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M/Y Limitless, a 100-foot Hargrave, caught fire and sank on March 6 while on charter in the British Virgin Islands. Capt. Marvin Wilson reported that he, his crew of four, and six passengers escaped unharmed.
Formerly named M/Y Da Bubba and Katina, the yacht was under way about 3:45 p.m. from Bitter End, Virgin Gorda, to Scrub Island when the starboard engine stopped.
“I sent the first officer down to check and he saw smoke and flames,” Capt. Wilson said.
“On my way down I saw smoke out of the port exhaust,” First Mate Carson Reddick, 23, said. When Reddick got to the engine room door, he saw flames through the window.
The captain went to the engine room and pulled the CO2 fire suppression system when he realized he could not stop the fire. Capt. Wilson called for an abandon ship and made a mayday call, crawling on his hands and knees through the thick smoke, he said.
Reddick alerted the crew to gather passengers to the muster station.
Chief Stew Katie Leetz, 23, said this was her first major emergency onboard and that all of the crew remembered their STCW training.
“Instinct took over, we knew exactly what to do,” Leetz said by phone from a hotel on Scrub Island the day after. “I never thought it would happen to me, but it actually happened.”
Primary charter guest Dorsey Houtz was sunning on the fly deck that afternoon.
“I felt the captain bring the boat to a stop and I saw black smoke on the port side,” Houtz said. He walked to the stern and found the crew in action.
“The stew was already there doing head counts, a guest kept the wheel forward, and the stew got the lifeboat,” Houtz said. “The head stew was headed to the master to gather more guests.”
When the incident started, Leetz instructed Stew/Deck Anna Mikhaylishin, 20, to find guests in the bow cabin as she looked for another one.
“I went to the bridge and realized one guest was missing,” Leetz said. “I woke her and did a head count out loud.”
Meanwhile, Reddick and Chef Gabe Hanlen monitored guests on the aft deck.
“Smoke started suffocating us and our eyes were watering,” Leetz said. “Most people die from smoke, I always knew that, but I never experienced it.”
She said she recalled her training and felt comfortable in her duties.
“My job is to account for all and secure lifejackets on people,” she said. “Often they panic and can’t properly buckle them. And I kept counting heads.”
“They crew kept us coordinated,” charter guest Houtz said. “It was scary; it happened so fast.”
By this time, the salon filled with smoke and was billowing out.
“Literally within three minutes we were all on the aft deck,” Houtz said.
At the same time, Capt. Wilson went to the bow to secure the yacht.
“I dropped and locked the anchor to prevent the boat from drifting over us in the water,” he said.
Reddick, Hanlen and two guests pulled the painter as the tender was a distance from the stern. Leetz and Mikhaylishin prepared the guests to get in the water.
“It was not safe to get into the boat,” Leetz said. Smoke continued to grow and the stews continued to check on the passengers.
“The guest would stand to see what was going on while the tender was being pulled in,” Mikhaylishin said. “We got them down, you don’t want to breathe that kind of smoke for too long.”
“None of us could really breathe,” Leetz said. “Even though we could jump, the water felt so far away.”
“It was six-foot seas and there was no way to get passengers on the tender,” Houtz said. With secured pfds, the guests slid in and held on to each other, Leetz said.
“We made a chain of people in the water and we looked back. There were 30-foot flames,” she said. “We could feel the heat.”
“The mate threw a line, the captain swam to us and the mate towed us away from the boat,” Leetz said.
The crew helped the guests into the tender when it was well away from the burning boat, and Capt. Wilson requested permission from the coast guard to leave the scene to get the guests to safety. They headed to Scrub Island.
Capt. Wilson said the time of the incident, from smoke to abandon ship, was fast.
“The yacht sank a couple of hours later,” he said.
Taking a breath after the fire
Two days after the fire, Capt. Marvin Wilson, crew and guests began to replace phones, clothes and other items that sank with the yacht. Guest Houtz said all those physical possessions are replaceable.
“If we weren’t wearing it, we don’t have it,” he said. “But we’re all safe.”
Safely on land at a hotel on Scrub Island, the group talked about the experience. Houtz said although it was terrifying, he is ready to get on another yacht and charter again. The captain attributes that to the crew’s work during the emergency.
“The guests said the crew was so demanding, ‘move here, keep your heads down, move there’,” Capt. Wilson said. “When I said sweep, they went from room to room. Everyone did their job and they kept the passengers calm. No one was emotional, they were like rocks.”
Capt. Wilson said the crew had recently done a fire drill onboard.
“Only doing things like that over and over makes it second nature,” he said.
“This goes to show, you need to be calm,” he said. “The crew were outstanding. We’re all safe, and they’re still waiting on us.”
Looking forward after a look back
A week after the incident Capt. Wilson was at sea delivering the tender back to Ft. Lauderdale and Reddick, Leetz and Mikhaylishin stopped by The Triton office to offer details. There were many firsts on this trip, including everyone’s first major fire onboard.
“It was Anna’s first charter,” Leetz said. “And it was the guests’ first yacht charter.”
Even so, Reddick said the crew’s proper action during the incident was a testament to a good and well-trained team.
“It was not all one person,” he said.
But just as important as the teamwork during the abandon ship was the delegation of responsibilities.
“It’s important people know the rules and this was a prime example of leadership,” he said.
Carson stepped into the leadership role well, as did Leetz, Mikhaylishin said. And she surprised herself a bit with how well she reacted.
“We looked at each other and knew what to do,” Mikhaylishin said.
“I was pleasantly surprised to learn the entire crew worked well under pressure,” Leetz said.
“And how well we worked together,” Mikhaylishin added. “And the guests reacted well. I thought they would be in a frenzy but they listened and were cooperative.”
Reliving the heat of the flames and smell of the smoke made each of the three pause.
“The worse has happened, it can only go up from here,” Mikhaylishin said. “Close your eyes and that’s all you see.”
This past week, Reddick has had trouble sleeping because he imagines if the fire had happened at night. Although he doesn’t like that thought, he’s ready to get back onboard. He and the stews have stringent requirements for their next yacht job.
“I will clarify that others know what to do,” Reddick said. “I would recommend we do drills as accurately and realistically as possible.”
“I agree, we didn’t think we would ever have to do this,” Leetz said.
“This is something you definitely want to ask about, to confirm they do drills and will practice,” Mikhaylishin said.
She wants more than a well-trained crew in case of emergency.
“It’s important that the boat is equipped and prepared,” Mikhaylishin said. “If there is a fire, you can’t just walk out the door on a yacht.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.
Click to see video of M/Y Limitless on fire.
PHOTOS from Chef Gabe Hanlen.