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Yacht catches fire at sea; 5 rescued

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – U.S. Coast Guard crews taking place in a mock drill involving a fire on a ship were instead diverted to an emergency on a motor yacht some 50 miles off of Fernandina Beach on Wednesday morning.

Watchstanders in the Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville command center were notified of the situation at 8:47 a.m. Wednesday. The mariner said there was a fire aboard the boat Belle Amie, which had five people aboard, according to the Coast Guard.

The five adults aboard extinguished the fire but the yacht continued taking on water. All five people reportedly put on life jackets as a precaution. The mariners said the vessel lost all power and was dead in the water.

Coast Guardsmen from Station Mayport arrived, along with the crew of the 85-foot Coast Guard Cutter Diamondback. Two Coast Guard helicopter crews were also launched and arrived on scene at 10:30 a.m.

"Let me tell you, I've been at sea before and needed the Coast Guard and there's no better sound than to hear those blades coming... These guys earn every penny and then some," said Captain John Oleyar.

Oleyar is from Houston and said he may not be alive if it weren't for the hard work of the Coast Guard.

He bought a boat from Charleston in just the past week and he and 4 others set out on a voyage from South Carolina, hoping to end up in Houston. That plan took a turn for the worst when the boat caught on fire and began taking on water about 50 miles East of Fernandina Beach.

"As that water came on board it started getting into the electrical circuits and caused a fire in the engine room, I was up top driving and heard the alarms and went down and the engine room was completely engulfed in flames," said Oleyar.

Oleyar had trouble getting in touch with the Coast Guard because of electrical problems, but was able to reach them and said they arrived quickly.

Petty Officer First Class Lauren Jorgensen says her crews are always ready for situations like this.

"Just this morning we were involved in a vessel fire exercise then of course we got this case today so it just emphasizes the importance of all that training we do," said Jorgensen.

"As soon as you hear them respond and they know, one, that you're in trouble and, two, that they know where you are you know you're going to be okay because they do a great job," said Oleyar.

Oleyar said the others on the boat were relatives and friends and when asked if they ever once panicked, he said he didn't but he laughed when he said that the others did, pointing to the top of the boat at a raft the four had strung together with life jackets and buoys.

A person aboard the 70-foot vessel Tippe Canoe was on scene providing assistance to the five mariners and remained on scene until the Coast Guard arrives, according to a Coast Guard spokesperson.

Officials said helicopters brought pumps that were lowered onto the boat to remove the water. The Coast Guard was towing the yacht back to shore at the St. Johns Boat Company on Heckscher Drive. The boat arrived at the boat company Wednesday night just before 11 p.m. 

Two of the Belle Amie boaters were transferred to the Station Mayport boat and taken to Station Mayport Wednesday afternoon to begin making arrangements for the yacht.

Two Coast Guardsmen were staying on the yacht with the three remaining boaters while the yacht was being towed.

The rescue did interrupt the training exercises the Coast Guard and Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department were having in Jacksonville Wednesday morning.  No word on if that event would be rescheduled.