Fire on Board - Worst Nightmare!


Afternoon all,

When I left you last I had just heaved to in the Australian Bight in preparations of a rather large storm system.  By that afternoon I was drifting in 8 meters swell and 40 knots of wind.  The storm system was in fact 2 separate low pressure systems that had a strong pressure belt of westerly winds joining the two systems.  At the time, I was trying to make a decision, do I ride out the first system and then make for Portland before the second system hit, or do I just remain heaved to in the middle of the ocean.  In the end, I decided to just remain heaved to until both storms had passed.  The main reason for this was that I would have been crossing into the shallow coastal waters in 6-8-meter swells and that was just going to create unnecessary risk.  So, I ended up spending almost 3 whole days drifting across the Australian bight until the winds and swell had abated enough for me to continue to make for Sydney.

The problem was, that immediately after the two storms, the winds were forecast to drop out completely.  So, I then ended up spending 2 complete days motoring in 5 meters swell and less than 5 knots of wind.  I still had a good amount of fuel left over in the tanks from my world record so I managed to make good progress.  Finally, on the 20th after 9 days at sea I sailed into the Bass Strait.  The Bass Strait is considered a tricky area of navigation and can be dangerous if you get caught in the wrong conditions there.  Some of the main reasons for this is because you are coming up onto 50-meter-deep water from the 5000m deep waters around it and you have strong current that runs east to west making for difficult sea conditions in wind against current.  On top of this there are many little islands and submerged rocks so you need to keep your focus on the navigation… and finaly, there is lots and lots of traffic, as this is a main traffic lane for container ships and other craft going below Australia.

So, I was suddenly thankful for the many days spent hove to as I was able to get plenty of rest in preparation for the many nights of no sleep.  When I am offshore I can generally get about an hour in a sleep (depending on traffic etc) before needing to get up and check on thing.  In the Bass Straight I am in a high traffic area so I would be lucky to be getting 20 min bursts of sleep.  On the first night, I rounded King island and was purposely keeping to the southern side of the bass strait to steer clear of the worst of the traffic and managed to get about 3 hours sleep over an 8-hour period of time but given that I was so rested before this I barely felt the impact.  Night number 2 was a whole different story.

I sailed well through the day but the little wind that I had was starting to abate and I was expecting to have less than 10 knots for most of the night.  I sailed passed the entrance to Melbourne and then towards Flinders island.  Just to the North of Flinders Island there is a collection of small navigational hazards mainly small islands and lots of rocks.  Most of these also don’t have a light on them.  I rounded Curtis Island in the fading westerly winds and hardened up to go between Hogan and Kent Islands.  It was just after midnight by now and the winds were dying off rapidly but I was still coasting along at 4 knots.  I figured I could get a little sleep in as I wouldn’t close in on land that quickly.  I managed to get three short 20 min naps in before I could no longer ignore the slow speeds.  The B and G Instruments was now showing 2-3 knots.

I still had plenty of fuel so at 2am I decided to start motoring as the last thing I wanted was to drift in the current in such an area with rocks all around me.  I turned the motor on and started making some headway.  After I re-trimmed the sails for the apparent winds I went below to again try for some sleep.  I  tend to sleep a lot less when the engine is running as I worry that I will sleep through a proximity alarm and run into something while I am sleeping.  I never however got that far because when I climbed back into the cabin I noticed a funny smell.  Like an acidic toxic smell.  I had had a small oil leak so I thought that the smell might have been the oil on something hot and burning.  I was worried that if I was getting burning oil that I might have a fire...  I took the engine cover off and was over on the starboard side of the engine taking a look however the smell was lessened here and I couldn’t see anything obvious.

I had a quick look at the port side of the engine and again couldn't spot anything but the smell was getting stronger.  A fire on a yacht is possibly the worst thing that can happen and if you can’t put it out in a few minutes that you need to abandon ship as most boats burn really quickly.  So, I was really wanting to find the origin of this smell as it was new, only since I started the engine.  I went back to the starboard side and seconds later a column of fire started pouring out of the port side of the engine.  My first reaction was to shut down the motor as I didn’t know the cause of the fire yet and was worried that it was fuel related.  I then grabbed my fire extinguisher and blasted the flames.  The flames were now standing about a meter high off the engine, however seemed to be localized to one section.  In my head, I was just saying "oh F@#!" repeatedly, however within seconds the flames were out.  By now the whole cabin was choked with smoke and I was out of oxygen, so I crawled out of my hatch onto the deck to gulp down a few breaths of air.

I was shaking like a leaf and coughing my guts up from the smoke, but at least the fire was out.  I went below with my shirt over my mouth to see where the origin of the flames was and realised that it was an electrical fire starting at the starter motor. I bolted back outside again and turned the engine key to the off position to remove any electricity that caused the fire.  I then vented the boat so that I could breathe again.  A horrible smell of burnt plastic persisted for days after.  Looking at it, it appears that when I turned on my engine the ignition button failed in the on position causing the starter motor to keep turning over resulting in my small fire on-board.

It was sunrise before I even managed another nap so the lack of sleep was now starting to take its toll.  I had drifted all night and managed to keep about 1-2 knots of boat speed and cleared the islands at dawn.  I slept late and then phoned a friend to see if we could get the engine to work again.  It turned out that I had completely fried my starter motor and would need a new one before I could turn the engine back on...  This was now a bit of a safety issue as I was to be crossing the main shipping lanes that night so that I could head north up the east coast.  I was concerned that I would run out of wind and end up drifting right in front of the main traffic lanes for all the container ships...  That would likely not end well.

As there was nothing that I could do to get the engine going I worked on sourcing a new starter motor and a bit of a plan on how to get it to the boat so that I would be able to safely manoeuvre around the traffic in Sydney Harbour.  As night fell I was getting closer and closer to the point where I would need to be crossing the shipping lanes. I had been keeping a close eye on the AIS tracking system to see how many ships there were.  I ended up having 2 close calls that night where I needed to do drastic alterations of my course to avoid a collision, but somehow, I managed to get through unscathed.  Again, it was another night of not much sleep but a necessary one.  

Coming into Jervis Bay

Coming into Jervis Bay

Moving up the coast I was closing in on Jervis Bay.  Through my discussions with my friend Ini we had decided that he would drive from Sydney to Jervis Bay with his tender and meet me there with the new Starter Motor.  So, I am now just about to enter into the entrance of Jervis Bay where I will sail in to where there are some moorings and Ini will assist me in getting attached to one before we put the new Starter Motor in.  I was very proud yesterday when I took the old one out as its now another engineering thing I can do...

Jervis bay 2.jpg

Anyway I will leave you here and touch base again in a few more days.  If you can make it to Sydney for the arrival event I would so love to see you all there.