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The Story of a Boat Fire

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as told by Dan McCormack

Out of the Ashes

Sometimes it’s just really, really not your day. Not that a little boat fire can keep a good man down.

It was Memorial Day weekend of 2013, one of those cold, crummy days in Chicago. We weren’t going to do any boating that weekend, so we were driving up to our place in Michigan. I was in the car with my son when I received a phone call from Burnham Harbor, where we kept our boat. They said that there was a fire onboard. And my first thought was that can’t be my boat, and my second thought was maybe someone threw something up on the deck that was on fire, something minor. It had to be. But then they asked me if anyone had permission to be onboard, which I found curious, because of course no one did. So I turned the car around and started driving back to Chicago. 

Grand Banks

No sooner had we turned the car around than I turned on the radio, and literally the first thing we heard was the news saying there’s a boat on fire at Burnham Harbor and there’s police and fire trucks and helicopters overhead. That’s when I knew it wasn’t something minor. 

We drove directly to the harbor, and I’m still trying to tell myself maybe they called the wrong guy. Couldn’t be my boat. She was this beautiful Grand Banks with all this incredible brightwork. So much wood, we loved her. She simply couldn’t be on fire.

And I just kept going over in my head how a fire possibly could have started onboard spontaneously, since the boat was meticulously maintained, and I was always careful when we left her at the dock.

When I arrived at the harbor, I walked up and there was yellow tape all around the boat since it was an active crime scene at that point. There was a fireboat adjacent to my stern, and the fire was out, but I could see that the windows were all smashed in, and things were black inside. They even had to move the boat next to mine out of its slip so the fire wouldn’t spread to the whole harbor.

The one lucky thing was there happened to be a fireboat in the harbor doing drills when the fire started. Had they not been doing that, other boats would have gone up in flames too. Maybe the whole harbor, because the weather was so poor nobody was really around.

I went up to the cops and told them who I was and they asked again if someone was allowed on the boat and again I answered no. But somebody had been on the boat. They actually had him in a squad car right there. He had broken in and been there for a while. He had ransacked the whole thing, went through the drawers, drank all the liquor. It looked like someone had let a raccoon loose inside. When they found the guy he was hiding in the engine room—on a burning boat, mind you!—soaking wet, in just shorts. They said he was so high they couldn’t really communicate with him though. We found out later he had just been released from prison a day or two earlier, I think from Cook County. Maybe he was celebrating, who knows. But I do know he was very much not in his right mind, because what he did was, he found the ditch bag and the flare gun and fired it into the middle cabin and then stayed onboard while the boat went up in flames around him. According to a cleaning crew one pier over, he was dancing on the bow of the boat while smoke was pouring out the windows. They said they were screaming at him, “Your boat’s on fire! Your boat’s on fire!” 

And his response to them was to shout back, “I’m just roasting a pig!” And he kept right on dancing.

The damage was complete, a total loss from the main deck up. The engine room was fine, but the woodwork, the helm, it was all just gone.

For a long time, in the back of my mind there was hope that they could maybe redo the interior. It wasn’t until a month or so later that they evaluated the damage and we realized it was truly beyond repair.

So we started looking to replace her. We visited a bunch of used boats out east. Bay Marine, out of Sturgeon Bay, [Wisconsin,] had just become a Grand Banks dealer, and they were in Chicago for a boat show. I phoned them inquiring about a 46-foot Eastbay Flybridge on their Web site. But they said that boat wasn’t being made for production. So we reached out to Grand Banks directly and told them our story and asked about producing one of these Flybridge models for us. And thankfully Grand Banks agreed to build the boat, and not only that, they agreed to build it by the end of March so we could have it for the whole 2014 season. It was a bit of a push for them but they did it. Our new boat was delivered to Sturgeon Bay in mid-May and we got it in early June. We named her Phoenix, out of the ashes, you know?

These days we think about boat security a little bit more, we’re looking into a security system. We’re not obsessive about it though. There’s only so much you can do. My friend said to me once, “Eleven-hundred boats in that harbor and he chose yours, what are the odds?” And I told him, “Well, about 1 in 1,100.”

Dan McCormack is a veterinarian from Chicago. He is a three-time Grand Banks owner, and he and his wife Jill love cruising the Great Lakes. When it comes to the natural elements, they both prefer water over fire.

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This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.