Vineyard Haven harbor was lit up on Saturday evening by a fully involved boat fire. Tisbury firemen and harbor masters from two towns responded to a blaze aboard a 30-foot Catalina sailboat called Tippy Canoe, owned by Tyler Weggel of Port Washington, N.Y.
There were no injuries. The vessel, a total loss, now lies partially submerged, a black shell, in shallow water at the foot of Grove street.
Tisbury fire chief John Schilling said the fire, which probably started in the area of an alcohol cooking stove below deck, burned for an hour and a half before it was extinguished. The chief said it was difficult for his crew to get sufficient firefighting equipment to the burning boat in a timely fashion, even though it was anchored just outside the breakwater. Only after the boat was towed close to the foot of Grove street were firemen able to get sufficient water and foam onto the blaze.
Chief Schilling said the call came from the communications center at approximately 7:22 p.m. The call of fire brought police and emergency medical technicians to the scene. The Falmouth harbor master's office sent a boat, and they were the first to direct a significant amount of water on the fire.
Brian Allietta, a waterways assistant with the Falmouth harbor master's office, said they could see the smoke rising over the Island as they left Falmouth harbor.
Jay Wilbur, Tisbury harbor master, said he was attending the Tisbury Waterways Inc. clambake near the shore of Lake Tashmoo when his pager went off. In a short time he was out in his 25-foot patrol boat with three firemen and fire extinguishers.
"We got closer than we wanted to be," Mr. Wilbur said. "We lifted the anchor and towed the boat out of the mooring field," he said.
Once near the vessel, Mr. Wilbur said, they realized that the fire extinguishers weren't enough. "It was already beyond the point we could do anything," he said. When it was clear that they couldn't fight the fire, Mr. Wilbur said, the mission shifted to moving the boat away from others and close to shore where waiting firemen could fight the blaze.
"It was difficult for us to respond. We don't have firefighting equipment on the water," Chief Schilling said.
Mr. Allietta said it took less than 10 minutes to get from Falmouth to the scene on their 27-foot Boston Whaler patrol boat. "We had a dewatering pump that could also be used as a fire hose," he said. He said when they got to the scene, they picked up Tisbury firemen and began fighting the fire, following the boat as it was towed. "We got our bow within 10 feet of the boat. The heat was intense," Mr. Allietta said.
There were three boats in the area working to keep spectator boats a safe distance away, Mr. Allietta said.
A vessel from the U.S. Coast Guard in Woods Hole observed from a distance and did not give assistance.
Mr. Wilbur towed the boat to the shore, where firemen had set up a hose at the end of a dock.
Chief Schilling said that firemen were staged on the beach and at the end of a pier. Three fire trucks were set up with approximately 18 firemen. Water was put on the burning boat from a deck gun set up at the end of the dock.
It wasn't until 9 p.m. that the fire was extinguished. From the water, Mr. Allietta said, they watched as Tisbury firemen put water and foam on the smoldering vessel. Mr. Allietta said he and his crew had never seen such a conflagration before. "It was a good experience for us to help," he said.
Chief Schilling had praise for all those who participated in putting out the fire. "It seemed like forever, trying to put that fire out. When you are in the middle of something like this, you have no conception of time. The harbor master did a great job of towing the boat out of the mooring field. At one point while they were towing the boat, the deck collapsed and the mast and rigging fell into the water. Through that whole time, Jay was maneuvering the boat from others.
"I have high praise for the Falmouth harbor master office. They were tremendous. Their mutual aid was a big plus to the scene. They provided a platform for getting water onto the boat. They were the only ones with a small pump."
Mr. Wilbur said this is his 12th summer as harbor master. "I have seen a lot of boat fires, at least a dozen, but this was the most significant. The first step in any fire is to put it out. The second is to get the boat away from others," he said.
Mr. Wilbur said the owner of the boat is now homeless. He said Mr. Weggel had just moved aboard the boat from an apartment in New York.
In the days ahead, Chief Schilling said, his department will host a meeting for all parties involved to talk about the lessons learned. "We have these meetings after every incident," he said. "To my knowledge, none of the fire departments on the Island have a boat with fire-suppression capabilities. This is a subject we have been discussing in our department for a long time. We do have to deal with fire on the water. There is the Steamship Authority. There are fuel tanks. This is a subject that has been discussed for a long time. Now there is a greater sense of urgency."
Mr. Wilbur said that an oil containment boom with absorbent material now surrounds the boat. "The hull is there, though it was compromised by the heat. We believe 99 per cent of the oil and fuel was burned up."