The Cornish hake netter Ajax is back at work following an extensive refit to repair near-disastrous fire damage, reports Phil Lockley

Swift work by local firefighters, fishermen and harbour staff prevented a fire aboard the Newlyn netter Ajax resulting in the boat being written off, said its part-owner Andrew Pascoe, the outgoing chairman of the NFFO.

01.  With inches of water under its keel, the refitted Ajax moves from Baltic Wharf at Totnes into deeper water before steaming home to Newlyn.

02.  Craftsman David Houcke rebuilding the inner wheelhouse.

03.  Andy Savage (left) and Alistair Moss from Bobby Cann’s team at work on the replacement panelling.

04.  The central electrics console, with all electrics and panels done by H&H Marine Electrical from Gweek.

05.  The new electronic equipment package was supplied by Sirm UK.

While the vessel was unmanned and berthed alongside Newlyn quay, a fire in the wheelhouse of Ajax was spotted by a nearby fisherman aboard the Crystal Sea.

“It was only by luck that crewman Jim Heliwell of the Crystal Sea saw the early stages of the fire,” said Andrew Pascoe. The incident took place in June this year.

After an extensive renewal of its wheelhouse, the Ajax is now back at work. Andrew Pascoe has nothing but praise for the support of its insurer Sunderland Marine, the marine surveyor and consultant from Richard Primrose Ltd, insurance broker Christopher Rowe Ltd at Penzance, and the craftsmen from several companies based in Cornwall and Devon.

Boatbuilder Bobby Cann described the fire damage as ‘considerable’, adding: “It was one of the worst incidents of damage from a contained wheelhouse fire that I have seen. My men had to remove everything right back to the aluminium frame, then carry out a complete rebuild. Boatbuilders included David Houcke, Andy Savage, Alistair Moss and apprentice Lewis Houcke.

“Ajax was able to make its own way to my yard at the Baltic Wharf at Totnes in South Devon. Being one of the deepest-draught vessels that has berthed alongside the quay for many years, we were all hoping that it could get from the deeper water in the mid-channel to alongside the quay – luckily, it did. It couldn’t have had any more than a couple of inches of water below its keel.” Ajax draws 3.8m.

“The area is safe and secure and is covered by CCTV and security. Ian Dennis and his team at Baltic Wharf were more than helpful. Thanks should also go to the Dart Harbour Authority for all their help and co-operation, as this large vessel was the first in a long time to use the river for such a purpose.”

Several Cornish firms travelled to the refit, including H&H Marine Electrical of Gweek and electronic specialist and supplier Sirm UK Ltd, based in Newlyn, whose principal engineer, Neil Drew, said that the equipment was supplied from the Newlyn depot, and fitted by Neil Edwards from its Plymouth division.

The new electronic equipment supplied by Sirm UK Ltd included Koden radar MDC 941, Koden radar MDC 5000 series, Furuno Navtex, Icom handheld VHF, Sailor Inmarsat-C satellite communication, Hondex sounder, Jotron AIS, two Sailor DSC VHFs, Furuno GPS, JRC HF radio, watch alarm, satellite TV and Phontech intercom system.

It could all have been very different. Andrew Pascoe said: “Thankfully, the fire happened during the early hours of the morning when no persons were onboard. They had taken ice and were due to sail a few hours later. But because of the smoke damage and water damage, everything had to be replaced.

“We were lucky that the crewman on Crystal Sea was awake and saw flames in the wheelhouse. The flames grew very fast, I was told. Had they not been spotted, the fire would have been more widespread, and might have written off the entire boat. What with the water damage due to firefighting, the heat from the flames and damage from the smoke, the entire wheelhouse had to be brought back to its shell.

“A small section of electrics on the port side were OK, as were the computers for the plotters, held in cupboards below. They were tested before being reinstalled, but other than that, at least 70% of the electronics were beyond repair.

“I was informed of the fire at about 1.30am. I was shocked, devastated; it is every fisherman or vessel owner’s nightmare, watching their boat being destroyed by fire. When I arrived, the fire service was already in action. I never want to experience anything like this again. We have owned the Ajax for six successful years.

“Insurer Sunderland Marine has been amazing. I can’t praise them enough. Its surveyor and consultant took away a lot of my worries. That’s something about a good insurance company that we seem to forget – a firm like Sunderland Marine just take over and lessen the worry. I can’t fault them – they have been tremendous.

“Across the board, all firms that took part in the rebuild were equally superb, their workmanship being first-class. The wheelhouse shell was rebattened, lined, rewired and so on. Almost everything was done in Totnes, and a few minor things were finished off when we returned to Newlyn.

“We bought the trawler Kairos BF 36 six years ago to replace our original netter Ajax. After purchasing the new Ajax, it underwent several refits – a major one being its conversion from a trawler to a netter, which took place at Macduff Shipyards. It’s a big step from a trawler to a netter, but the Ajax still looks right, not out of proportion, and the aft shelter is in keeping with the rest of the boat. With all the new work, effectively we now have a new boat.”

Craftsmen from Bobby Cann’s Brixham team carried out all wood and panel work. Bobby Cann said: “When we first saw it, yes it was in a mess, but nothing that we couldn’t put right. The job had to be very thorough. It’s not the first major wheelhouse repair job that we have done – we have undertaken contracts on boats like the Brixham beam trawler Barentszee. That wasn’t from fire damage, but was a similar full rebuild.

“On Ajax, we left nothing behind. We studded it in boatbuilders’ softwood, and did all the rest in oak; it was insulated, panelled, we built the consoles, the face-panelling, the lot. The only difference from the original wheelhouse arrangement is that the skipper’s seat has been moved further to starboard, giving him better view of the hauler.

“When the Ajax arrived, the smell of smoke was very bad, and we couldn’t remove all of it. Eventually we called in a firm of professional cleaners to carry out the latter stages. On completion, it was as though there had never been any smoke. It was amazing – they worked hard, and over a weekend they left two small machines in the wheelhouse. On Monday morning, any smell of smoke had gone. The firm is called Clean It All from South Devon, and they have a lot of experience of cleaning boats. They did a superb job.

“We hear that the new insulated cladding has also made the wheelhouse far quieter than the original. The Ajax is a fine boat, a very amiable boat, one that looks in proportion, and it was a pleasure to have my men carry out the work.”

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