When I tell people I’m a former shipboard radio operator, they always ask if I ever sent an SOS. Well, almost…
I was working on a car carrier, essentially just a big shoe box on a hull, with living quarters on top. We had just loaded cars straight out of the factory in Nagoya. You could still smell the paint. The ship has big blowers to ventilate the cargo holds and cars are packed in just 6 inches apart, strapped down (with the transmission in ‘park’ if auto or first gear if a standard with the parking brake on for extra hold).
The was a typhoon offshore and we were making full speed to get ahead of it. The ship was surging (also called pitching) and we were banging into a heavy head sea. it was nothing the ship couldn’t handle but it is annoying to feel a huge bang every 30 seconds as you hit the waves.
We had just come up from our 10:15 coffee break when all the alarms went crazy. The fire control panel on the bridge lit up like a Christmas tree. We had fire in five decks and we all went to our fire stations.
First we shut off the ventilation for the cargo holds so we wouldn’t fan the flames. The captain took control and sent the chief mate to close up all the ventilation hatches while they opened the hatch door to try and fight the fire with the hoses. Acrid black smoke and flames came roaring out. The AC power was going off and on as circuit breakers tripped all over the ship — but somehow they kept the power on despite heavy smoke in the engine room.
The fire was incredibly hot and the deck began to melt and sag in places. I could feel cars exploding in the hold like popcorn in a kettle. The water was just making steam and things weren’t looking good. I went to the chart room and got our last position at 10:15. I couldn’t send an SOS without the captain’s order because that would expose the shipowners to salvage claims. Instead I sent a PAN notice XXX in Morse code advising ships we were on fire and dead in the water, and our position.
In just a few minutes I had 3 QSL’s and ships were standing by in case we had to abandon ship. On car carriers you can’t just lower the boats because you would bang against the ship and break the lifeboats. You have to swing out the boat, jump in and fasten a 4-point seat restraint and just pull the release and free fall 90 ft. The captain said they did it in the shipyard for the Coast Guard inspection and it wasn’t too bad, but doing it in heavy seas is another matter. Fortunately by then the chief mate had secured all the open ventilators and they fought the fire until they could reach the fire control room. There they released thousands of gallons of CO2 into the holds and eventually the fire was out.
I cancelled the XXX broadcast but it was nice to know that we had help nearby if we needed it. The age old system worked just as it was meant to. In all we burnt up over 5,000 cars out of 7,800 on board and the ship was a wreck.
It would take a month to repair it. The fire investigator believed that the surging of the ship had caused a defective starter to engage on a vehicle with a standard transmission. With straps holding it and the parking break on it couldn’t move and the wire to the starting motor became red hot. The wire in turn was secured to the fender well with a clamp. The fender well was made of a composite material and caught fire and burned very hot triggering a runaway “domino effect” as car after car caught fire.
It was a nice ship and it came to Boston not far from my home but after the fire I gave up the job. I knew I’d never be at ease on a car carrier again, and that was my one and only almost SOS.