The Importance of Training Crew to Fight Yacht Fires

19 January 2023 By Kate Lardy
Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard District 7

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.

What started as a little smoke in the engine room of La Dolce Vita quickly escalated and fire took only minutes to engulf the fiberglass yacht. In this true worst-case scenario, it was March 16, 2021, and the 100-foot Hargrave was on charter, anchored just north of the Marquesas Keys in the Gulf of Mexico. The generators were running.

The mate was the first to smell something amiss; he immediately checked out the engine room and found smoke coming from the starboard generator enclosure. He went to find the captain, who by then saw smoke and was already on his way. In the short time that passed since the mate first opened the engine room’s aft door, the forward bulkhead became blanketed by smoke, and flames now surrounded the starboard generator.

The mate fetched the fire extinguishers and the captain, covering his nose and mouth with a wet towel, re-opened the door, shut off both generators via cut-off switches by the door, and discharged two extinguishers around the starboard generator. This had no effect. The captain then deployed the engine room’s FM-200 fixed fire-suppression system, went to the bridge to notify the Coast Guard, and asked the guests to evacuate.

While the crew and guests boarded the tender, the captain returned to the engine room for the last time and found flames reaching the overhead. He discharged another dry chemical extinguisher in the direction of the flames to no avail. It had been no more than 10 minutes, he estimated, from the time he first saw smoke until this point, when he abandoned ship. La Dolce Vita burned to the waterline.

Since the incident happened in U.S. waters, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated and published its findings. At the time of writing, the yacht’s flag state, Cayman Islands, was conducting its own review and was not able to comment.

Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard District 7

Due to the extent of the damage, the exact cause of the fire could not be determined, but the NTSB surmised, from the smells the mate and captain described, that it likely originated in the electrical end of the starboard generator enclosure. The yacht’s previous captain said the genset had been serviced during the last yard period five months prior, but the NTSB was unable to obtain proof of this. “The vessel owners did not have documentation of any maintenance to the generator since its installation (April 2019), so it is possible that loose, moist, or dusty connections went undetected and caused arcing in the AVR or other genset electrical component. Such arcing could have caused the wire insulation to burn, leading to the smoke and flames that the captain observed,” says the report.

The fire was able to grow undeterred and ultimately destroy the yacht due to an inability to shut off ventilation to the engine room, says the NTSB. Although the yacht was chartered four to six times a year — and as a Cayman Islands flag, would have been required to comply with LY2 — it was registered as a pleasure vessel and did not comply with the regulations that mandated there be a way to remotely stop the engine room’s intake and exhaust fans and close off natural ventilation to the space. The main switchboard to cut off power to the fans was located on the forward bulkhead, which was already inaccessible when the captain got to the engine room, and La Dolce Vita was never fitted with dampers to stop the air flow.

“The window of opportunity for crew to fight a fire like this is incredibly short — four to six minutes — so you need to have a well-trained crew.”

“From what I understood, at the time of construction [dampers] weren’t required, which I didn’t understand because if you can’t seal a space up, [the system] is not going to extinguish the fire. It makes no sense to have that system and there not be a way to shut everything down,” says John Cunningham, fire projects coordinator at Resolve Marine, which trains crew in firefighting at its academy as well as responds to marine fires. He had the opportunity to speak with the captain, who joined the yacht two months prior to the fire. According to Cunningham, the captain said it could have been an oversight at the time of construction.

The crew did what they were supposed to do, Cunningham continues, but also hindering their efforts was the generator enclosure. “Those boxes limited access to discharge a fire extinguisher, so that contributed to it getting out of control. Then, of course, it burned through the fuel lines and the fuel lines free flowed — the shut-off for the fuel lines was all the way forward. The captain couldn’t get to them, because by then there was too much smoke in the engine room.” He thinks on a new-build today, you’d be unlikely to find this design, as it would have been corrected over time due to incidents like these.

This fire also illustrates the importance of training, and that the training be in the field rather than virtual. “Our director is all about hands-on firefighting; that’s the only way to prepare somebody to encounter an event like that and have a chance to mitigate it,” Cunningham says. “The window of opportunity for crew to fight a fire like this is incredibly short — four to six minutes — so you need to have a well-trained crew. With a steel hull, you have a bit more time because they have firewalls built around the engine room, galley, and laundry room. There’s a better chance of mitigating that because you’ve got some built-in protection.”

This article originally ran in the August 2022 issue of Dockwalk.


More from Dockwalk