As the skipper of a Downeast Maine 42-foot stern trawler drove to pick up his crewman and his young son, he looked down at his watch. It was 4:30 a.m. They stopped in town to buy a few sundries, then headed to the dock where they got underway around 6:30 a.m.

The purpose of the trip was threefold: Do a shakedown run to see how the trawler’s transmission held up (it had broken down a few days prior); bring in a small load of quahogs to fill an order; and allow the crewman’s son to observe the operation firsthand.

Just prior to 9:30 a.m., after completing their fourth tow of the day about 12 miles offshore and getting ready for the next, they lost hydraulics on the drag. It started to free-fall and pay out on its own. The brake for the drag was located aft near the starboard hatch, atop the engine compartment. The skipper left the helm and headed aft to set the brake and stop it from falling.

As the skipper headed back to the wheelhouse, the two 3' x 3' engine compartment hatch covers exploded up off the deck. The starboard cover delivered a glancing blow to the skipper, who fell down through the starboard hatch opening and into the engine compartment, which was engulfed in flames. The crewman bounded forward and managed to pull the skipper out of the compartment.

The crewman hurried below to get his son, who had fallen asleep in the forward berth. He quickly escorted him out through the flames and as far aft as possible. The skipper shut off the main engine attempted a mayday call. However, the heat from the flames had already compromised the radio, preventing transmission. The skipper retrieved the four-person raft from the top of the wheelhouse and deployed it.

As the flames penetrated the deck and the overhead of the wheelhouse, all three entered the raft and paddled away from the trawler. Looking back at the boat, they saw the flames envelop the wheelhouse and a plume of white and black smoke billowing skyward. Luckily, the crewman had retrieved his cell phone before abandoning ship. He was able to call for help.

At 11 a.m., the state police notified the Coast Guard of a possible boat on fire just off the coast. However, the exact position was unknown. The Coast Guard dispatched two small boats, a fixed-wing aircraft and a helicopter. An hour later, authorities were able to triangulate a position.

By 12:45 p.m., one of the Coast Guard boats arrived at the scene of the burning trawler and soon located the raft that had drifted about a mile and a half downwind of the trawler. The Coast Guard crew rescued the three survivors.

The skipper was taken to a hospital, treated for some burns and bruises, and was released. The crewman and his son escaped injury.

The trawler burned down to the waterline, met its end and sank.

Lessons learned

The trawler did not have, nor was it required to have, heat detectors or a fixed fire suppression system installed. Under normal operating conditions, the temperature in the engine compartment was so hot that the ladder well at the compartment’s entrance was too hot to touch. The trawler was built 10 years prior to the incident. The investigation could not conclude, by maintenance records or the recollection of the owner, whether the hydraulic system had its original hydraulic fittings, or renewed or replaced hoses. According to a diagram of the engine compartment, the hydraulic lines and hydraulic tank were in close proximity to the main diesel’s turbocharger.

Accounting for the progression of events, as described by the crew, and the physical layout of the equipment in the engine compartment, it is possible that the failure of the hydraulically operated fishing gear was caused by a loss of hydraulic pressure. The loss of pressure could be attributed to the failure of a hose or fitting. Atomized hydraulic fluid escaping a failed hose or fitting would have sprayed onto hot machinery causing an explosion and fire. The trawler’s diesel fuel supply would have fed the fire.

Hydraulic systems need periodic (sometimes daily) maintenance, and the crew should know how to operate hydraulic equipment safely before using it. They should also be familiar with oil cut-off valves to control leaks. Hydraulic oil systems are subject to very high pressures, and leaks can be very dangerous.

This incident, once again, illustrates how a short excursion can take a sudden turn to a life-threatening event. The best way for a crew to help stack the odds in their own favor is through preparation. Have a routine maintenance schedule for all equipment and systems aboard, ensure you and your crew know how to operate equipment, and hold drills routinely.

Planning and preparation may prevent accidents and helps you 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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