Fire at Sea

A Very Large Crude Carrier is a truly awe-inspiring thing, especially when you see one for the first time. The scale of it boggles the mind, as it did mine when I first went to sea at the age of eighteen. As a Cadet in the Merchant Marine (I worked for a Norwegian company called Bergesen), ones job is primarily to learn the ropes while providing assistance to the ship’s crew. A Cadet is traditionally the Chief officer’s (also known as The Mate) right hand. If you have a good Mate, your life is made. If not, well….

I had served under quite a few Mates of various kinds by the time I boarded my third (and I hoped last, but it was not to be) ship as a Cadet. She was the Motor Tanker Berge Duke, built in 1973 (this was 1997). An old but well-maintained vessel by any standards, as the Norwegians really know how to take care of their ships. She was of 279,518 metric tons Deadweight, which meant that she carried a quarter of a million tons of crude oil when fully loaded.

One mild December morning, a Sunday, she was ready to depart her anchorage at Fujairah and pass through the Straits of Hormuz to load at Ras Tannurah, Saudi Arabia. She would load a full cargo of Saudi Crude Oil and then sail down the African Coast, round the Cape of good Hope and cross the Atlantic to reach Galveston, Texas to unload the stuff.

From Fujairah to Ra Tanura

At 1000, The Third officer and Bo’sun trundled to the Forecastle to heave up the anchor, while the engineers prepared the 35,000 BHP Diesel engine for the use of the Bridge. The crew sat down for their traditional 10.00–10.15 coffee break. The Captain reached the bridge and prepared a cup of coffee while testing his walkie-talkie to communicate with the anchor party. The next few days would be hectic.

The Cadet, yours truly, was fast asleep in his cabin. It was a well-deserved rest, as I had been up from 0000 to 0400 as the deck watch.

At 1015, The fire alarm rang.

The fire alarm (and general alarm) of a seagoing vessel is designed specifically to tear away the last traces of sleep from exhausted men. It is a shrill, urgent scream-ring that instantly injects adrenaline into the system; I daresay a deaf man would be able to feel it in his bones.

I woke up annoyed, thinking that either the Second Mate had chosen to test the fire alarm out of schedule or the rookie Norwegian Cadet had burnt his toast in the pantry again. I expected the ringing to stop soon, followed by the thick Norwegian accent of the 2/0 on the PA system:

“Folshh Alarm! Shtand down!”.

But no. It just kept ringing.

Squinting into the bright sun, I removed the blackout from a porthole and looked out. On the aft deck, I saw the Engine Fitter, normally a slow and ponderous fellow, streak across at a speed approaching that of sound. Looking up at the sky, I saw black smoke billowing out of what could only have been the Engine Room skylight.


This was it.

Now you would be surprised to know that a fully loaded tanker is actually unsinkable (because oil is lighter than water, duh) and not easy to blow up (because there isn’t enough oxygen in the tanks, only gas) but an empty tanker is terrifyingly dangerous, and potentially a three-hundred metre long firebomb. Our tanks were empty of oil but full of hydrocarbon fumes, kept just below the explosive threshold by pumping in Inert Gas. A little spike in temperature on the wall of the tank and the gases would expand explosively; folks in Dubai would be able to see the fireworks.

Remembering my role in the Fire Plan, drilled in through relentless exercises ashore and at sea, I threw on my overalls, shoes and helmet and ran down to my Fire Station, the one near the poop deck where one entered the Engine room.

What had happened? A classic scenario. A small pipeline supplying diesel to the generator in the Engine room had developed a pinhole, probably due to corrosion. The sudden pressure of diesel rushing through while starting the generator had sprayed a fine stream of high pressure diesel onto the red-hot exhaust manifold of the other generator that had been running all night. Pretty much everything in the area caught fire instantly.

On reaching the Fire Station, I finally understood the meaning of the phrase “Running around like Blue Arsed Flies”. It was chaos. The Fire Plan clearly stated the duties of the crew in case of fire; an officer, with a walkie-talkie in communication with the bridge, sends down two senior Seamen in fire fighting suits.

There was no officer. The place was a mess of frantic seamen fumbling about; of the two seamen that were supposed to put on a fire suit and fight the fire, one was almost ready. The other, I shall call him Mr.U, was not done at all. As I looked on, his face was a mask of fear and he was putting on the silver fire retardant pants, removing them, and putting them on again in unending loop. Apart from me, nobody seemed to notice this.

As a trainee, I was expressly forbidden from taking part in emergency operations. Apparently, my insurance didn’t cover it (or something like that). Also, these were experienced seamen with twenty years or more at sea. I had been in high school four years ago.

I, however, had as my mother describes, a “Significantly Underdeveloped Instinct of Self-Preservation” since toddler-hood. Besides, if this tin can was going to blow sky-high, I would be on it too, cadet or not.

“Want to give that to me?” I asked him.

I will never forget the look of relief on his face.

Always the fastest in drills to suit up, I was done in less than a minute. The Drager SCBA(self-contained breathing apparatus) carries one steel bottle full of compressed air that lasts, according to our training, for up to fifteen minutes of normal breathing. A full bottle, apparatus with mask and fire retardant suit weigh around 13 kg or so.

Still no officer and no word from the bridge. We were alone, but ready. The light cut out, and came back on. We were on the emergency generator.

The moment of truth arrived; I opened the engine room door bracing for impact like they taught us in the training. The motorman, a dark brooding giant of a man, was in the other suit behind me. Black smoke billowed out of the doorway, choking and scattering everyone. Pitch black nothingness beckoned. We stepped in.

Luckily, I knew my way around that engine room blindfolded, which was what we were, essentially. Groping in the smoke-filled darkness, we found our way down six flights of steel stairs looking for the fire.

Cutaway of a tanker engine room showing the location of the fire

As we reached the generator platform, we saw the flames. Both generators were on fire, along with the paint on all the pipelines around them. We needed fire hoses.

The motorman and I split up, looking for fire hydrants and hoses. I found one, rolled out the hose and picked up the nozzle. Putting them together using thickly gloved hands is a difficult task on deck; doing it by the glow of a flaming generator was very difficult indeed. I finally managed, and gripping the nozzle, opened the water.

Here’s when I discovered that the Second Mate, officer in charge of upkeep of the fire fighting appliances, had neglected to check the rubber gasket in that particular nozzle. It was missing. Most of the water gushed out from the joint between the hose and nozzle, drenching me.

I have never cursed anyone harder than I did the Second Mate at that point.

I had lost track of time; I trundled off looking for another goddamned nozzle. Someone opened another skylight; visibility suddenly improved. I found another nozzle and checked the gasket. I finally directed a solid jet of water at the base of the flame, struggling to control the nozzle with that pressure of water. The motorman, I saw, had set up another hose.

I don’t remember how long I did this; next thing I remember was a hand on my shoulder. The Second Mate, also wearing an SCBA, was pointing at my air gauge. The bottle was empty. He pointed to the Engine Control Room, where there were spare charged bottles.

After replacing the bottle, I returned to the hose. The flames were gone now, but we were spraying everything for good measure. I lost track of time again, and again the hand on my shoulder and the 2/0 gesticulating to go up. There was a whistle on the SCBA to warn for low air supply, but I guess it wasn’t working or loud enough because I missed it twice.

I was drenched in sweat; my feet sloshed in my fire boots. Euphoria started to rise, which I now know was my brain’s reaction to oxygen starvation.

Giggling, I started up the stairs. At the end of the first of six flights, I collapsed. This was as far as my legs would carry me- I was exhausted beyond measure. I remember lying down, giving up and passing out.

The next thing I remember, was a doorway. Bright sunshine. I was being helped through by a couple of people.

I honestly have no recollection of how I got up five more flights of stairs. Nobody found or helped me; apparently, I made it up all by myself.

As I sat there in the fresh air and sunshine, the Second Mate appeared and sat in front of me. We drank deeply, straight from cartons of cold apple juice; I can still taste it.

“You’re fucking crazy.” He grinned, shaking his head.

Dirty but alive
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