HEADLINE: Luxury launch burns and sinks
BYLINE: By Karina Cooper
Three minutes was all it took for a luxury launch to become engulfed in flames in the Bay of Islands on Boxing Day, the inferno destroying the vessel almost to water level.
Emergency services fought the fire for four hours before the 18-metre fibreglass launch sank near Moturua Island. A Coastguard spokesperson said the owners were on a boat nearby when the blaze started at around 1pm.
An 18-year-old Auckland holiday-maker was heading to a fishing spot with his father aboard their boat when he saw thick black smoke.
"I knew it wasn't good, as black smoke means there is something serious burning," he said.
The pair, concerned that people might be on board the burning launch and in danger, made a swift U-turn and headed towards the blaze, just as they overheard Coastguard's mayday call on the radio. The teenager said a message relayed over the channel reported large quantities of diesel fuel aboard the launch.
The pair subsequently retreated to a safe distance, and were relieved to hear that the occupants were safe. They, and others on nearby boats, then looked on as some on nearby vessels attempted to douse the inferno until help arrived.
Passengers and crew aboard the tall ship R Tucker Thompson had anchored for their lunch stop when they looked south and saw flames. Senior master Ben Willoughby alerted Russell Radio, and was asked to help.
"We still had some of our own passengers on the beach, and we hurriedly got them back aboard and sent our tender to the stricken vessel to see if we might help in getting people off the [launch]," Willoughby said.
He also used his vessel's fire hose to attack the flames, but "we were not at it for long, as another large vessel came in at the same time and also started hosing the vessel, which was now burnt and melted down to a few feet from the water and still pretty much an inferno".
The Department of Conservation asked Willoughby to move away from the scene.
Coastguard Bay of Islands volunteers, directed by a Fire and Emergency NZ representative, subsequently arrived armed with a pump and began to smother the flames with water, having established the fuel type, and whether anything explosive was on board, with the owners. They had little impact, however, before a Salt Air Tours helicopter then attacked the blaze with a monsoon bucket.
"It wasn't depressing the fire. It was smoking up the boat and the fire was still raging," the teenager said.
For around two hours he and his father could only watch as flames engulfed the launch.
Fire and Emergency eventually stood the Coastguard and helicopter down before the diesel began to burn and the inferno intensified.
The distraught owners were ferried ashore by Coastguard volunteers to family waiting in Paihia.
Booms were placed around the site to contain contaminants, along with buoys to warn boaties of the wreckage.
Coastguard NZ urged boaties to ensure that electrical work was carried out by a qualified electrician, that their vessel had a warrant of electrical fitness, and that combustible materials were stored away from ignition points.