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


  1. Not "credit card captains" but a quirk of bareboat charter business in "season" is probably the largest hazard of bareboat operations. Quick-turn maintenance on systems involved with stored energy (particularly batteries, fuel) in the few hours available between charters results in opportunity for stored energy to be released to do the wrong kind of work.

    After all, bareboat skippers quickly take vessels _away_ from densely crowded docks, usually. :-)

    All this said anonymously, as we're owners of a charter boat based at Squalicum. I place complete faith in the good intentions of maintenance staff and my firm conviction is that no work is performed as a consciously shoddy act, but it's very easy to be misunderstood. Squalicum is after all a small community of people cooperating on what we all love and we all have to get along together.

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