Flames hamper access to fire extinguishers

Lookout! Issue 38, July 2018

A recreational fisherman was unable to save his beloved vessel from being destroyed by fire, because all three fire extinguishers were in or near the engine room which was rapidly engulfed in flames.
grounded vessel
Maritime New Zealand © 2019
A fishing trip came to a dramatic end after a skipper was unable to access a fire extinguisher.

The skipper was hove to near the entrance to a South Island harbour around midday, and about to begin fishing, when he heard the engine start to run irregularly. He noticed lots of white/ brown smoke coming from the exhaust vent, and went to investigate.

Flames and smoke greeted him when he lifted the engine room hatch. The skipper couldn’t close the hatch again, and was unable to use a fire extinguisher as two were in the engine room and the third was stored near the hatch.

Putting the 10.8 metre vessel into gear, he drove for shore – which was fortunately just 150 metres away. Even getting a quick Mayday call off proved a challenge, as fire took hold in the wheelhouse. Smoke stopped him from changing the channel from 62 where it was set, to Channel 16.

After making a quick call with the VHF on Channel 62, the skipper put on his lifejacket and gathered up a PLB (personal locator beacon) and an emergency grab box. He tried to get off over the bow, but could not get past the flames. After jumping over the stern he waded to the rocky shore, and found a safe location before setting off the distress beacon, and later two flares.

A vessel arrived on the scene after about 20 minutes, and stood by, while a rescue helicopter was enroute. Although the weather was fairly mild, the skipper suffered from hypothermia after being soaked through and waiting on the exposed rock for about an hour and a half before being winched to safety. He was also treated for smoke inhalation and slight burns.

The skipper says he has no idea what caused the fire in the engine room of what was formerly a commercial fishing vessel – there was nothing out of the ordinary when he checked it before heading out.

LOOKOUT! Points

  • To use the fire extinguishers stored in the engine room, the skipper would have needed to be aware of the fire as soon as it started.
  • Extinguishers need to be placed at different locations around the vessel to enable ready access – not only in the engine room which is where most fires start.
  • In this case, if a separate extinguisher had been stored in the stern area, for example, the skipper may have been able to contain the flames – or at least dampen the fire long enough to make a full Mayday call on Channel 16, the official VHF emergency channel.
  • This incident also shows that it is better to leave VHF radios on Channel 16. It is also a Maritime Rule (43.4(2)(a)(i)) to listen on Channel 16 while at sea (around the Chatham Islands is an exception).
  • This skipper was otherwise well prepared. He had his lifejacket and distress beacon and grab box with flares close to hand. This meant he was able to make it to land and raise the alarm.
  • Driving the boat toward the shore was quick thinking and may have saved the skipper’s life. This meant it was easier to get to shore, and it enabled an easier salvage at a later date. The wreck was later dismantled and removed.

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