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that we were getting, a surprisingly small one. Glowing orange just inside the engine room, a flame the perfect size to grill half a dozen steaks. Ralph was already there with the fire extinguisher that was mounted just inside the cabin door. An amazingly small fire extinguisher, I thought. Overkill in this instance couldn’t be a bad thing. Having dealt with Coast Guard regulations for my entire career, I was very familiar with fire extinguishers. Like life jackets, they were the staples of safety gear. Type A, B or C. This type for that fire, I knew all the applications. However, it all seemed a moot point when faced with a real fire. Our survival may well depend on a bottle the size of an overgrown soda can. Sensing my doubt that this extinguisher would single-handedly save the day, Ralph drug the fresh water wash-down hose in from the cockpit and through the salon door. In concert, we both trained our apparatus’ on the orange spot and let ‘er eat! At this point I felt proactive. We were fighting the fire! One major effect of dowsing a fire is that the smoke will get much worse. Breathing was already difficult and I was soon overwhelmed with a terrible thought; that we were losing. That outcome hadn’t occurred to me. I couldn’t see much, but I knew it was time to go to plan B. Get everyone the hell out! I hate to lose, I always have. This situation I couldn’t talk my way out of, couldn’t reason with, or get a “do over.” I jumped down the hallway to the main stateroom where the life jackets were stored. As I grabbed a handful, I noticed the two Texans milling about in the V-berth. Could they have possibly not known what was going on? “Get out, get out, get out!” In rapid succession I screamed in their faces. My loss of composure stunned them even more. Captain panic? He seemed so sure and in charge this morning, is the thought I’m sure that was going through their minds. “We’re on fire, get out, get out, get out!” This time there was no question or discussion. It was either my persistence, or perhaps the view past my shoulder of smoke and flame as the vinyl headliner was beginning to melt. We raced up the companionway and vaulted over the open engine hatch like synchronized circus performers. It was time to make our exit and let my boat take care of itself.

Now, how to make a smooth transition from a burning boat in the middle of the Gulf Stream to safe and sound in my own bed. Never underestimate your ability or good luck! I raced back up the ladder to the bridge and told one of the Jersey boys, Jose, to make the distress call. I recall how calmly he kept reading our coordinates over the VHF radio. Slow and precise, “Mayday, mayday, mayday, this is the motor vessel Mr. Z. We have a fire onboard and request assistance. We are located at position 23:40.7 North and 082:07.6 West.” And again. Steve had already unstrapped the self-inflating life raft and was getting it ready to deploy. For an item the size of a suitcase it sure weighed a lot. One shiny thought was that I had gotten the life raft re-certified only two months earlier. How responsible of me! A pricey decision at the time, the cost over $800 just to have it repacked and filled with supplies, of which some I had a hard time believing I would ever need. The invoice I received back with the re-conditioned raft listed among other things, three boxes of Dramamine at $10 a box. Hardly a necessity when lost at sea with lives at risk. How ‘bout throw out the Dramamine and throw in another can of Spam? Even the red sticker showing which side of the raft to place up cost $15, installed. I tied off the painter line and Steve heaved the raft over the side. About a 20 foot drop from the bridge, so when it reached the end of its line… Pow! Instant raft. Not one of those cheesy little kiddy pool rafts either. This was an Avon 6 passenger canopied survival raft. Now, I know that if you do the math, 3 people are left out of the equation. But, we knew help was on its way. Wasn’t it? Jose confirmed that, yes, the Kilcare 8 did respond, was coming, and could, in fact, see our smoke. There, another problem solved, no flares would be needed! I ran back down the ladder, grabbed a life jacket which we had piled up earlier, and paused for a second to see who was present. They just stared, either at me or the raft. Did I really need to give the order? What part of “get the hell off” needed to be explained? For the next few moments there was nothing but the sound of wind and flame. No one said a word. The big orange raft waited patiently as if it was finally realizing its reason for being. As a life raft, it doesn’t get any better than this.

My thoughts were shattered by the least expected person. Steve, screamed, “Get the fuck off!” at the top of his lungs, and jumped from the bridge with painter line in hand. He hit the water signaling the mass exodus. We all jumped. I clambered into the raft first, for which I took a lot of grief later, since I was the Captain. I was immediately aware of just how small the inside of the raft was compared to the outside. Although, one thing that wasn’t making the raft seem small at all was the absence of any of the enclosed provisions I had paid for two months earlier! No water, first aid, fish hooks, Spam, no Dramamine… no nada, no nothing. Fortunately, help was on its way and the provisions weren’t the difference between dying and eating one of the guys from Jersey. Others followed me into the raft and I could hear voices outside the canopy. “Everyone O.K.?” I yelled. “Yes, all here.” came the response. Well, at least no one’s died … yet. “Can you see the Kilcare?” “Yes,” replied the voice I recognized as Steve’s from behind the canopy. I scooted across the raft to the opening and peered out. It was several miles away, but I could see the wall of water coming at us. There’s no more beautiful site than a 65 foot Hatteras coming at you at 32 knots.

A bit of calm came over me and the thought that maybe we were out of the woods. The raft jostled with the waves and I could now see the burning boat through the opening. “Shit!” someone cursed. The wind was blowing us back toward the boat. “Everybody kick!” came the command from outside the raft. Just our luck the raft had deployed on the windward side of the boat. Feeling somewhat helpless and mostly like a sissy for being inside the raft, I maintained my vigil at the opening hoping to see some distance between us and the now engulfed boat. Now came the most sinister event of all. One of the engines started up. As if possessed, the Mr. Z seemed to come alive and boy was he pissed! Hair stood up everywhere and people paddled even harder. I fully expected the boat to go into gear, turn, and run us down for our cowardly evacuation. The swimming crew put a few more yards between our raft and the boat and the running engine finally came to a permanent halt. The Kilcare 8 loomed ever closer and appeared to not be slowing as much as she should as she spun around to put her transom to us. Backing the Kilcare towards us, Capt. Mark and crew hauled us one by one onto the back deck. This was my first full vision of my burning boat and the site was devastating. He was now consumed with fire. Flames stretched from the door of the cabin to the top of the tower and smoke poured out of the tailpipes like a freight train. I realized the full show was soon to come as the two fifty-five gallon drums of diesel fuel on the back deck had yet to ignite. “Take pictures! Anyone have a camera? Take pictures, please!” I pleaded. Considering the circumstances, I knew pictures would be all important to the Coast Guard and my insurance company. Had the Coast Guard heard our mayday? Capt. Mark said he had talked to the Coast Guard Cutter Padre and they were under way. Only to wait now. I was aware of my labored breathing and thought that I might have suffered smoke inhalation, but… so what? We were all alive. Kicking. Wow, we got lucky, I thought.

Two hours of waiting and watching my livelihood burn down. Like a stoic Viking funeral or some insane weenie roast. Not much was said. Perhaps shock and awe. Everything was going, going, almost gone and now what to do? The cutter Padre arrived and joined us in the watching. I’m not sure what I expected them to do, but they were the Coast Guard after all. Couldn’t they do something? Sure, after burning to the waterline, they broke out the 50 caliber machine gun and filled it full of holes to sink it so it wouldn’t be a hazard to navigation. We were, after all, in the middle of the shipping lanes. I’d hate to cause a collision. Excuse me … pardon my wreckage … please don’t run over the smoldering embers that used to be my life. The Padre then proceeded on to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They were in the process of repatriating some Cuban rafters when our call came through. I wonder what those Cubans thought as they watched my boat burn. Did they think, “Wow, I wonder what poor bastard just got out of that raft?”
And how can I feel sorry for myself when I still have my house and life back in the good ‘ole USA. Their fate was uncertain at best.

Although, so was mine for the moment. The decision to go back to Key West was a given. Passports, now just lumps of coal in 5,000 feet of water, were necessary to gain entry into Cuba and without our other belongings there wasn’t much point in going on. After all, we were going to fish a tournament. Now we had not so much as a fish hook. The crew of the Kilcare 8 never even balked at the decision to crank it up and head home. Since the Coast Guard had arrived, the fire was doused and the carcass disposed of, there was a definite feeling of closure. Sure, the mourning would continue, but that could be done later and on familiar ground. The ride back was smooth and swift. I had shifted gears and now was in my recovery mode. “Nice boat,” I thought to myself knowing it was a little out of my price range even with the best of insurance settlements. The dust not fully settled and I was already planning my comeback! As we approached Key West the VHF radio was a buzz with facts, rumors, and speculation of that morning’s event. I was squarely in the spotlight. Not unaccustomed to it, but I would have preferred anonymity for the time being. It was a beautiful sunny day and every boat in the world was out. I sat quietly on the bridge listening to the chatter on the radio as we ran past familiar boats in the harbor. Idling through the no-wake zone I tried to count my blessings. No one died… No one got hurt … and no one died. O.K., the bright side wasn’t so shiny.

The Kilcare 8 had called ahead for dockage at the A and B Marina. They planned on spending the night in Key West and then setting out for Habana the next morning.
I did manage to save my cell phone and was on the horn with the Coast Guard as we docked. “Yes, I am the Captain of the Mr. Z… No, no one needs medical attention, we are all O.K. I’m sure you need me to fill out some report or something? No… maybe interview my crew? No… perhaps a drug test? Not necessary either? Well, thank you. Good bye.” I had to smile as I hung up; the United States Coast Guard Marine Safety Officer actually told me to, “Have a nice day.” Really.

It felt good to be back on solid ground. Well, not exactly solid. As I stepped off on the floating dock I noticed the sun shining, music from the bar, and bikinis. I walked a few slips away from the gathering crowd. Everyone wanted details, but were afraid to ask. I wasn’t easily identifiable. I might have appeared too calm, too ordinary to have just been through such an ordeal. I sat down cross legged in the middle of one of the empty piers and took an inventory of my back pack. A few hours earlier it had been soaking in salt water and was now starting to dry. A white powder had formed around the zippers and my foul weather jacket still held water. My wallet, keys, and calendar had been saved. The calendar was extremely important to me in that it contained future bookings of fishing charters. Maybe I didn’t have a boat right then, but I did still have the business. As I sat on the dock and considered where I could get a drink, my phone rang. “This is Craig,” came my standard greeting. “Yes, I was calling about booking one of your fishing charters for the beginning of next month,” said the cheerful voice on the other end. I took a short pause, a deep breath and carried on. “Sure, what day were you interested in?” I asked.

Read a newspaper article about the rescue.

 

 


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