Last weekend we had to flee Cornish Air, the Royal Navy’s Rustler 36 after the engine caught fire. The situation was dealt with quickly and the fire was put out before too much damage was done, but there were some very important lessons that we learned from this potentially catastrophic event.
We were due to be racing in the ASTO Small Ships Race, an event for sail training vessels with crews aged under 25. The race was taking place from Cowes and it was a 30 mile round the cans event.
As we were a relatively inexperienced crew who hadn’t sailed together before, we had a day of training in the Solent before the racing began. Early in the morning, we slipped our berth at HMS Excellent, a Royal Navy base in Portsmouth Harbour, in a steady force 4 breeze. We had checked that the seawater cooling was working the night before, but after a few minutes, the engine had overheated. The seawater cooling had broken. We turned off the engine, hoisted the sails and David, our skipper, went down below to fix it.
David could not find the cause of the broken seawater cooling, so we decided to keep on sailing and repair the engine in Cowes. We had some great practice training for the race, but then, just downstream of Cowes, the wind died completely and we were left drifting at 2 knots with the tide. As no progress was being made towards Cowes we decided to anchor and wait for a tow for the final half mile into the marina.
In Cowes, our skipper found a friend to help them resolve the engine issue. After about an hour they thought they had fixed the engine. They found that the exhaust pipe had melted, and there was plastic from it in the bilge. They knew that the engine repair was not permanent, but it would work for now. However, we quickly found out that their confidence was perhaps misplaced.
We slipped our lines early in the morning from Cowes Yacht Haven for the start of the race. After motoring for a couple of minutes the drive from the engine stopped. We looked down the companionway and saw thick black smoke seeping out from the cracks in the hatch. This smoke was much darker than it had been the day before and we instantly knew we were on fire.
Suddenly there was a frantic rush to get the fire out. Frenchy, our mate, ran down below and grabbed the fire extinguisher in the toxic smoke as someone else simultaneously snatched the handheld VHF from the chart table and sent out a Mayday to the Solent Coastguard. David, who was still helming gave orders to shut off the gas, to turn off the engine and to unfurl the genoa as we were quickly drifting into some moored yachts
Frenchy then opened the engine hatch a crack and was greeted with flames licking at the engine insulation but he hastily put out the fire with our powder extinguisher, as our engine compartment’s automatic extinguisher had failed. As the saloon was getting filled with dangerously toxic fumes, Frenchy had to get out from down below so there was no further chance to make sure that the fire was completely extinguished.
The wind was a blustery force 7 and we had a short beat up to the nearest berth in the marina. We tacked our way to the marina, but the crew were struggling to sheet the genoa in all the way in all the commotion, making it difficult to progress upwind. This commotion was intensified by the fact that the engine wouldn’t turn off at the cockpit control, so the fire could have restarted at any time.
The fenders were stored below and there was no way we could get to them without inhaling the thick black smoke, but fortunately, we hadn’t stowed the warps, so they were all still tied to their cleats. The gusty wind made it difficult to sail into the tight berth in the marina and an anxious crew made it even harder to berth the yacht.
There were people ashore who had heard our Mayday and were ready to take our lines, so when we got close enough we threw a midships line onto the pontoon and brushed our bow along the wooden pontoon edge. Once we were in close enough the whole crew jumped off the boat and we left the skipper and mate to see if the fire was out.
David finally managed to turn off the engine and shut off the fuel to stop the fire from reigniting and then leapt ashore himself. As there was no longer any threat to us we cancelled the mayday, but the coastguard had already sent firemen to make sure that the fire was completely out.
As we were tying up the boat more securely the firemen arrived, clad in lifejackets as they were clearly trained for this kind of situation. They quickly got to work and scanned our engine with a thermal imaging camera to make sure the fire was out and to find its cause. After a short while they had confirmed that the fire was indeed out, but they didn’t manage to find out why it had started. We still don’t know why the engine caught fire, but the engine mechanics will look at it this week. We then spent a couple of hours cleaning up the soot and powder in the engine compartment so the mechanic could take a proper look at it.
The next day was forecast to be light winds, not ideal as we didn’t have a working engine, so we decided to wake up early to have a tow from the other Royal Navy boat Amaryllis. We had a couple of knots of tide with us so we made good progress back towards Portsmouth despite having only a couple of knots through the water. Sadly, the wind never did fill back in so we didn’t have the chance to put up the sails again. Once we got a few boat lengths from our pontoon in Portsmouth we slipped our tow and drifted into our berth.
Throughout all the weekend’s dramas, David and Frenchy stayed remarkably calm and in control and I would like to thank them for how professionally the dealt with the fire and averted what could have been a catastrophe.
Most importantly though I learned three key lessons from this potential disaster which I urge you to take on board.
- MAKE SURE THAT YOUR FIRE EXTINGUISHERS ARE IN DATE: Who knows what would have happened if we hadn’t managed to put out the fire immediately with our extinguisher. Fire extinguishers are dated and they need replacing every few years. Not only is a fire extinguisher that doesn’t work useless, it is also dangerous as you lose critical seconds that could be indispensable in your battle to keep a fire under control.
- MAKE SURE YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR FIRE EXTINGUISHERS ARE AND THAT THEY ARE ACCESSIBLE IN A FIRE: In the jet-black smoke down below we had just seconds to find the extinguisher. We had covered firefighting in our safety brief, so we knew exactly where it was, but it would have been nigh on impossible to search for an extinguisher in the smoke if we could not remember where it was. In addition, make sure that you can access them in a fire. On our family cruiser, the fire blanket is positioned right over the galley meaning that you would have to reach through the flames to access it in a galley fire. This winter we will make sure we move the positioning of the fire blanket as it is currently almost useless.
- MAKE SURE YOU HAVE YOUR HANDHELD VHF IN THE COCKPIT OR EASILY ACCESSIBLE DOWN BELOW: We were in the middle of the Cowes Medina and could easily have shouted for help if we could not get to our VHF, but if we had been further out we wouldn’t have been able to alert the coastguard. Despite having a working VHF down below there would be no way to use it in the toxic smoke and intense heat.
There are a couple of other lessons that are also worthy of note:
- FIT A HOLE IN YOUR ENGINE HOUSING TO EXTINGUISH THE FIRE: You don’t want to give any more oxygen to an engine fire by opening the hatch, so instead cut a small hole to fit a fire extinguisher’s hose through.
- KEEP CALM: Our skipper kept very calm during the fire which meant we could easily make our way back to the pontoon. However, the crew became more anxious so we struggled to sail upwind effectively with poorly set sails.
Overall the fire didn’t end disastrously and nothing was damaged outside of the engine compartment. However, the fire could easily have ended catastrophically if we hadn’t acted so promptly.