The incident

A 6m fibreglass hulled, single-handed fishing vessel with an outboard engine sailed from its home port on a calm summer morning heading for fishing grounds approximately 15nm off the UK coast.

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The skipper had refuelled the previous evening, filling the 72-litre plastic petrol tank, located in a stern locker, through a flush deck fitting. He also loaded three spare cans of fuel.

During the transit to the fishing grounds, the skipper smelled petrol coming from the vessel’s bilge. He mopped the bilge as dry as possible, but he also noticed an acrid burning smell, which he thought had to do with an electrical short circuit. So he returned to the wheelhouse to isolate the electrical systems. As he turned off the power isolation switch, flames emerged into the wheelhouse through a cable penetration in the deck. The skipper threw a towel over the hole to arrest the spread of flames. Then there was an explosion, which blew out the wheelhouse windows and blew off the roof.

Flames spread throughout the vessel’s bilge. The skipper used a plastic funnel to scoop up sea water from over the vessel’s side, using this to tackle the fire. He extracted the spare fuel cans from the flames and threw them overboard. The fire spread to the vessel’s wooden frames, but with some effort the skipper extinguished the fire.

The skipper then assessed the situation and found that the vessel was drifting further out to sea. He had suffered some burns, and the explosion had disabled the communications equipment. A further survey revealed a radio/CD player with an FM aerial, which the skipper removed and attached to a fishing rod outrigger to provide an ad hoc aerial for his VHF radio. He tried to transmit a distress call but received no response.

The skipper then attempted to start the outboard engine. He found that the insulation on the power cables from the battery had melted in the fire and that the supply fuse for the starter circuit had blown. However, he saved sufficient cable to rig power lines to the engine starter and found
a replacement for the blown fuse. Having managed to start the engine, the skipper headed towards land.

The skipper met two small coasters and tried to attract attention with hand-held flares, but neither vessel responded. Sometime later, he saw another fishing vessel and was able to attract the crew’s attention. This vessel helped and its crew alerted the rescue services. A lifeboat was used and it rescued the skipper and towed his vessel into harbour.

Probable cause

Before the incident, the vessel had been ashore for repairs and refurbishment. Some items of equipment, including fire-fighting appliances, had not been refitted to the vessel before its departure.

It is possible that a leak between the flush deck fitting and the fuel tank allowed petrol to leak into the vessel’s bilge when the tank was filled the evening before departure.

Lessons learned
  • Preparation and planning are vital safety factors when undertaking a trip to sea. That the vessel was being maintained is a positive aspect. However, not carrying out a check of safety equipment before departure was a major failing.
  • Despite minimum fire-fighting mandatory requirements, the carriage of petrol in significant quantities should have prompted the skipper to conduct a risk assessment in the form of a review of the associated hazard and a coherent plan to deal with the consequences in the event of an incident.
  • When working a single-handed vessel, it is particularly important that the skipper possesses the level of knowledge and skills required to properly equip, maintain and operate the vessel safely.