). The opportunity to work around this requirement by returning to the U.S. by boat is significant.

I decided to travel in the June-July time frame, not long after the Bahamas announced its new policy for vaccinated travelers and in the hopes of optimal weather. The Juliet's popularity and loyal customer base can make it tough to book trips, and all of the trips for the time frame that I wanted were already full. I contacted the dive shops that had chartered the boat for those weeks and asked to be put on their waiting lists. I did not expect the waiting lists to work, but remarkably, two of them responded to me within weeks to offer me spots. I accepted the first offer, which, as luck would have it, was with Gold Coast Scuba, a local South Florida dive shop. Doing the trip with a local South Florida dive shop had the added advantage of getting to know other local divers in South Florida's extensive dive community.

Another advantage of diving with fellow local South Florida divers was that the Bimini environment was often similar enough in some ways that we could easily adjust to and make the most of it. I understand that the Juliet's Bimini trips are now sold out until 2023, so those of you that want to do it should still consider signing up for any waiting lists that any of the chartering dive shops might have.

Planning and logistics for this trip were very easy for me. I needed no flights to get to or from the boat – only brief Uber rides that cost $8 each. I applied for a Bahamas health visa and mandatory $40 health insurance just under a week before departure. As a vaccinated traveler, the Bahamas approved my visa almost immediately – in fact, it took longer to complete the online forms (10-15 minutes) than it took to receive an approval (5-10 minutes), even on a Sunday afternoon. Vaccinated Juliet guests must also bring their vaccination cards, as Bahamas immigration will retain a hard copy of it. I bought my own separate dive trip insurance policy from DiveAssure, which covers liveaboard trips. I booked Nitrox directly with the Juliet and paid for it and port fees in cash (as well as tips) on the boat. That was it.

(to be continued in the next post on this thread)
 

Ironborn

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The Boat, Crew, and Dive Operation

The Juliet's physical features are the only aspect of this trip about which I have mixed feelings. On one hand, it is a sturdy, reliable, and “road-tested” steel vessel. It handles rough seas better than I expected, and the open ocean crossings between Miami and Bimini were relatively comfortable – in fact, more so than my crossings to and from Little Cayman on the Cayman Aggressor IV. I am not aware of any onboard malfunctions or engineering problems during the trip, which is better than what I can say about some of the Aggressor trips that I have taken. One can also see the many modifications that the owners must have made over the years in order to improve passengers' experiences. I also liked: the historic, quaint aesthetics of the wooden interior; the masts and sails, which they did not use but are quite a sight; and Rico, a cat who lives on the boat and serves as its de facto mascot. The small(er) number of guests (12) also created a more comfortable atmosphere both on the boat and underwater.

It nonetheless has many disadvantages due to its conversion into a dive boat. For example, the deck is extremely high above the water, which one hits pretty hard when jumping in. I was a bit concerned about this impact when jumping in with a large and complex camera rig, as I did during the drift dives. Even on moored dives, passing the camera down that far would have been difficult if it were not for my camera bungee. The deck is also very curved; it was not clear to me what if any marine engineering purpose that major curvature serves, but it would certainly make it easier for someone to fall overboard. The boat's steel deck also gets extremely hot from the sunlight in the afternoon and could easily burn one's uncovered feet. One could practically grill a hamburger on that deck. There is also no camera table or dedicated space for the supervised charging of electronics, which leads passengers to engage in the potential fire hazard of charging electronics in their cabins. The most frustrating detail for me was the extremely small and low hatches, which led me to bump my head on a regular basis and often required a significant amount of contortions to get through them. Keep in mind that I am 6'3”, and shorter people may not have as much of a problem with these hatches. It was not clear to me what if any marine engineering purpose these low hatches served, except perhaps to antagonize tall people.

On the other hand, I can say that the crew was excellent without reservation. I tried to think of something about them that could have been better in the interest of painting a more balanced portrait, but I could not think of anything significant. The number of crew members (6) was high relative to the number of guests (12). They shepherded us smoothly through the trip without becoming overbearing. They gave us a lot of diving leeway, but they did lay down the law for safety issues, e.g. restricting us from lionfish hunting at night near a site where sharks used to be baited. (NB: The crew is otherwise very supportive of lionfish hunting. Some of the guests hunted lionfish and speared enough of them to yield lionfish ceviche and fritters for everyone on our last day, courtesy of the cook.) Dive briefings were thorough and detailed, but they generally left us to our own devices in the water, except on the drift dives. They were eager to assist as needed and responsive to requests, including my request to dive the famous Sapona shipwreck when weather prevented us from proceeding further south. They were more conservative on gas management for the drift dives than I would have suggested, but that is the worst thing that I can say. The chef, a Frenchman who used to cook for Miami-based cruise ships, provided a moderately wide range of higher-quality food than what I would eat at home as a bachelor. More generally, I appreciated the quaint, home-like atmospherics of the guests and crew together.

We achieved the target of 19 dives for the whole five days of diving, as the weather cooperated: four dives per day, except for the last day, when we did three. We did two dives in the morning, after which we had lunch and a long surface interval. The long surface interval enabled the boat to relocate to the new dive site for the afternoon and night dives and was also due in part to the length of the days at this time of year. We did the third dives late in the afternoon, followed by dinner and then the night dives. Tank fills were always accurate in their PSI (usually 3200) and Nitrox blends (30%, which was appropriate for the typically moderate depths of most of the dive sites). Most of the tanks are aluminum 80s, but they do have a few larger-capacity tanks that guests can reserve in advance. I do not think that big tanks are necessary for this itinerary unless one has high air consumption, as the depths are often moderate and current was generally mild to moderate, even on drift dives. I think Nitrox is always a good investment, particularly on a liveaboard, but one probably could have done this trip on air, given the often moderate depths and the long afternoon surface intervals. On this trip, the guests dove independently, except for the drift dives, which the dive guides led due to the logistics of entering and exiting the water in groups. Dive masters were however available to dive with guests as needed, and some crew members did their own dives at the same time as guests or during our surface intervals.

(to be continued in the next post on this thread)
 

Ironborn

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The Underwater Environment of Bimini and Its Marine Life

They call this itinerary the Bimini trip, but it includes not only the main Bimini islands but a chain of small cays and a wall system stretching well to the south (which I gather are part of the Bimini district of the Bahamas). I got the sense that they strive to go as far south as possible and spend as much time away from Bimini proper as possible, weather permitting, as the south is considered better diving.

I would divide most of the natural dive sites into two types. The first, which was more prominent in the earlier part of the trip, consisted of a collection of stand-alone coral heads of varying sizes surrounded by white sand. These were typically shallow or moderate in depth, often maxing out at 60 feet or so. The second was a long wall system, centered around Cat Cay, where the current was strong enough to warrant diving it as drift dives (but still moderate compared to say, Cozumel or some South Florida currents). The drop-offs for these walls often began at around the same depths as the other sites and could have enabled deeper or multilevel diving, but we saw little reason to go much deeper and wanted to stay together for drift diving reasons. I would say (and most of the other guests would probably agree) that the walls yielded notably more rewarding dive experiences than the stand-alone coral heads. Visibility on the wall system was excellent, on par with what one could expect in say, the Cayman Islands or Cozumel. Visibility on the coral head sites varied and was often somewhat silty and/or slightly discolored with plankton, not unlike what one could expect in say, South Florida.

These wall drift dives were some of the most impressive Caribbean/tropical Atlantic reef or wall dives that I have ever done. At times they almost reminded me of the reefs of the Philippines or Indonesia in their richness (if not in their specific fauna or the diversity thereof). I would also rate this wall system higher than the famous “Bloody Wall” system of Little Cayman, about which many divers rave as supposedly “the best diving in the Caribbean.” The reef growth was dense and lush, with little or no dead or bleached coral or overgrown algae. The wall system also had a high density of small or tiny reef fish in and around the reef, like anthias or wrasses, that completed this pleasant picture. The names of these dive sites, like “Krispy Creme,” “Sponge Garden Drift,” “Cuban Cliff Drift,” and “Rainbow Valley,” should give you an idea of what to expect. The only thing lacking on these wall drift dives was a greater abundance of larger, more distinctive animals, like turtles, eels, or rays.

Despite my preference for the wall system over the stand-alone coral head sites, one of the latter stood out as perhaps the single-most appealing natural dive site: “Space Mountain” off Orange Cay, which the crew described as a massive coral head. In fact, I wonder if it is not actually a pinnacle or an underwater mountain. It was deeper than most of the other such sites and had stronger currents. Such structures are often rich in marine life, as in this case. Its reef growth and its density of small reef fish were on par with those of the wall system, if not greater. It also had some of the more distinctive animals that we did not see as much on the wall, including this loggerhead. Also notable for its marine life was “the Strip,” the first dive site off Bimini. This unusually elongated and flattened coral head was a “wall” of medium-sized fishes, like grunts or snappers. It reminded me of the high density of such fishes on the reefs of Boynton Beach in Florida, but more densely concentrated in a smaller area.

(to be continued in the next post on this thread)
 

Ironborn

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As is often the case, I found that one of the most impressive dive sites was not natural but man-made: the Sapona shipwreck, not far from Bimini proper. This famous wreck is unusual for the large amount of it that protrudes above the waterline, which makes it an interesting sight even without diving. The submerged part of the wreck is shallow, with a maximum depth of about 20 feet. It is not necessarily an easy dive, however, due to strong tidal currents and the often sharp debris from the collapsed stern, which could pose an entanglement risk. Given the protrusion of much of the wreck above the surface and the collapse of its stern, I would say that it is more rewarding as an artificial reef and a shelter for marine life than as a vessel per se. It provides solid surface for coral and reef growth that one might not otherwise see in the surrounding sea grass bed, such as these cup corals. The collapse of the stern created many hiding places for schools of medium-sized reef fish, such as grunts. The Sapona yielded an excellent afternoon dive, but the following night dive was exceptional. Most interesting to me was the abundance of sea basket stars. I saw more than a few of those on other night dives on this trip, but there might have been as many of two dozen of them on this wreck at night. I had only seen light tan ones before, and I did not realize that they came in such a wide range of colors and shades. I had never seen them in pairs before either, and I saw a few on other night reef dives that appeared to be juveniles. Other notable creatures on the Sapona night dive included this unusually large southern stingray and this fearless green turtle. This wreck is a must-see for photographers; note the high proportion of images from this trip on my Instagram profile that came from just the two dives that we did there.

The Bahamas owe much of their reputation as a dive destination to their shark populations. Bimini has a seasonal hammerhead presence, but we were there at the wrong time of year to see them up close or in significant numbers. One of the guests caught a passing glimpse of what he described as a hammerhead in the distance, but that was it. There was one shark that repeatedly circled us from a distance on one of our drift dives, possibly due to our lionfish catch; we debated whether it was a small bull shark or a large Caribbean reef shark. Beyond those two sightings, we saw the occasional nurse sharks and Caribbean reef sharks, but the main place to see sharks was “Bull Run.” Despite what its name might suggest, it has a population of Caribbean reef sharks that used to be baited for shark dives. In our case, the crew dumped the remains of our lionfish catch in the water 30-60 minutes before the dive in order to attract them, but it was not a conventional shark dive per se. The sharks clearly took an interest in us, enabling me to capture images that I might not have gotten otherwise. We also encountered a number of “homeless” remoras over the course of the trip, some of which tried to attach themselves to our fins during safety stops. I even saw one of them trying to attach itself to another remora. I wonder if the number of “homeless” remoras is any indication of local shark density. While this trip might have yielded more shark sightings than one would expect on a typical Caribbean trip, a diver in search of a more shark-heavy experience would have probably been better off coming back to Bimini for hammerhead season or going to Tiger Beach or South Florida (Jupiter) instead.

Another highlight was our two encounters with pods of dolphins. A pod of spotted dolphins approached our moored boat on the first afternoon and spent nearly 10-15 minutes in our presence as guests and crew members jumped in the water to snorkel with them. A pod of bottlenose dolphins approached our moored boat on a subsequent afternoon and lingered with guests and crew in the water for a similar amount of time. On both occasions, the dolphins put on a playful show for us, swimming in formation and leaping out of the water. I have seen individual dolphins twice on dives before, but I have never seen them in pods, nor have I seen them “perform” for humans like that in the wild.

(to be continued in the next post on this thread)
 

Ironborn

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Conclusion and Further Discussion

I have been looking for liveaboards that offer a happy medium between the often pricey corporate luxury of Aggressors and their ilk and the Spartan conditions of budget liveaboards, such as one that I did in Thailand. The Juliet is as close as I have come thus far to that happy medium. The Juliet provided fewer dives and a less comfortable boat than my previous Aggressor trips, but the crew, the dive operation, the underwater environment, and the general atmospherics were just as good or better. I would say that the Juliet offered equally good or even better value for the money than my Aggressor trips thus far. Compared to my previous budget liveaboard experience, this Juliet trip provided a slightly better boat but a much better crew, food, and dive operation. I would say that spending more on a medium-priced liveaboard offered much better value for the money than that budget liveaboard and was well worth the additional cost. The trade-off was that this happy medium yielded an excellent crew and dive operation but a boat that posed some comfort and safety concerns. This great trip could have been better if I could have traded some of the crew's excellence for taller hatches that did not routinely bang my head, a deck that did not burn my feet and leave me wary of walking too close to the railings, and peace of mind that no one would start a fire by charging electronics in their cabin. Despite these points, I would consider going on the Juliet again, specifically for its trip to Mona Island, the so-called “Galapagos of the Caribbean.” The boat's sturdy character and its attentive crew would be more advantageous in the reportedly rough surface and underwater conditions there.

This Bimini itinerary renewed my interest in the Bahamas, having found the Exumas to be somewhat bland and underwhelming on a Bahamas Aggressor trip (but I liked that boat more). Space Mountain and the Cat Cay wall system renewed my faith in Caribbean/tropical Atlantic diving, after having seen so many reefs full of bleached coral, overgrown with algae, and overrun by lionfish. I now have an interest in returning to Bimini for more diving on a land-based trip, since it is close enough to Miami that I could go for a long weekend and take a ferry instead. In fact, Bimini is actually closer to Miami (as the crow flies) than the main South Florida dive destinations, such as the Upper Keys and Palm Beach County. The Tiger Beach itinerary of the Bahamas Aggressor has also been on my radar for some time, and I will probably make it a higher priority in the future in light of this rewarding trip.

I have some questions for further discussions, the answers to which may be of interest to others.
  • Have you done the Mona Island itinerary on the Juliet, and would you recommend it? Did you find that the greater richness of the marine life there outweighed any harsh conditions on the surface and at depth?

  • What if any land-based Bimini dive operators would you recommend, and what do they offer? How far south into the chain of cays do they go? Do they go to the Cat Cay wall or Space Mountain? Is the other diving around Bimini proper as rewarding as the Strip and the Sapona might suggest?

  • Can you recommend a liveaboard anywhere around the world that provides the “happy medium” that I sought and found (more or less) in the Juliet?

  • Is Space Mountain a pinnacle or just an unusually large coral head?

  • Are dolphin encounters common in these waters, or were we just unusually lucky?
 

drrich2

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This Bimini itinerary renewed my interest in the Bahamas, having found the Exumas to be somewhat bland and underwhelming on a Bahamas Aggressor trip (but I liked that boat more).

Thanks for one of the best scuba trip reports I have ever read. The hits just kept coming with the practical info. I'd want researching such a trip. Historically the Juliet didn't have a lot of trip reports on Scuba Board despite persistent praise, and you and Trailboss123 have done a lot to fix that lately.

I appreciate the exploration comparing a Juliet trip to competitors. Like you, Blackbeards sounds too basic to me but the AquaCat too pricey (though both are highly praised in their respective niches), leaving the Bahamas Aggressor as the main competitor, offering more dives (up to 27 vs. 19) at a higher cost...but Aggressor Fleet tends to offer annual sales at > 30% Caribbean boats, so those quad. offerings at $2,895 (note: I imagine there are port fees, etc..., in addition) could dip down close to Juliet prices. As you indicated, the Juliet's Bimini itinerary is reputedly superior to the Exumas trips often offered elsewhere. But Aggressor's site says:

"Aggressor Adventures offers 3 Bahamas liveaboard scuba diving itineraries:

Exuma Cays - departs from Nassau to explore the dramatic walls, lush coral reefs and exciting animal encounters.

West End Northern Adventure - departs from Freeport and explores the west end of Grand Bahama and continues south to Bimini.

Tiger Beach - visits the remote areas around the West End of Grand Bahama and Tiger Beach which is frequented by Caribbean Reef Sharks, lemon sharks and tiger sharks."

To me, tiger shark diving is so different it's not a proper comparator. I was very glad you compared your trip vs. your Exumas trip. Which leaves me a couple of follow up questions:

1.) Aside from drift dives, I believe Trailbox123 indicated the Juliet doesn't normally put a dive guide in the water...but the navigation was pretty easy. Did the Bahamas Aggressor put a guide in the water for all dives? Many dive tourists are guide-dependent, or guide-preferring, so this is potentially a big discriminator.

2.) Anybody know how the Bahamas West End North Adventure looks to stack up?

If we ignore Aggressor Fleet sales, then the Bahamas Aggressor is out of Juliet's price range niche. But those big sales can knock a 3rd off the price. Then it's a different story.

Which may be moot, if Juliet is so booked up it's hard to get a slot!
 

Ironborn

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Thanks for one of the best scuba trip reports I have ever read. The hits just kept coming with the practical info. I'd want researching such a trip. Historically the Juliet didn't have a lot of trip reports on Scuba Board despite persistent praise, and you and Trailboss123 have done a lot to fix that lately.

I appreciate the exploration comparing a Juliet trip to competitors. Like you, Blackbeards sounds too basic to me but the AquaCat too pricey (though both are highly praised in their respective niches), leaving the Bahamas Aggressor as the main competitor, offering more dives (up to 27 vs. 19) at a higher cost...but Aggressor Fleet tends to offer annual sales at > 30% Caribbean boats, so those quad. offerings at $2,895 (note: I imagine there are port fees, etc..., in addition) could dip down close to Juliet prices. As you indicated, the Juliet's Bimini itinerary is reputedly superior to the Exumas trips often offered elsewhere. But Aggressor's site says:

"Aggressor Adventures offers 3 Bahamas liveaboard scuba diving itineraries:

Exuma Cays - departs from Nassau to explore the dramatic walls, lush coral reefs and exciting animal encounters.

West End Northern Adventure - departs from Freeport and explores the west end of Grand Bahama and continues south to Bimini.

Tiger Beach - visits the remote areas around the West End of Grand Bahama and Tiger Beach which is frequented by Caribbean Reef Sharks, lemon sharks and tiger sharks."

To me, tiger shark diving is so different it's not a proper comparator. I was very glad you compared your trip vs. your Exumas trip. Which leaves me a couple of follow up questions:

1.) Aside from drift dives, I believe Trailbox123 indicated the Juliet doesn't normally put a dive guide in the water...but the navigation was pretty easy. Did the Bahamas Aggressor put a guide in the water for all dives? Many dive tourists are guide-dependent, or guide-preferring, so this is potentially a big discriminator.

2.) Anybody know how the Bahamas West End North Adventure looks to stack up?

If we ignore Aggressor Fleet sales, then the Bahamas Aggressor is out of Juliet's price range niche. But those big sales can knock a 3rd off the price. Then it's a different story.

Which may be moot, if Juliet is so booked up it's hard to get a slot!

Thank you for the positive feedback. I would encourage you to contact the dive shops chartering the Juliet for any weeks that suit you and ask to be put on their wait list. I did not expect it to work either, but I had two different shops offer me spots within a few weeks of each other. It would definitely be worth a shot.

I do not remember if the Bahamas Aggressor had guides in the water for the Exuma itinerary. I just ended up diving with other guests - which brings up another point.

We had great group atmospherics among the guests on that Bahamas Aggressor trip as well (even though most of us had booked separately/individually), which I would attribute to the smaller (12) number of guests. I think that having a smaller number of maximum guests on both the Bahamas Aggressor and the Juliet does make for a more pleasant experience both underwater and on the boat.

As for liveaboard guests needing or preferring guides in the water - I see your point. I used to think like that, particularly as a solo traveler who is not (yet) certified for solo diving. Most dive travelers seem to dive and travel with buddies, particularly spouses serving as "built-in" buddies, but I do not. This was not a problem when I was only going with land-based dive shops and resorts, which usually provide a guide, but I was concerned about some liveaboards not having a guide in the water. Over time I have not found this to be a problem, as it is has never been difficult for me to find "instabuddies" or to tag along with another group. And keep in mind that I am: a) a photographer, which some non-photographer divers find unappealing in a prospective buddy; and b) not gregarious by nature. Indeed, I think that diving with other liveaboard guests has been an important contributor to my maturation as a diver by "cutting the cord" and weaning me away from my initial sense of dependence on trained professionals. Now that I do a lot of local diving in my new home in Florida, where most dive boats do not provide a guide by default or for free, this sense of independence and self-sufficiency has been extremely valuable. I usually have no trouble finding instabuddies when needed, and it has been a rewarding experience, introducing me to new people and exposing me to the local dive culture.
 

Redfoot

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Great report, thanks for sharing.

I did the Exumas and Eleuthera on the Aquacat in May, and really enjoyed it, even though some of the reef life was lacking. It sounds like you got healthier reef life, but maybe not as many large critters.

Good to see the Bahamas getting more reviews, it is an easy destination for US divers, and I can't say enough good things about the Aquacat crew, vessel and food. If one tempers their expectations, I think it is a great destination.
 

Jake 10

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Great report, thank you for sharing. There is a lot of information you provide post-COVID that really help with coordination and logistics to and from Bimini. :thumb:
 

Wookie

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The deck is also very curved; it was not clear to me what if any marine engineering purpose that major curvature serves, but it would certainly make it easier for someone to fall overboard.
As a budding Naval Architect and long time marine engineer, (and having visited the Juliet) the deck is cambered (that is, high on the centerline and sloped to the edges) to shed water. The bow and stern are raked to provide adequate headroom in the fo'csle and stern castle. As the hull narrows, the deck (in the cabins) has to rise to be wide enough to be of use. Finally, that boat has a high freeboard (edge of deck to the waterline) because she is a Canadian hull, and ice class, designed to be able to sail through the ice, and to sail through winter storms without shipping water every time a wave breaks over the hull.
 
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