THE INITIAL CONTACT It was Friday morning mid-summer. Myself, my partner and our staff of eight, comprising of marine investigators, surveyors and administration personnel were preparing for a weekend on our motor cruiser; cruising, skiing and fishing during the day, then good food and a few drinks at a chosen port in the evenings. This was pretty much a consistent weekend summer plan unless of course work got in the way and most times it did. Summer in the Eastern Mediterranean was a holiday destination for most, however a bit of a nightmare for entities like ours that operate an immediate response service 24/7 to deal with the many casualties arising out of the population of over 100,000 yachts.
Just as we were planning the weekend, a call came through from our UK underwriters. I happened to answer the phone. It was Peter the lead claims manager of a large insurance company that uses us regularly to deal with their marine claims problems around the Mediterranean, Caribbean and beyond.
Peter explained that a large 30 metre classic sailing yacht had gone aground near a nearby island, was now heading towards the mainland and could I intercept it at a certain port. I was instructed to inspect the damage and comment on whether it was a safe insurance risk, also whether the yacht was seaworthy enough to continue its journey onwards to the Western Mediterranean.
Following a few telephone calls, contact with the Croatian owner and the English Captain, we rendezvoused in a local port where I was to inspect the vessel.
THE PHYSICAL CONTACT
The inspection revealed that the hull had sustained some impact damage at the forefront of the keel. This had disturbed the keel bolts and stern tube where the propeller shaft exits the vessel, causing slight water leakage.
My recommendations to the owner and the insurance company were that it was vital to have the vessel hauled ashore in a boatyard for further inspection. It was probable that the condition would worsen with use, possibly leading to excessive water ingress that could endanger the yacht and its crew.
The owner was very much against this action as he had a deadline for the yachts next destination, where it was booked by a charter party for a two-week charter cruise. He was reluctant to lose the charter income and incur further expenses in the area where he was currently. Instead he promised to take the vessel to the nearest foreign port for further inspection before the charter, where he was familiar with the repair facilities and where costs were much lower.
Following discussions with the insurance company, we eventually agreed that this could be done under certain restrictions involving reduced speed, the use of the engine only (No sail due to stress related issues) and during fair weather conditions. Agreement was reached and the vessel departed on its journey in good weather.
Nothing further was heard regarding the incident other than the owner had reported safe passage to his destination. We were not instructed to take any further action at that stage, as the owner had reported that repairs had been successfully completed and these had been supported by photographs, therefore the file was closed.
THE REPORTED FIRE CLAIM & THE INITIAL INVESTIGATION
About six weeks had elapsed and the end of the chartering season was ending, when one afternoon we were contacted by the insurance company. They advised that the subject vessel had just been reported by the owner to have sunk in shallow water within the harbour of a Mediterranean island, having caught fire. The claim was for 3 million Euros and we were expected to respond and attend immediately to investigate the circumstances of the loss.
The Underwriters followed up with a copy of the claim form completed by the owner that explained very little about the circumstances surrounding this loss, other than the vessel caught fire during the evening and later sank in the harbour.
We mustered together man power and equipment then myself and four members of my team proceeded to the island, arriving the next morning. Witnesses, the Harbour Master, the Fire Brigade and the Captain of the vessel were first interviewed to obtain a comprehensive log of the sequence of events which can be summarised as follows:
It appeared that following a reasonably full charter season, the vessel had completed its last charter in the Eastern Mediterranean a few days before and then proceeded on passage arriving on the subject island off the coast of the mainland during early morning.
The vessel was moored with a bow anchor, stern to the quay in the harbour, secured by mooring ropes astern. The stern transom was located directly in front of petrol and diesel fuel pumps used for the supply of fuel to local vessels. It was the owner’s intention to complete one more charter prior to the end of the season.
The island was very small, populated by a few hundred people, with few facilities and a daily ferry or hydrofoil link to the mainland some distance away. The harbour which was small, contained one main quay and was completely sheltered from all sea conditions. The quay at which the subject vessel was moored, contained the fuelling facilities, with several small fishing vessels and dinghies moored to port and starboard of the subject vessel. The water depth in this area varied between 4-5 metres.
Judging by the conditions on the night of our arrival on the island, the subject quay was in complete darkness and desolate with no persons appearing to wander in that direction.
Both the owner and the vessel were known on the island, due to the vessels frequent visits to the port.
During the first day, the five crew on board had rested and at approximately 18:00 hours that evening, the owner referred to as “A” together with a young crew member referred to as “E” were seen by the Captain (“B”) to have departed from the vessel with several heavy bags. These were stated to have contained carpets and souvenirs purchased from Lebanon. The owner travelled together with his crew member “E” to the mainland, where the bags were given to a friend of the owner and purportedly transported to his home on a Mediterranean island. Both men travelled back to the subject island on the next ferry boat arriving later that evening.
The following day, cleaning work was effected onboard, during which time the bilges were stated to have been flushed through with freshwater.
During early evening the four crew members “B”, “C”, “D” & “E” went ashore. (It was later discovered that the owner had ordered them to go ashore as he had some private matters to attend to). That evening the owner “A” was left onboard by himself and from all accounts no other persons were near the vessel.
In a statement later obtained from the owner, he stated that at about 21:00 hours, one of the generators providing AC power to the vessel had been operational for about five hours charging the batteries, when it was shut down. The owner stated that he was worried about leaving water in the bilges, therefore he evacuated the water from the bilges using the bilge pumping system and following various other tasks, he decided to go ashore to join the other members of crew at a restaurant.
The young crew member “E”, being ashore and having purchased an item of clothing from a local shop, returned to the vessel around the time when the owner was allegedly changing, to then go ashore. “E” boarded the vessel, went to his cabin, stored the goods, tidied his bunk and proceeded to the saloon to drink some juice with a view to going back ashore. Here there are conflicting stories as to what happened next.
The owner “A” stated that just prior to changing, he saw the crew member “E” arrive onboard and asked him to wait about fifteen minutes, whilst he changed, so they could leave the vessel together. Having changed “A” went out on deck with a view to leaving the vessel, when he decided to return to the accommodation, to make himself a cup of coffee, purportedly as he wanted to stay awake during the evening.
To make the coffee, he said he had to operate one of the two diesel generators to have 220 volts AC power in the galley to boil water. The owner said he started one of the generators, which had not been operational for some time and immediately sensed that something was wrong. He opened the engine room hatch and noted fire coming from the generator that was running. He closed the hatch and shut down the generator then waited for the automatic fire extinguisher to activate. A few minutes later he inspected the saloon bilge, which is located forward of the engine room and noted a severe fire within.
Attempts were then made with the vessels fire extinguishers by both men to extinguish the fire without success, to the point where the owner decided to move the vessel away from the quay, to avoid fire contact with the fuel station aft.
The crew member “E” had at first indicated that he saw the owner try to start the generator, which did not operate and then realised there was a fire; however, at a later stage he stated that he remembered that the generator was running at the time that he realised there was a fire. This was quite a substantial inconsistency.
Both the owner and the crew member “E” then attempted to move the vessel away from the quay, followed by assistance from other persons who had by now arrived at the scene. The other three crew members also returned to the yacht, having seen the blaze from the other side of the port.
The vessel was eventually moved approximately 20 metres away from the quay and secured in the middle of the harbour where the fire burnt until about 05:30 hours the next morning, resulting in the vessel sinking in 4 metres of water.
Because of the incident, the Captain “B” received minor injuries to his legs. No fire injuries were received by any other members of the crew or others and no other vessels were damaged.
The vessel was burnt in its entirety to the waterline and the only items remaining intact were a dinghy and outboard motor.
For all intents and purposes, in insurance terms, the vessel was a constructive total loss.
Enquiries continued on the island and comprehensive written statements were taken from all crew members, the owner and other witnesses as well as the authorities.
One of our local agents was instructed to attend to assist with translations and dealing with the salvage companies. He arrived that afternoon and negotiations took place throughout that evening with the proposed salvage team. Hard discussions were entered into in respect of the economics of the operation, relating to the work effected so far and the disposal operation.
Written contracts were then drafted and signed by all parties, agreeing to a US$ 100,000.00 fee, binding the salvage team to disposing of the wreck once we had completed our fire investigation.
Now having control of the situation with regards to written witness evidence, we realised that there were too many inconsistencies. Having checked out the owner’s antecedent history, we were reasonably confident at that stage that the circumstances described by the owner and the crew member “E” were perhaps not as truthful as first stated.
We had to work fast as we were pressurised by the harbour authorities to have the wreck removed. It was causing an obstruction to other vessels entering and leaving the harbour.
We contacted a reputable marine fire expert and his colleague in the UK, both of whom were also experienced divers and instructed them to attend the scene. They arrived the following morning together with their equipment and lost no time in diving on the wreck.
Within a short period of two hours, the diving inspection was completed, as they had by now discovered the cause of the fire which was paramount to the investigation and indicated that the fire, had on the balance of probabilities, been started deliberately. Our work had now begun.
To be continued….
Submitted by Full member F2016 - Ray Ashton of RA & A (UK) Ltd. See www.rayashton.eu for further info.