Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Night We Lost "Moriah"

The Demise of our Friend and Home
Sailing Vessel
A 1983  Vagabond 47

August 10 th, 2009, a beautiful day on the Chesapeake and day 16 of living aboard “Moriah” as full time cruisers. My wife and I had sold our home in Wake Forest, North Carolina and moved aboard “Moriah” to pursue our dream of cruising. The weeks preceding moving aboard were hectic. Selling our home, most of our belongings and moving “Moriah” from Florida to North Carolina and making arrangements to retire from work. We arrived at Bay Point Marina (Norfolk, Virginia) on Monday, August 3rd, a little over a week after moving aboard “Moriah” in Morehead City, NC.   Unbeknown to us, August 10th would be our last full day living aboard “Moriah”. Mother nature held “Moriah’s” fate in the skies above Hampton Roads.

Our journey to find “Moriah” began in August of 2008 after selling our Catalina 380 “Priceless”. Ginny and I spent untold hours looking at boats on the internet and trying to determine the perfect cruising sailboat for us. This would be our 4th and last sailboat so we needed to get it right. We traveled north as far as Rock Hall, Maryland, south to Florida and west as far as New Orleans looking at vessels. None of the boats we saw were quite right for us until we found “Moriah” in December of 2008. She was located in St. Marks, Florida which is on the gulf coast south of Tallahassee. The owners accepted our offer and we agreed to have “Moriah” hauled and surveyed in the Tampa Bay area in the spring of 2009.

April 24 th, 2009 we purchased “Moriah”. The previous owners purchased her in 1996 and had updated many of her systems and maintained her beautifully. They had cruised on “Moriah” for 5 years in the Caribbean and therefore she was equipped with all the items a cruising couple would need.  Ginny and I put nearly 1500 nautical miles under “Moriah’s” keel since leaving the west coast of Florida and moving her offshore to North Carolina and up the intracoastal waterway to Virginia. We had become very comfortable with her systems and her nautical nature. She was a fine sailing vessel and home.

Monday, August 10th was a nice day, sunny and warm and we spent the day mostly cleaning and organizing. I spent part of the day washing and cleaning “Moriah’s” stainless steel rails and prepping the decks for future brightwork projects. I was itching to re-varnish the teak on “Moriah’s” topsides and watch her transform back into her most beautiful classic pose.  We met a local naval architect the previous week after arriving in Norfolk and he had us on his scheduled for Tuesday morning August 11th to review our vessel and help us establish a comprehensive maintenance plan before shoving off to the Bahamas. Our overall plan was to wait out hurricane season in Norfolk and carry out various maintenance and upgrade projects. After hurricane season we planned to go south to the Bahamas for December through May and then move back up the east coast to the Chesapeake for the 2010 Hurricane Season.

Monday evening we had a nice dinner onboard and watched TV in ‘Moriah’s” main salon. As usual, I fell asleep watching the tube and Ginny retired to the aft cabin after watching a movie. Approximately 12:30am I woke up, turned the TV off and crawled into bed with my wife in the aft cabin. After a few minutes, I could feel “Moriah” begin to heel in the slip so I looked out the aft port to see what was going on. The wind was picking up, I could see white caps across Little Creek and I also noticed distant cloud to cloud lightning. Nothing unusual for summer in Hampton Roads so I rolled over and tried to go to sleep. “Moriah” continued to heel in the slip and within a few minutes I heard one loud clap of thunder and thought to myself, "that was close". Within a couple minutes I began to smell an odd odor. It was an odor I didn’t recognize and I recall thinking to myself "you need to get up and check it out". I recall taking a couple more whiffs and bam the fire alarms went off. I jumped up and ran into the main salon to find it completely engulfed in heavy smoke. I yelled for Ginny to get up and headed back to the aft cabin. I told her we had no time to look for anything or even put on our clothes. We needed to get her off the boat. I open the companionway hatch and helped Ginny get onto the dock. She was in her panties, no shoes and a tee-shirt. She recalled looking at her watch and it was 1:00am.  I backed down the companionway and grabbed the fire extinguisher. Before I could arm the unit flames began to come up at me. Having on only a tee-shirt and shorts, I couldn’t withstand the flames and heavy smoke. I knew I had to get out and had to do so quickly. I climbed up the companionway and jumped onto the dock.

Ginny told me later I was saying “oh my god, we are going to lose our boat” as I hit the dock. I recall trying to get the water hose off “Moriah’s” deck however it got stuck. Someone handed me a water hose and it didn’t work. We began beating on adjacent boats to warn everyone of the fire. Someone on the dock called 911 as several nearby boats left the dock to avoid the fire which was raging out of control. We were in slip B56 which was at the very end of B-dock and about 500 ft from land. A tug boat seemed to have come out of nowhere and came up close to “Moriah’s” port stern quarter. It appeared to be spraying some water on the fire but not a sufficient amount to do much good. The fire moved aft and caught the aft stern deck lockers on fire and shortly thereafter the propane tank vented and shot a fireball off the stern. The tug backed off as the dinghy and dinghy fuel tank caught fire. Everyone on the dock was afraid other boats were going to catch fire before the fire department arrived. Within a few minutes we heard the sirens and saw the firemen running the water hose down the dock. The Norfolk Fire Department did a fantastic job of getting to the scene quickly and putting the fire out on “Moriah” before it spread to other boats. We were waiting at the end of the dock for the fireman to get the fire under control and I recall a gentleman coming up to us and saying he saw the lightning strike at the end of our dock from the bathhouse. 

The fire chief and Coast Guard both interviewed Ginny and I that evening. We told them of the events leading up to and preceding the fire and they were very professional and courteous. The fire chief had his men go back onboard to see if they could retrieve our car keys and wallets. Ginny and I were absolutely amazed that they found them and that everything worked (credit cards and keyless remote). In shock, tired and thankful for being able to get off the boat without being burned or killed, we went in search of a place to spend the rest of the night. At approximately 3:30 our heads hit the pillows at the Days Inn about a mile from the Marina.

After rolling around the rest of the night in disbelief of what had happened I got up and went back to the marina around 7:00 am to make sure “Moriah” was still secured to the dock and had not sunk in the slip. There she was, sitting upright in her slip, still floating with her decks a charred mess. The mizzen mast was dangling from the single sideband antenna attached to the main mast. It was a sickening sight. Our beautiful home and friend the victim of a fire started by lightning. As I stood there sick to my stomach looking at “Moriah”, Josh Johnson the naval architect we were going to meet with at 9:15 am came around the corner. He stopped, paused and said “I heard the 5:30am news about a fire on a 47’ sailboat at Bay Point Marina and I was praying it wasn’t your boat. Oh my God. This is awful.” Without hesitation, Josh befriended me and began to tell me all of the things I needed to take care of until the insurance company took possession of the vessel. I can’t thank Josh enough for his support and kindness. Josh is a very special person and his advice at a time when I was in a state of mental haze will always be remembered by Ginny and I.

The next week was filled with many chores dealing with the insurance company, arson investigators, the marina, marine surveyors and the like all while living at the local Days Inn. It was surreal to realize we were homeless and most of our personal belongings were destroyed. The most important question Ginny and I had to answer was “did we want to continue our quest and buy another boat?” Without hesitation we both answered “yes”. It was clear, if we had lived in a house and it burned due to a lightning strike, we wouldn’t hesitate to purchase another house. We saw no difference in our story. We chose to sell our home and move aboard “Moriah”. We just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and mother nature caused a fire that destroyed our home. Fire burns many homes each year and we just happen to be included in this year’s list. As far as Ginny and I can remember no one in our collective families going back as far as our grandparents on both sides have lost a home or anything substantial to fire. We hope our event satisfies the fire gods and we hope he leaves our family alone for many generations to come.

The insurance company declared "Moriah" a total loss and she will be cut and sold for scrap.

We were blessed to go through this ordeal without being injured or worse and would like to share some procedures that saved our lives and other procedures you may want to consider when at the dock or offshore.

 1.    Check your smoke detectors and fire alarms. Make sure you strategically place these units in enough places throughout your vessel to give you early warning in case of a fire. Check the units on a regular schedule and make sure they are loud. These devices saved our lives. While you are at it, make sure you have several carbon monoxide detectors onboard as well.

2.    Plan for a fire emergency. Plan your escape route. Make sure you have two exit routes if possible. Practice exiting your cabin through deck hatches if you have them and they are large enough. You may only have 2 minutes to get off your vessel before it’s engulfed in flames. That’s all we had.

3.    Regardless if you are at the dock or offshore make sure you have a ditch bag ready to go. You may want to have one for offshore and one for when you are at the dock. You don’t have time to look for it and it should be kept in the cockpit or with you in your cabin. We had an offshore ditch bag but since we were at the dock it was stowed away under a settee in the main salon. The main salon was full of smoke and flames and we had to leave the boat in our underwear. You may want to consider having the following items in your dock ditch bag. Your prescription drugs, wallets, car keys, glasses, flash light, shorts and shoes, cell phone, hand held VHF radio and cash.

4.    Opt for large fire extinguishers and make sure there’s one or more in every cabin and several on the deck and in the cockpit. If you are trapped it may knock down enough flames to keep you from getting burned while exiting the vessel. Better yet it may have enough retardant to put the fire out or at least buy a few extra minutes.

5.    When at the dock do not leave your hose on the deck of your yacht. Murphy will make sure it’s either tangled or inaccessible when you need it. Make sure it is reeled or coiled on the dock and is ready to go.

6.    Read, re-read and read your insurance policy over and over until you are sure you know what is covered. There’s typically an amount for hull insurance. This covers and includes everything you put on your boat having to do with it’s operation, safety and navigation. Then there’s coverage for personal effects (be careful with this one), medical coverage, third party liability, environmental spills, towing and other coverage. Keep a list of improvements you make to your vessel. If you upgrade electronics, bring personal safety devices onboard, upgrade your dinghy and outboard make sure you up negotiate with your insurance company and increase your hull overall coverage otherwise you may find out after it’s too late that you are under insured.

Wishing you safe awesome sailing, blue skies, electric blue water and white sandy bottoms.

 Capt. Jesse Price

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