Guest Commentary: Lessons from the Blue Chip fire

Charlie Gentry, JN

Fire on board a boat is every mariner’s nightmare. Far from shore, with no fire-fighting help available, and plenty of flammable fiberglass or wood, volatile fuel, and with nowhere to run except over the side, any fire can become a disaster in a hurry.  If you have the slight doubt about whether you can contain the fire, don’t even try.

Your first concern is the safety of the people aboard. Notify someone immediately of your situation and location before the fire burns through the battery cables or forces you off the boat.

Charlie and Marji Gentry on their boat.

Burning fiberglass is extremely hot and gives off noxious fumes. If fiberglass is burning. Get off immediately.

These words were written in 2010 when I was the Safety Officer of Marco Island Sail & Power Squadron.  After 45 years of boating and many thousands of cruising miles, this was my first experience with fire.  I tried to do the simple things learned from squadron education and hoped for the best.

We were six hours into a seven-hour delivery cruise from a boat yard on the Manatee River when suddenly, there was heavy smoke coming from the enclosed engine room and rolling into the forward cabin and bridge deck. The engine RPM dropped from cruising to a fast idle. I immediately put the engine in neutral and turned it off. I was concerned that the fiberglass might catch on fire and we would have to leave the boat and jump into the Gulf. My wife, Marji, dove into the smoke-filled cabin and grabbed our Class 1 Life Preservers.  We were offshore about two to three miles (for a couple in their late 80s, it might as well have been 200 miles).  There was sufficient smoke on the ‘bridge deck’ to give me concern about exposure, but I did manage to shut off the master electrical switches after making an emergency radio (VHF) call for help. Fortunately, a fisherman heard our distress call and arrived in about 20 minutes.  There was still smoke, but it seemed to be less than before.

I had no idea what happened in the engine room. Even though the engine has an overtempt and low water alarm, nothing had been triggered. I thought the halon engine room extinguisher might have functioned, but there was no way I was going to lift any hatches for at least 45 minutes.  It never occurred to me that the extinguisher had already discharged, the engine digested the halon gas, and that was the reason the RPM fell off. The Coast Guard from Fort Myers Beach arrived in about an hour, followed by Boat U.S. Tow out of Marco. It was about a 3-hour tow back to Rose Marina; arrival was well after dark.

Blue Chip was trucked back to the boat yard on the Manatee River for repair. I was told the ‘casting plug’ (freeze plug) had fallen out of the bottom of the exhaust manifold dumping the fresh water coolant.  The 900-degree exhaust gasses started the manifold paint on fire along with any surrounding combustible material.  The whole event happened so fast that the alarms didn’t have time to function.  We were lucky!  The fire had already burned away a small portion of the bridge deck insulation exposing the fiberglass and teak deck material.

The Yanmar diesel had to be removed from the boat, taken completely apart to clean the residue from the ingested halon, reassembled with a new exhaust manifold, turbo system, and after-cooler and finally put back into the boat.  The engine itself was never overheated and even the cylinder sleeves were in perfect shape.

There are many procedures connected with boating that one can and should practice. You can’t practice a real fire.  United States Power Squadrons education courses are the best way I know to help you make the right decision when faced with a dangerous boating situation.