Never did I think the decision to add a simple window to an engine room door would have significant implications and teach us a valuable lesson about offshore cruising and safety. The story begins in the spring of 2005 when my wife, Maria, and I were going through a long list of optional features for inclusion on our new Nordhavn 40 trawler with sales representative Jeff Merrill. By the time we got through the major items, our remaining budget was shrinking fast. We were down to the short list of items that were less than $1,000 each and started making cuts in anticipation of the post-commissioning expenditures that would still be required after the boat arrived. Anyone who has ever built a new boat on a budget can relate to this dilemma.
The option of a simple 10- by 12-inch window on the engine room door was next on the list and seemed to be something we could live without. I rationalized that the worst-case scenario would be an engine room fire. And since we had already optioned for the fire-suppression system, which had indicators in the pilothouse, there would be no need to look through a window or enter the engine room itself.
Jeff disagreed with my thinking and urged me to reconsider. "You never know what else may occur inside the engine room," he advised, "and it's better to know what you are dealing with before you open that door." This reminded me why we decided on a Nordhavn in the first place — it was all about safety. I wanted the safest boat available if we were going to be offshore, and we felt a Nordhavn fit the bill. So we checked the box and added another couple hundred dollars to the price tag.
Fast-forward 18 months to when the boat had been built, shipped to the company's West Coast headquarters in Dana Point, California, for commissioning, then taken for a six-month stay in Ensenada, Mexico, then home to San Diego. After spending some time in San Diego, we decided to take the boat back to Dana Point to have a few remaining warranty items addressed. The trip is about 60 miles and takes roughly 10 hours at our normal cruising speed. To arrive at Dana Point during daylight hours, we'd have to cast off at about 6 a.m. The weather forecast promised clear skies and calm seas, and we anticipated a pleasant day on the ocean.
We woke at 5 a.m. and began our normal routine of checks. Within an hour, everything was completed and we were under way. By 7 a.m. we had turned north around the tip of Pont Loma and settled in for the balance of what was shaping up to be a very comfortable cruise. Part of our normal cruising routine while under way includes hourly engine room checks where, in addition to visual inspections, I also record over a dozen temperature readings on the engine and surrounding systems.
It was about halfway through the trip when I went downstairs for a routine check and looked through the window in the engine room door to see what appeared to be a cloud of smoke. Needless to say, my heart rate increased as I ran back upstairs and told Maria that we might have a problem. The first thing we did was discuss the appropriate course of action if, in fact, we had a fire on board. I then checked all engine instruments, which indicated that all systems were operational within their normal range. The fire-suppression system had not engaged, so I guessed temperatures within the engine room must still be within in the normal range as well.