National Fisherman

Measured response

From U.S. Coast Guard reports

One sunny, midsummer's morning, a 44-foot, Dixon-built lobster boat was steaming approximately 6 miles off the Maine coast. The skipper, who was working alone, had just set several strings of gear. As he pointed the bow south to check his remaining pots, he smelled fresh diesel fumes. He instantly backed off the throttle, quickly scanned the horizon for other boat traffic, then went below to investigate the odor's source.

When he opened the engine hatch he saw a fuel line spraying diesel onto the engine. The skipper immediately realized the fire hazard and secured the rumbling engine. To get a closer look at the fuel line and determine how much diesel was in the bilge, he opened an aft deck hatch. Thick, black smoke billowed from the compartment. Fearing the worst, the skipper dropped the hatch and headed to the fo'c'sle to get his survival suit. While passing back through the wheelhouse, he radioed a mayday call to the Coast Guard along with his position.

The skipper decided to don his survival suit before attempting to extinguish the fire. By the time he donned his suit, the flames had spread forward and were engulfing the wheelhouse.
Now, unable to reach any of the portable fire extinguishers mounted in and around the helm, the skipper realized he had no means of fighting the fire and abandoned ship. He quickly swam away from the boat, fearing it could explode. Within minutes, the fire's flames had spread high enough to reach a propane tank on the deck house that fueled the galley stove. The explosion tore apart most of the cabin roof and sent shockwaves across the water.

The smoke and the sound of the explosion attracted a recreational boater to the scene to investigate. As the good Samaritans neared the burning lobster boat they saw a man in the water signaling for help. The boat quickly pulled alongside to pull the lobsterman from the water. A secondary explosion rocked the burning boat, tearing apart the wheelhouse and sending the mast crashing onto the deck.
The skipper was transferred to a Marine Patrol boat, which transported him to a waiting ambulance. The skipper was treated at a local clinic and released with only minor bumps and bruises. In the meantime the lobster boat burned to the waterline and sank.

Lessons learned
Fire is one of the greatest dangers fishermen can face, especially on smaller boats. Most factors that lead to onboard fires can be eliminated by implementing best practices, but it is still important to train your crew so everyone knows how to handle emergency situations.

A Coast Guard investigation determined the fire on the lobster boat ignited when fuel from a broken line came in contact with the engine's exhaust manifold. Although the skipper followed critical steps to ensure his safety, additional measures could have reduced the damage.

Store bottled gas or propane for cooking in a well-ventilated area or out on deck. Wherever the tanks are installed they should be secured to prevent movement when the vessel is underway. Galley stove controls should be turned off when gas appliances are not in use. The tank's fuel lines should have an accessible shut-off valve at the tank, and the crew should know how to isolate a gas leak.

Immersion/survival suits greatly increase the chances of survival in an abandon-ship situation. In this case it may have been easier for the skipper to grab an extinguisher and combat the fire before donning his survival suit. Although survival suits are theoretically designed to permit functions such as operating a portable pump or using a radio, they can be extremely awkward to work in. Incorporating specific types of safety gear into onboard drills that address real-life scenarios can help everyone onboard understand the gear's limitations and 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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