A tourist boat with 53 people on board that caught fire and sank had no fire alarm system and life-saving equipment couldn't be accessed, a report has found.

The PeeJay V was coming to the end of on an all-day excursion to White Island and was approaching the Whakatāne Harbour entrance, when a fire broke out in the engine room on January 18 last year.

The seven crew released the fixed CO2 fire extinguisher into the engine room, which suppressed the fire for a short time, according to a Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) report released today.

"However, the fire quickly escalated, forcing the skipper to order everyone to abandon the vessel. Several passengers were forced to enter the water without a lifejacket," the report said.

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The Pee Jay V burned to the waterline and sank.

Nearby vessels responded to the skipper's distress call, and everyone was rescued.

One crew member suffered smoke inhalation but nobody was seriously injured.

The commission found:

• The lack of a fire alarm system meant the crew had limited opportunity to respond to the fire and prepare life-saving equipment.

• The CO2 fire suppression system, which displaces air with carbon dioxide, did not work because openings allowed air into the engine room.

• Life-saving clothes and equipment were appropriately placed, but could not all be accessed. Operators of smaller vessels often struggle to choose where to put such equipment.

The report also stated the boat's builder and operators "did not fully appreciate the principles of how the CO2 fixed fire-fighting system operated".

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The commision said Maritime New Zealand had agreed to review maritime rules about fire alarms and extinguishers in vessels like PeeJay V that had enclosed engine spaces.

Fire consumed the Pee Jay V as it returned from White Island, Whakatane, with 53 tourists on board. Photo / Katee Shanks
Fire consumed the Pee Jay V as it returned from White Island, Whakatane, with 53 tourists on board. Photo / Katee Shanks

It would also encourage people who design, install and use CO2 firefighting systems to fully document and understand how they worked.

The TAIC said lessons learned from the PeeJay V included the fact early detection of fire on a vessel was critical to successfully fight a blaze and prepare life-saving equipment.

It said a fire-fighting system was useful only if the crew is fully familiar with it and trained in how to use it.

It also concluded that a fixed CO2 fire-fighting apparatus was only effective if the space it protects can be fully closed off.