'Scary stuff' in icy conditions
ANNA TURNER AND CAROLINE KING
DAMAGED: Amaltal Columbia has been towed into Lyttelton.
As a fireball engulfed a fishing boat off Christchurch's coast, Louise Kissane and 40 other crew members scrambled to their lifeboats amid "terrifying conditions" in icy, rough waters.
The Nelson-based Amaltal Columbia trawler, owned by Talley's, was 85 kilometres northeast of the Lyttelton heads when a blaze broke out in the fishmeal hold about 5.20am.
After about two hours on deck in wintry conditions, the 41 crew members, who all escaped injury, were forced to brave the choppy waters and climb onto lifeboats after the captain gave the order to abandon ship.
"Imagine climbing down the side of your ship in rough weather . . . It was pretty scary stuff being out in the middle of nowhere with no land in sight and the weather was quite bad," Kissane, a kitchen assistant, told The Press.
Kissane was preparing for her morning shift when the alarms rang out on the 64-metre factory trawler.
"I heard people running overhead. I just grabbed my jacket and my hat and did what we were supposed to do - head to the deck."
Up on deck, it was dark and cold and "a lot of smoke" filled the air.
"It was rough, it was really windy and cold. The captain was really good; he told everyone what to do and made sure everyone was ready. There was a lot of smoke but I didn't really know how bad it was," Kissane said.
The crew huddled on deck for several hours. Kissane said she never imagined they would have to abandon ship.
"Honestly, I never thought we were going to have to get off. I thought they would put the fire out and we'd be fine.
"We prepare for this hundreds of times but you just never think it's going to happen."
Below them, the boat had burst into a "a fireball from the bow to the stern," Talley's Group managing director Peter Talley said yesterday.
The crew fought the blaze for several hours until their air supplies were exhausted.
The captain, Chris Fitzpatrick, of Nelson, had to abandon the wheelhouse due to "thick, black smoke". He gave the call to abandon the trawler about 7.50am.
The boat had lost its power and ability to steer, and hot spots could be seen along the 64m vessel's hull from the air.
Two rival fishing boats, the Ivan Golubets, owned by Independent Fisheries, and the San Discovery, responded to the Amaltal Columbia's mayday call and arrived at the scene about 8.10am.
Independent Fisheries general manager Mark Allison said the crew of the Ivan Golubets were very experienced and handled the situation well. "The weather conditions were not in our favour. It made it a longer process . . . We had a successful result in that there was no loss of life or injury. That was great."
Competition among companies did not come into play on the water, Allison said.
"It's human life. The safety of the crew was the priority, regardless of what crew you are and what vessel you are".
Talley's Nelson chief executive Tony Hazlett was equally proud of his crew.
"We have had better days, but we are well trained for fires and no-one was hurt so I think they did very well."
Hazlett said the call to flee the ship was not taken lightly.
"When the captain gives the abandon-ship order he has a good reason for doing so."
It was lucky the ship had not been further out to sea, he said.
"It could have taken a lot longer to get to them."
The crew arrived safely in Lyttelton about 2pm yesterday, where they enjoyed food and drink before being flown back to Nelson. Some of the senior staff would speak to maritime authorities today.
Counselling would be made available for the crew, who had been three weeks into a 45-day trip. The magnitude of what happened on board was still sinking in for many.
"We're just in shock. I don't really know what to say. I'm just really glad everybody is fine," Kissane said. "We're a pretty tough bunch, but we have been shaken. We can't believe this happened."
However, she said the experience would not put her off returning to sea.
"Not at all, but it hasn't been the best day. I think I need a cuddle."
The ship was being towed back to Lyttelton harbour last night and would be investigated by the Transport Accident Investigation Commission.
Hazlett said he hoped the ship was "salvageable".
"It's sitting at about a five degree list, but to me it looks very salvageable. We do hope to save the vessel".
In the meantime, the crew members would be deployed to other fishing vessels, Hazlett said.
"It is going to impact [economically] but at the end of the day we just wanted to get the crew off safely".
He said he was grateful to the other ships for going to the vessel's aid. "I really want to thank them for helping us in this situation. I want to thank the community of Lyttelton as well who have been very supportive during this day."
Source: The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand.