The Loss of Coeur d’Alene

The Loss of Coeur d’’Alene
by Jerry Valley

Editor’s Note: In keeping with focus on safety this issue, this article is being reprinted. It appeared in a 1994 issue of “Dry Wrought” (BSLOL’s predecessor to “The BoatHouse.”) The author is our own Jerry Valley and he speaks from first-hand experience. The hope is everyone will read and remember this article – and never have the same experience.
Monday evening, July 18, 1994, is one that I shall not soon forget. It started out as a warm, sunny evening, perfect for a ride on the lake in a beautiful wooden boat. Normally, I kept the boat docked at Watergate Marina in St. Paul, but this evening it was still on the trailer, as some friends and I had spent the weekend at the Long Lake Boat Show near Rice Lake, Wisconsin. I had been asked by one of the Boat Club officers if I would like to put the boat on Lake Minnetonka for a few days so that it could be used to provide rides for Boat Club members as a part of our July meeting that Wednesday evening.
Some of you may be familiar with the boat which is the subject of this story. It was a 1948 Chris Craft 22’ Sport Sedan with a white hull and a dark blue top and was named Coeur d’Alene in honor of the lake where it spent most of its life and where my wife and I purchased it four years ago. The boat was equipped with a 1955 Packard V8 installed by the previous owner.
Jeff Stebbins, who lives on the lake, offered to help me launch the boat that evening and to let me tie it up at his dock for a few days. I stopped by Jeff’s house about 6:30 and we headed for Howard’s Point Marina which was just down the road a short distance. I backed the boat and trailer part way down the mmp, climbed into the boat, turned on the blower for a few minutes, and then started the engine. It started immediately and idled normally. Jeff backed the trailer the rest of the way into the water and I launched the boat.
It took me a few minutes of maneuvering to get the boat turned around so I could head out of the Marina for what was intended to be just a short trip around the point to Jeff’s place. As I began to leave the marina, the engine started to bog down. I interpreted this to mean the engine was still cold and needed more fuel. As a result, I pulled the choke part way out and applied more throttle, at which point the engine stalled. I put the transmission in neutral, gave a few more pumps on the throttle, and turned the key to start the engine. The next thing I knew, there was a tremendous blast like a stick of dynamite detonating.
I jumped up, turned and saw a huge wall of orange flame blocking my exit. I knew from the force of the
explosion that gasoline was involved and I needed to get off the boat fast before there was another explosion. The only exit was through one of the side windows which was partially open. I dove head first through the opening, getting stuck part way out. I reached back, pushed with all my strength, broke the window (which, as it turns out, was plate glass), and fell into the water. As soon as I surfaced, I started putting distance between me and the boat. Luckily for me, a boat with four people on board was nearby, heard the explosion, saw me in the water, and came over to pick me up. In all the excitement, I never got their names, so if anyone reading this article knows who they were, please tell them that I thank them profusely for rescuing me and apologize for getting blood all over their boat.
Within what seemed like just a few minutes, the Sheriffs Water Patrol was at the boat with their portable water pump and began spraying it down. Just as they were beginning to make headway on the fire, their pump broke down so they had to go to shore for a replacement. By the time they returned, the interior of the Coeur d’Alene was totally engulfed in flames. After some time, they were able to subdue the fire. They then towed the boat back to the marina where it was loaded onto the trailer. Once more, the fire flared up, but the firemen quickly extinguished it and punched several holes in the bottom of the boat to let the resulting water drain out.
What a sad sight it was to look at this once beautiful boat sitting on the trailer; a totally burned out hulk. The only items left undamaged were the engine cover and the back seat cushion as both were blown off the boat and into the water by the force of the explosion. Nothing else remained of the interior. Thankfully, there was no one else on board at the time or this might have been a very serious tragedy. In reflecting back on this accident, I have a few observations which may help others to make their boats safer and hopefully avoid a similar catastrophe.
Once the boat was pulled out of the water, one could see that there was a huge ball of millfoil wrapped around the prop. Apparently, what I interpreted as a cold engine was actually an engine being bogged down by the millfoil. Since I didn’t observe any millfoil floating on the surface in the marina, it didn’t enter my mind as a possible problem. The actions I took in response to the engine bogging down, given the reason why it probably occurred, were exactly the wrong things to do as they poured more fuel into an already fuel-rich, cold engine. While it is hard for many of us to imagine that enough raw fuel could collect in the engine to cause such a tremendous explosion, there is no other reasonable explanation or apparent cause. The explosion blew the carburetor partially off the engine, as well as the flame arrestor part way off the carburetor. Both would occur only if the initial explosion took place within the engine. The boat was equipped by the former owner with an electric fuel pump, which undoubtedly continued to feed fuel to the fire until the heat either melted the pump or interrupted the supply of power to it. This boat was also equipped with a Halon Fire Extinguishing System. However, the Halon bottle was mounted to the engine box, so when the box departed the boat, so did the Halon bottle. (Note: The Fire Department said the Halon System would not have helped in this situation but you may still want to think about where yours is mounted if you have one.)
Although it did not matter in this situation because it would have been futile to fight the fire, the fire extinguisher available to me at the driver’s position was under the seat rather than immediately at hand. In addition to making sure your extinguishers are readily available, this accident also points out the wisdom of having an extinguisher both forward and aft of the engine box so that people at either location have access to one. The one piece of safety equipment this boat did not have is a gas fume detector in the bilge. I never did smell gas before the explosion, but one of these devices just might have picked it up and warned me not to attempt to start the engine.
One bright spot in this whole tragedy: in addition to not being seriously injured or worse, was that I was insured with Hagerty Marine Insurance of Traverse City, Michigan. I cannot say enough about their outstanding customer service. Two weeks to the day from when the accident occurred, I received a check in the mail for the full insured value of the boat. The Hagerty Insurance staff went out of its way to make sure that every detail was worked out to my satisfaction.