Fire on the Water
A leisurely sail from Marina del Rey to Catalina became a waking nightmare for three men trapped on a burning boat miles from shore
By Gary Walker
It started out as a weekday sailing trip to Catalina Island for some fishing and sightseeing. But for friends Richard Peck, Jeffery Druce and Richard Schachter, the pleasure cruise became a harrowing near-death experience when the 44-foot sailboat caught fire, trapping them in an inferno on the water.
For more than 30 minutes until the Coast Guard arrived, the men battled the blaze without a fire extinguisher as it quickly spread from the engine to the bow of the Laetitia. It was a lesson on just how dangerous the ocean can be and the necessity of safety precautions.
The ill-fated journey began on Oct. 14 in Marina del Rey, when the three men set sail from the Del Rey Yacht Club, of which Schachter is a member.
“The plan was to attend a lobster fest on the west side of Catalina Island,” said Schachter, a longtime resident of Mar Vista.
The trouble started about 11 miles off the coast of Redondo Beach. Druce, the skipper, was at the helm of his sailboat when Peck, who was sitting at an angle where he could see into the cabin, called out that he could see orange flames.
Druce, who has been sailing out of Marina del Rey for more than three decades, simultaneously noticed a dip in the fuel gauge. He and Schachter went down into Laetitia’s cabin to examine the engine and encountered a smoke-filled room.
After sending out a mayday call to the Coast Guard, Druce tried to put the fire out with the boat’s extinguishers, but they weren’t functioning. Then Schachter tried smothering the flames with a blanket.
“After Richard told me he thought the fire was out, I thought, ‘That was a close call. Let’s go back into the cockpit and enjoy the rest of the sail,’” Druce recalled.
But the fire wasn’t out.
When Druce made the distress call, responders told the men to put on their life preservers and move to the front of the boat until help arrived, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer First Class Sondra Keene said.
Before leaving the cabin, Druce grabbed life vests for all three of them — a decision that very likely saved one of their lives. By that time the cabin was completely filled with smoke, and Druce could not see anything inside.
“I had to do everything — including getting the life jackets — by feel,” he said. “I kept telling everyone, ‘Keep calm. The Coast Guard’s coming. Don’t get excited.’ At that point I was just trying to take care of my crew, my friends.”
Once they had moved to the bow, the plan was to inflate the onboard rubber dinghy so they could safely leave the boat. But the dinghy’s air pump had been in the cabin and was melted by the rapidly spreading fire.
Peck, who was sitting at the farthest point of the bow, had the least amount of sailing experience. As the flames inched closer and closer, he could feel the inferno’s extreme heat more and more.
“It felt like my leg was on fire, like I was in a burning oven. All I wanted was relief,” Peck recalled. “Then I made the boldest, most emotional, dumbest decision in my life: I said, ‘Guys, I’m going overboard.’”
A Lucky Mistake
With his life jacket on, Peck dove into the ocean. Instantly, he regretted it.
“The current began carrying me away from the boat. I was helpless. There was no one on the horizon, and I knew there are great white sharks in the area,” he said. “I was helpless and hopeless.”
Impulsive, certainly. Unwise — according to widely accepted safety protocol, yes. But Peck’s mistake would also turn out to be a lucky one.
It wasn’t long after Peck dove off the boat that the Laetitia’s fire-damaged mast and jib came crashing down toward the bow, landing about six inches from Druce.
Peck and Druce agree that the mast almost certainly would have struck one of them had Peck not made the hasty, albeit ill-informed, decision to jump from the bow.
“If [Peck] had stayed in the boat it would have been crowded by the bow, and I would have moved over a little and it would have hit one of us,” Druce said.
To the Rescue
Immediately after receiving Druce’s distress call, the Coast Guard dispatched both a 45-foot rapid response vessel from the Coast Guard’s Los Angeles-Long Beach Station in San Pedro and the 87-foot cutter patrol boat Blacktip from Channel Islands Harbor.
But that wasn’t all.
“A Los Angeles City Fire Department boat crew, a Los Angeles County Lifeguard boat crew, four Baywatch vessels and a Los Angeles County Fire Department helicopter crew
also assisted in the rescue,” Keene said.
All three men recall having faith the Coast Guard would eventually come to their rescue. The only question was how soon they could get there.
The fire got so close to Schachter that he suffered second-degree burns on his hands and forearms.
Even though he’d always been told to stay with the boat, Schachter recalled that he too began to contemplate jumping into the ocean to escape the heat of the blaze.
Just then, help arrived.
“I was jubilant when I saw the boats,” Schachter said.
And just in time: the fire was only about five feet away from Druce and Schachter when the first rescue vessel arrived.
Responders set a course for the Laetitia at 2:55 p.m., with Baywatch Redondo arriving at 3:27 p.m. and the Coast Guard arriving at 3:28 p.m., according to Keene.
‘A Good Coach’
Peck describes being overcome by a feeling of resignation before first responders pulled him from the ocean.
“I remember thinking that I just wanted to be comfortable. I didn’t want to go violently. Consequently, I was grateful when I was saved, but I wasn’t euphoric,” he recalled.
Druce said watching the flames gut his boat was like an out-of-body experience.
“I was a spectator watching my boat burn up. It was a surreal feeling,” he said.
Peck credited Druce for keeping the three of them alive during the initial response to the fire and the traumatic 32-minute wait for rescue.
“What helped us was that we had a good coach. He was our Bill Belichick,” said Peck.
Back at Del Rey Yacht Club in December, Schachter gave a presentation about the aborted Catalina trip and the crew’s subsequent rescue to Sea Venturers, a group at the club that focuses on boat preparation and safety.
Sea Venturers chairman Lowell Safier said that during the meeting several members of his group peppered Schachter with questions about how to react during an emergency.
“It seemed like it was a traumatic experience for them. Because of [Schachter’s] experiences, I think he helped our members think a lot about how to take care of themselves when they’re on a boat,” Safier said.
Back at the Helm
Druce, who recently learned the cause of the fire was a leak in the engine’s high-pressure fuel line, plans to get a new boat once the insurance company completes its investigation of the fire.
In the meantime, he is still mourning the Laetitia.
“The seriousness of my loss didn’t hit me until the next morning, and then I started to get depressed. I feel like I lost a family member,” Druce said.
Peck’s time aboard the burning boat and adrift in the ocean left an indelible impression on him.
“There’s a certain amount of randomness to life. When all hell breaks loose it can be unexpected, and you have to make decisions sometimes that will determine if you survive or not. If I hadn’t had my life vest, I wouldn’t have survived,” he said. “It made the difference in saving my life.”
Schachter reports that, come October, the three men hope to sail to Catalina for this year’s lobster festival.
“This time, we plan we make it,” he said with a laugh.