Monday, June 22, 2015

Of Horatio Hornblower and Fire Ships

Recently, I re-re-rewatched A&E's Horatio Hornblower series, a ritual before most sailing seasons it seems. The episode entitled "The Fire Ship" is one of my favorites for many reasons--not the least for Horatio's exciting rescue of the Indefatigable from a flaming Spanish vessel turned loose amidst the fleet. I imagined (for like the hundredth time), what it would be like to experience such a horrendous event, up close and personal.

Last weekend's fire that engulfed the covered boat-sheds in the Tacoma Narrow's marina caused over five million dollars in damages and had me thinking about fires and ships all over again.

I've witnessed a few boatyard and marina fires for myself in the past decade: In early 2007, while Zodiac was in drydock, a small vessel caught fire across the canal from us. We watched with mounting dread as it burned through it's mooring lines and drifted toward us--a smoky black inferno. There was no way to get the Zodiac out of harm's way, sitting as she was on jack-stands and keel blocks. The actions of the Seattle police saved us that day. By attaching the fireball-vessel to their boat, they towed it into the middle of the lake and extinguished the flames.

Independence Day in 2013 was the Lake Union boat storage fire that occurred right before the big fireworks show was to begin. Over a dozen boats were lost in that one. I stood on Zodiac's foredeck from across the lake and watched the mushroom-cloud of thick smoke that served as a backdrop for the entire fireworks display that night.

The fire that I will never forget is 2012's tragic episode in Squalicum marina. Jeff and I woke to the sound of helicopters overhead. It wasn't until we turned on the news that we discovered two other live-aboards had perished inside their boat nearby. We watched in stunned silence as the events portrayed on the screen played out just 400 yards from our wheelhouse. By the end of the day over twelve boats had been destroyed along with most of the dock's structure.

The threat of fire ships is never far from any boat owner--especially those who choose to live aboard in marinas packed tightly with other vessels. The diverse variety and condition of crafts at our gate alone is a pretty typical example of what an average American marina hosts. Everything from century-old wooden boats to rows of fiberglass yachts as well as workboats, charter boats and the occasional derelict or abandoned relic. Each kind of vessel and each type of owner present their own particular set of  issues.

For instance, take our boat Kwaietek: She's well maintained and pretty regularly safety-checked, however she is also an old boat comprised completely of diesel soaked oak and fir--decades of it. Her engine room is midship below deck, a fire in our engine room would engulf her entire structure very quickly. (Knocking wood right now).  The advantages: we are live-aboards hence always around or nearby, we are pretty safety-conscience owners who keep an eye on systems. The disadvantages: we are live-aboards hence always around: we cook, use electrical equipment and are prone to human error like everybody else.
That's one type of vessel. Another type would be the rows of fiberglass charter boats that sit vacant at dock for weeks at a time and then fill with bare-boat customers eager to cruise the islands. The advantages: Most charter yachts are managed by businesses that professionally clean and maintain the vessels. This ensures a benchmark of safety requirements and oversights. (Last year an employee smelled smoke on one of the boats she was cleaning and called the fire department before it could fully ignite). The disadvantages: bare-boat charterers range in skill and experience levels and not all have experience around boats and their systems.

The issues surrounding derelict vessels are pretty self apparent. For instance, two years ago, we had a neighboring boat in our slip whose owner had moved away (a divorce necessitated division of assets and this vessel was caught up in negotiations). The absentee owner left an open invitation for friends and some area drifters to crash on his boat in his absence. Eventually it became sort of a maritime flop house. Late night parties, drug deals and smokers on the fantail were a constant concern to many of us who watched things transpire over the winter. I spent countless hours calculating the speed of burn and how fast we could start our engine should the adjacent boat go up in flames. I finally deciding that cutting lines and pushing out would be the smartest move.

In truth, should an adjacent boat become engulfed in flames, the odds of getting our own vessels out of harm's way in time are pretty slim. It is one of those facts of life that we silently acknowledge and then push out of our minds.

Having stated this, I want to be quick to point out that there are quite a large number of things that we can do to help lesson the chances of such a situation occurring. Below is a list of the most common reasons fires occur on vessels.  [From SeaWorthy Magazine]
  1. AC and DC wiring/appliance - 55%
  2. Engine/Transmission Overheat - 24%
  3. Fuel Leaks - 8%
  4. Miscellaneous - 7%
  5. Unknown - 5%
  6. Stove - 1%
Recognizing the leading causes is one thing, knowing how to prevent fires from these items is is a whole other matter. There are several great resources to check out in this regard and I'll list some below--please feel free to mention any others in the comments section below.

Port of Bellingham prevention guide
Boat Safe
Fire Prevention for Boaters 
Marina Fire Safety/City of Seattle
Previous Flota Navium post

Here are some of the measures that we've adopted after a few years of experience: Unplug our appliances when not in use; purchase only electronics/appliances either marine-specific and/or UL certification and continuously check condition of wiring and circuitry; keeping our solvents and flammables and rags off the vessel as often as possible, (although I write this while in mid-brightwork on all three vessels, so I'm breaking this rule as you read it); appoint a "safety officer" on the vessel to confirm that all systems are in good shape; replace batteries on alarms and flashlights on the winter and summer solstices as a standard practice and check them monthly; practice fire and abandon-ship drills and modify protocols as needed; place appropriate fire extinguishers in every room/ level of boat (2 in engine room fore and aft); keep all exits and our finger pier free and clear; hang emergency knives and lights at each entrance/egress as well as in each stateroom. And above all, be vigilant of not only our vessels but the ones around us.

There are a myriad of websites, books and experts out there to help you come up with a safety checklist on your vessel or your covered workspace. Both Jeff and I have taken certifications in this subject matter as part of our licensing and would be happy to consult or send you links if you contact us.

The way I see it, the more folks who are actively working on fire prevention in marinas or in crowded anchorages means there's much less likelihood of someone having to pull an epic Horatio move. (I for one, am not that nimble anymore and really hate to sweat).

~ Chris

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Keeping it Real

The schooner Lavengro hauled out in our boat yard.
When Jeff and I considered the type of model upon which to base his new business Kingfisher Craftsmen, we took several factors into consideration. Foremost was how to provide the much needed maritime services in this region and still keep true to our lifestyle goal. We learned the hard way from my former Seattle business, just how quickly a promising venture can consume one's family life and quality time and we have no interest in repeating our past mistakes. (Yes, success can actually be a real pain in the ass sometimes).

And the solution? We decided we needed to make it a job that will combine what we both love to do with what we are very good at doing and then make sure we include our family and our friends in the big adventure. So, this is what we've set out to accomplish.

Kingfisher Craftsmen just took possession of our new boatshop located within the Port of Bellingham's Fairhaven marine industrial complex. We have a large area for the carpentry and woodworking projects as well as space allocated for fabrication and welding. There is a big loft above to lay out canvas and paint projects as well as a reception area and a design studio/office. Juliet even has her own studio in which to write and paint. Now we can all be together and combine our various specialties. It's a really exciting prospect.

The good news is that there are a large number of wooden boats in Bellingham and a growing number of owners who'd prefer to keep them up here rather than trek south for shipwrights. We're pleased to discover that we've landed in a niche market with a distinct need--one we're more than happy to fill.

In the past decade both Jeff and I have been fortunate enough to have worked with and learned from many of the old masters in the traditional maritime trades. The experiences that we've gained from various shipwrights, riggers and mariners has been invaluable and we're applying it to the skills we've already amassed in our own respective careers as trades-people in the contracting, fabricating and painting trades. A combined 60+ years of professional experience is pretty impressive if I do say so myself.

It's a true asset to possess the skills we gained from our theatrical backgrounds. Jeff's focus as a theatrical rigger and stage carpenter has been hugely beneficial--especially when it came to projects like re-masting the Zodiac. He re-engineered the rigging diagrams from the old masts and was able to piece together the incomplete schematics as well as the (quite literally), missing chunks of mast; in the end arriving at a new rig and mast that fit perfectly with the existing rig components.  His current projects have consisted of odd shapes and complex joinery--all of which he routinely dealt with when building sets onstage and designing solutions for unique situations.

I started my painting career before I finished high school and have been an on-again-off-again professional scenic artist in theater and motion picture production since the mid-eighties. I've since transitioned to marine painting and brightwork jobs and found I really enjoy the process of bringing dull wood back to life. It also allows me to work with Jeff again--just like in our theater days from way back. My degree as a theatrical designer has been a big help in a wide variety of jobs, not the least of which has been on our own boats.

As we take on more marine related projects, we're adding some of our talented friends to the pool of craftsmen. Metal fabrication, welding and foundry work are a few of the skills we can now add to the list of trades offered. I'm really looking forward to the new apprentices and interns that are coming onboard (so to speak) this summer and fall. It will be a thrill to help pass on some of these traditional skills to new tradesmen.

It is no secret that the corkers, marlinspike seamen and master shipwrights of the last generation are diminishing. Boats are increasingly made from materials such as fiberglass, steel and aluminum. These craftsmen who specialize in wood are becoming harder to find. Nevertheless, their skills are still necessary and their old tricks and knowledge cannot be allowed to disappear. The same was true decades ago in theater as the older scenics retired; artists who painted vast canvases on shop floors with their brushes affixed to bamboo sticks, their pigments mixed with animal glue and the renderings gridded out to scale on cardboard. Nowadays much of what is created for theater productions is simply scanned from a computerized design and digitally printed onto a canvas. Many of the traditional skills are lost for good.

Again, I was lucky to have met and learned from a couple of the old (and I mean old) masters. My father was a designer and student of Arnold Gillette--he wrote the book, literally wrote the book on scenecraft. He taught me some tricks for painting and drawing once when visiting our home. He gave me a rendering of one of his designs shortly before his death. I treasure that rendering (and my father covets it still).

As we launch this new enterprise, I am keen on taking the best of what I've learned from running my own business and making sure not to repeat the worst of what we learned the hard way. I want to combine the tricks and skills from the wisdom of our predecessors and blend them with the innovations and ideas of those who are coming into the workplace. Most of all I want to keep learning and creating. The fact that we can do it with each other and with our friends, just makes it all the more exciting.

Kingfisher Craftsmen

                                      ~  Chris