Rosemary Young recounts fire breaking out on her family cruiser and shares the valuable lessons she learned
My husband Jamie and I sold our house, resigned from our jobs and left the UK in September 2015 on our Nicholson 35, along with our three pets, Walter the cat, Bella the dog and Dita the bearded dragon.
We were relatively new to sailing – Rose Rambler of Devon is our first sailing boat – so we had spent the previous year getting her ready, replacing the rigging and making other repairs and upgrades, as well as doing some sail training, so we were as ready to go as we’d ever be.
After working our way across Biscay, down the Atlantic coast of Spain and Portugal, we paused after three months to have our son, Hugo, in southern Spain and then carried on into the Mediterranean.
Things had gone well. We had learned a lot by the end of the first year and enjoyed the sailing and the anchoring.
As we ventured through the Straits of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean, – the first sail for Hugo, by then six months old – we planned to anchor as much as possible.
We found nice anchorages along the coast and aimed for the Balearics.
However, it was while leaving an anchorage in Nerja on the south coast of Spain that we had an experience that forced us to postpone that aim for a while. Many a sailor’s nightmare: a fire on board.
The anchorage at Nerja had been wonderfully picturesque, but horrid comfort-wise – beam on to a hefty swell, from which we couldn’t escape – and we had nearly left in the middle of the night on the basis that it would be less uncomfortable to be on the move (with a bit of canny helming).
It was providence that we didn’t. We did, however, leave at first light, around 0630.
With Hugo and the pets snoozing down below, I was on the helm with Jamie hauling the anchor – the windlass had stuck a bit the previous day, but today didn’t work at all despite a few tries.
The anchor was up and we were ready for the off, when I simultaneously saw flames licking out of the companionway and heard the CO alarm sound.
I shouted ‘FIRE’ down the boat to Jamie, and was just able to get past the flames into the cabin where the fire extinguishers were – one of which I promptly emptied on to the base area of the fire.
Jamie had heard my shout, but not what I’d said, so came back to see what was happening – he was somewhat surprised to see me with a fire extinguisher in my hand, the smell of burning, and the pets looking a bit startled at the sudden frantic activity.
We quickly isolated all the electrics and got everyone on deck. We have a lot of beings on board, so we had already had an emergency plan in place to get everyone out and safe which luckily worked perfectly.
The dry powder was everywhere. Obviously we had some fire damage, and we weren’t sure at that point what had caused it and if there was more damage that we couldn’t see.
We checked again that the fire was fully out and that the electrics and batteries were made safe. It wasn’t until then that we realised that the anchor was up and we were drifting towards the shore with only 0.5m of water beneath the keel!
Jamie ran to the bow and did an emergency anchor drop (which essentially consisted of chucking it, together with a load of chain, over the side), unfortunately injuring his hand in the process. Then we started to make a plan.
Preparing for the worst
The sea was still rough but there wasn’t much wind, and there was no marina within three hours of us, so we knew we had to try and start the engine if at all possible.
We called the insurer, then cleaned the dry powder as best we could from around the air intake and engine in general – we knew we could kiss the engine goodbye if dry powder had got inside, another thing we really didn’t need.
We spent a couple of hours taking turns in cleaning and looking after Hugo and the pets, all of whom were outside so they wouldn’t breathe the powder in.
We checked the electrical cabling as best we could, got a new fire extinguisher ready, got the (fire-damaged) grab bag ready and even made sure we could throw the liferaft quickly in case the engine caught fire when we got it going.
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The time came to try and start the engine. I stood by with another extinguisher, while Jamie turned the key, our breaths held.
It started… and continued running. We checked everything a score of times – wiring, batteries, connections, engine air intake – while running the engine for half an hour and making a plan of where to head for.
We settled on Marina del Este, around 20 miles further east. I went and hauled the anchor, and we made our way slowly towards our chosen haven, dividing our time between checking everything obsessively, making sure Hugo and the pets were okay, and some really difficult helming.
Jamie did some amazing wave surfing, despite his hand injury, which we had bandaged with kitchen roll and strapped up with duck tape. We arrived knackered, but also somewhat euphoric, in Marina del Este around lunchtime, the entire thing only having taken seven hours!
We then had to set about sorting things out with the insurers and getting the repairs going. Things moved disappointingly slowly with the insurers, but a loss adjuster duly arrived, followed by an electrician.
Unfortunately the whole process took somewhat longer than expected and we had to start thinking in terms of several weeks rather than one or two.
Unbeknown to us, we had picked the most expensive marina in the area – and also one with virtually no facilities or supplies. It was neither financially viable nor practical just to wait there until everything was resolved.
We got everything made safe, then headed out to anchor for a week, back in to the marina for a night, a different (cheaper) marina for a week, back in for two nights.
This went on and on until we eventually had everything resolved.
All the cabling to and from the four batteries was replaced, as well as the cable and breaker for the windlass, although we were still not confident enough to use it and wanted to get the windlass itself checked.
Nobody would be pinned down on what they considered to be the cause of the fire.
The charger was suggested, then the batteries, then the windlass breaker (which should have kicked in, but didn’t), but nobody had a definitive answer.
We sailed on, hand-hauling the anchor at each night stop, until we decided to get the windlass looked at.
We discovered the brushes in the windlass were so dirty they’d jammed, but the motor was still running, trying to turn them. We suspect it overheated and set fire to other cabling.
We fully realise how lucky we were; it could have turned out so badly, so differently. Luckily, we also learned a lot from it.
Know the drill
Since we have a young child and several pets on board, we were always aware of the need to have a tried-and-tested plan of getting everyone up on deck and – if necessary – into the liferaft, and this went perfectly. It needs to be automatic in a stressful situation, so it’s worth practising – no matter how few people are on board.
Dry powder extinguishers are great, but they are also phenomenally messy – their effectiveness lies in the fact that the powder really is very fine and it really does cover absolutely every surface around it for metres. We were lucky with our engine, but a CO2 extinguisher would have been a lot safer in terms of engine health. We tried and failed to get a CO2 extinguisher (in Spain, at least), but FM200 extinguishers are readily available and although expensive, much cheaper than a new engine.
Pack a proper grab bag
Having realised that our grab bag was inaccessible – in fact, it was in the locker behind the ignition key (near where the fire took hold) and was damaged by flames and smoke – we now keep it at the top of one of the cockpit lockers. We also realised that we hadn’t done a good enough job of updating the contents since we’d left the UK, and that some items were basically useless, while others, which would have been handy, had been omitted. Contents will be different for every boat, but it’s really worth going through the grab bag every now and again to make sure it has the things you’d need in it.
Keep a knife on deck
If we’d not been able to access the main cabin and needed to throw the liferaft, neither of us had a knife to hand, so would have been fumbling around undoing the straps that restrain it to the deck. We now keep a dive knife, with a safety release, in a sheath on deck.
Don’t ignore your alarm
The CO alarm did its job and went off, but it’s important not to ignore alarms. Prior to this incident, I was as guilty as many, writing it off as a new Navtex message or ‘something Jamie had set up on the chartplotter’. It’s worth knowing what each alarm sounds like – most have a ‘test’ function so you can familiarise yourself.