The year was 1975, the ship, and Israeli Navy 65- foot Swift boat, patrolling Haifa Bay in northern Israel. Time: early afternoon hours. Sea conditions: moderate, with good visibility. We'd departed our base in Haifa an hour earlier, en route to our patrol area off Ras Nakkura.
I was chatting to a couple of shipmates in the mess, preparing to go on duty. With a crew of eight, watches were an on-off affair, with everyone alternating between a trick at the helm, as lookout, then radar observer. Being the chief, however, I headed to the engine room for a quick check before reporting to my station on the flybridge.
I expected to head into the engine room, make sure all was well, and go topsides. Our "Dabur" (Hornet) patrol boat, called simply by her pennant number, 861, was built in the U.S. a few years earlier. One of the few changes incorporated into the newer boats was an armored glass window set into the aluminum watertight door connecting the midships accommodations space and the engine room. That window probably saved my life and the vessel that day.
As soon as I neared the engine room I could see fire through the window. Touching the door revealed that it wasn't hot, but nothing could be seen inside the engine space except a wall of flames. As the engine room takes up nearly half the interior of the gunboat, enough to house twin 12V-71 Detroit Diesels and generator, as well as other systems. So this fire was no small matter, and I turned and raced upstairs to the flybridge.
There was still no alarm, and the engines were running smoothly. The crew on watch stopped talking when they saw my expression, as I quickly pulled both throttles to neutral, saying curtly to the skipper, "We have an engine room fire, and it's a big one."
He looked at me. "Do we need help?"
I didn't know.
As it was the change of watch, all crew was soon in the wheelhouse or flybridge. There was no need to sound the alarm or tell anyone what was going on.
I turned off the engine room blowers, pulled the toggles to cut off the air supply to the main engines, tore off the plastic safety cover and yanked the handle of the remote actuator for the gunboat's fixed fire supression system, doing everything by the book.
Or did I? No! "Close the dumpers!" I shouted, although the skipper and one of the gunners were already busy securing them. Bending down to close the emergency fuel cocks, I touched the deck; it was warm but not yet hot.
Having lost way, the boat swung into the trough of the sea and started rolling heavily. The skipper was on the radio to the base, while the bosun had the crew prepare the dinghy (a Zodiac Mk. 3) for launching, as well as clear away the liferaft lashings (the raft was a cork float, securely lashed behind the bridge). Someone prepared our portable fire pump, throwing the suction hose overboard, while the rest moved our large supply of ammunition forward out of harm's way...for now at least. We were a seasoned crew, and there was no panic.
Going back to the engine room to take a look, the window was now covered with black soot and nothing could be seen through it. But the aluminum door was still not warm.
When I reported back to the bridge, the skipper asked if he should call for a tow. Would I please take a look inside to see if we might restart engines?
I replied, thinking aloud, "Can't restart without turning the blowers on again, and even if the fire is out, we might cause it to re-flash." "But the generator is still running!" someone mentioned.
It was true. I suddenly realized the AC lighting was flickering, but still on, and the coffee was still brewing on the electric stove below. Somehow the generator was still sucking enough fuel and air to keep running at low speed. I decided to go and have a look inside the engine room.
Not wanting to open the access door in the accommodation space, I gingerly opened the deck hatch, which, like the rest of the boat, is solid aluminum. Thick acrid smoke billowed out of the opened hatch, and I saw tiny flames dancing atop the port engine turbocharger. But the huge fireball had gone.
Donning a self-contained breathing apparatus, I climbed down the vertical ladder into the smoke-filled space, and someone handed me a dry-powder fire extinguisher from above. After dowsing the little flames around the turbo as well as the main battery bank, my thorough inspection revealed no more fire and surprisingly little damage.
The generator continued to run. The turbocharger casing was a mass of glowing molten metal, but spraying it with powder soon cooled it down. I popped my head back on deck and instructed the crew to re-open the dampers and start the ER blowers.
Within seconds, the engine room cleared of smoke and the generator raced back to normal speed, the fluorescent lights back on. While the port side engine was clearly out of commission, I opened the damper on the starboard engine air intake and pressed the starter. The engine started right away.
Looking at my watch, I realized the whole incident took less than 15 minutes. I also realized I was still wearing the breathing apparatus in the now brightly lit engine room.
We returned to base on one engine. The port engine was lifted out and replaced the following morning. The battery-casing lid was also replaced. An advantage of being in the navy is that there were no yard repair bills!
That evening we returned to patrol, and in the days that followed, the base fire safety team conducted a thorough investigation of the incident. They concluded the fire started at the turbocharger when a hose clamp failed, reaching a very high temperature in seconds. Molten metal and burning rubber dropped onto the main battery bank, setting the fiberglass lid on fire, which was the cause of the thick, acrid smoke. But why was the entire engine room enveloped in fire, yet no other damage despite those massive flames?
The answer was simple. Like everyone else in our flotilla, my assistant engineer and I routinely used diesel fuel to clean the engine room, the bilge and hull plating, the engines themselves, and most other metal surfaces to achieve a shiny finish much admired by visitors. It had been this oily residue that flashed into flames. Once extinguished, there were no signs of damage, much like a rag soaked in alcohol burning brightly, for an instant, without charring the cloth. Orders were promptly issued to clean engine rooms with water and soap from now on.
Many years and many ships later, what did that fire teach me?
Fire alarm. Despite our alarm system, there was no warning of a fire below decks. Our sensor was defective. Had I opened the door while the whole space was engulfed in flames, I would probably not be here to tell the tale, and the fire would have quickly spread into the accommodation space, perhaps as an uncontrollable blaze.
One stop response. Many experts advocate an automated system that will shut down the ventilation, fuel supply, and engines before releasing the fire-suppressing agent into the engine room. While this may reduce the need to think under pressure, such a system is complex and will not function properly without scrupulous maintenance and inspection.
Regular drills and an intimate familiarity with the systems might, or might not, work better for you. Evaluate your crew and yourself to decide which way to proceed. If you go with automation, maintain it religiously. Make sure you understand exactly what sequence of events unfolds when you pull the lever, and what to do if it doesn't work as advertised.
After the fire is out. At home we call the fire fighters and expect them to tell us when we can safely return to the house after a fire. At sea, we have to make that decision ourselves. My decision to re-start the ventilation blowers and the starboard engine was almost certainly too hasty. It would have been safer to call for a tow back to base, and let things settle (and cool) down before attempting to operate any machinery inside the engine room.
A self-contained breathing apparatus is essential if you need to go below in such conditions. However, one must be trained in its use. Everyone else should stay on deck, upwind of the smoke.
How does this gunboat story apply to trawlers? The Swift boat is strikingly similar to a motoryacht in her machinery and layout. However, unlike the average cruiser, there are eight highly trained, able-bodied crewmembers on board. All fuel tanks are located outside the engine room, removing the immediate risk of a massive liquid fire.
The Swift is solidly built in aluminum. If your boat is built of a combustible material, such as wood or fiberglass, with fuel tanks inside the engine room, the risks are increased. No doubt your interior bulkheads are not fireproof, nor are the hull and deck.
Your firefighting gear is probably less extensive than on a military craft, so in case of a serious fire, it may not be possible to bring it under control, regardless of your efforts. If you decide to give it a try, check the area around the fire for rising temperatures on bulkheads, doors and hatches. Try to stay ahead of events-drills help a great deal.
Prepare to abandon ship. Launch liferafts or dinghies, advise the Coast Guard of your situation, and contact boats nearby by VHF or flares. Ask them to stand by. You can always issue the all clear later.
On the positive side, however, you're not likely carrying large quantities of ammunition on deck!