The report into the fire and loss of the MFV ‘Suzanne II’ east of Arklow on the 2 May 2019 has been released by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB).

The ‘Suzanne II’ sank after a fire started in the engine room but the report found that the source of the fire in the whereabouts of the engine room is unknown. 

The report describes how the fishing vessel had been operating 30 nautical miles east of Arklow. The weather at the time was good. Having just completed a successful haul the boat was stopped while the crew were taking a break between fishing activities when a crewmember observed smoke coming from an engine room vent.

The skipper went to investigate the source of the smoke and soon realised that there was a serious fire in the engine room. He made an attempt to fight the fire but the level of smoke hampered any effort. The smoke and fire very quickly engulfed the vessel’s accommodation and wheel house. The crew retrieved the vessel’s Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) and abandoned-ship to an inflatable life raft. 

A passing angling vessel sighted the smoke from the burning fishing vessel and proceeded in the direction to investigate. On arriving on-scene the angling vessel recovered the three crew members from their life raft. Shortly afterwards the Irish Coast Guard rescue helicopter R117 arrived and lowered a paramedic to assess the crew from the fishing vessel. 

The Skipper was airlifted to University Hospital Waterford from where he was later discharged, while the two other crew members were brought to Arklow Harbour. 

A short time later a tug boat with fire fighting capabilities arrived on-scene and commenced fighting the fire onboard the fishing vessel. The fishing vessel continued to burn and eventually sank.

The Drogheda registered, 17.67m long ‘Suzanne II’ was built in France in 1965 and operated as a trawler until fitted out for crab pot fishing. The wooden built carvel hulled fishing vessel was powered by a Volvo Penta TMD 121C generating 253.67 kW.

The boat was crewed by the skipper and two deckhands who were all male. The skipper and senior crewman were experienced fishermen male, and holders of Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) Restricted Operators Certificates (ROC) and had completed Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) Basic Safety Training. This was the second crewman’s first day on a fishing vessel. He had no qualifications and no safety training.

The vessel’s skipper was at the helm position and observed what he thought was steam coming from the engine header tank which was located forward of the wheel house. The system had been leaking and airlocks were common. He asked one of the crew to investigate. 

The crew member proceeded out of the wheelhouse and onto the shelter deck to fill the engine header tank. Once on the shelter deck he observed smoke coming from one of the engine room vents. He quickly returned to the wheelhouse to raise the alarm. 

The skipper immediately handed over the wheel to the other crew member and went below to investigate. 

On arriving at the entrance to the engine room he observed thick smoke and flames. He went to retrieve a fire extinguisher and when he returned to the engine room hatch he quickly became engulfed in smoke and had to retreat. 

The fire continued to take hold with smoke now starting to fill the entire accommodation and wheelhouse. 

The skipper attempted to send out a distress message by VHF radio but it was unanswered. Realising the extent of the fire he instructed the crew to launch the vessel’s inflatable life raft. He then retrieved the vessel’s EPIRB and all three crew members proceeded to abandon the vessel into the life raft. 

Once the crew were safely in the life raft they activated the EPIRB and manoeuvred the raft away from the burning vessel. 

Shortly after the EPIRB had been activated the vessel’s details and position were received by MRCC Dublin. Attempts to contact the vessel by VHF radio were made by Rosslare and Wicklow Head CGR. No reply was received. MRCC Dublin requested the assistance of all vessels in the area to keep a sharp lookout for any vessel in distress. The Coast Guard requested the assistance of the Wicklow and Arklow RNLI ALB and also tasked the Coast Guard rescue helicopter R117 to the last known position of the fishing vessel.

An angling vessel on passage from Wales to Arklow observed smoke from the burning fishing vessel and proceeded in the direction to investigate. Due to the distance from shore the angling vessel had not heard radio communications from Wicklow Head or Rosslare CGR. 

Once the angling vessel arrived on scene it recovered the casualties from the life raft and proceeded to Arklow Harbour. 

Shortly after the crew had been taken aboard the angling vessel the Irish Coast Guard rescue helicopter R117 arrived on scene and lowered a paramedic to assess the three casualties from the fishing vessel. The skipper, who had attempted to extinguish the fire, was suffering from smoke inhalation while the other two crew members did not require immediate medical attention. 

The injured skipper was airlifted to University Hospital Waterford while the remaining two crew members were transferred to the Arklow RNLI ALB to be brought ashore and to be assessed by a local doctor. 

A tug with fire fighting capabilities arrived on-scene and attempted to extinguish the fire.  

At 16.54 hrs the fishing vessel sank and with the incident over the Coast Guard stood down all assisting assets.

Report Analysis 

The fishing vessel had been fishing all morning without incident. The vessel had been surveyed 10 months previously by the MSO with no conditions or restrictions on the vessel’s DOS. 

The weather conditions at the time of the incident were very good. This enabled the abandonment and subsequent rescue effort. 

All crew members were in the wheelhouse at the time of the incident and the vessel was not engaged in working pots. This allowed for a timely response.

The engine was running but the telegraph was in the stop position as the vessel drifted in calm weather while the crew were taking a break. At this point there was no reason for concern and the engine was running normally. 

Once the crew member reported smoke from the engine room vent, the skipper quickly went to investigate. At the entrance hatch to the engine room the skipper was faced with thick black smoke and sighting flames he made an initial attempt to extinguish the fire but realised it was out of control. The skipper could not see the source of the fire so it is therefore inconclusive as to its cause. 

There was no effort made to contain the fire and keep the boundary cool. It was determined that the fire had advanced beyond what the crew were capable of dealing with.  

The vessel’s fire detection system failed to operate. Had it done so the fire would have been detected earlier. 

The fire detection system was inspected and tested as part of the vessel’s DOS which was carried out in July 2018. It is not known when the system was last tested after that and prior to the fire. The vessel’s logbooks were lost in the incident. 

Regulations (S.I. 640 of 2007) state the following: ‘131. (a) Inspections of the lifesaving equipment and fire appliances shall be made at intervals of not more than one month.’  

The vessel was an ‘existing vessel’ in 2007 and accordingly the lesser requirements of Regulation 80(17) of S.I. 640 of 2007 (see Appendix 7.3 Statutory Instrument) applied to the fire detection system. (For vessels constructed since 2007 fire detection systems must comply with the International Fire Safety Systems (FSS) Code, which requires the system to include a visual and audible fault signal).  

The need for improved safety standards in fishing vessels of this type has been highlighted in the Maritime Safety Strategy. The Irish Maritime Administration (IMA) in pursuit of their strategic objectives will carry out a number of actions, one being: ‘Action 9. The standards for fishing vessels less than 24 metres in length will be updated, incorporating relevant MCIB recommendations. (Start 2015).’ (See https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/d00485-maritime-safety-strategy/ for the April 2015 Maritime Safety Strategy). 

The vessel’s engine room was fitted with a fixed automatic fire extinguishing medium. This either failed to activate or more likely activated, but due to the fact the engine room space was not sealed it would have had little effect on a fire of this magnitude. The vessel’s engine room was also fitted with a fixed sprinkler system that was linked to a manual fire pump. This was not utilised due to the speed at which the vessel became engulfed in smoke. 

The skipper made an attempt at sending a distress message by VHF radio. He did not attempt to send a Digital Select Calling (DSC) call by VHF radio. The broadcast was not heard by any coast radio stations. This is most likely due to the limited range of the vessel’s VHF radio. A DSC message would have been restricted in the same way. 

The crew recovered the vessel’s EPIRB and activated it which successfully relay via satellites to the MRCC Dublin. 

The crew successfully launched the vessel’s life raft and abandoned it with no major injuries. This demonstrates that the Skipper and one of the crewmember’s safety training had been effective. 

The angling vessel that saw the smoke from the burning fishing vessel came to their assistance in a short period of time and recovered the crew from their life raft. This further improved the survivability of the crew members from the fishing vessel. 

From arriving on-scene the tug with fire fighting capabilities continued to fight the fire but failed to get it under control or extinguish it. The photographs in Appendix 7.1 clearly show that by the time the tug arrived the entire vessel was engulfed in flames. 

The fire had been burning for approximately three hours when, resulting from the damage caused by the fire and the efforts to extinguish it, the vessel finally sank.  

The Maritime Safety Strategy published by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in April 2015 details a number of actions, two of which are relevant to this case as follows: ‘Action 9. The standards for fishing vessels less than 24 metres in length will be updated, incorporating relevant MCIB recommendations. (Start in 2015).’ ‘Action 29: An enhanced flag state inspection regime on fishing vessels will be implemented to promote adherence to maritime safety requirement in the sector. (Start in 2016).’

Report Conclusion

The source of the fire is unknown. It started in the engine room and rapidly got out of control. Once the fire was well established it engulfed the vessel and being of timber construction it continued to fuel the fire until the entire vessel was ablaze (see Appendix 7.1 Photographs No. 2, 3 & 4). 

Had it been possible to contain the fire by closing dampers and access hatches this might have starved the fire of oxygen and allowed the crew more time in preparing to abandon the vessel. It is, however, unlikely that a fire of this ferocity could have been fully contained and extinguished by the vessel’s crew. 

Whether the fire detection system did sound but was not heard or whether it failed to alert the crew is unknown. Most likely the fire detection system did not sound as it is improbable that it would not have been heard. Not sounding could have been due to a recent defect or a longer standing one that would have been picked up if there was a monthly check, or damaged by the fire itself before it could sound. There is no record as to when the system was last tested or inspected as the vessel’s onboard records were lost in the incident. Regulations (S.I. 640 0f 2007) state the following: ‘131. (a) Inspections of the life-saving equipment and fire appliances shall be made at intervals of not more than one month.’ It is a requirement under the Regulations to carry out monthly inspections. The fire detection system functioning properly and sounding would have given the crew earlier warning of the fire and possibly have enabled a more effective effort at fighting the fire. 

The crew were quick to investigate the fire and determine it was out of control. It is the key to a successful rescue to know when to abandon ship. 

The abandon ship procedure was carried out successfully. 

The EPIRB activation facilitated notification to the Coast Guard who quickly activated an emergency response. 

The damage caused by a fire burning for this duration and the tug’s continued attempt at fire fighting resulted in a loss of buoyancy and the eventual sinking of the fishing vessel. 

The incident occurred in daylight and the weather conditions at the time were very favourable. This facilitated a successful launch of the life raft and the subsequent transfer of the crew to the passing angling vessel. Had the incident occurred at night or in more adverse weather conditions the outcome may have been very different.  

Actions No. 9 and No. 29 set out in the Maritime Safety Strategy are relevant to the issues raised in this report.

Safety Recommendations

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport should issue a Marine Notice reminding owners, skippers, officers and crews of fishing vessels of the following: • the requirement for all crew to have basic safety training as per S.I. 587 of 2001. • their obligations as per S.I. 640 of 2007 with emphasis on ensuring that fire alarms are regularly tested and maintained in an operational condition. The Marine Notice should include guidance on the inspection and testing of fire detection systems onboard fishing vessels of 15-24 metres in length. 

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport should review Actions No. 9 and No. 29 of the Maritime Safety Strategy in relation to their implementation and specifically for pre-2007 fishing vessels in relation to the matters raised in this report: ‘Action 9. The standards for fishing vessels less than 24 metres in length will be updated, incorporating relevant MCIB recommendations. (Start in 2015).’ ‘Action 29: An enhanced flag state inspection regime on fishing vessels will be implemented to promote adherence to maritime safety requirement in the sector. (Start in 2016).’

MCIB Report into the loss of MFV ‘Suzanne II’ published

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