Inferno at Sea - PassageMaker

Inferno at Sea

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A bad fire on a boat is a deathtrap. We check out a roaring-hot new program that helps land-based firefighters deal with dockside conflagrations.

A once proud yacht goes up in flames. Photo: USCG/Jpetty Officer 3rd Class Sherman Baldwin

A once proud yacht goes up in flames. Photo: USCG/Jpetty Officer 3rd Class Sherman Baldwin

For a middle-ager, I figure I’m in pretty good shape. I don’t smoke or drink and, whenever the mood strikes, I can jog two or three miles at the drop of a running shoe. But hey, an adventure I had at the Resolve Maritime Academy (www.resolvemarine.com) in Port Everglades, Florida—home of the 140-foot training vessel (and raging-inferno-onboard simulator) T/V Gray Manatee—caused me to recently reevaluate my thinking on the physical fitness front. And it also caused me to develop a deep and, I trust, abiding conviction: If a bad fire breaks out on my boat and there’s a reasonable means of escape—me and the crew are freakin’ gone!

Yeah, okay. Maybe this seems extreme. Maybe one’s responses to a fire onboard should be more nuanced. But still, after suiting up in basic firefighting gear (heavy, steel-reinforced boots, insulated coat, insulated pants, thick, knitted balaclava, backpack-type, tank-fed breathing apparatus with facemask, helmet, and fire-resistant gloves) and then following 15 young professional firefighters into a blacked-out, red-hot, fume-choked, flame-licked Gray Manatee as part of a training exercise for handling yacht fires, I gotta wonder.

“You alright, Bill?” asked Alan Pelstring, the guy at Resolve who’d been assigned to see me safely through the extravaganza. “Drink this—Gatorade. You gotta rehydrate, man.”

At the start of the exercise a firefighter from West Palm Beach exhibits a superb level of physical fitness by lugging about 100 pounds of breathing apparatus (left) while the rest of his colleagues prepare for a yacht-fire simulation exercise inside the T/V Gray Manatee.

At the start of the exercise a firefighter from West Palm Beach exhibits a superb level of physical fitness by lugging about 100 pounds of breathing apparatus (left) while the rest of his colleagues prepare for a yacht-fire simulation exercise inside the T/V Gray Manatee.

I needed to do something about my equilibrium as well. I was dizzy, queasy. And from what my firefighting buddies were telling me, I was lookin’ a little pale. The giant, wood-burning, smoke-generating furnace at the Gray Manatee’s stern had done its job with gusto. My time inside had been disorienting, torrid in the extreme (with temperatures hitting upwards of 1,000°F near the furnace), and in the end, what with endlessly stumbling up ladders and through watertight doors in total darkness, enervating.

“Jeeesh,” I observed, “I’m done.”

Of course, fires onboard yachts are not overly common. Indeed, Carl Lessard, who heads up the Yacht Loss Prevention Program for the Private Client Group of AIG (www.aig.com), one of the world’s largest underwriters of yachts, readily admits that fire is the least frequent marine casualty his company deals with. “But,” he added while watching me slurp Gatorade, “fire is easily the most serious casualty in terms of loss.”

After the exercise begins there’s a little light (left) and the smoke and heat don’t arrive immediately

La Diva burning dockside in 2010.

La Diva burning dockside in 2010.

This last point used to keep Lessard up at night, of course. But last year, he had an idea. In the midst of one of Resolve’s Advanced Firefighting classes he was taking to maintain his skipper’s license, it occurred to him there might be a way to reduce the seriousness of shipboard fires and thereby reduce losses of lives and property.

The idea was simple. It was Lessard’s experience that truly catastrophic yacht fires often occur in boat basins, marinas, and shipyards—one vessel catches fire and, if the flames are not contained, others follow suit with horrific results. Moreover, it was also his experience that shore-based firefighters are the ones who typically handle these conflagrations, oftentimes with little or no knowledge of yachts, their crewing regimes, layouts, and systems. What if some of these folks from a yachty part of the country were to attend a multiday program at Resolve, spending half their time in a classroom learning about yacht fires and the other half actually fighting them in a simulator? And then afterwards, what if they all toured a few yachts with crewmembers available for questioning?

Two firefighters (Brandon Bartlett, left, and Gary Dolins) take a breather post exercise.

Two firefighters (Brandon Bartlett, left, and Gary Dolins) take a breather post exercise.

“So here’s the result,” said Lessard with a grin, nodding towards a bunch of red-faced young men jostling past to remove their helmets and masks, peel off their coats, and chug Gatorade. Like an infantry platoon, they were a society unto themselves. All from the city fire department of West Palm Beach, a decidedly yachty part of the country. These men are brash, edgy, radically irreverent, yet professional and deadly serious. As they finished removing and stowing their gear, they began boarding a bus headed north to West Palm Beach and a series of yacht tours at the Rybovich Yacht Yard, AIG’s partner in Lessard’s program along with Resolve.

During a briefing session at the end of the afternoon, I fell to talking

informally with some of the firefighters. One or two were familiar with the 104-foot, all-fiberglass La Diva (formerly Ivana Trump’s Ivana) that burned at Rybovich in 2010. At one point, a guy mentioned the
yacht’s resin-based composition and resin’s tendency, when super-heated, to turn into a highly toxic, fiercely combustible, petroleum-derived fuel. He also mentioned how a wall of heat he’d encountered had actually melted and deformed the facemask of his breathing apparatus.

The author adjusts his breathing apparatus

The author adjusts his breathing apparatus

“So do you think it’s too extreme then—abandoning ship if there’s a bad fire and neither the fire-suppression system or extinguishers have put it out?” I asked, still wondering perhaps whether my simulator-based, cut-and-run take on marine fires was a wee-bit wimpy.

“As a professional,” replied battalion chief Gary Dolins, “my first priority’s safety—saving lives. Only after everybody’s safe and accounted for does preservation of property arise, be it house, yacht, or whatever. If you’re in the middle of the Atlantic, yeah, it’s more complicated. But at the dock, remember—we’re trained firefighters, you’re not.”

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This article originally appeared in our Active Interest Media affiliate publication Power & Motoryacht and can be viewed by clicking here.

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