All saved after engine fire causes occupants of charter fishing boat to take to the water

A fire in the engine compartment of a 41-foot charter boat caused its 26 occupants to abandon ship off South Carolina. All were rescued, but the burning vessel sank.

The blaze raged aboard the U.S. Coast Guard-inspected Miss Calabash II at about 0900 on July 30. The 23 passengers and three crewmembers donned life vests, jumped into the water and clutched onto life floats.

The Coast Guard responded to the radio mayday call with rescue boats and two helicopters, but nearby pleasure vessels Fisher of Men and Jester arrived first and rescued everyone.

Miss Calabash II had been in the early stages of a 12-hour fishing trip, about 17 miles from Little River, S.C. The captain reported that he felt unexpected heat coming from inside the boat. He checked the engine compartment and discovered the smoke and flames.

Because the sunken boat wasn’t salvaged, the Coast Guard and the vessel owner are not sure exactly why the fire started. The engine was a 710-hp Detroit Diesel 8V92.

“We think it was one of the turbos on that engine,•bCrLf the boat’s owner, Robert Taylor, told Professional Mariner. “That’s kind of the hottest thing in the engine room, but we’re just assuming.•bCrLf

Taylor said the captain aimed a fire extinguisher from the wheelhouse down through an inspection plate. The captain also tried to completely seal off the compartment to deprive the fire of air. When that did not stop the fire, he decided that everyone needed to flee the vessel.

The 26 people waited in the water for about an hour before the good Samaritan vessels picked them up. They held onto a pair of 22-person Cal-June Inc. life floats, said Coast Guard Lt. Andrew Bender, senior investigating officer for Sector Charleston. No one was injured.

Miss Calabash II sank in 70 feet of water. The 21-gross-ton fiberglass custom sport fisher was built in 1987. Taylor said he had acquired the vessel – formerly called Mar Chell II and based in Florida – in early 2008. He said the Coast Guard inspected the boat in April.

Taylor’s company is Calabash Fishing Fleet in nearby Calabash, N.C. Miss Calabash II was used for daylong voyages to fish for black sea bass, grunts, flounder, sharks and mackerel.

Because the casualty involved the total loss of an inspected vessel, the Coast Guard’s Seventh District initiated a formal investigation. Hearings were held in September to determine the cause of the fire and whether there was evidence of equipment failure, misconduct or negligence. Witnesses included the captain, owner, passengers and service technicians.

“All testimony that we received does indicate that the fire did start in the engine compartment,•bCrLf Bender said. “Exactly what was on fire is yet to be determined.•bCrLf The boat had Halon fire extinguishing equipment, and “the system used in the engine compartment was sufficient to cover that size compartment,•bCrLf he said.

Bender said the Coast Guard is still reviewing the question of whether the boat should have been saved. The investigation will take several months and may result in safety recommendations.

The captain’s employer noted that his actions obviously were effective in protecting the lives of the occupants.

“If it was going to happen, it could not have happened in any better form or fashion – everybody came home safely,•bCrLf Taylor said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t bring the boat home with us.•bCrLf

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff