When a neighbouring yacht caught fire Michael Roberts’ beloved Tern didn’t stand a chance. Here he recounts the devastating scene awaiting him...

It turned out that the blaze had started on the neighbouring boat, a fact that the Fire Officer relayed to us, which was the first boat in the row and the only one upwind of Tern. Once the blaze had taken hold, the stiff south-westerly wind had fanned the flames and Tern didn’t stand a chance, confirmed by the pictures and video taken of the fire by the first onlookers.

We had to wait another anxious week until the salvage operation, knowing all was lost but still not quite believing it until we could see what was left of her. The reality of these images was chilling – Tern was literally burnt to the waterline with anything that wasn’t metallic having melted or combusted.

The remains of both Tern and the neighbouring boat were taken away for assessment, the insurance assessor confirming that the fire did start on the neighbouring boat. I was told that the remains of an electric dehumidifier were found on the steps of the forward accommodation but that it was too badly damaged to be confirmed as the cause of the fire.

As it was early October, Tern was still very much in commission – we had enjoyed the good weather in September and had been hoping to enjoy a few more autumn sails – these plans, clearly now very much a memory.

The insurance company acted honourably, but the loss of every item on board was very painful, particularly our handwritten logbook featuring the last five years of adventures. Sadly, many things left on board were irreplaceable.

In all the years of owning Tern, the routine when leaving the boat had always been the same – windows and hatches shut, battery master switches off, gas turned off at the bottle and mains lead unplugged and locked away. As I unplugged our mains lead the previous Sunday, I noticed that the neighbouring boat’s lead was still plugged in, as it often was when the boat was unattended.

If I had unplugged that lead also, maybe I wouldn’t be writing this article.

Lessons learned

  • As the fire broke out at 0600 we have pondered what could have happened had we been on board at the time. Having thought through (and shuddered at) the consequences, effective smoke alarms will be the first items fitted to our next boat.
  • Take plenty of pictures of your boat and equipment – it makes the insurance process much easier should the worst happen.
  • Consider a total loss situation when valuing the contents of your boat when it’s in commission – whilst it’s unlikely that all of your bedding, cutlery and crockery will ever be stolen, the cost of replacing it all soon adds up.
  • Digitalise or copy all documents that you keep on board – I will photograph and save every page of completed logbook entries from now on.
  • Is it really worth the risk of leaving a boat unattended with mains power connected? Good ventilation and air circulation is the most effective way of preventing damp, as condensation only forms due to temperature differences on interior surfaces. Electric heaters and dehumidifiers are potentially hazardous units, and battery charging carries a greater risk still.

About the author

Michael Roberts is a chartered engineer working in the automotive industry. He grew up as crew on his father’s motor cruiser in the 1980s. Michael and his partner, Vicky, had owned Tern since 2014 and enjoyed sailing her around the Solent and the South Coast from their home port of Chichester harbour.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Lessons learned
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