How to Fight Wildfire: On a Tall Wooden Ship
The Gazela Philadelphia

(a Mellie Coriell adventure)

While in the Philadelphia area over the 4th of July, 2000, I was invited to a party on the Gazela Philadelphia, one of the 17 wooden sailing ships from around the world that gathered for the millennium tall ships extravaganza.

(It's the tall ship on the left.)

The Gazela is the oldest, largest wooden square-rigged vessel with an uninterrupted sailing history. A Barquentine in form, it is 177’long, 27’wide, has 12,000 square feet of sail on 3 masts, was built in 1883 and used for fishing cod off the Grand Banks.

There are about 30 crew max, but fewer than 8 are permanent. The rest are people of all ages who volunteer for as little as a day or two - on multiple weekends for special events - to a week or more for lengthy sails.  Twenty hands on deck, at a minimum, are required to sail the Gazela and up to 30 "hands" make the job easier.

On long voyages, people do shifts of 4 hrs on and 4 off if there are 20 crew and 4 on, 8 off if there are 30 crew.

Within moments of boarding this wooden ship, I started wondering what do they would do in case of fire? Here is a big wooden ship with masts and a spaghetti of ropes hanging all over the place. There’s a breeze and fuel hazards of one sort or another all over the deck. Food is being prepared which means a galley, potential ignition. Fireworks will come later in the evening. You know me, put fuel, weather, hazards, topography and ignition together and where does my mind go? Only one place… FIRE!

So, while the rest of the party-goers were sipping wine and munching hors d’oeuvres, I started asking the servers - who were crew - questions about fire safety, preparedness, drill, tasks, equipment. That began several fascinating hours of information gathering, navigating steep companionways, touring below deck and above, looking at engines, fire pumps, hoses, Scott packs, and getting detailed instruction from Ed, Joan, Debbie, Nancy and others. Thanks, Gang!

Belowdeck: gear, rope, the "head" is to the right.

This is what I learned.

There are three crucial drills that everyone practices and must perform to a minimum standard before being allowed to crew aboard the Gazela. These are the man overboard, fire, and abandon ship drills. Each drill has a separate alarm that varies in timing and duration and that can be heard ship-wide.

If there is a fire on board, the crewmember who discovers it must yell to announce it, then go tell the officer on deck so that the alarm bell is rung.

The alarm sounds -- for fire, it is a very long one-minute horn blast. Alarms for the other two drills are comprised of shorter blasts.

(Above deck: 1-1/2" hoses and nozzles are painted a salient red.)

At the sound of the fire alarm, all the crew is supposed to muster on deck, bringing their extinguishers, etc., topside before fighting the fire, so that everyone is accounted for with no losses. 

After gathering, crewmembers know where to go, what firefighting equipment to pick up and from where, and what their task is. Assignments are listed on the watch bill. Station listing are posted below decks near the head and crew have practiced the procedures in their drills.



Belowdeck: private space, bunks and gear

The engineer, for example, moves to his position near the major fire pump, an electrical Nelson pump, which can be started at the push of a button. He or she starts the engine at the direction of the first officer. That pump is hooked up to four 1-1/2" hoses that can be charged, although it is rare that more that two are operated at one time because of pressure constraints.

Some crew grab fire extinguishers (27 onboard in all), a spray crane with a fog nozzle or a Scott pack and report to stations below decks.

(Nancy with the Navy Fog applicator. Thanks for the demonstration!)

Still other hands move to one of the exterior hoses, diesel or manual pumps to be ready to respond, depending on the nature and location of the fire. There are redundant pumps using different energy sources that can be called into play if one or more pump is disabled. Everyone hopes that the manual pump will not be necessary because it’s so labor intensive to operate.

Ed said that fighting a fire below decks is like fighting fire in a cellar - there's not a lot of ventilation and it's very smoky.  The other risk is that when you start filling the cellar with water, you may sink this house. So part of firefighting is dewatering the ship at the same time.

Getting into the spirit of it, I had fun walking fast from bow to stern, dodging revelers and obstacles and imagining I had to spread the fire alarm, tell the officer on deck, and find my post with extinguisher in hand.

Later, the fireworks were a show and, PHEW, nothing ignited!!!

I must say, the fireworks were spectacular... but they weren't nearly as *fine* as the Gazela and her crew!



For a great picture of the Gazela Philadelphia under full sail, look here:

To learn more about her history, visit her website at

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