Report No 38

Date:  30-Nov-91 
Released:  05-Nov-93 
Type:  FIRE  


In the early hours of 30 November 1991, while on a positioning voyage from Singapore to Cebu City in the Philippines, the Australian registered fishing vessel Northern L caught fire. The six crew were unable to fight the fire and abandoned the vessel in approximate position latitude 8 degrees 03 minutes North, longitude 118 degrees 34 minutes East, taking with them an emergency radio and the vessel's 406mHz emergency position indicator radio beacon (EPIRB). At about 0500 explosions were heard coming from the vessel, which sank shortly after.

At sunrise the crew took stock of their surroundings and activated the vessel's EPIRB.

At about 0830, the Australian Marine Rescue Coordination Centre received a distress alert from the United States MRCC, Washington that a distress beacon belonging to the Australian registered fishing boat had been detected in position 8 degrees 02 minutes North 118 degrees 33 minutes East.

These details were passed to Westpac MRCC in Japan, and Manila MRCC in the Philippines.

At 1130 (UTC+8) the Liberian registered tanker Nagasaki Spirit, en route from Dulang, Malaysia, to Santan, Indonesia, was requested by Westpac MRCC to proceed to a position 08 degrees 03.3 minutes North and 118 degrees 34.3 minutes East to investigate the EPIRB signal. At 1245 the Nagasaki Spirit sighted an orange canopy and by 1340 the six survivors had been taken on board the tanker.

The master of the Northern L (a Philippine national), the mate (an Indian national) and the two engineers (both Indonesian nationals) were landed in Santan. The two Australian crew remained with the Nagasaki Spirit until the ship arrived off Brisbane on 14 December.


  1. The circumstances described and without evidence to the contrary it is concluded that the loss of the vessel was due to fire and the unrestricted flooding of the engine-room and the adjacent spaces below the main deck.
  2. It is concluded that the fire originated in the engine-room. It is not possible to determine with certainty the cause of the fire or the reason for the sinking. However, the most likely cause may be attributed to the escape of diesel oil from a fractured fuel line spraying on to a hot machinery surface, igniting the oil and causing intense heat in the confined spaces of the engine-room. Fuel from the bunker fed the fire.
  3. The outbreak of fire occurred while the engine-room was unattended. Had the person on watch been in the engine-room the fire would have been detected at an early stage and therefore it is probable that it could have been controlled and extinguished.
  4. The supply of air to the fire and the fire's rapid unrestrained spread were the direct result of the engine-room not being isolated from the spaces either side of it or above it. It was accepted practice on board to operate with all doors, watertight or not, open.
  5. Access to the remote controls to the engine-room fuel supply, the vessel's ventilation units and the engine-room CO2 fire smothering system was cut off by the fire, due to the engine-room not being secured and the access to the engine-room at frame 51 being open.
  6. It is not possible to determine the source or sources of the explosions reported by the survivors. It is possible that the explosions were as a result of the rupturing of pressure vessels and/or the fuel in the tanks being heated to a level whereby the oil's flash point was reached.
  7. Whatever the level of proficiency of the master and crew, the absence of any water on the fire main, compounded by the inability to secure any breathing apparatus, rendered the crew totally unable to fight the fire. Evacuation of the vessel to await the outcome of the fire was their only option.
  8. The quality of the operational procedures and standards practised (or not practised) aboard the Northern L created the conditions in which accidents were more likely to occur, and where emergencies were more likely to get out of hand.
  9. The position of the controls for the remote shutting down of the fuel supply from engine-room fuel tanks and the release of the engine-room CO2 fire smothering system were in accordance with the relevant legislation, notwithstanding that on this occasion access to them was cut off by the fire. However, their position within the enclosed main deck was not an optimum position, given the construction of the upper deck at conversion.
  10. If the engine-room door at frame 51 had been removed, or was left open as a standard practice, the remote stops for ventilation and engine-room pumps were positioned contrary to the regulations.
  11. The controls for the watertight doors were not above the bulkhead deck, as required by the regulations.
  12. The diesel gas oil shipped in Singapore was within the declared specifications.
  13. The liaison in 1989, between the Department of Transport and Communications, and subsequently the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, and the American Bureau of Shipping was deficient in ensuring that the converted vessel met the letter or spirit of the Australian regulations in respect of fire control and subdivision.