05 July 2015

Facing hell

Besides the danger of sinking or capsizing, fire at sea is, probably, the most dramatic event that a seafarer may face while on duty at sea. To the layman a fire at sea doesn't sound so different as the same scenario ashore. Nothing could be further from the truth. When a fire erupts on a ship at sea, the crewmembers can't go anywhere. They can not retreat to a safer distance, assess the situation and then return to face it, already in the possession of a solid strategy and probably assisted by professional fire-fighters. No. At sea, at two days voyage from the nearest port and unable to be assisted in a short practical amount of time, they have to face the monster themselves. Or resign. And watch the vessel burn to ashes.
Since only a few Merchant Marine units worldwide have a team of professional fire-fighters on board, merchant mariners worldwide have to perform that duty if the divine providence puts them in the presence of such a scary moment. The Advanced Fire Fighting Course was one of the several courses we had to take before our seafaring books were issued and we were considered ready to surf the mighty ocean.
When we made the AFFC, in the early nineties, in Alfeite (Lisbon Naval Base), we were all far from imagine how stressful a real fire-fighting situation could be. A few years later I would recognize the valuable instruction that we received in those two intensive days, when we had a small (it was really small!) fire in the ship's galley. Nothing special. Just a paint of oil from the roast chicken that slipped from the tray and ignited the moment it touched its heating elements. In took us a mere ten seconds since the cookie screamed "fire" to storm the galley with a Chemical Powder Fire Extinguisher and we had already to find our way to the source of the fire like blind people, unable to see more than two fingers in front of our faces. From that moment on, surrounded by a black, thick and impenetrable smoke, I developed a deep respect about fires on liquid fuels. One could only hardly imagine the same scenario in the engine room.
Bulkhead in flames for a demonstration of fire suppression techniques using ABC Chemical Powder Fire Extinguishers, in Lisbon Naval Base. The correct technique is here demonstrated: you have to fight the fire from the lower level to the higher one, pointing the fire extinguisher's nozzle from down to up. The smart use of the fire extinguisher's available capacity is the most important factor while fighting a fire.
Picture taken with Pentax SF1 and Pentax 50mm f/1.7 KAF lens on Fujicolor HR100. Scanning in Nikon Coolscan V ED and post-processing in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.