On a calm day in Bantry Bay, Ireland, last 16 August, a fishing trip ended in death by drowning for three of the four rod anglers on board the 30-ft fibre glass motor cruiser, Castaway. But out of every tragedy at sea lessons can be learned to prevent repeat disasters and the Castaway incident is no exception. It also shows that even highly experienced mariners are not immune to unsound behaviour at sea.
One of the victims, Mike Schmidt, the Castaway’s owner, was a master mariner and his friend, Wolfgang Schroder, was also a highly experienced seafarer. The third victim, 69-year old local farmer, Richard Harman, could not swim.
At the inquest on March 2, the sole survivor, 46-year old Eddie Dziato, from Connecticut, explained that all four were forced to jump overboard when flames engulfed the vessel after a day’s fishing during which, with the exception of Mr Harman, all had been drinking beer, wine, whiskey and rum and cokes. As they headed for home about 5 p.m. they noticed the boat was taking on water and so Mr Schmidt turned on three electrical bilge pumps but within 20 minutes they saw smoke coming from behind the instrument panel in the wheelhouse. They then saw flames and insulation material begin to melt.
Despite Mr Dziato using a fire extinguisher on the flames, they grew larger. The blaze created an effective barrier between the anglers and bow where the lifejackets were stored. As if to compensate for this, Mike Schmidt cut the boat’s fenders and threw them overboard as flotation devices. All four men entered the water as the intense heat grew unbearable but the fenders proved inadequate substitutes for lifejackets and Mr Dziato found Mike Schmidt floating face down. Shipwright, John Murphy, explained to the coroner, Frank O’Connell, that he had concerns about the vessel’s wiring after carrying out repairs on it three months earlier. He said he found several live wires exposed near a fuel tank and removed them, and noticed “untidy wiring” behind the wheelhouse instrument panel. He mentioned to Mr Schmidt that it should be dealt with “but I got no instructions. He told me he planned to sell the boat at the end of the season and would repair the wires later.” Mr Murphy also said Mr Schmidt told him some weeks later about a fire in the circuit board which had had repaired himself.
Mr Murphy went on to explain that he was concerned about the state of the boat but felt it was seaworthy and that Mr Schmidt was competent to deal with it. But he admitted that he would not have put to sea in it himself, adding that an electrical overload behind the instrument panel was the most likely cause of the fire. The coroner returned a verdict of accidental death.
Fire at sea is probably every captain’s worst nightmare. It behoves every pleasure boat owner with electrical wiring on board, therefore, to ensure that the wiring is in a good condition. Electrical problems are a common cause of fires and are said to account for a quarter of all UK warehouse fires. Boat owners could improve their fire recovery chances by having more than one fire extinguisher of the right kind. A rethink may also be needed on storage locations for lifejackets on pleasure craft that fall within certain parameters. A more sensible stowage place would be in cupboards under seating outside the cabins. The best practice is, of course, to wear the jackets at sea, but many professional fishermen continue to ignore that advice even though the latest models are far less restrictive and less likely to snag on shifting tackle during rough seas.
As for alcohol consumed at sea, this should always be avoided, especially by the captain. Excessive alcohol on merchantmen is still a major safety hazard and can contribute to environmental catastrophes, like the Exxon Valdez oil tanker grounding in Alaska. Last, but perhaps not least, all pleasure boat users should know how to swim.