National Fisherman

Smoke on the water

From U.S. Coast Guard reports

On a beautiful January day in south Texas, a 68-foot wooden shrimper was tied up for off-loading. The skipper had been a shrimper for more than 37 years and on this boat for more than four. The husband-and-wife crew were also experienced shrimpers. He served as the rigger, and she was the header/chef.

The skipper took advantage of the time alongside to replace an old high-pressure fuel line. That afternoon, the crew checked the boat's engineering and safety equipment and shoved off.

At approximately 10 p.m. on the third day of the trip, the skipper noticed an odor like bu rned rubber. He checked all his instruments and gauges in the pilothouse for discrepancies, and noted none. He put the boat in idle and went aft to check the engine compartment.

He manually checked all his mechanical equipment and then made a quick round of the entire vessel. He did not detect anything out of the ordinary.

A few hours later, the skipper turned the helm watch over to his rigman. He explained about the odor and instructed the rigman to be extra vigilant and to wake him at 4:30 a.m.

A few hours later, the rigman advised that he had not noted anything unusual. The skipper once again took the watch, and the crew went aft to head shrimp. The skipper took the time between hauls to switch fuel tanks.

At around 10:30 that morning, the rigman came from the shower area describing black smoke coming out of the engine compartment. He and the skipper ran aft and opened the compartment hatch, but the smoke was so thick they couldn't see anything.

The skipper grabbed an extinguisher and discharged it into the compartment. The extinguisher had no effect, and the skipper realized the situation was out of control. He shut the compartment hatch, made his way forward to the wheelhouse and shut down the engine.

At 10:45 a.m., the skipper made a mayday call and activated the vessel's EPIRB. Then he and the crew donned life jackets. The skipper then dropped the bow anchor to stabilize the vessel's location.

Fifteen minutes later, a Coast Guard helicopter and a small coastal tanker that had heard the mayday call arrived on the scene. The tanker moved upwind, and by 11:15 had launched its rescue boat.

The rescue boat came alongside and took off the shrimp boat's cook, but as they repositioned to get the skipper and rigman, they heard an explosion from the engine compartment. The rescue boat immediately backed away to stay clear of the force of further explosions.

Thankfully, the weather wasn't all that rough with winds out of the southwest at 15 knots, seas running 2 to 4 feet and an air temperature of about 60. The tanker's rescue crew yelled for the skipper and rigman to jump for it and swim over to the rescue boat. The skipper and rigman were pulled out of the water and into the rescue boat.

As the rescue boat began to turn to head back to the tanker, the shrimp boat was listing to starboard and then rolled over. The three survivors were taken back to the tanker and soon transferred to a Coast Guard utility boat.

The Coast Guard took the crew back to the Coast Guard station. None of the survivors sustained injuries or suffered any ill effects from the incident. The cause of the fire was never determined. The boat was a total loss.

Lessons learned

Training and awareness are the best means of preventing or fighting a fire on board a vessel. Smoke has always been a killer in fires, not just flames.

The skipper of this fishing vessel had it right - he didn't panic. Before leaving port, he checked all his safety gear and confirmed the crew knew how to use it.

When he saw the smoke, he took immediate action. His 37 years of working on the water and understanding of what had to be done paid dividends in a tough situation. In this case the skipper's action allowed his crew to live and to fish another day. When they do, you can bet they'll fish safe!

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