On July 22, a tragic series of circumstances and conditions converged at Newport Anchorage Marina in Newport, NSW and set off one of the worst boating incidents in local memory. The devastation that visited the small marina was so singularly appalling that the event has already acquired a dark nickname: ‘the bonfire of Pittwater’.
The disaster reportedly started on a 40ft cruiser, which exploded while a serviceman was working on board. The technician, who was treated for head injuries and smoke inhalation, is said to have told police that he was knocked unconscious by the blast, but was able to escape before fire engulfed the boat.
As the cruiser burned, the flames were fanned by a strong 25-knot north-westerly wind. The nylon mooring ropes holding the boat to the pier melted in the fire, setting off a sickening chain reaction. The burning craft was blown sideways into Knot Too Bad, an 18-month old Riviera 52. The Riv was immediately overwhelmed by fire, and it, too, quickly came loose from its berth.
As the devastating fires raged on the pair of drifting boats, they were blown sideways into a third craft, a 49-year-old vintage Mill Craft masterpiece. From there, the nightmarish scenario only got worse. The three burning boats, now all completely adrift, floated down the bay, colliding with three more vessels, a wharf and a floating pontoon, all of which also caught fire.
Plumes of black smoke could be seen as far away as Gosford on the Central Coast, 80km to the north. Marina staff, residents and local tradesmen frantically scrambled throughout the marina, working with whatever tools were available to extinguish the flames and limit the scope of the destruction. Some turned water hoses on the burning boats as others on dinghies and workboats towed the unaffected vessels to vacant moorings, until the fire brigade arrived.
PRIDE AND JOY
John Wheatley is a Club Marine member and the owner of Knot Too Bad, the Riviera 52 destroyed in the disaster. Wheatley had purchased the boat just eight weeks prior to the fire and considered it his ‘pride and joy’.
Ever since he bought the boat, Wheatley and his wife, Jill, had devoted all their free time to kitting it out in preparation for an Easter trip to the Whitsunday Islands. “I had just put in some night-vision cameras and a new tender,” Wheatley explained from his home in Castle Hill, “and my wife was putting the finishing touches on the furnishings.”
All their plans for their Easter trip collapsed completely on that afternoon in July.
Wheatley was at home when he received the terrible news. “One of the other boat owners from the marina rang me up and said to me: ‘John-O, there’s a problem at the marina. I can’t confirm it, but I think there’s a fire’.”
Immediately, Wheatley ran to his car, hoping that by the time he reached the marina the fire would be contained and disaster averted. But his worst fears were realised as he was backing his car out of the garage. “That’s when I got the second call to say, ‘John-O, your boat is on fire’.”
During the hour-long drive from his house to the marina, Wheatley worked his phone, anxious for news or reassurance. “My first call was to our broker, to let Club Marine know that there was a fire at Pittwater. But I had the knowledge in the back of my mind that if the fire was as intense as they were saying, Club Marine would have already been on the ball with it.”
In fact, as Wheatley was on his way to the marina, Club Marine’s NSW State Manager, Andrew O’Reilly, was already there, along with marine assessor Darren Williams.
Despite his years of experience in marine insurance, O’Reilly was shocked by what he saw. “The marina was engulfed in smoke,” he said, “and out on the bay, the fire brigade could do nothing but pour water on the burnt-out hulls of these once-beautiful rigs.” As O’Reilly set to the grim task of contacting the Club Marine members involved in the blaze, Wheatley arrived.
“When I got there, the stench of burning fibreglass was incredible,” Wheatley said, describing the scene. “The marina was hazy with smoke. There were fire trucks and people everywhere. Then I was confronted by the whole problem.”
In the middle of it all, Wheatley spied the smouldering remains of Knot Too Bad. It was a complete loss. In all, six motor cruisers were burnt to their waterlines and another three were damaged. And of the nine boats involved, six were insured by Club Marine.
“I just wanted to introduce myself to the owners and let them know that we would do all we possibly could to help them,” O’Reilly explained. “It was obviously a very distressing situation.’” Thanks to his efforts, every affected Club Marine member (except one, who was overseas), was contacted within two days of the event.
As for Wheatley, O’Reilly caught up with him at the marina as his boat was still smoking on the water. “At times like these, people aren’t thinking about their coverage,” O’Reilly explained, “but I wanted to let John know that we were.”
O’Reilly did all he could to fast-track the Club Marine claims, and his efforts didn’t go unnoticed. “I have nothing but praise for the way Club Marine handled this,” said Wheatley. “One lesson my wife and I learned is the cheapest insurance is not always the best insurance. The insurance company that’s there to help you through that financial situation is the insurance company you stick with.”
The fire happened on a Wednesday and on the following Tuesday, O’Reilly drove out to the Wheatley’s house and presented John and Jill with a pair of tickets to the 2009 Sydney International Boat Show, two Club Marine hats and a cheque for the purchase price of their lost boat.
A few days later, the Wheatleys purchased a 48 Maritimo, again insured with Club Marine, and got their dreams back on track. “We’re naming the new boat Crackerjack, Wheatley said. ‘I’m pretty sure we’ll still make it to the Whitsunday Islands. Our aim is to go up there and do all the things that we’ve always wanted to do, and ‘live the dream’.”