DISASTER was narrowly averted thanks to a massive firefighting battle as a historic wartime vessel went up in a 'ball of flames' on the River Dart late on Monday night.
A huge firefighting effort from the water and land, involving more than 60 people including fire crew, Dart Harbour staff, the Lower Ferry boatmen, lifeboat crews, coastguard and fishermen carried on throughout the night as fuel on the wooden vessel kept reigniting.
Video by RNLI
John Fenton of the Dart RNLI lifeboat team, said: "It's an absolute tragedy.
"The African Queen is the best-known charter boat on the river."
He explained how the couple were rescued by lifeboat crews as they sheltered upwind of the smoke at the end of the pontoon.
"The African Queen was about two boats from the end of the pontoon. They went as far away as they could get and couldn't get ashore. We rapidly found them and took them to safety. They were not in any danger because the KP pontoon is very long.
"If any other boats had caught fire it could have been a huge disaster."
He told how the couple had been ashore and returned to their boat to see smoke coming out of a funnel: "They looked below, saw the fire, slammed the door and threw everything flammable overboard."
Mr Fenton added: "The next boat along was the Britannia Fisheries vessel from Beesands and he went out and moved it very quickly and luckily ther were no more downwind.
"There must have been other flammable materials because the flames had sudden deep bursts every now and again."
Dart Harbour Master Capt Rob Giles said team work and quick actions by fire crews, Dart Harbour staff, Lower Ferry staff and all the emergency services meant the fire on the river did not become a much more serious incident.
Brixham Coastguard received a 999 call to the serious fire aboard the African Queen, belonging to Alan and Hilary Hemsley, on one of the Kingswear Island Pontoons, at just before midnight.
Video by RNLI
Fire chief Simon Rendle, at the scene this morning said: "It's a massive tragedy. The boat is a very well-known, well-regarded and well-kept vessel.
"It's been on the river for many years. All the fishermen love using her and Hilary and Alan are well-known. It is very, very sad."
Luckily the couple were not on board when the fire took hold and by the time fire crews and Dart Harbour staff arrived the vessel was well ablaze.
The Lower Ferry boatmen were swift to react, and picked up one of the fire engines and took it to the scene.
Dart Harbour staff, the Lower Ferry, and the Fire Service were joined by the Torbay and Dartmouth lifeboats and together a multi-agency fire fighting effort then ensued.
Ironically a fire and pollution exercise involving all the same crews was due to be held in the Dart today, but after crews fought the blaze all night, that has now been cancelled.
The fire was damped down on several occasions, but reignited due to the wooden hull and escaping diesel vapours.
After several attempts to put out the fire, a new hazard emerged because of the weight of the water being pumped into the vessel.
Harbour Master Capt Rob Giles took the decision at about 1.30am to move the vessel from the Kingswear Island Pontoons to the South Embankment at Dartmouth were it remained this morning awaiting insurance assessors.
A more coordinated, safe and sustained firefighting effort then took place.
The burning vessel was moved using Dart Harbour's Hercules work barge, assisted by the Torbay lifeboat and the Lower Ferry float, still with the fire engine onboard.
With the vessel safely alongside South Embankment, the fire was finally out by about 5am.
There were early worries that the river environment could be polluted by the 700 litres of diesel stored in the vessel.
Capt Giles said: "Luckily there is no pollution damage. The fuel tanks are empty. It has all burnt off in the fire and we will probably be removing the protective pollution booms shortly."
On Tuesday afternoon the vessel was lifted out of the water at Kingswear's Darthaven Marina to be assessed.
Eventually she will be moved to the North Embankment."
Dart Harbour's pollution control emergency response team arrived on scene at approximately 4am.
Capt Giles said: "Hilary and Alan were so fortunate not to be on board, should the fire have took hold swiftly and trapped them in the vessel.
"We are very thankful that nobody was hurt during the fire itself, or during the attempts to extinguish it and guard the safety of the vessel."
He paid tribute to all the services involved, especiall the Lower Ferry skipper Will Davis.
"Whilst the primary concern was for Hilary and Alan's safety, all agencies have acted together to prevent the situation from being far worse, namely the vessel sinking off the pontoon resulting in a potential pollution incident.
"I wish to thank all those who were involved in the rescue effort last night."
Fire Control received a call reporting a fire on the fishing charter boat African Queen moored on a pontoon in the Dart Estuary at around 11.25pm.
The African Queen was built in 1946 to a wartime design. Sir Paul McCartney is believed to own another of the Dickens designs, built at Poole.
Two appliances from Dartmouth and one from Brixham were sent to rendezvous at the water's edge waiting for a vessel to take them to the African Queen.
Brixham fire chief Martin Timblin said the boat was well alight by the time they got there, with the flames being fanned by the wind.
The Harbour Authority supplied a submersible pump which aided in the firefighting efforts.
At 3.08am it was reported that good progress was being made and at 6.25am a fuel tanker was continuing to remove fuel from the damaged vessel.
A spokesman for the RNLI Dart team said they launched at 11.45pm, and found the boat well alight when they got across the river.
He said: "It's a charter angling boat and the couple who own it live on board.
"They jettisoned gas cylinders and flares from the vessel, which was helpful.
"They are obviously very dangerous in fires.
"It was a very large fire. It was a ball of flames."