Smoke signals

From U.S. Coast Guard reports

It was a typical midsummer morning in New England; there was a low overcast, some patchy fog, and visibility was approximately 1 mile. The longtime skipper of a 44-foot wooden lobster boat had already worked some pots by sunrise and was headed for his next string.

At around 6 a.m., the skipper heard a “muffled pop,” saw that his navigation plotter display had blacked out and noted a distinct electrical burning smell. The skipper pulled the throttle back out of gear and made his way forward to the lobster boat’s machinery space.

When he opened the door he was met by a wall of black smoke and spraying sparks; both battery boxes were aglow. The skipper grabbed an extinguisher and emptied it into the battery boxes. Then he saw that smoke and flames were coming out of the electrical panel on the bulkhead. The fire was spreading fast. With the heat and smoke intensifying, he evacuated the machinery space and headed back to the wheelhouse.

He immediately grabbed his survival suit, flares, EPIRB and his cell phone (there was no time to stop and attempt a mayday call). The smoke and flames were working their way aft and the skipper went up onto the overhead to manually launch the life raft. Black smoke was rolling out of the wheelhouse, and the skipper could hear popping and crackling sounds beneath his feet. The skipper launched the raft, jumped in and pushed himself away from the burning boat.

Once the skipper felt he was out of danger, he used his cell phone to call the local Coast Guard station. The Coast Guard dispatched a small boat and issued an urgent marine broadcast.

Another fishing boat in the area arrived on the scene at around 6:30 a.m. and took the skipper onboard.

The lobster boat was fully engulfed in flames shortly after. It took 45 minutes, using a combination of water and foam, to extinguish the fire. The fire caused extensive damage to the superstructure and breaches in the hull. The lobster boat settled quickly and sank at 8:30; it was deemed a total loss and was not salvaged.

The skipper was transported to the town pier by the Coast Guard, taken to a local hospital, treated for minor smoke inhalation and released.

Lessons learned

The most likely cause of the fire was a malfunction of a 110-volt inverter that caused a short and led to the battery cables overheating.

The lobster boat had passed a dockside examination and was issued a safety decal three months prior to the incident. The boat was in good condition and was well maintained. Electrical fires often result from worn out, poorly wired or improperly used electrical equipment.
To reduce the risk of malfunctions and fire: Don’t attempt to adjust electrical equipment unless you are trained to do so. Always use fuses or circuit breakers of the proper size and rating. Use approved marine equipment that is specially made for shipboard use. Periodically check the insulation on electrical wiring. All non-conducting metal parts of electrical equipment should be grounded. Keep electrical panels, generators, motors and other electrical equipment clean.
If you normally work singlehanded, do a quick risk assessment before leaving the dock. It can help you to stay calm 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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