Real Life Adventure
Ship Ablaze

David Gilman, author of the Master of War series and shortlistee for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize, writes about his early experiences as a firefighter - and the perils of a ship fire.


David Gilman

The taste for adventure and adrenaline that flows through my books, whether historical or contemporary, is often drawn from personal experience – and being scared plays its part in all of these adventures.

I spent time as a firefighter in my late teens and we covered residential, industrial and shipping fires. No two fires are alike, but shipping fires can be notoriously difficult to deal with.  I have stood watch as a fire officer on a fifteen hour night shift atop an empty oil tanker – the most lethal kind because empty oil tankers are full of fumes and if you’re in the vicinity when they blow up, there won’t be much of you left. So when you see blue flames dancing across a tanker’s deck – like St Elmo’s Fire – it’s time to get help. If you’re not topside, you’ll find yourself crawling in the darkness fighting cargo fires – and that’s when things can go terribly wrong. Anyone who has seen television footage of big fires being fought will know the amount of water needed for the blaze is tremendous. In a ship fire, if the captain isn’t keeping a watch on his ballast, the water pumped in can cause the cargo to shift, and, in the worst-case scenario, the ship can roll over.

As a firefighter, I was in a small brigade, so we were always multi-tasking. And the equipment was sparse. We had none of the protective clothing you see firefighters wearing today. I think our helmets were composite; we had no gloves or facemasks and our leather boots soon got soaked. It was very basic equipment. Few breathing apparatus (BA) kits were available so when we went into smoke-filled environments, we used the power of the hoses to help us breathe. Let me explain a little. The power of water running through a firehose is 180lbs per square inch. That’s a lot of power and meant that it usually took two men to control the branch – that’s the chunk of metal, the nozzle, on the end of the hose. The usual way to control the unwieldy pressure was to swan neck the hose onto the ground so it forced its power down onto itself, like an S bend where the base of the hose held it in check. This kind of pressure through the branch meant a lot of oxygen got through with the water so the ‘branch man’ could put his face next to the gushing water and breathe what oxygen he could.  Not ideal, but a lifesaver. This was fine until you had to crawl on your belly through confined spaces and it was you alone with the hose.  You daren’t let go, because if you did, the hose would whiplash everywhere and anyone hit by the weight of that nozzle would be killed. I remember attending a big warehouse blaze one night when the fire engine pump operator switched off one of the other hoses and the increased pressure that pounded through my line was too difficult to hold. The Chief Fire Officer witnessed this and as the hose lashed back-and-forth, smashing anything in its path, he told us to get the damned thing back under control. There was only one way to do this – belly crawl the length of the whipping hose to the end, then haul it back up and continue fighting the fire. Two men crawling. Two men riding a bucking bronco – soaked, cold and already exhausted from the hours spent at the blaze.

Ship fires happened all the time back then. It was the age of the freighters – before containers were introduced. The cargo would be in the hold and derrick cranes would grab it and swing it onto the dockside. We always knew we were in for a long shift when ships with  their holds filled with loose sulphur came into port. Dockside cranes would grab the raw sulphur to load into waiting goods trains and if the crane’s bucket caught the side of the vessel, it would spark. One night we got a ‘shout’ and found a ship well ablaze below decks. At first, we thought it might have been a sulphur-carrying freighter. It was normal practice for the attending senior officer at the fire to be informed of the ship’s cargo, so that he could determine the means of tackling the fire. This time the information either came later than usual or we, who had clambered aboard to fight the fire, weren’t told. And in this instance it was probably just as well that we didn’t know what lay beneath our feet. Crews were struggling to get below and I and the man with me were still on deck. The heat was tremendous. Initially, we thought the most frightening thing we would encounter was that the steel hawsers that held masts and derricks in place were snapping in the heat. It was a lethal environment. The sound of a steel hawser snapping and scything the air is something I will never forget. Readers might not be surprised to learn that Health and Safety legislation had not yet come into being. But the real danger was still below decks and our feet were becoming red hot. We danced on the spot, spraying every inch of the deck, and as much as we could on our singing boots.

Our Station Officer, once he had learnt the full extent of the manifest, asked us to stay where we were. The crews were winning the fight. He stressed how important it was for us to keep cooling the deck as the ship was destined for the Vietnam war and was laden with explosives and ammunition, which we needed to prevent from going off.

Interesting times.


David Gilman has had an impressive variety of jobs - from firefighter to professional photographer, from soldier in the Parachute Regiment's Reconnaissance Platoon to a Marketing Manager for an international publisher. He has countless radio, television and film credits before turning to novels. From 2000 until 2009 he was a principal writer on A Touch Of Frost. He is the author of the Master of War series, and a shortlistee of the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize for The Last Horseman. Find out more at www.davidgilman.com.

The Englishman (Head of Zeus) is a high-octane modern-day international thriller about a former French Foreign Legionary who infiltrates a Russian penal colony to track down a mercenary killer. It is out now in hardback.