“‘It would never happen to me,’ that’s what we all say. After fifteen years as a skipper, half a Whitbread, two transatlantic deliveries, seven years of teaching RYA courses and my Class 4 skipper’s ticket, what else would I say? But it did.”
Capt Mark Fisher was skipper of the 80ft Sunseeker Manhattan Myakka of Southampton, taking charters in the Mediterranean. He and his crew of two picked up six guests, fuelled up in Gibraltar and then spent an idyllic day anchored in a Spanish bay.
At 6:30pm, as they pulled into Puerto Sotogrande, the guests offered the crew a night off in return for such a splendid day. “The guests showered and went eagerly ashore looking for a restaurant,” said Capt Fisher. “I showered, changed and walked down the passurelle and along the quay looking for some of the same.
“An hour and a half later that perfect day had become the worst nightmare. I stood looking across to the other side of the marina looking at a huge ball of flames, thinking ‘Is it? Is it? No, it can’t be?’ Then a chill ran through my body as I realised, it was.”
Capt Fisher ran to the conflagration to find liferaft canisters, flares and fuel cans arcing from Myakka into the night sky. Someone asked him how many were onboard. “‘Eight’ I replied. ‘Well, they wouldn’t have got out, the whole thing just exploded.’ Not what I wanted to hear.”
Twenty minutes later, a policeman on the scene said there might be some people on the other side so Capt Fisher ran through the acrid smoke and saw a group huddled together in pyjamas. Capt Fisher, his guests and crew were taken to hospital for checks.
At 8:00am the following morning, Capt Fisher and his party of eight, still in pyjamas, were summoned to the Port Office. First to question Fisher was a Spanish gentleman with responsibility for the stretch of coastline that included Sotogrande. Fisher gave authorisation for the disposal of the wreck, which he described as ‘an 80ft bathtub’, noting with amazement that none of the 7,000 litres of fuel taken on in Gibraltar had leaked into the harbour.
Having spoken to the boat’s owner, Fisher had decided to sign nothing until the owner, his lawyer and a translator arrived the next day. “We didn’t, much to the displeasure of the Guardia Civil, who had added a few lines to our statements, just to say how they had rescued everyone and saved all their lives, knowing that they at no time did anything of the sort.”
The following day, the owner transferred his charter guests to a better hotel and gave them some money to buy clothes. Despite the owner’s assurances that he couldn’t have done more, Fisher fell prey to self-doubt. “I became very protective of my reputation and kept telling everyone how I had done such a good safety briefing two days earlier, telling everyone where the exits and extinguishers were. Deep down though, I knew everyone would have preferred it if I had been there.”
The boat was removed from the water three days later. “The Guardia Civil forensic team from Madrid said an electrical fault in the saloon was most likely, as that is where the fire started,” said Fisher, “but the damage was so severe that we will probably never know the exact cause.
“The flames were first seen above and behind the TV, which was off, by the stewardess who alerted the rest of the people on board. They tried with extinguishers to fight the fire and thought it was out until a flashback ignited the whole of the saloon ceiling. They then realised that it was too dangerous to continue.
“They all made an exit through the large doors at the rear of the saloon except one, who escaped through the forehatch with just seconds to spare.