Gone in 180 seconds!
“It was all ablaze and we were off in just on three minutes”, was how Noel Elliott described the scene you see here. “The most horrendous thing is how quickly all the wiring burns. Remember, on a boat you’re encased in the stuff. It’s a bit like being in a single garage with wires in all the roof and wall cavities, as well as the floor.”
A short circuit
“When you get a short circuit like us, you have 820amps burning the wiring. Everything explodes and burns instantaneously”, Elliott then added. Now to put it all into perspective, this is one level-headed chap. He was a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal New Zealand Navy and a clearance diver by trade, so when he says, “… it was terrifying, so, so quick and virtually impossible to put out”, you’re sort of obliged to pay attention. Remember, for many years he had “… been through every exercise and training you could imagine!”
Elliott has been kind enough to not only recount his experiences for us, but also proffer two things he considers mandatory now. “I used five dry powder extinguishers, ranging in size from 2.5kg to 5kg. All you get back are facefulls of powder and toxic fumes. You cannot see or breathe and the powder comes back at you with interest.”
Seconds Before Disaster
“You only get the one chance to stop a fire aboard and you must do it within about 30 seconds, otherwise it is time to clear out. Powder extinguishers are hopeless in an engine room and I now have automatic foam installed”, said Elliott.
“Everything now has a kill switch. In the old boat, the cut-offs were on the fuse board at the for’ard end of the engine room, which on all boats are pretty pokey by nature, and in a blaze you just cannot get to them!”
Taking a step back, almost like the TV show 'Seconds Before Disaster', you get to see the route evil very clearly. “It was Boxing Day and I had just completely fully charged the batteries through a 60amp charger powered off an auxiliary genset. The boat was also fully bunkered and provisioned, ready for an impending trip to the Solomon Islands.”
3 minutes later...
“It was 0950hrs and I thought to myself, I want to watch the start of the Hobart. So I put the TV on, switched to both banks and that is when it happened. Three minutes later the boat was gone”, explained Elliott. Indeed, what had happened was that major short circuit had occurred when a cell in one of the deep cycle batteries had collapsed and instantaneously, the whole system was on drain.
“As soon as I saw smoke from the battery isolator I tried to go back to one or off, but it had fused inside by that time and was rendered useless. I heard crackling, came out of wheelhouse, lifted the lid on the hold and used two extinguishers right there and then. The deckhead and bulkheads were all smoking, and I used another extinguisher on what I could see. I then went back down into the engine room and sprayed yet another.”
“From there I went back to wheelhouse, fell into engine room in the black smoke that was already billowing furiously and crawled aft along the deck, throwing the fuel isolators on and grabbing the mobile as I went. My dog, Tosh, was on the marlin platform already and he then jumped in the tinnie. I virtually fell over it all trying to get in quickly!”
A real point of interest here is that it was only a few weeks earlier that Elliott had been given the opportunity to buy a Stainless Steel 4WD style grab hook. This he had mounted to the transom to hold the painter attached to the tender. This simple, yet very effective method is undoubtedly one of the reasons Noel is here today to recount his tale.
Friends at Airlie Beach, where he was on a swing mooring, saw him coming out of the black smoke, grab the loop off the hook, and then both of them got into the tinnie. They say that no sooner had Noel and Tosh cast off than Mischief went up in a big explosion. “I reckon that if I had to actually untie the tender, then I would have been right in amongst that explosion”, recounted Elliott.
By way of demonstration, there was another tinnie atop the deckhead before the fire. When they returned to inspect the damage, there was no trace of it all!!! Equally, an alloy, twin-tank dive compressor and two dive bottles were nowhere to be seen either. All that was left of the latter where the two top valves…
This goes to show of the intense heat a fire like this can generate. Anyone old enough to remember the Falklands War will be able to see in their memory the damage that the Exocet missiles did to the aluminium superstructure of HMS Sheffield. “The smoke was totally horrific, but also the noise was quite disconcerting. We had four nine-kilogram gas bottles and two packets of the ones you use in camping stoves. The roar and crackle were intense, so much so that the VMR people who live on the hill at Shute Harbour heard them, then saw the puffs and got straight on the blower to the authorities.”
Indeed the first responders were the locals, then the Water Police about 20 minutes later. They went ashore to get the Fire Brigade and by now Mischief was just burning away. Sadly for Noel and Tosh, they had just finished painting the boat the day before and were due to go to Port Douglas and thence over to the Solomon Islands.
Now Tosh is apparently quite the fisherman, good for watching the end of the fishing rods when they move. These live aboard cruisers only got into it after Noel had retired. He had been with Salvage Pacific in Fiji, Vanuatu Yacht Charters and also Torres Strait Marine, before totally converting the old trawler over to a cruiser.
“You know there is always a silver lining and thank God mine came in the form of the team at Pantaenius. They were just bloody brilliant. A while before the accident I got a letter from my previous insurer saying they would not be covering anyone in Shute Harbour or Airlie Beach anymore. Pantaenius were happy to insure me on a swing mooring (after survey) and we’re all covered except for a named storm”, espoused Elliott.
“Their rates are not high, and their service is exceptional. I rang them that afternoon and got a call later. Things moved so quickly, they arranged salvage and said ‘don’t worry about the money, go look for another boat!’ I really could not fault them in any shape or form. I’m telling everyone, because it was such a great experience after the most horrendous disaster.” Pantaenius’ Adam Brown added, “It was pretty clear that it was an accident and we were able to make an informed decision quickly. It took just 24 hours to appoint a surveyor to inspect the damage, and the report was also prompt, arriving just a few days after that.”
“Please remember that if a surveyor is appointed, then they are there on behalf of your insurers, to verify the cause, nature and extent of the damage and the most effective method of repair. The surveyor will not have any authority to agree your claim, either to determine whether it is covered under your policy or to give an opinion of the likely amount of settlement.”
“Pantaenius provided this independent report at their cost within days of the incident, so that the settlement could also be reached within days of the event. The most important thing was to get Noel and Tosh into another boat promptly and then off on their South Pacific adventures as soon as possible.”
Now Elliott did go and source another 42’ trawler, which the ex-pat Kiwi has called Kiwa (Maori for protector of the seas). She too has been converted to become a cruiser and her reconditioned, six cylinder, 120Hp Gardiner will drive her along at 7.5kts, burning a miserly 5-7l/hr. Noel and Tosh are due for that Solomon Island trip after the little hiccup detailed here. Some fishing and diving on wrecks are the highlights, with Noel keen to re-find a WWII submarine he thought he saw of the coast of Papua New Guinea when he was working on another job.
Noel & Tosh
Naturally, we all wish Noel and Tosh a great trip and hope it is far less eventful and much more pleasurable than the last little while. What could have been very disastrous has left the crew of Kiwa with extra knowledge and a very special bond with the team at Pantaenius. This great brand ambassador really means it when he says he had a great experience with them and always refers to speedy and hassle-free times when talking about them. No doubt he will be ensuring his policy is well and truly up to date and his cruising locale is nominated before any further adventures.
Ultimately, cover with the crew that really knows boats, is both sensible and prudent. Call +61 2 9936 1670 today and see why everything from superyachts to global cruisers choose the marine originated, all-risk policy that only Pantaenius can provide you with.