Lightning Strike Causes Sailboat Fire

Captain Randy Banger Sr. was motoring in Boca Ciega Bay at the time the fire call came over his marine radio on Saturday evening, July 20, he said. When he realized that no help was needed for a rescue effort, he filmed a short, close-range video of the fire-fighting action from the back of his boat. This is a screen grab from his video showing the St. Petersburg Fire Rescue vessel and the burning Katy Did sailboat that was at anchorage just off the shore of Gulfport.

In what the owner has described as a “freak accident,” a lightning strike during a powerful early evening thunderstorm on Saturday, July 20 ignited a sailboat fire that quickly engulfed the anchored vessel and resulted in its sinking hours later in Boca Ciega Bay just off the shore in Gulfport.

“Normally, around that time of day, my dad and I would be cooking dinner on the boat,” said Dawn Trevor, the owner. “I’m thankful that Dad and I weren’t on board. We’re sad that it happened. We’re happy to be alive.”

The Katy Did was single-mast, 41-foot fiberglass Islander with a center cockpit and a design by Robert H. Perry, she said. It was powered by a diesel engine.

Dawn and her dad, Bruce, have been living aboard the vessel while renovating it in preparation for the final phase of applying for insurance in August with plans to take it on a big water cruise to the Florida Keys or Caribbean.

According to Gulfport city officials, at 6:45 p.m. the Gulfport and South Pasadena fire departments responded to the scene near the Gulfport Casino, along with boats in the water from the St. Petersburg Fire Department, the Gulfport Police Department with support from Eckerd College Search & Rescue.

The Eckerd boat provided additional pumps to apply fire-fighting foam to the diesel fuel and fiberglass, said City Manager Jim O’Reilly.

Near Williams Pier during the early evening of Saturday, July 20, the Gulfport Police boat, foreground, can be seen while the Katy Did sailboat, background, was engulfed in flames at the base of the column of smoke. Photo by Lisa Sax Brennen, owner of Tangelo’s Grille in Gulfport.

The official cause of the fire has not been determined, yet, though “at this point, our assumption is it was struck by lightning,” O’Reilly said on Monday, July 22.

Dawn said, based on fire officials and eye-witness boaters at the scene, that “lightning blew the solar panels off then blew a hole in the top of the aft cabin,” she said. “That’s how the fire started. It didn’t even hit my 64-foot mast.”

She said a fire department official told her the night of the fire that he could see where a hole had been cut into the top of the cabin.

Now, at low tide when the stern or back of the boat is somewhat out of the water, “you can see where my solar panels are completely gone” and the mounting rack is broken, she said on Monday, July 22.

Dawn and her dad watched her boat burn in the bay from their vantage point on the Casino dock until 2 a.m. Sunday, which is when it sank.

“A sailor’s worst nightmare is being struck by lightning on the mast” where it can blow through the bottom of the boat and sink it, said Dawn who has been sailing for 20 years. “This was pretty much a freak accident to be hit on top.”

From the vantage point of a 16th-floor condominium on the south shore of Boca Ciega Bay looking north toward Gulfport, the tall plume of black smoke from the burning sailboat can be seen drifting eastward. Photo by Charlotte Dutchak.

The Phone Call

Dawn and her dad were heading home from Tampa where they had been working on a painting job for a friend to earn some extra money. They stopped at Sam’s Club on US 19 in St. Petersburg to pick up some blueberries and other items to stock up the boat for the next few days.

That’s when a friend from the Gulfport anchorage called Bruce.

“You need to get home,” said the caller. “Your boat was struck by lightning. It’s on fire.”

At first, Dawn said that she and her dad thought their friend was joking.

Dawn said she heard the friend say, “I’m not joking. I’m home. And, I’m watching your boat burn.”

It stunned both of them, said Dawn.

“We dropped everything, left the buggy and ran out of Sam’s,” she said.

About 10 minutes later, they were in Gulfport watching her boat burn.

What’s Next

“They are taking appropriate action,” said O’Reilly. The Coast Guard has been notified of the location of the boat and they are working with local government officials regarding its removal.

“We’re not giving up,” said Dawn. “We do hope to somehow get into another sailboat and try it again.”

How to Help

Before the fire on July 20 at anchorage off shore from Gulfport, the Katy Did sailboat was in use and was being renovated for an inspection to obtain insurance in August, said owner Dawn Traver. Photo courtesy of the GoFundMe page set up for Dawn and her dad who were both living aboard the vessel, facebook.com/dawn.traver.

To save money,the pair had recently moved all of their clothes, tools and sailing safety gear out of a workshop storage area and onto the boat – items that took more than 20 years to obtain. Being legally blind, Dawn also had her adaptive equipment on the boat.

In addition, the cremains of three family pets in urns – a dog, a parrot and a cat – that were destined for a showcase display area on a wooden shelf in the aft cabin, which was Dawn’s bedroom, went down with the boat.

The local boating community is planning fundraisers.

Dawn and her dad both have temporary places where they can stay.

A GoFundMe page has been set up at gofundme.com/f/dawn-traver.

To coordinate the donation of goods, contact Dawn via Facebook: facebook.com/dawn.traver.

“Anything is greatly appreciated,” she said. “We lost everything.”

 

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