The heat is on for a life-saving lesson

A blaze is put out
A blaze is put out
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It shouldn’t really have been a surprise, but the heat coming from the blazing radar unit was extraordinary.

In the confined surroundings of the vessel’s bridge, the near-deafening fire alarm klaxon still echoing, the temperature was quickly rising, the flames licking towards the blackened ceiling.

The urge to unlock the steel bridge door and get to fresh air outside was growing.

Then one of the team brought the CO2 fire extinguisher in to action, blasting the gas at the source of the blaze. The flames flickered and died.

As exercises go, this had been at times uncomfortably close to the real thing. The ship’s bridge was a mock-up inside a fire simulator operated by Vortec Marine Training, the flames courtesy of a gas burner. Outside was not the rolling sea but the more solid surroundings of Universal Marina on the banks of the River Hamble in Sarisbury Green.

The trainees on this day were all highly-experienced sailors, with numerous Volvo Ocean Race, Vendee Globe, America’s Cup and Olympic credits among their CVs. Despite the thousands of sea miles logged however, none had ever had to face a serious fire on board.

‘Dealing with a fire at sea and what you’d do to cope with it is not one of the standard chats you have when you go on board a boat,’ said Ian Moore, twice a Volvo Race winner. He added: ‘It probably should be.’

He, along with Jonny Malbon, Ian Budgen and Andy Beadsworth, had accepted Vortec’s invitation to get a taste of the fire training on offer.

‘A fire at sea in a modern boat can cause all kinds of problems,’ said Moore. ‘The bigger yachts have electric winches and lots of hydraulic systems – if you lose those they can be very difficult to sail or even control.

‘I guess the key is if you can fight the fire quickly and efficiently in the first 30 seconds you give yourself a chance. Having the training and knowing the correct way to deal with the fire immediately buys you the time to deal with any problems and stops things spiralling out of control and may stop you going swimming.

‘Going in to the simulator makes it very real. You realise how difficult it is to fight a fire and how disorientating it can be.’

Vortec recently acquired the two-storey simulator from the RNLI who had used it extensively in training its own crews.

Apart from the mocked-up bridge area, the unit also has a replica engine room capable of producing six-foot high flames, and an aft cabin which can be flooded to replicate a hull breach.

One of the simulations graphically demonstrated the urgent need to tackle a fire quickly. With the radar set ablaze, managing director and lead instructor on the day Ross Collingwood told the small group to go down on one knee. After a short pause he got them to stand. The temperature was already significantly higher in the upper half of the bridge.

Back on one knee and the artificial smoke was already starting to mark a defined boundary between the temperature zones.

At floor level it was around 25-30 degrees C, standing up it was over 50, making it hard to breathe. Add to that the fact that in a real fire toxic smoke would be in the mix, and staying down low seemed a very good idea.

‘The best lessons are taught from experience and our aim is to provide people with as much hands-on experience as we can,’ said Collingwood.

‘I’m not going to say that fire is one of the biggest problems people face at sea because it isn’t, but when it does happen it can be a major problem.

‘The unit will prepare people for the pressures they could face in this kind of situation.’

All those who took part in the morning session came away with the realisation that fire training was a little considered issue.

Vortec are offering the training as an add-on to ISAF and sea survival courses, or as a standalone. Other training centres will also be able to use the facility.

‘Man overboard is something that is discussed,’ said Jonny Malbon, who took part in the 2008 Vendee Globe and now sails aboard superyachts. ‘It’s sobering to think how many miles we’ve sailed as a group on many different boats without anyone having had any fire training. I’ve never had any.

‘I had never thought about how I would deal with a fire at sea. The simulator gives you the chance to find out. I would recommend to anyone to come and do the course.’