Salvage of the S/V Shillelagh

The following is Captain Gould's Operation Report on the S/V Shillelagh.

"On 31 July 2004, I was on patrol aboard the M/V Safe/Sea Block Island inside the Great Salt Pond of Block Island. At approximately 1600, I intercepted a radio call on VHF CH16 reporting a vessel fire in the Great Salt Pond. The location was given as “just north of the Black Pearl.” The 40 knot top speed of the Safe/Sea Block Island allowed me to arrive on scene in less than two minutes. I arrived at the same time as the USCG 27’ rescue boat from USCG Sta. Block Island.

The vessel on fire was the S/V Shillelagh, a 41’ Bristol sailboat, and as I arrived on scene, I could see smoke billowing up from her companionway. As I secured my towboat to the S/V Shillelagh’s starboard side, I instructed two female crewmembers to abandon the S/V Shillelagh to the safety of my towboat. I then retrieved the fire extinguisher from the wheelhouse of the M/V Safe/Sea Block Island and prepared to board the S/V Shillelagh.

At this time, the cause of the fire was described to me as “an alternator” fire. Proceeding below, I found the boat’s owner, who had already discharged his two 2lb fire extinguishers, but the smoke persisted. I began discharging my fire extinguisher into a few cabinets and compartments from where smoke was emanating. In one cabinet behind the companionway steps, I saw sparks falling from a wiring loom, and doused that with more dry-chemical.

The owner had gone on deck to retrieve more fire extinguishers from the Coast Guard (it should be noted that the Coast Guard personnel on scene informed the owner that they would not assist him in fighting the fire, but were standing by to provide evacuation services if need be.) I went on deck to get a breath of fresh air and to see what other help may have showed up. The Block Island Harbor Master was now on scene, and was offering a supply of more fire extinguishers.

Returning below, I again found smoke billowing from cabinets. At this point, the owner directed my attention to the engine room, which was accessed from the aft stateroom. Carefully opening that door, I saw numerous wire looms smoldering and smoking throughout that compartment. Again I used my fire extinguisher to douse those wires, and informed the owner that we would have to disconnect all the batteries onboard to remove the source of this electric fire.

As he began to open floor boards to access the batteries, I again went on deck for fresh air. One of the Coast Guard officers asked me how it was going, and I replied that we were getting a handle on things but weren’t out of the woods yet. I would estimate that 10 minutes had passed since I first arrived on scene.

Tony Edwards from Edwards marine was now alongside, and I asked him if he had any large wire cutters. He came on board with a set of bolt cutters and proceeded down below to assist the owner and myself.

On my next trip below, I found smoke now coming from the main breaker panel just to port of the companionway ladder. Opening that panel I discovered even more smoldering wires, and again discharged dry-chemical from my extinguisher on that hot spot. Just inboard of the main breaker panel are two battery disconnect switches, but they were now rendered useless due to melting from the heat created by a dead short somewhere in the 12 volt system.

At this point, the owner had disconnected one of the three batteries, and I assisted Tony with finding and disconnecting the other two, which were buried under the galley sink compartment. By now, the cabin was pretty much filled with a combination of smoke and dry-chemical dust, making breathing difficult.

During one of my trips up the companionway ladder, I remember discharging a fire extinguisher into the port cockpit drain, as there was black smoke rising from there. I suspect that the drain hose itself was burning as it passes close to the wiring harness below the cockpit floor.

Once the batteries were disconnected, the source of the fire was removed, a few more squirts with dry-chemical on the hottest places finally eliminated the source of all the smoke, and the air below began to clear. I remained on board to overhaul the fire and confirm that there were not hot spots left to re-ignite.

During a chaotic time such as this, one losses track of time, and I wasn’t keeping notes. I estimate that from the time of my arrival to the time the fire was contained was about 20 minutes. I lost track of how many times I returned to the deck for fresh air, but it certainly was more than 4 times. Each time we extinguished one spot, another would begin to smolder in a few moments somewhere else. At one point, I came on deck to inform the owner’s daughter that the family pet, her cat, was doing fine up in the forward vee berth. When the incident was over, I had used up the entire contents of our 8 lb fire extinguisher.

After the Coast Guard finished with their paperwork, Tony Edwards helped the owner retrieve his ground tackle while I maneuvered the S/V Shillelagh with the M/V Safe/Sea Block Island tied on the hip. Once the ground tackle was up, I towed the S/V Shillelagh to an emergency mooring.

My records show that the S/V Shillelagh was secured at the emergency mooring at 1730."