Why You Need a Life Raft on Your Boat

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Ten Freakin’ Minutes!

Why a duly inspected and wholly reliable life raft is so important on an offshore run.

boat on fire

In keeping with the rules of the Bluewater Tournament, an annual affair sponsored by the Northeast Florida Marlin Association, Tree House, a 37-foot Bertram convertible, cleared St. Augustine sea buoy at precisely 4 o’clock in the morning on May 22, 2014. It was dark, of course, and Bucky Odom, the skipper of the decades-old sportfisherman, noted with satisfaction that the Atlantic was pretty darn smooth as he headed ’er east at approximately 18 knots.

Everyone else onboard was asleep, taking advantage of what in former years had always been a routine three-hour run to the fishing grounds. Odom’s son Trey was stretched out on the bench seat just forward of the helm station, snoozing away. And the other guys, two of Odom’s nephews (Lane and Chris Nelson) and two of his long-time fishing familiars (John Thomas and John Fields), were below, doing the same thing.

“I remember it was ten to six ’cause I looked at my watch,” says Bucky. “I heard a change in the pitch of the exhaust maybe or what sounded like a turbo failure or something and I pulled the throttles back.”

“What’s up?” Trey asked, instantly awake. Bucky flipped on the spreader lights and suggested his son go below immediately to scope things out. As the young man’s deckshoes hit the cockpit sole at the foot of the flying-bridge ladder, other voices from within the boat were also questioning, “What’s up?”

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After just a few seconds, everyone—or what seemed like everyone at the time—was standing in the cockpit, blinking in the glow of the spreader lights. Glancing over the side on a hunch, Lane saw it first—white smoke seething from the starboard air intake. Then came a stark, otherworldly hiss—the fixed fire-extinguishing system in the engine room was automatically deploying. The sound produced an instant consensus. Tree House was on fire! In the predawn darkness. Some 35 nautical miles off. In an increasingly windy, choppy, empty ocean.

“Everything happened so fast,” says Bucky. “Pretty soon they were yellin’ that the saloon was full o’ smoke and I began feeling heat on the flying bridge and getting more and more smoke up there too. In fact, when I sent out the first mayday, I could only give the latitude—I couldn’t make out the longitude on the plotter ’cause of the smoke.”

Trey and Lane entered the saloon and lifted the engine-room hatch. Then each triggered a portable fire extinguisher into the compartment, to no avail. “Uncle Bucky,” yelled Lane once he and his cousin had regained the relative safety of the cockpit. “We’re not winnin’ down here!” 

Bucky made a decision. Abandoning Tree House was the only option, and the quicker the better. He told someone to grab the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon), directed someone else to launch the new Revere life raft off the bow, to windward, as far from the flames as possible, and then finally made a second mayday call. Before departing the bridge, he eyed the locker under the steering station where several PFDs were kept.

“But the heat was tremendous now,” he says, “and I didn’t dare touch the metal latch on the locker—I knew it was gonna be hotter ’n a two-dollar pistol.”

She Made Him Do It

Shelli Schmid represents Safety First Marine, a Jacksonville, Florida, company that sells, services, and inspects onboard marine-safety equipment in northeastern Florida. Shortly before an offshore fire of undetermined origin destroyed Tree House, Schmid told the boat’s owner Bucky Odom to replace his old, beat-up life raft with a new one, even though he was loath to spend the money. “I pretty much made him do it,” she says. As a result, Odom is a total fan of Schmid’s sage counsel today, as are numerous other Florida boaters she’s helped over the years. Here, according to Schmid, are the three most important things an offshore cruising boat or sportfisherman should carry at all times, no matter what:

  1. A fire-extinguishing system in the ER that’s scaled and engineered to do a thorough job. “Do not,” she says, “open the engine compartment once the system deploys. Wait a good while instead. Some sources say for as much as an hour. That way you don’t get the fire restarted by feeding the thing oxygen.”
  2. A proper EPIRB, meaning one that’s been recently tested and carries a fully charged battery. “Make sure everyone onboard knows exactly where it is,” continues Schmid, “and how to use it.”
  3. A duly inspected, wholly reliable life raft. “And duly inspected means duly inspected,” Schmid cautions. “An inspector will be aware of recalls and other problems that may prove catastrophic if you have to deploy. Most regular boaters will not!” 

Safety First Marine, 904-377-9933;
www.safetyfirstmarine.com

Giving up on the PFDs, Bucky retreated to the rear of the flying bridge and then, rather paradoxically, experienced a brief whiff of gratitude as he went down the flying-bridge ladder like a shot—at the insistence of Shelli Schmid of Safety First Marine, a purveyor of marine safety equipment in Jacksonville, he’d only recently purchased the new life raft as a replacement for an iffy, worn-out old clunker. “The Revere was expensive and I didn’t wanna spring for it,” he says, “but Shelli—she put her foot down—and, man, was I ever grateful to her. I mean—Really!” (See “She Made Him Do It,” at right.)

It was just a few minutes before 6 o’clock when Bucky stood in the cockpit of his boat, demanding of Trey and John Thomas, “Have we got everybody? Have we got everybody? Where’s Fields? Where’s John Fields?”

Fields was hard of hearing. He hadn’t heard or felt the commotion apparently—he was either still asleep in the forward stateroom or he’d been overcome by smoke inhalation. Trey and Thomas fought their way into the smoke and flames of the saloon and began yelling, “John, John, wake up, the boat’s on fire, we gotta go, man. We gotta go.”

Fields almost immediately materialized and began negotiating the melee with a T-shirt covering his mouth and nose. He made it only part way across the saloon sole when crash—he fell through into the inferno of the engine room.

His friends reacted without thinking. They lunged forward, grabbed him by the arms, and dragged him across the burning deck and out into the cockpit. As they all then proceeded forward, struggling up the side decks, it appeared that one of Fields’s legs might be broken.

“We all got in that raft, though … every one of us,” says Bucky. “And I checked my watch again for some reason—it was 6 o’clock. Can you believe it—all this took place in just ten freakin’ minutes!”

The ordeal was not totally over, though. As the six men swept the raft away from the burning boat by paddling with their hands, Bucky calmed down enough to notice yet another otherworldly hiss—air was seemingly leaking from the raft! Rapidly!

“Talk about a bad day,” says Bucky, “I’m hunting around in the dark like a maniac for where the air’s escaping so I can keep the darn raft afloat. My boat’s burning and sinking just a little ways off and, just when I figure things can’t get much worse, my son starts yelling, ‘Dad, dad, there’s sharks, there’s sharks—see the fins around us, see the fins?!’”

Boat on fire video

Capt. Harry Graves and his crew on the Viking 48 C-Fan shot video of Tree House, a 37-foot Bertram convertible, as she caught fire.
See what happens next here. ▶

Thankfully, with dawn came a considerable uptick in prospects. The hiss stopped—it was merely the raft’s inflatable tubes burping excess air via a Pressure Relief Valve or PRV. Soon after, Capt. Harry Graves of the 48-foot Viking C-Fan came to the rescue, spurred on by the mayday calls he’d heard on his VHF. And, once onboard, John Fields turned out to be basically okay—no broken leg after all.

As for Bucky, he’s got a line on a new boat these days as well as a couple of recommendations for those of us who regularly venture offshore. The first—carry a duly inspected, wholly reliable life raft and, if possible, stow the thing well away from the machinery spaces and other areas that may conduct heat and smoke from said spaces. The second—keep PFDs near the liferaft, although not behind doors with metal latches. No one onboard Tree House was able to put on a PFD because all of them were either in the saloon or in the locker under the steering station and both spots were inaccessible due to flames and smoke. And the third—make sure everyone onboard knows where all safety equipment is at all times. 

“With only ten minutes to play with,” Bucky says knowingly, “there’s no time to wander around looking for your EPIRB or your life raft.”

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

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