Fire engulfs fishing boat at sea

Lookout! Issue 30, December 2013

A commercial fishing trawler was destroyed by an engine room fire that spread so quickly the skipper and three crew had to abandon ship without making any attempt to fight it.
Burning trawler
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
The trawler burned to the water line, while the crew abandoned ship to the liferaft and fish bin.

The fire broke out on the 18 metre vessel on the first day of a five-day fishing trip. The day before, the skipper had carried out routine maintenance, including replacing the fuel filter and loading 6,000 litres of diesel. A short trip was made to confirm the vessel was operating satisfactorily before departure.

The vessel crossed the river bar the next morning and set out for its intended fishing site. While underway, the skipper made two routine checks of the engine and engine room, with nothing apparently amiss, and then prepared for the day’s fishing.

Crew in water
The crew were picked up by a nearby fishing vessel.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

Late in the afternoon, as the crew prepared to haul the trawl net, the skipper went into the engine room to make another inspection and found it filled with a thick haze, which he thought was caused by exhaust leaking into the room.

Seconds later, flames ignited on the manifold leading to the turbo and quickly spread up the exhaust funnel and along the bulkhead.

It appeared to the skipper that the o-ring of the fuel filter had burst, spraying diesel onto the manifold and surrounding area (which was not lagged or shielded), and this fuel had ignited.

Smoke and heat drove him from the engine room, but he managed to close the hatch as he exited. However, the engine room vents couldn’t be closed and the fire continued to take hold.

The skipper made two mayday calls and instructed the crew to retrieve the liferaft from above the wheelhouse and prepare to abandon ship.

As the wheelhouse was engulfed by flames, the engine revved uncontrollably and then cut out. Fearing an explosion, the crew and master abandoned ship into the liferaft and fish bin.

He then phoned to alert another fishing vessel nearby, before lashing a large fish bin to the liferaft to add buoyancy. The skipper estimated the flames spread to the wheelhouse within two minutes of him entering the engine room and discovering the fire. The lifejackets, stowed below, were inaccessible.

As the wheelhouse was engulfed by flames, the engine revved uncontrollably and then cut out. Fearing an explosion, the crew and master abandoned ship into the liferaft and fish bin.

They were rescued soon afterwards by a nearby fishing vessel. The skipper and crew and those on board the rescue vessel watched as the fire engulfed the hull down to the water line and burned the bow away.


  • The vessel was a total loss. Even with the vessel fully insured, the disruption to the fishing operation and the time taken to replace the vessel cost the owner significantly in lost time and production.
  • Because the vessel was destroyed, MNZ investigators weren’t able to directly examine the causes of the fire. They concluded that the fire probably resulted from fuel spraying through a leak in the fuel filter onto an unprotected engine manifold. However, there was insufficient evidence to determine what caused the leak.
    • The investigators did not think it likely that the failure of the fuel filter was caused by the o-ring being pinched or damaged during fitting, but considered it may have been loosened by engine vibrations if it hadn’t been cinched tightly when fitting.
    • Regardless of what caused the leak, no allowance had been made in the vessel’s safety procedures for any potential failure of the o-ring, or for the fuel filter being incorrectly fitted or vibrating loose. Because of where it was located in the engine room, any leak from the fuel filter would inevitably spray fuel on or near the manifold and could ignite a fire.
  • The investigators concluded that opening the hatch to enter the engine room instantly introduced the oxygen required to ignite the diesel smouldering on the manifold. Although the open vents in the engine room hadn’t provided enough oxygen to spark the fire, they couldn’t be closed from outside and allowed the fire to keep drawing enough oxygen to stay alight.
    • The timber used in the construction of the engine room had seriously degraded over time and was also considered to have been easily combustible because of its condition, and probably contributed to the fire taking hold and spreading.
  • While the vessel fully complied with the relevant maritime rules, the investigation into the incident concluded that the vessel had not been adequately equipped to prevent, detect or fight an engine room fire. It concluded that the owner had relied only on the vessel being certified as fit for purpose, without taking any further measures to ensure the safe operating standard of the vessel and keep his crew safe.
    • The maritime rules relating to fire precautions on small vessels prescribe a minimum standard, and owners should carry out their own risk assessment and, if necessary, adopt a higher standard to address any identified higher risk.
  • Under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, employers and employees have a duty to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of those on board.
    • Additional safety precautions – such as a fixedfire suppression system – could have saved the vessel and prevented the crew from having to abandon ship.
  • The vessel did not have any automatic means of fire detection, and the problem was only discovered when the hatch was opened, igniting the fire. There was no way to fight the fire without entering the engine room, and the three portable fire extinguishers and deck hose on board couldn’t be used safely within the engine room to fight a fire of this scale.
  • The relevant maritime rules require equipment and machinery to be installed, protected and maintained so as not to constitute a danger to persons or the vessel. Engine spaces or any space where there is a risk of fire must be kept clean, free of fuel or combustible liquid or gas leaks, or any other potential causes of ignition.
  • Exhaust pipes, manifolds and other hot surfaces should be properly insulated, shielded or otherwise protected to prevent accidents or burns. There should be a means of stopping vent fans, if fitted, and closing the ventilator openings from a location outside the engine room.
  • The investigation found that the master acted appropriately in the circumstances to ensure the safety of the crew and himself. Raising the alarm via VHF radio and a phone call and taking immediate action to remove the liferaft from above the wheelhouse was well advised, as any delay could have seen the liferaft or equipment engulfed by the fire.
    • Using the fish bin added to the flotation available to the crew when they abandoned ship, and would have increased their chances of survival had they needed to remain in the water for a long period.

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