Silent Flames On Cold Water

One of my clearest memories from childhood is of a cold October night when I stood helpless on the shore  with two hundred other people and watched a beautiful sailing yacht burn.

I lived in Connecticut near a large boat marina. Yachts from all over the world would would come in and tie up to the dock. As a kid, I didn’t  think about the incredible amounts of money they must have cost, or what type of people could afford them.  I was struck more by the pure beauty of the vessels.

It was a cold dark night and my father came into my room and said he had seen fire trucks going towards the marina. He and I got into his old Buick Le Sabre with giant tail fins and raced to see what was going on.

When we got to the docks, we could see two fire trucks and a lot of people standing around, but at first we could not locate the fire. Then we saw that everyone was staring at a beautiful  wooden two-masted sailing vessel with teak decks. It seemed to be somehow glowing in the dark.

The boat was not a racing vessel, but one meant for comfortable luxurious sailing.  It had a large cabin with large windows, instead of little port holes. Through the widows we could clearly see the flames as they burned the inside of the yacht.

It was an odd sensation, since there was no sound at all from the fire. The boat was locked up tight and the windows were very thick and strong. They were meant to withstand the pounding of heavy seas, but instead were holding back a fire.

No one knew the who the owners of the yacht were. They had sailed in from another state and a limousine had picked them up at the dock. No one knew how to contact them.

I asked my dad why the firemen did not break the windows and start pouring water on the fire. He explained that if they smashed the windows, oxygen would rush in to feed the fire and make it much worse. The firemen were hoping the fire would run out of oxygen and stop itself.

But oxygen must have been getting into the cabin from some sort of opening, since the fire showed no sign of letting up. Then my father pointed out the real problem. Against all the rules of the marina, the owners of this boat had left it tied up to the gas dock.  This burning vessel was tied to a dock with tanks that held thousands of gallons of gas and diesel fuel.  If the flames spread from the boat to the gas dock, the entire marina and all the other yachts in it could go up in flames. No amount of hosing down the gas dock would be able to stop the disaster.

It was only a matter of time until the fire in the cabin would get powerful enough to break through the windows and start the gas dock on fire. There was only one thing to do.

The marina’s launch pulled up to the burning yacht and and man tied a rope to the cleat at the bow of the yacht. Then another man untied the ropes holding the yacht to the gas dock. It was an incredibly dangerous act. If the flames had burst through the yacht cabin at that moment and hit the gas dock, both of those men would have died instantly.

The launch  towed the burning yacht into the center of the harbor away from all the other boats. Then the launch raced  away from the danger as quickly as possible.  The town had no fireboat, so there was nothing left to do now but watch the yacht burn.

No more than five minutes after the launch had towed the yacht away from the gas dock, there was the sound of shattering glass and the flames broke through the windows. My father was right about the oxygen feeding the fire. As soon ad the windows broke, the fire tripled in size and for the first time we could hear the roar of the flames.

Even in those days, a solid wooden yacht was rare. Fiberglass is so much easier to maintain. The wood hull and the teak decks burned quickly. The flames shot up the two masts. The crowd on the shore was silent as the vessel died. There were no shouts of “Wow!” or “Look at that!” A yacht like that is something of a moving piece of art. Real sailors feel a boat that beautiful is somehow alive.

The yacht burned down to the waterline, and the crowd started to leave. My father and I got into the giant car and drove home.  We did not feel like speaking on the ride back. It was as if we had just attended a funeral. This was long before the days of cell phones with cameras, so there are no videos or pictures to record this event. The Buick Le Sabre with the giant fins in no more, and even my father is gone. But somehow the memory of that night still burns as brightly as silent flames on the cold water.


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