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Story by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tales

                  

FIRE AT SEA
1986 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved

 

I would never call an offshore passage routine. But after a dozen Florida-to-St. Thomas yacht deliveries, this one seemed, well, typical. Having made our easting from the Bahamas, we had already turned south onto "I-65", the well traveled sixty-fifth meridian down which sailboats glide across the trade winds on the home stretch to the Virgin Islands.

The wind was just abaft the beam and the 60-foot schooner, Paradigm, flew southward under sail with a bone in her teeth. Before this particular night (for I have changed my ways since), I had not been in the habit of monitoring VHF channel 16 while offshore. Too much radio chatter in the populated places has given me an aversion to the little box. But tonight, with the Islands hardly more than 100 nautical miles ahead, I casually switched it on and, by picking up the powerful signal of V.I. Radio's marine operator, confirmed that there was still life on the planet outside our tiny, pitching island.

It was my watch. I had little to do besides keep a lookout for ships. The autopilot was steering, the satnav was navigating, and the mainsail was reefed for the night. Well, I thought, let's plot the satnav coordinates onto the chart, and I ducked below. My first mate, Tara, was curled up with a book on the settee. The third crewmember, Dave Krause, was asleep in his quarters. I slid into the nav station and made the following entry in the log: "December 23, 1930 hrs. - Course: 160 compass. Sailing 8+ knots. Wind E X NE 20-25 knots. Mostly overcast. Baro. steady. Seas 8-10 feet. Satnav fix: 1947' N.Lat X 6459' W.Long."

I was plotting the fix onto the chart when a man's voice came over the VHF. The voice was calm, and occupied as I was, I hardly paid any attention to it. A moment later, a peculiar delayed reaction occurred; Tara and I looked at each other and spoke simultaneously, "Hey, didn't he just say..."

We were interrupted by the same laconic voice on the VHF: "This is a MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY. Our position is" - I was poised with pencil in hand - "nineteen degrees twenty-five minutes north, sixty-four degrees fifty nine minutes west. This is a MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY."

Quickly I scribbled the coordinates down in the margin of the chart before me. Then I responded, "Calling the vessel in distress, this is the sailing vessel Paradigm. We are (I made the simple calculation as I spoke) 22 miles due north of your position. What is the nature of your problem?" Already I was thinking the voice probably came from a sportfisherman out of St. Thomas who, perhaps, was having engine trouble.

The reply instantly dispelled that notion and, though it answered my question, left me wondering whether he had heard my transmission: "This is a MAYDAY..." He repeated his position. "We have a serious fire aboard ship. MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY!" Then there was silence.

I called back, saying that we were heading for the ship and should arrive within 3 hours. Then I asked if the crew would be able to stay with their boat. No reply. I called again and again. No answer. Only the hiss and crackle of the mute radio. Someone was really in trouble out there!

We shook out the reefs and, under full sail, Paradigm really came alive in the strong breeze, registering over 10 knots as she surged forward on the ocean swell, eating up the miles on a southerly heading. We were at least 100 miles from the U.S. Coast Guard base in San Juan, Puerto Rico, way beyond the range of our VHF radio. So I tried to raise them on the long-range single-sideband radio. I called repeatedly but got no response. Finally, Coast Guard Cape Hatteras answered me! The SSB was "skipping" the much closer San Juan base.

I explained the situation, carefully repeating the positions. They contacted Coast Guard San Juan. Meanwhile, although we kept calling on VHF channel 16, there was no further transmission from the vessel in distress.

Later we established SSB radio contact with the Coast Guard cutter Vigorous out of San Juan, which had been contacted by Coast Guard Cape Hatteras and was heading toward the position of the distressed vessel. However, we were obviously going to get there hours ahead of the cutter.

At 2145 hrs. we were nearly at the position the vessel in distress had given us, but the horizon revealed nothing except dark, white-capped ocean meeting low, scudding clouds. All eyes and ears strained for a sign. We began to wonder if we had arrived too late.

Suddenly it was there, then gone, then there again - a faint glimmer of light way off to starboard. A ship's steaming light, perhaps? Try to catch it in the binoculars. There again, bearing 240. Not a light but...definitely, it's a flame! Miles to leeward, playing hide and seek in the building seas. Fire!

Helm down! Ease the sheets! Get a preventer on that boom! Wing out the genoa! Soon we were running free and closing fast. In 20 minutes the burning ship was close by in plain view, and it was obvious that there could be no one alive aboard. Again came that terrible feeling that we had arrived too late. She was a trawler, at least 100 feet long, completely engulfed in flames. Even as we watched, a drum of fuel oil exploded, sending fire and smoke high into the black night, the whole conflagration being fanned by the wind, which was now pushing force 7.

Then Dave spotted the first of four red rocket flares a half-mile south and to leeward. Tara swept the sea with the searchlight as we sailed until we found the source. Helm up, jib backed, main sheeted home, we hove-to within hailing distance. What we saw in the focused beam of the spotlight was five husky men, sparsely dressed, crowded into a 16-foot open lapstrake dory, which was bobbing haphazardly in the heaving sea. They were waving and yelling while the dory, propelled by a single paddle, slowly approached our lee. Another explosion aboard the fishing boat lit up the sky, lending an eerie brightness to the scene.

One by one we dragged the men aboard Paradigm. Because of the rough seas, the dory was cast adrift. Soon I had the Coast Guard on the radio, updating them on the rescue. We settled our guests aboard as comfortably as we could. Gradually, as we passed around blankets and fresh coffee, they told us what had happened.

The 108-foot commercial fishing vessel Garland, hailing from Shelburne, Nova Scotia, was en route to the Pacific Northwest by way of the Virgin Islands and the Panama Canal. A little before 1950 hrs. that evening most of her delivery crew were asleep, resting up for their night watches.

Captain John Floccher was on the bridge when he first noticed smoke coming from the instrument panel. He immediately investigated and found wires burning behind bulkheads and inside conduits. Fire extinguishers proved ineffective as the electrical fire spread with alarming speed to other parts of the ship.

It soon became evident that the crew couldn't contain the fire, and the order was given to abandon ship. The captain charged back into the now-burning pilothouse and got off that one call for help on the VHF radio. He though he heard a reply, but it was too faint to make out. Flames leaped around him and he just barely escaped.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Garland was on deck inflating and launching two life rafts. The strong wind, the darkness, the confusion and anxiety all conspired now to thwart their effort to flee. Both life rafts managed to break loose and blow away before the crew could board them. There was a muffled explosion belowdecks, and the fire seemed to double its intensity. Captain Floccher made it to the deck just in time to order their last hope, an old wooden rowboat, launched. The five men crowded into the skiff, losing one of the oars overboard, and quickly pulled away from their burning ship.

Once they reached a safe distance, they stopped. Only then could they take stock of their situation. Most of the men, aroused from their bunks, were dressed only in shorts. Any emergency provisions were lost with the life rafts. They were five men in an open boat, hundreds of miles to windward of the Bahamas, with no sail, no food, no fresh water, and no shelter. The overloaded skiff was already taking on water in the rough seas. On the plus side, they did have a flare gun and five rocket flares, which Captain Floccher had grabbed as he fled the pilothouse. And there was the possibility, the hope that someone had heard his MAYDAY call. But another vessel would have had to be within 30 miles to have heard his VHF signal, maybe closer to have understood the message. It didn't look good at all.

The next few hours were a time of quiet reflection for the men. There was nowhere for them to go. They watched their ship burn; they bailed; they waited. They didn't talk much.

And then they sighted Paradigm's masthead light. They fired the flares and were found. Later, aboard Paradigm, Captain Floccher made me a gift of his last possession - the flare pistol with its one remaining cartridge. I still have that gun.

When we finally bedded down, one of the crewmen noticed it was midnight, "Christmas Eve Day," he announced. "What greater gift could we ask? We're alive!" To which each of us whispered a sincere, "Amen."

Looking back at the drama of the rescue, I think luck played the greatest role. Thanks to an annoying delay earlier in our passage, we were at the right place at the right time, within the very short range of Garland's VHF radio. Our radio just happened to be switched on, monitoring channel 16, for the fist time in a week or two. And someone just happened to be sitting next to it within earshot when Captain Floccher made his one, brief call for assistance. That's a lot of coincidences, all necessary.

Now I always monitor channel 16 offshore. Out there it's pretty quiet; it draws very little current, and it's a small service that I think we mariners owe to each other.

In the excitement, I made a navigational error by not figuring on Garland's leeward drift during the 2+ hours it took us to reach her. She was set westward not only by the strong wind and sea, but also by a 1-knot westerly current shown on the pilot chart. My omission resulted in a near miss when we arrived at her reported position only to find the boat several miles to leeward.

Garland's captain conducted himself courageously in the crises. The most valuable thing he did was to broadcast his MAYDAY despite the personal risk of being burned - and he kept on repeating his position. This one act probably saved the lives of his crew and himself. He also had the presence of mind to grab the flare gun when he left the pilot house, without which we might not have found them adrift in the dory that night.

On the negative side is the state in which we found the men. They had lost two perfectly good life rafts. Apparently the crew was not familiar enough with the launching procedure. When they finally escaped into the dory, they had no food or water, no survival gear, no clothing or shelter. Had they not been rescued they would probably have perished from thirst and exposure. Or their dory could easily have swamped. No one was wearing a life jacket.

On any vessel heading out to sea, the skipper should see to it that every crewmember knows exactly how to inflate and launch the raft. He or she should explain the evacuation routine to be followed and assign duties. There should be a complete survival kit packed and ready to go instantly. Also, there should be a back-up to the life raft, such as an unsinkable dinghy or a partially inflated rubber tender (with air pump) on deck. The captain should order life jackets put on at the first sign of an emergency.

Disaster can strike suddenly offshore. Mariners must be prepared to survive any eventuality - without assistance. Preparation ahead of time and, above all, a calm and deliberate attitude in crisis may well make the difference between life and death at sea.

~ End ~

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