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Fire in the Engine Room

A cruiser's worst nightmare?

Every sailor's worst night mare, probably second only to sinking, must be fire on board. Our own night mare became true just after midnight (of course) on March 24, 2013 - only a couple of hours after we had completed our circumnavigation. It was the 14th day of our passage from Fernando de Noronha in Brazil to Chaguaramas in Trinidad.

We were sailing in Galleons Passage south of Tobago with an ETA in Chaguaramas, Trinidad, the following morning, when the wind died. I went down to the engine room and opened the brake of the propeller shaft - a routine I repeat at least once a day on every passage. Back in the cock pit I started the engine and put it in gear slowly forward, and then went up on deck to douse the main sail. The sea was calm and I could see lights ashore to port on Trinidad and further away on the starboard quarter on Tobago. After a few minutes I got a sixth-sense feeling that something was wrong, so I went down below and opened the engine room door.

Flames and thick smoke billowed out!

I tried to cover my mouth and nose with a t-shirt that I ripped from a hook on the wall next to the engine room door and then I threw some towels on the fire. I hesitated to use the fire extinguishers because I knew that the foam would create an awful mess; therefore I decided to first try to put out the fire with fresh water.

Malla, who had been sleeping, was also awake now and she started handing me buckets of fresh water from the galley. First I threw the contents of several buckets on the disc brake of the propeller shaft which was glowing red and seemed to be the area where the fire had originated. Then I shifted my attention to the stern bulkhead which also was covered by flames. It was hard to breathe and at first my heart sank a bit further as the flames were stubborn. The fire had also spread along the propeller shaft tunnel to the area around the stuffing box, below the floorboards of the stern cabin. However, more water and wet towels finally did the job and we managed to put out the fire.

We looked at each other in disbelief. Our worst incident in 22 years on the oceans - and it happened on the last day of our circumnavigation.

A closer inspection confirmed my suspicion; the disc brake had stuck. The brake pads had remained pressed to the disc even though I had turned the hydraulic brake wheel open. Friction had therefore caused the disc to heat and set the bulkhead above and engine bed below on fire. Normally, when I open the brake, I check that the propeller shaft starts turning, which it will when friction with water speed starts turning the propeller, but this time the boat had come to an almost complete stand still and I had assumed that the shaft didn't turn because we had no speed.

The purpose of the brake is to prevent the propeller and gears from rotating for extended periods when sailing, as there is no lubrication in the gearbox with the engine stopped. If the brake is on with the engine running, a warning light on the control panel should indicate this. For some reason this warning light did not work that night.

I dismantled the brake from the disc and restarted the engine. Thankfully the Perkins appeared to work normally as well as the propulsion. The copper fuel lines on the bulkhead had been on fire, but apparently everything was still in order. We continued to steer for Chaguaramas in the still of the night. Eyes smarting with smoke, throats burning and looking like licorice figures.

Neither one of use uttered many words, both in some state of shock I think.

Before After fire After fire disc out
1. The shaft brake area before the fire 2. After the fire 3. The disc is located between the
coupling and the transmission
After fire disc brake out Transmission out Engine bed repaired
4. The brake after the fire 5. The transmission is out 7. The damaged area after repairs;
reglassing and repainting
Engine room repaired Packing box after fire Packing box area after repair
8. Everything is back in place
after the repairs
9. The stuffingbox area after the fire 10. The stuffingbox area after the repairs

In the morning we tied to the dock at Crew's Inn Marina, Chaguaramas, and I started to examine the extent of the damage. Fortunately it was limited to the area around the brake, to the stern bulkhead of the engine room and to the area around the propeller shaft stuffing box below the floor boards in the aft cabin. But everything was covered in soot, even in the saloon.

Chaguaramas is an excellent place for boat projects and we soon located the various contractors needed for the repairs. All wiring in the area was replaced and tested, some of it re-routed outside the stuffing box area. All affected fibre glass surfaces were re-glassed and repainted. The transmission was taken out to allow complete access, and sent to a workshop for inspection. The shaft was also inspected at a propeller shop to see if it had bent. The disc brake was taken completely apart and rebuilt. We only used contractors of good reputation and we believe that all affected areas and systems are now in even better condition than before the fire.

But it was a close call. In different circumstances it could have ended worse. I consider us lucky.