April 22, 2015

It’s a little after 10pm and Cindy and I are closing up shop before heading off to bed (yep, we’re party people!). I’ve already gone below and have gotten undressed for bed and Cindy is up topside letting Missy out on deck one more time so she can use her grass pad before we bring her down into our cabin for the night. Suddenly, I hear Cindy yell “oh sh*t, fire, fire!!”. Now a fire is the LAST thing you want to have on a boat. It’s way worse than a hole in the boat or losing your engines. “What?!! What?!!” I shout back, racing up the stairs in my underwear (try to get THAT visual out of your head) and trying to imagine what on our boat could have caught fire. Anything producing heat on our boat has been safely turned off for hours.

To my infinite relief, it’s not our boat.

As I hit the salon and look out the back window, I can see that a boat on the next dock over from ours is aflame. And I’m not just talking about a small fire, this thing is engulfed. The entire aft end of the boat is obscured by the flames, which are shooting up 50 to 60 feet into the air. Little of the superstructure is still visible. A thick plume of black smoke is boiling up over the flames, drifting slowly to the northwest in the faint wind. I momentarily entertain the thought of grabbing up our fire extinguishers and running over to battle the blaze but then realize the foolishness of this. The fire is way beyond anything a handheld extinguisher can handle; it would be like pissing on a bonfire. If anyone is on board it’s too late to rescue them; the boat’s topsides are fully engulfed in flames. We scramble to grab our phones and call 911 when we hear the wail of the approaching sirens.

Boat Fire 1

Boat Fire

The burning vessel appears to be a luxury yacht about 50 to 60 feet in length and it’s moored about 150 feet from us, but even at this distance Cindy and I can feel the heat radiating from the flames. There is very little on a modern boat that isn’t flammable. Fiberglass hulls, wood, mattresses, cushions, carpeting – all of this stuff burns, not to mention the fuels, oils, lubricants and propane gas canisters. The fire lights up the marina with an ironically beautiful glow.

As we watch the conflagration awestruck I find myself wondering what will happen when the flames reach the diesel fuel tanks. Diesel has a lower vapor pressure than gasoline, so there is much less of a chance of a massive explosion (it’s the mixture of fuel and air that is so dangerous) but that offers scant solace now given how close our boat is to theirs. At this point our boat is safe but I wonder what will happen if the worst case scenario happens.

The boat next to theirs, however, is not so lucky. A 160-foot megayacht is moored on the other side of the dock from the burning boat, meaning that a scant 6 feet or so separate them from the conflagration. Already flames are licking its sides and its topsides are obscured by smoke. We can see two people onboard who have retreated to the far aft end of the boat. People on the dock are yelling for them to get off the boat but the gangway and dock, engulfed in the flames, are impassible. I wonder how long it will be before they decide to jump into the water and swim over to our dock rather than risk staying onboard.

The fire trucks arrive and soon firemen are running their hose down the dock to reach the burning boat, no easy task since the dock is a couple of hundred feet long and the boat is at the far end. A large rigid inflatable police fire boat comes up the waterway at the same time, its powerful twin outboards humming, and noses itself against the stern of the megayacht. Police officials pull the two trapped people safely onboard.

Boat 2

The Flames are Fully Engaged

The boat is armed with a water cannon on the bow and the boat crew quickly aims a high pressure stream of water onto the burning boat. Soon a second stream hits the boat from the port side as the fireman on the dock crank up their hose. Even with the deluge of water pouring onto the boat, though, the flames continue to devour it seemingly unabated. We can see flames shooting out of the port side now at the aft end of the boat, near the engine room. Cindy and I both marvel at how persistent the fire is in the face of the amount of water being directed at it.

Boat Fire 3

Battling the Blaze

Slowly though the fire starts losing ground. At first, the momentum shift is noticeable only by virtue of the fact that a small portion of the front deck still seems relatively intact and is not catching fire. Then the main fire begins to die down. The battle starts seesawing back and forth, the fire dying down only to flare up again moments later. The firemen on the dock direct the stream from their hose at the flames coming out of the engine room vent that we noticed earlier. We can see that the boat is sinking deeper and deeper into the water, caused no doubt by the hundreds of gallons of water that are pouring onto it every minute.

After what seems like hours but was probably only 30 to 45 minutes, the fire loses the battle. Soon we can see the ghostly images of flashlight beams sweeping around the inside of the smoke-filled boat as firemen board her and start searching through the wreckage, no doubt raking through smoldering detritus to snuff out any hotspots. The flames are replaced by the occasional puff of smoke rising defiantly over the charred remains of what had just a couple of hours ago been a beautiful vessel. Cindy and I sit up and watch for a few more minutes but then head to bed and say a prayer for all concerned.

The next morning we walk over to our neighboring dock to inspect the damage up close. The vessel, named Journey, was said to have recently listed for $3.5 million dollars and she looks to be a total loss. Her topsides are completely gone and though the outside of her hull looks relatively undamaged, it is apparent that the fire gutted her insides. Thankfully there was no one on board and no one on the megayacht or the dock was injured. One fireman was treated at the scene for smoke inhalation.

 Boat Aftermath

The Aftermath

The megayacht, whose name had been burned off by the fire, suffered blistered and charred paint and we suspect also got significant smoke damage. She was said to be worth $16.5 million dollars. She will be moving to a boatyard soon to effect repairs.

Fire inspectors and insurance adjusters are crawling all over the scene. We speak with one gentleman who, judging by his accent, hails from either Australia or New Zealand. He is a boat surveyor for the insurance company and is interested in finding out what we saw. We relate our story to him and show him the photos we took. He asks if we would email the photos to him and hands us his business card. Later that afternoon Cindy and I watch as two boats from TowBoat US haul the burned out hulk out of her slip, its destination unknown.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.