National Fisherman

Cool head prevails in fire

From U.S. Coast Guard reports

Following a successful swordfish and tuna trip, the skipper of a wooden longliner dropped off his crew for some well-earned rest at a North Carolina port one early February day. Looking at a 30-hour steam to his northeast Florida home port to offload his catch, the skipper hired a new crewman to help man the helm and stand watch.

But when the new-hire didn't show up, the skipper set out alone to get fuel at another North Carolina port. He planned to recruit another deckhand there.

Around noon the following day, the longliner was about 30 miles north of its fueling destination when the skipper noticed smoke seeping from the engine room doors. Seeking the fire's source, he noticed a glow emanating from the compressor that cooled a large walk-in freezer.

He discharged all four of the boat's fire extinguishers into the engine room to no avail. He then secured the engine room doors and stuffed sleeping bags into the ventilation ports in an effort to snuff out any sources of oxygen.

From the wheelhouse, he secured all power ventilation and shut down the vessel's generator and main engine.

Knowing he'd eventually lose backup power to his navigation equipment, he wrote down his current location.

Fearing the worst, the skipper launched the life raft. He tied off the sea painter to an aft cleat and headed to the wheelhouse where the crew's immersion suits were stored.

As he began donning a suit, he realized the one he'd grabbed didn't fit. He stuffed his valuables, flares and a PFD into the empty survival suit bag, which he threw into the life raft before returning to the wheelhouse for another suit.

When he got there, an explosion rocked the vessel. As he transmitted a mayday call to the Coast Guard, a larger explosion knocked the skipper down and caused significant structural damage to the boat.

Grabbing the EPIRB, he headed toward the life raft. Flames blocked his path and time was running out, so the skipper jumped into the water without a survival suit and swam to the vessel's stern.

As he pulled himself into the raft, heat from the blaze caused an inflation chamber to burst. With no tools to cut the sea painter, the skipper was forced to wait until the flames burned through the line before he could paddle the raft far enough away to light a parachute flare.

Soon a nearby recreational boater recovered the skipper, who was transferred to a Coast Guard response boat. Once ashore, he was treated for minor burns.

Lessons learned
The fire's cause was undetermined, but the skipper later told the Coast Guard that dirty machinery wipes and a few gallons of paint were stored in the space where the fire started and that the engine room's aging electrical system needed repair.

Although the boat was lost, the experienced skipper's foresight, timely mayday call and decision to launch the life raft before the fire raged out of control vastly improved his odds of survival and rescue.

Never store plastic oil drums or rubbish at the bottom of ladder wells; they're a fire and tripping hazard. Wipe up oil and solvent spills to help prevent slipping accidents and eliminate potential fuel for a fire.

Keep electrical equipment in working condition and fix problems immediately. Label all crew members' survival suit bags with their names and/or suit sizes.

Have everyone onboard learn the exact contents of onboard kits that many life rafts contain. Prepare an additional emergency survival tool kit and make it readily accessible. Fish safe!

This article is based on U.S. Coast Guard reporting and is intended to bring safety issues to the attention of our readers. It is not intended to judge or reach conclusions regarding the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any boat or piece of equipment.

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