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Fire on board! Here’s what to do

On March 31, 2008, about 4:52 a.m., a serious fire was reported aboard a large yacht at Miami Beach Marina. The vessel was said to have cost $5 million when it was new.

A fire at the dock can be as dangerous as one at sea if there is no means of egress for anyone trapped aboard.

Seven people were aboard. Five made it out with injuries. Two were trapped in their stateroom. Luxurious by most of our standards, the stateroom had no escape hatch.

There was no hatch in the deck overhead and no escape through the portholes in the side of the boat. They were too small to allow anyone to climb out.

Fortunately someone saw and heard the people inside as they screamed and banged on the porthole and hull. As the boat burned, local rescue personnel cut through the hull and freed the two people from what would have been a terrible death.

There are many boats out there with similar accommodations, but danger and death from a fire on board is hardly limited to this kind of situation. Many types of boats burn — center consoles, sailboats, express cruisers, trawlers. And there are things we can do to make it far more likely that we’ll have a good time on the water instead.

Fire on boats has always terrified seamen. Many boats in the past were lost because cargoes of coal, grain and other combustibles simmered down in the holds, set off slowly by their own form of spontaneous combustion, until somebody noticed smoke — perhaps a small, terrifying trace wafting out of a hatch.

Also, cooking was often done on open brick stoves built on wooden decks. Lighting below, such as it was, came from oil lanterns swinging from the overhead beams. Fire extinguishers amounted to no more than buckets of water and pumps manned by frantic sailors.

With more safety equipment and rescue assets available, there may be less concern among some of the boating public about a fire on the water. Here are a few reasons that it’s just as serious as ever and why some would argue we may have more to fear from boat fires in modern times than did seamen of old.

When you’re hot

People often think that fire on boats is so bad because you can’t just walk out the door and stand safely in the yard, waiting for fire trucks to come. Abandoning a boat under these circumstances can become deadly very quickly — if the water is very cold, for example, or if there are sharks. But that’s just the beginning.

Fires often are associated with an electrical component. Often that component is in some obscure corner. By the time the fire is noticeable, vital wiring or connections needed to operate your boat or components may be toast, including circuitry to operate a dinghy launch. And now may be the time you really need it.

The equipment to get out a distress call may be rendered useless. Your chart plotter might not be able to tell you where you are (if you haven’t been paying attention), so you can’t relay this vital information to rescuers, even if you can communicate with them. If you don’t have a PLB or EPIRB or a cellphone with a good signal and the local Coast Guard number programmed in, you may be out of luck by the time you realize there’s a problem.

Most of us have fiberglass boats, but some would argue that a fire in a typical fiberglass boat can be worse than a fire on a wooden sailing ship. Both building materials can catch fire and burn, but they have different characteristics. For example, wood in holds on some of those older ships was often wet and moldy and offered a little resistance to fire.

Fiberglass boats burn very fast because of the petrochemicals in resin, and the fumes can be deadly.

There are reports of colliers beginning to burn weeks or more out at sea and still making it to port. This was not only because the officers had the good sense to not throw open the hatches in panic and feed oxygen to the fire, and not only because they judiciously pumped water in, but also, many say, because of the moist condition of the wood.

Fiberglass down in the dark recess of a boat may also be a bit wet and moldy, but probably the moisture hasn’t permeated the fiberglass. And the process of fiberglass burning, to express it perhaps over-simplistically, involves more of a “chemical” process. Petrochemicals are a basic building component of resin. Once a fire gets going, it gets hot very quickly, and the fumes are far more than a human can tolerate, even briefly.

The smoke from a wood fire can overcome and kill you fast. The oxygen deprivation any fire creates can do the same, and in the hulls of ships, oxygen deprivation is a critical issue. But the gases created by burning fiberglass and their effect on someone going below to fight the fire or to get survival gear are devastating. You can’t handle it.

Merely sticking your head down in a locker in your center console to see what’s going on can be devastating. Once a fiberglass boat starts burning, those aboard often can’t count on doing anything but jumping over with whatever survival gear they have within reach.

There is also the issue of explosions or “collateral damage” caused by fire. If it reaches or involves components such as fuel tanks, fuel hoses, hydraulic lines or propane tanks and lines, it can expand quickly or result in explosions. You may not even have time to make an orderly retreat, even though you’ve done everything right.

Fire on some larger boats with below-deck accommodations can result in the ultimate terror because of the way some boats are built. As mentioned above, boats have been built without escape hatches in staterooms, even in recent years. I assume designers and builders have reasons for this, but I have to wonder how important those reasons would be if I knew that a fire was raging outside the room and I couldn’t get out.

All it takes is a hatch. It can open to the deck or out the side. It can be a large porthole or a hatch within one of those side-view “picture windows” that are so popular today. Yes, that would involve extra expense to make the hatch a part of the “window” or other type of construction while maintaining structural strength and integrity, but in my opinion, failing to have a viable fire escape from a stateroom or other enclosed space below on a typical boat is inexcusable. If you have such a boat, consider what you can do to remedy the situation.

American Boat and Yacht Council Standard H-03 addresses this. A partial excerpt follows:

Enclosed accommodation compartments or sleeping compartments shall have a readily accessible and unobstructed means of exit and a second readily accessible means of exit if one exit can be blocked by a fire in a galley or machinery space.

I would strike the last six words for any boat I owned.

Things you can do

Boat fires have many causes. Knowing them will help you prevent them. A common cause is the slow overheating of an electrical connection until it ignites something nearby. You may have plenty of warning if you’re sniffing around while doing an engine check. Overheating electrical insulation has a distinct and strong odor.

Even after the overheating has stopped, you can usually smell the burned insulation. Track this smell down and deal with the problem now. Usually these problems occur at an “end” of a wire run where there is a connection — for example, a blackened wire splice or terminal connection insulation, indicating that the wire underneath has become overheated. This could be caused by a loose connection, broken wiring strands under the insulation and damaged wiring from the use of more current than it’s rated for. Any of these things and more could cause a fire.

Placing extinguishers in easy-to-access spots can help stop a small blaze from becoming a big one.

Always replace and repair wiring with material rated for marine use. For example, wiring should be tinned. And soldering connections is seldom, if ever, acceptable because solder is brittle and has a tendency to break, where a marine-grade connector would not.

Another cause might be an explosion, such as when a spark ignites a gas tank or gas in a line leak. This can happen quickly and with little warning. For example, if an electrical connection began loosening from vibration, it could easily spark. Any kind of explosive atmosphere could ignite or blow.

Another type of fire is often overlooked by those of us who believe we are “safe” because we have diesel rather than gas engines. Diesel problems usually happen rather quickly, but diesel also has its own distinct, strong smell. Regularly check your engine space, not just for what you see but also for what you smell. If you smell diesel, find out why and deal with it, or at least make sure the source is safe and that you can get home safely.

A small drip from a leaking compression fitting on a low-pressure line, which you can catch and contain as you return to the dock, is far safer than a fine spray from a high-pressure line running to an injector. In this situation a pinhole leak occurs in a high-pressure fuel line and sprays vaporized diesel out into the engine room. If this sprays on a hot exhaust manifold, it can ignite and keep burning, fueled by the continuously spraying diesel. The destruction is very quick and disastrous.

This occurs more than you might expect, and the result can be a sudden conflagration for which you have little warning unless you regularly inspect your engine space. Spraying hydraulic fluid that reaches a super-hot component also could ignite. Hydraulic components should be regularly inspected.

Another cause of fire is when an explosive gas, such as propane, leaks and is ignited. But a common denominator in preventing any fire is constant inspection — at the dock and especially out on the water — and good maintenance. When it comes to maintenance, don’t put things off. Also, don’t exclusively trust only yourself here. We all have a tendency to overlook things with which we’re very familiar. An occasional visit from a knowledgeable friend or a formal inspection by qualified personnel never hurts.

Generators are particularly susceptible, in my view, to problems because they mix electricity with internal combustion. Most today are built with safety protections and provide excellent, safe service, but regularly checking behind the sound shield is a good idea.

If you have a propane system, there is probably a shut-off solenoid at the tank. There should be a switch at the stove that closes this solenoid manually, perhaps automatically, when needed. If you don’t have such a system, install one. Check it regularly, particularly at the solenoid at the tank. These should be in a space topside that’s impervious to salty atmosphere. The solenoids do fail, usually in the closed position, which is good unless a previous owner bypassed it because he wanted his steak well-done that night.

Regularly check for potential problems and deal with them now. Checking should include not just looking but also smelling and, in some instances, carefully touching.

A well-planned ditch bag, like this one from ACR, is imperative if you have to abandon a burning boat quickly.

My engine room has a glass porthole in the door. Walking down the passageway, I can check for things such as smoke, water or fuel spraying or sparks. (If I had a penny for every time I’ve looked through this port I could buy several much larger and much newer boats.) Also, if you smell overheated paint, this could indicate something is wrong that could start a fire.

Fires also can be caused by space heaters that blow air over superheated thin strips of metal — they aren’t marine-rated. Some recommend that these not be used on a boat. Others agree that if you use small electrical heaters, they should only be on when you’re there and should be rated for marine use with ignition and overheat protection and an automatic tip-over shut-off.

You also want one that will not get hot enough to ignite paper or clothing that might fall onto it. This type of heater should not be confused with heaters such as those by Xtreme Heaters (, tested specifically for marine use.


Adding an appropriate (overabundant) array of alarms is so important that the subject deserves special mention. According to West Marine, statistics indicate that boat fires double in size about every 7 seconds. The number of seconds for different fires can be debated, but you get the point. To make matters worse, fire aboard often starts in places that you can’t see and often is well under way before you realize what’s going on.

Alarms are an indispensable tool in fire control. You must know right away that you’ve got a fire. If you don’t, the battle will probably be lost by the time you find out. It’s easy to install smoke and fume alarms. All boats with power or ignition sources should have fire-indicating alarms, and to not have them in a boat in which people sleep is unconscionable, in my view.

Much has been said and written about the lack of standards for approval of marine smoke alarms, but that’s no reason not to have ample well-placed, high-quality smoke alarms. For years there have been UL standards for smoke alarms for the RV industry (UL217), and many consider those standards to be appropriate for alarms for use in dry spaces on boats.

The standards include salt spray testing. Some have said that alarm units used on boats that aren’t built to marine standards are more likely to emit false alarms. On my cruising boat, I have six. On my many past cabin boats I’ve also had multiple alarms. They’ve all come from places such as The Home Depot and Lowe’s. I’ve never had a false alarm (except when I burn the bacon). Regardless, I’d much rather have a false alarm than no alarm when I need one. Bottom line is: Get alarms. The ones you install and where you install them will depend on your boat, but there are numerous alarms on the market that can give you a survival edge.

Alarms need not be just for cabin boats. Center consoles have fires, too — for example, in the ’tween-decks area in the stern, where the fuel hose and electric lines run to the engine. Often the battery is in that area, too. A fume sensor or even a smoke alarm in this area could be invaluable.

Capt. John McDevitt is chairman of the National Fire Protection Association 302 Watercraft Technical Committee. (This is a boat standard committee for pleasure and commercial vessels; 302 is the applicable NFPA standard.) He’s had experience as a firefighter/officer for much of his life, holds an associate’s degree in fire protection and has held a 100-ton Coast Guard master’s license since 1992. He’s active with the Society of Accredited Marine Surveyors and the ABYC, and he participates in sales and service for Bluewater Yacht Sales in the Annapolis, Md., area.

Although he stresses all of the important components of fire protection — prevention, detection, egress and suppression — he is quick to emphasize detection, perhaps because he believes so few have emphasized it adequately in the past.

“The Coast Guard has for a number of years mandated smoke alarms in small inspected vessels with sleeping quarters,” says McDevitt. “The Coast Guard CFR 46 Part 181.4 and 181.45 states that ‘small passenger vessels … must be fitted with an independent modular smoke detecting and alarm unit … and must meet UL217 and be listed as a single station smoke detector suitable for use in recreational vehicles.’ ” (The NFPA 302 Fire Protection Standard for Pleasure and Motorcraft requires the same UL217 RV smoke alarm device in vessels over 26 feet.)

This is a sight no one ever wants to see. Spend some time on preventive measures in advance.

The Coast Guard also recently expanded the requirements for early-warning fire detection aboard uninspected commercial fishing (46 CFR Part 28.325) and uninspected commercial towing vessels (46 CFR Part 27.203). To McDevitt and others, including me, smoke alarms on any enclosed boat are critically necessary.

There are other critical devices for boats that can be used in addition to smoke alarms, such as alarms for gas fumes. But some, though extremely important, may not give you that instant notification of actual fire as well-placed smoke alarms. For example, some devices will shut down your engine automatically, which can be very helpful, though not if you’re trying to survive a raging inlet or trying to run up on the beach to get off the boat. This is not to suggest that such a device is not important to have. It’s only to suggest that it’s important to have multiple types of alarms to meet your circumstances.

And if it happens

Have survival gear at hand where you are in the boat, not stuffed away under some cabinet where you may have trouble accessing it. This includes an EPIRB and/or a PLB, life jackets, a handheld VHF and signal gear, such as the new redesigned ACR Artex Firefly Pro SOLAS Waterbug. A good ditch bag can be exceptionally helpful to keep survival items conveniently at hand and ready to go in an instant.

Fire extinguishers are a no-brainer. But are they? You’ve got some, so why worry? It’s not that simple. Those used on boats should be rated for marine use and be Coast Guard-approved and mounted with approved brackets.

Keep in mind the three classes of fire. Although you may think a particular class is irrelevant on your boat or in your compartment, my preference is not to take chances. ABYC Standard A-4 addresses these and many other firefighting issues.

Class “A” fires occur in ordinary combustible materials such as wood, cloth, paper, rubber and many plastics, including fiberglass- reinforced plastics. Fires in bedding and upholstery are Class “A” fires.

Class “B” fires occur in flammable liquids, oils, greases, tars, oil-based paints, lacquers and flammable gases. Gasoline, diesel, alcohol and kerosene fires are Class “B” fires.

Class “C” fires occur in energized electrical equipment. The electrical non-conductivity of the extinguishing agent is important. If the electrical equipment is de-energized, a related fire may be a Class “A” or “B” fire for the purpose of fire-extinguishing agent selection.

(The ABYC allows non-members free online access to its standards for five days.

Portable fire extinguishers should be within immediate reach, especially during a fire. For example, a fire extinguisher mounted over a galley stove may be easy to reach if a fire is in the engine space but impossible to reach if the fire is on the stove.

Have enough aboard so they are well distributed for instant easy access. Sometimes you may need to place a fire extinguisher where it is somewhat exposed to the elements — on a flybridge or at the side of a steering console — but check them frequently and replace as needed. If there is any issue as to a fire extinguisher being readily visible where it is mounted, make conspicuous signs so that even someone new to your boat knows where they are.

Check all of your fire extinguishers regularly. Don’t hesitate to replace any that are questionable. Just looking at a gauge isn’t enough; look for signs of bubbling under the painted surface. This could indicate corrosion, which can result in an unexpected and very quick leak, especially if this bubbling is in the neck where the head screws into the cylinder.

If yours have powder as an extinguishing product, invert them several times a year and tap hard on the bottom with the palm of your hand. Listen/feel for a soft thud. Sometimes the powder will settle to the bottom and needs to be shaken loose. Read your manual and do what is appropriate for your equipment.

You may also want to have automatic extinguishers installed by professionals. Improperly installed, they may be ineffective. Examples of this would be having the sensing device too low to detect the triggering heat level and units too close to ventilation ducts or fans. These come in many sizes and configurations and are of immense value to your safety.

Be sure you and others on boats know how to use fire extinguishers. When your pressure gauge goes below the safe mark, before you throw it away, practice shooting it off in an appropriate area (not on your boat) so you get an idea of what to expect. If appropriate for your handheld extinguishers, remember the code “PASS” and explain it to your crew:

Pull the pin

Aim the fire extinguisher

Squeeze the handles together

Sweep across the base of the flames

These thoughts just brush the surface of a very serious issue for boaters. Learn more that is relevant to your boat and type of boating. Have a plan for what to do in case of fire. Brief your crew and passengers. Be ready for the worst while you’re having the best of times on the water. You want your greatest risk of burning to come from forgetting to use enough sunscreen.

May 2014 issue