The Seattle Yacht Club Marina Fire
in January 2002
I am the current (and 15th) owner/custodian of a classic raised deck cruiser named GLORYBE. GLORYBE is a beautiful 36 foot double-ender that was built in 1914 at the Taylor-Grandy boatyard on Vashon Island, just west of Seattle, and one of the older boats in the Pacific Northwest Classic Yacht Association (CYA) fleet. She’s a special boat who has won the hearts of her owners over the years and has brought smiles to the faces of many visitors. Unfortunately, GLORYBE was one of many boats that burned in a tragic fire at the Seattle Yacht Club several weeks ago (January 2002).
The violent fire blazed for several hours on a blustery snowy evening, with exploding gas tanks and propane tanks fueling the inferno. Bystanders watched helplessly as the fire swept down the dock from boat to boat. While flames leapt from GLORYBE’s stern, the roof of the dock above her collapsed and fell onto her. She rolled on her side, still burning, and sank.– Her anchor caught on the dock’s water pipe which kept a portion of her forward starboard side visible. The subsequent 10 days were very challenging because I really had no idea about GLORYBE’S condition. The docks that remained were cordoned off to allow the fire investigation to proceed unimpeded and to prevent a subsequent fire given the huge amount of spilled fuel in the boomed-off area around the sunken boats. In the “incident command center” (shared by the Coast Guard, Fire Department, and various private companies overseeing the salvage and environmental containment operations), there was a map showing the moorage locations for each of the 20 affected boats – next to some it said “damaged” and next to others, including GLORYBE, it read “gone”. Needless to say, I was heartbroken.
At long last the salvage operation was underway –the highlight was seeing in action the last remaining steam-powered barge crane on the West coast! Divers went down under the boat to assess GLORYBE’s condition and took lines down to bring the slings around the boat. GLORYBE was then lifted up in slings in exactly the same orientation she was in the water – on her port side. Once her port rail cleared the water there was an incredibly quick moment when the crane operator somehow managed to shift the slings to flop GLORYBE into the water right side up. This was the most moving moment of this whole experience for me. She floated! After all she had been through, missing her pilot house and badly burned, she never forgot how to be a boat. She floated, and within minutes she was holding on her deck a few people who were finalizing the rigging for the final lift to the barge. Happily, the lift to the barge was uneventful, she was blocked up well, and the barge took the boats to an area on land which was set up to contain any environmental hazards. Over two weeks after the fire I was finally able to see GLORYBE up close and examine the specific damage. It was devastating to see. Both the structure and contents of her pilothouse had vanished entirely, many frames, deck beams and planks were charred or gone, and the forward deck and cockpit were badly burned.
I have been learning a lot since the fire, and will attempt to share a few of my thoughts here. I have experienced the “best” of community during this devastating period in my life and learned through my grief how uniquely supportive the wooden boat community can be. I was reminded how significant a role a boat can play in people’s lives, as I reflected on my own loss, and re-connected with GLORYBE’s 12th, 13th and 14th owners and shared stories about the boat. I also went through “Marine Insurance 101” – learning about things like pollution coverage, “subrogation”, “agreed value insurance” and the National Pollution Funds Center.
I would never have thought that I would be called upon to rely on my marine insurance for an incident arising while my boat was just moored at the dock. But I’m very grateful that I had the marine insurance coverage that I did -- this experience could have been a nightmare otherwise. Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself about your own marine insurance policy: Do you have an agreed-value policy or an actual cash value (includes depreciation) policy? Is the value of your boat current based on your most recent survey? Are you clear which items on your boat are considered part of the value of the “hull”? (e.g. any electronic devices which are mounted are likely to be considered part of the boat itself, whereas a handheld device would likely be considered personal property.) What is your liability coverage (what if a fire at a marina started by faulty wiring on your boat?) Does your moorage provider require a minimum amount of liability coverage on your part and do you have it? Are you assuming that liability issues regarding your boat are covered under your personal umbrella policy? (some umbrella policies have marine exclusions; with some you can purchase that exclusion back to be covered). What is your coverage for salvage of your boat – getting it off the bottom of the lake? What is your pollution coverage? Pollution coverage may be shown as a separate coverage or it may be included in your marine liability coverage (the liability coverage is sometimes called “protection and indemnity”, or “P&I”). What is your personal property coverage? Do you know what personal property you have gathered onto your boat over the years?
Because my insurance policy was based on an agreed value between myself and the insurer, the process of filing the claim and receiving the check was very straight-forward and I had a check for the total value of the boat within weeks of the accident. (I’ll also say that my insurer made a point of handling the claim very expediently.)
Pollution coverage was actually the most important part of my coverage. The owners of the boats that sunk heard a presentation by a representative the National Pollution Funds Center. I am no expert on their operations, but the gist I got from his presentation is that in a typical pollution incident, the Coast Guard fronts the money to get the clean up done. Then they go to the involved parties to get reimbursed. The typical scenario is for the Fund to bill “jointly and severally” each of the boats involved, independent of who caused the pollution, with payment expected in 30 days. It’s then up to the owners (or the insurance carriers when appropriate) to agree amongst themselves how the costs should be allocated to the various boats. In other words, the Coast Guard isn’t in the business of determining where the fault lies or figuring out the algorithm for apportioning the costs. In this case, the clean-up operation was extensive and the cost is going likely to be in the millions. I feel very fortunate that my policy had adequate pollution coverage. In addition to paying for the pollution cleanup, we boat owners were also responsible for filing a pollution containment plan. In our case, the group of boat owners hired a private company to generate and execute that plan. Nonetheless, we were responsible for having the plan in place
I have become aware of a variety of other things as well. I learned that when a boat sinks in fresh water (as opposed to salt water) there is a better chance of the diesel engine being ok. I learned that upon getting the boat up and out of the water it was important to “pickle” the engine immediately – putting diesel into the engine so there isn’t air in the cylinders to cause rust. Another random thing I learned is that the roof of the yacht club docks where I was moored was made by putting gravel into tar. The fire burned so hot it melted the tar, leaving bucketsful of gravel to cascade into the affected boats.
GLORYBE has been a tremendous teacher for me – my experiences with her have taught me things ranging from deck beams to docking, from planking and caulking to navigating and anchoring. I am thrilled to report that her “teaching” days are going to continue, and to a broader audience. GLORYBE is being taken up to the boatshop of the Marine Carpentry Program at Seattle Central Community College, an active vocational training program for boatbuilders since 1936 (and where I’m currently a student.) The website there is http://www.seattlecentral.org/wood/ and there will be photos of GloryBe’s restoration as it progresses.
I think it is ironic and heartwarming that the boat which fared the best in this tragic fire is by generations the oldest boat. Thanks to her quality craftsmanship this becomes just one more dramatic episode in the lively history of this classic representative of Northwest craftsmanship and maritime history.