On the Job

Handling a Fire on Board

6 January 2022 By Kate Lardy

Kate got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, including stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

The morning of November 13, 2020, began benignly enough, as the skipper and deckhand of 23-meter Just Mine prepared for their fourth day underway from Antalya to San Remo. Ten minutes after weighing anchor off Paralia Akolis, Greece, the deckhand did a routine engine room check.

He noted nothing unusual, but as he climbed the ladder to the aft deck, he faintly smelled smoke. Assuming it was the smell of the main engine exhaust, he exited and closed the hatch. Then, having some doubts, he re-opened the hatch and saw white smoke. He called to the skipper, who put the engines in neutral. He checked again and saw that the smoke had significantly increased. The skipper shut off the mains and made a distress call over Channel 16, while the deckhand activated the emergency stops for fuel and ventilation and deployed the FM-200 fire suppression system. Then, to see if the system had any effect, both crew checked the engine room’s aft bulkhead for heat. The deckhand then carefully opened the rear access door, noticed thick smoke, and quickly closed it.

By then, smoke had reached the deck. The skipper dropped anchor while the deckhand launched the life raft, then together they launched the tender. Taking turns, each returned inside to retrieve their grab bags. They abandoned ship in the tender within 10 minutes of discovering the smoke, and only seconds after motoring away, the aft deck was shrouded in flames. In the next three and a half minutes, flames engulfed the yacht up to the flybridge as the crew videoed.

This true account came from an incident report published by the yacht’s flag, the Jersey Administration, which also issued a safety bulletin. Investigators noted that the crew had done a lot right, including the fact that firefighting and life-saving appliances had been checked a month prior, and had the mains and generators serviced just before the voyage. The captain and deckhand had conducted 100 safety drills during their two years working together. All their initial actions were in the correct order to first save the vessel and then themselves, and they had grab bags readily on hand.

The administration’s biggest criticism surrounded the deckhand opening the aft engine room door after the fire suppression system had been deployed. “This poses serious risks to both the crew and the vessel: from possible flash over from the release of smoke and extinguishing media into the adjacent space, risking the crew’s safety; from the spread of the fire if it was not possible to subsequently close and seal the entrance; and, most importantly, by allowing air into the space to feed the fire and possibly reignite a fire, which had been extinguished and not cooled. The golden rule is, ‘Once a space containing a fire is sealed, do NOT reopen it except under the advice of, and preferably with the assistance of, trained firefighters.’”

“The golden rule is, ‘Once a space containing a fire is sealed, do NOT reopen it except under the advice of, and preferably with the assistance of, trained firefighters.’”

The report also noted that the captain broadcast a distress call via VHF but did not use the DSC function. As he was relaying their position to the rescue coordination center, the battery backup to the chartplotter and GPS failed, and he was not able to reveal their full position. DSC would have automatically included this in the distress message, but the equipment was not user-friendly, so the crew were unfamiliar with it. “Familiarize yourself with your safety equipment. It is better to initiate a call using DSC and back up with voice communication. Write down your position, and update it frequently, before making the call so it remains available if your electronics fails,” the safety bulletin advised.

It also brought up the launching of the life raft and tender and ascertained that both were appropriate. This is a point that Capt. John Crupi takes issue with.

“We made that mistake,” he says. Crupi was on his way from Costa Rica to the Galapagos on 33-meter Dorothea in 2007 when a fire started in the engine room. Like Just Mine’s crew, he had only minutes to muster the crew and abandon ship. Fire spread up the mast as it was part of the exhaust trunk and melted their communications before he got a call out. They had only the EPIRB and were 350 miles from land, so their logic in the moment was it was a good idea to launch both the life raft and tender.

Looking back, Crupi says he wouldn’t do it again. “There are just so many things that could go wrong in that scenario. Like, we didn’t lose power, but we could have, and then you’ve got a 3,000-pound object swinging wildly out of control that could easily land on a boat or a human being.”

Not to mention the time spent on the operation. “You’re basically standing on a bomb,” he says, having witnessed Dorothea exploding 15 minutes after the fire was discovered — fortunately from the safety of the life raft.

Other lessons he shares are the importance of drills, despite the complacency and boredom they elicit from crew. “Something I still do today is make people walk from their bed to the nearest fire escape blindfolded, counting stairs. Because, essentially, that’s what we did.” Through thick smoke, he had to get three of his crew who were sleeping in the guest quarters (because of the head sea), which brings up another good point: “In terms of protocols, we never change rooms without advising the bridge.”

In the end, an EPIRB effected their rescue, so he strongly recommends having multiple, including in the ditch bags. “An EPIRB on a hydrostatic release is fine, but if it melts, it doesn’t do you any good.”

This article originally ran in the September 2021 issue of Dockwalk.


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