A cruising couple must react fast to save themselves when an onboard fire quickly envelops their sailboat about 40 miles offshore.
Sandpiper on a mooring in Santiago, Mexico, not long before her final voyage.
The morning of May 13, 2016, we sailed our 43-foot Island Packet, Sandpiper, out of Marina Cortez in La Paz, on the Baja Peninsula, to begin a 250-mile passage to our home port of Mazatlán, Mexico. Weather reports predicted little or no wind for our crossing of the Sea of Cortez, so, anticipating lots of motoring, we topped off our fuel before departing. Perhaps it was leaving on Friday the 13th, bad luck, or maybe fate, but this was to be Sandpiper's final voyage.
The first day's run took us 65 miles to the small village of Bahía de Los Suenos (Bay of Dreams), where we anchored, had an early dinner, and retired for the evening. At daybreak, we raised anchor and began the 200-mile passage across the sea to Mazatlán. With no wind and a flat sea, the boat was moving well, making 8 knots with our turbocharged diesel engine turning over at 2,500 rpm.
Around noon, some 40 miles out, we noticed smoke drifting up the companionway. Anticipating an issue with the alternator, we immediately shut down the engine and electrical panel and disconnected it from the batteries. On inspection, everything in the engine compartment looked fine. But when we looked into the quarter berth, we saw a small fire at the foot of the bed, just above the rear-access engine hatch.
We had multiple fire extinguishers in place, and we immediately used one. The Type ABC dry-chemical extinguisher, designed for flammable liquid and electrical fires, smothered the fire. At this point, we thought we'd saved the day, but within a minute the fire returned — twice as big as before. We used a second dry chemical extinguisher and snuffed it out again. So far so good, but the powder and smoke made it difficult to breathe.
The fire erupted once more — this time, the whole quarter berth became engulfed in flames. We reached for our third fire extinguisher, but this one failed to work at all, despite the fact that we'd checked that they were all indicating green before leaving from La Paz.
Despite having three fire extinguishers on board, Ed and Annette were unable to snuff out the flames before they engulfed Sandpiper.
The situation was hopeless. We scrambled up to the cockpit. As we struggled frantically to remove the lines for deploying the life raft and dinghy, the fire emerged from the companionway and ignited the canvas dodger. With a roar, the entire dodger, bimini cover, and side sunshades burst into flames.
We had no choice but to jump into the ocean to escape the flames. We'd both suffered second- and third-degree flash burns — although we didn't immediately feel our injuries — and found ourselves in the water without life vests or flotation of any kind. The dinghy above us ignited, and both it and the life raft were soon in flames. It had taken less than five minutes from the time we noticed the initial smoke to our being in the water.
Within another minute, the fire had burned through the lines holding the dinghy and fenders attached to the stern of the boat, and the whole mess fell into the ocean. We splashed water onto the burning dingy and jettisoned the outboard-engine gas tank before it could explode. As we drifted away from our boat, it continued to burn furiously, and the propane and fuel tanks exploded.
We collected spare lines from the dinghy and retied the fenders so we could use them as floats. The dinghy remained floating, barely, having lost most of its inflation tubing. Fortunately, it had a rigid fiberglass bottom with an air pocket, so it didn't sink. We were able to recover the oars, which floated as well.
For the next 90 minutes, we treaded water and attempted to right the dinghy so we could get out of the water. All of our attempts to attach flotation failed. As we contemplated a different strategy, a sportfishing boat appeared on the horizon. We later learned they'd been more than 20 miles away when they saw the smoke. We frantically waved an oar until they saw us. With great relief, we were quickly brought aboard. As we sped away, we watched Sandpiper burn to the waterline and sink.
Annette was suffering from shock and hypothermia. Once out of the water, we saw that we both had serious open burn wounds on our arms and legs. Our rescuers took us to the fishing village of Los Barriles, where an ambulance took us to a local clinic and our wounds were bandaged. For the first time, we were able to call home and communicate our situation to friends and relatives. Next, we were taken 40 miles south by ambulance to Saint Luke's Hospital in San Jose del Cabo.
An agent from the U.S. Embassy helped us with temporary passports, we were met by our son Gavin at LAX airport, and we were never happier to arrive in California's Channel Islands. The day after that, we were examined by a top burn specialist, who had Ed admitted to the Ventura County Medical Center, anticipating he would need skin grafts. Fortunately, over the next four days his condition improved, and grafts were not necessary. In time, our wounds healed. We'll never know the cause of the fire, but we know we're lucky to be alive, and we plan to incorporate the lessons we learned from this ordeal into our next boat.
Ed Staples, a retired physicist, and his wife, Annette Alexander, a retired schoolteacher, have cruised to Mexico the last eight years along a route following the Southern California ports. The loss of Sandpiper was covered by their insurance policy, and they recently purchased a 2006 Catalina Morgan 44. Their "new" boat will be rigged with a fire-suppression system in the engine compartment, a temperature sensor in the engine compartment with a gauge at the helm station, and 50-foot collapsible fabric hoses in the fore and aft heads that will be plugged into the freshwater system. "Chances are it won't happen again," Staples says. "But just in case, we're ready for it."
— Ed Staples and Annette Alexander