Boat on Fire in Hamilton Harbour!

Summary: Sailboat on fire in Hamilton Harbour, Mayday call, and rescue. Notes on marine VHF emergency communications, the Coast Guard, HMCS Haida, LaSalle Yacht Club, HMCS Star, Burlington Lift Bridge, Hamilton West Marina, Lake Ontario, etc.

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July 1st, Canada Day long weekend, 2007:

We had sailed to Hamilton from Port Credit, about 25 miles, for the long weekend and were visiting Dave’s Aunt and Uncle on their boat at Harbour West Marina. (Hamilton is at the extreme west end of Lake Ontario. Access to Hamilton Harbour is through the Burlington Lift Bridge. Hamilton Harbour is roughly a triangle with the bridge as its base. From Hamilton to the bridge is just under 4 miles. The widest section of the harbour is about 2 miles. See the lake chart.) The plan was to visit and spend one night at the slip next to them, and the next night at anchor in Carol’s Cove.

On Sunday, two of Dave’s sisters and a couple of their friends joined us for a short sail in Hamilton Harbour, a sail we expected to be about two or three hours long.








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We had the mainsail, mizzen and biggest Genoa up and were having a nice sail on a beautiful day. We visited the HMCS STAR Navy basin to make a pass by the HMCS Haida, a ship which has been made into a tourist attraction, and then worked our way upwind from there towards the lift bridge (Winds were light SE, ESE). After getting up near the Fisheries and Oceans building by the Lift Bridge, we turned downwind and sailed slowly on a broad reach, or wing-on-wing, heading for Carol’s Cove to anchor for lunch.

Dave always listens to the marine radio when we’re sailing, so when we heard “Mayday! Mayday!”, we stopped talking and immediately paid close attention. The Coast Guard came on requesting further contact with the station that had called, “Mayday”, but received no response. After a minute or so, the Coast Guard gave a general message to all boaters on Lake Ontario to be on the look-out for flares or other signals from a boat in trouble.

Lake Ontario is one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world (18,960 square Km or 7,320 square miles). Marine VHF radio’s range is limited to line-of-sight, so we get a maximum of about 25 miles of coverage with our masthead antenna. Since we had heard the original Mayday call, the vessel would have had to have been within that distance, which works out to an area of something like 500 square miles (circular area of nearly 2000 square miles, but due to the shape of the lake in that region, roughly only one quadrant of the circle would actually be water, so 1/4 of the 2000). That is a lot of water to cover, and with no further radio transmissions, the Coast Guard had no way of knowing where that vessel was.

Dave instructed our passengers to each scan in a different direction looking for flares or anything out of the ordinary, and, amazingly, one of them saw a flare. Dave was about to call the Coast Guard to give them the approximate location of the boat in trouble just as someone else made the call. The harbour isn’t huge and we could see the boat in the distance using binoculars, just east of the LaSalle Yacht Club in Burlington, north-east of Hamilton. As we hurriedly took down the sails, Dave started the engine and turned the boat around to go to the distressed boat. At that point we were in the center of the harbour, adjacent to the Harbour West Marina.

We could see a plume of black smoke rising from a sailboat near LaSalle Yacht Club. We made our best speed towards it to lend assistance. A Police Zodiac launched from their marine facility in the Harbour West basin and whipped by us at top speed. All the boats in the area converged on the sailboat to assist.

By the time we had motored the mile or so to the scene, other boaters had already plucked the sailor and his dog safely from the water, and were in the process of transferring them to the Police boat.

The boat was fully engulfed in flame, and we could only watch as the boat’s mast fell into the water and the flames shot ten feet in the air.

As we understand it, the owner had had only enough time to say “Mayday, Mayday” over the radio before being forced out of the cabin and having to abandon ship, throwing his dog into the lake and jumping in after, with flares in-hand. Apparently, he had actually launched them from the water.

The police had picked up the sailor and his dog from the rescuing power boat, wrapped the sailor in a thermal blanket, and stayed on-station so that the man (who didn’t need medical assistance) could witness his unfortunate boat’s fate.

Shortly after the initial distress call, the barge which contained the fireworks for the July 1st celebrations (Canada Day) had come through the Burlington Lift Bridge being pushed by a tug. Instead of going toward Hamilton to set up for the evening’s fireworks display, they looped around and went to the burning boat, staying upwind of it. The barge/tug had huge water hoses due to the fireworks and the men proceeded to wet their own ropes which were securing the barge to the tug, and then began to fight the fire on the sailboat.

Dave had two radios going in the cockpit and was monitoring various channels simultaneously, following conversations between the Coast Guard, Police, Barge, and others directly involved in the situation. Eventually we heard a radio message from the barge to the police asking for their advice: The sailboat fire was not going out and they were afraid they were going to fill the boat with water and sink it. The police determined from the owner that there were only 20 liters of fuel on board, so there would be limited environmental impact in sinking the boat. Since it was clearly a total loss, they suggested continuing to fight the fire, as they didn’t want the burning hull drifting ashore.

We didn’t stay until the bitter end as our guests were on a schedule, but we heard later that the boat did, in fact, sink.

We felt terrible for the poor sailor who lost his boat. It was really quite unsettling to see how easily and especially how quickly that sort of calamity could happen to any of us. But the response we witnessed by local boaters, the Police, and the Coast Guard was very heartening. The rescue happened quickly, and communications were handled briskly and professionally. It’s good to know that so many in the boating community are willing to immediately lend assistance. We also felt that despite the terrible circumstance, this sailor was fortunate in that he was in an area which was highly populated with boaters on a good day and was visible for some distance.


© Copyright 2008 David S. Malar and Angelika Jardine. All rights reserved.
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