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Disaster: Fire on a Weekend Watch

Mel Thunderbolt portrait

Have you ever experienced fire onboard? Would you know what to do?  In my early years of yachting I experienced an engine room fire.  It was the last thing I expected on a weekend watch, but a valuable lesson on the need to be prepared.

It was a cold and wet winter weekend in Varazze, Italy. The marina was exceptionally quiet, with not a soul in sight.  I was alone on watch for the weekend and battling a severe case of flu.  

I was working onboard a 90 foot motor yacht, and we had a few warranty issues onboard that we were dealing with.  One of them was a problem with our passerelle controls. 

We had a hydraulic passerelle and the hydraulic pack was situated at the back of the engine room, while the button controls were on the stainless steel stanchion next to the passerelle outside.  There was no waterproof control box and the buttons were exposed to the elements and were getting wet.  We had reported this problem, and a solution was being worked on.  In the meantime, I wrapped the stanchion up with Cling Film to stop it from getting wet.

Because of my illness, I had been given permission to sleep in one of the forward guest cabins.  By nightfall on the Friday, my flu had gone from bad to worse.  I locked up the boat and took my prescribed medication, dosed myself with cough syrup and went to bed.

I fell into a deep sleep, so deep that I didn’t hear the fire alarm sounding in the middle of the night. The fire alarm could only be heard faintly where I was sleeping. 

In the torrential rain, my carefully wrapped Cling Film on the stanchion had leaked.  This in turn had started the hydraulic pump in the engine room and it had kept on running.  The pump did not trip on the breaker and carried on running until it overheated.  The overheated hydraulic pump caught alight and started a major engine room fire.

I woke up in the early hours of the morning, still groggy from my medication and very thirsty.  I was staggering up the guest area stairs to get a drink when I heard the fire alarm.  I immediately ran to the fire alarm panel and it indicated an engine room fire.  Complete disbelief.  I thought it had to be a fault with the alarm panel.  Our engine room was accessible via the crew mess, through a watertight door with a viewing window.  Sure enough, the window was black with soot. What little I could see was that everything was burnt and black, but there was no sign of flames and the door was not hot to touch. 

fire2All yacht crew are STCW95 trained and we’ve all been taught what to do in a fire emergency.  However, nothing prepared me for that night.  I was alone and I was scared.  I immediately switched off all power to the boat – shore power and batteries. I then pulled all emergency fuel and ventilation shut-off levers. I was in darkness. 

I contacted the marina office on the VHF radio and the security officer on duty called the Fire Department.  I then called the captain, who said he was four hours away and was getting in his car to come back immediately.  I went onto the dock to look for another person to assist me but there was nobody around. The rain had stopped and it was eerily quiet.

It felt like time stood still as I waited for help to arrive.  I recalled looking through the viewing window, and that it looked like the fire had been out for a while. Knowing that the fire department was on its way, I decided to go and have another look, even though it was against everything I had been taught.

I touched the engine room door again and it was cool.  I slowly opened the door, just a tiny bit at first while standing behind it, in case of any backdraft.  The engine room smelt burnt.  I opened the door a little wider with a fire extinguisher in my hand.  Nothing seemed to be on fire anymore and I slowly entered.  It was frightening to see the immense damage of all the equipment in the engine room.  Everything was black and all the plastic control boxes were burnt to a crisp.

fire extinguisher
Then, out the corner of my eye, I saw a bunch of wires starting to smoke.  Within seconds the wires reignited with sparks and small flames.  I quickly used my fire extinguisher to extinguish the flames.  That was a big enough warning for me; I knew I shouldn’t be inside the engine room alone. I vacated the boat again to wait for the emergency team to arrive.

It took the rest of the morning for the team to state that the boat was safe to re- enter, by which time the captain had arrived.  After assessing the situation, the team of experts confirmed that the hydraulic pack had been the cause. 

One of the fire fighters came out to shake my hand.  In his broken English, he told me I was very lucky to be alive.  If the fire had spread, I would’ve been trapped in the forward guest accommodation area, as there was no escape hatch there.  I would have died in my sleep from smoke inhalation or been burnt alive.

He said that they found a small PVC water pipe that led to the aft deck shower from the fresh water tank.  The fire had burnt through the pipe, causing the fresh water in the tank to gush out and extinguish the fire.

He told me that it was “Not my time to die” and that there were angels watching over me that night. 

It took weeks to clean up the mess and salvage what we could.  We were towed to another marina for insurance purposes and it took months to get up and running again.  Almost our entire engine room had to be rebuilt.

Looking back, there were a few mistakes made and I have learnt from them:

1. I should not have been left alone on watch for the weekend while sick and under strong medication;

2. The fire alarm should have been loud enough to be heard in all areas of the yacht;

3. There should be escape hatches in all areas of yachts;

4. The passerelle buttons were getting wet and even though they were wrapped in plastic, water still got in.  The hydraulic pack should’ve been isolated and switched off at the breaker overnight and when not in use;

5. I should not have entered the engine room alone before help arrived.

The experience taught me how quickly fires can happen and that they happen when you least expect it.  I have learnt first-hand the importance of being prepared. 

Everyone, including junior crew should be shown how to operate all emergency equipment including Oxygen Reduction Systems, and all yachts should enforce fire drills on a regular basis.  I have worked on far too many yachts that don’t take drills seriously.  They either do them half heartedly or hardly ever. 

You never know, some time in your yachting career, you could be out in a heavy sea at night when the yacht you are on catches fire.  It could be an engine room fire.  You could loose steering, stabilization and power.  This would make it very rough, very dark and very scary. 

Will you know exactly what you’re supposed to do?

Pictured:  A superyacht burns in Livorno, Italy in August 2013. Read story here

 fire livorno



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