The Hazards of Boating: Fire on Boats

Content provided by Tom Neale

Fire on boats has always terrified seamen. But in recent years, with more safety equipment and rescue assets available, there seems to have been less thought about it. Here are some reasons why it's just as serious as ever and why, arguably, we may have more to fear from boat fires in modern times than did seamen of old.

People often think that fire on boats is so bad because you can't just walk out the door and stand in the yard waiting for the fire trucks to come, safe at that distance, even though your house is burning down. That's just a part of it, but it's only the beginning. Following are a few of the many more reasons.

Fire aboard often starts in places you can't see and often is well underway before you realize what's going on. Many boats in the past were lost because cargos of coal, grain and other combustible substances simmered down in the holds, set off slowly by their own form of spontaneous combustion, until somebody noticed smoke…perhaps a small trace wafting out of a hatch. On our boats it's easy to install high tech smoke and other alarms to alert us. But fire on boats brings terror.

Often the fire is associated with an electrical component. Often that component is in some obscure corner which isn't ventilating well to the area where the alarm sensor is placed. Sure, that sensor should pick up the acrid odor or smoke or fumes very soon (and electrical fires are very "smellable") but by then vital wiring or connections needed to operate your boat or components (such as a dinghy launch) or, worse still, needed to get out a distress call, may be useless. In that event, for example, the VHF might not work. Also your chart plotter might not be able to tell you where you are (if you haven't been paying attention) so you can relay it to a rescuer. If you don't have within immediate reach a PLB or EPIRB or a cell phone with a good signal and the local USCG number programmed in, you may be out of luck.

Most of us today have fiberglass boats. It's a popular material with which to build a boat. But, some would argue that a fire in a fiberglass boat can be worse than a fire on an old wooden sailing ship. Both building materials can catch fire and burn. And they have different combustions points and other characteristics. But, for example, wood in holds on some of those older ships was often wet and moldy and offered a little resistance to fire. 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, for lack of a better term and without getting overly technical, involves what is more of a chemical process. Once it gets going it gets hot very quickly. And the fumes are far more than the typical human can tolerate, even briefly.

Tom's Tips About Fire Extinguishers

  1. Fire extinguishers should be rated for marine use and USCG approved.
  2. They should be within immediate reach, even in a fire, and mounted with approved brackets.
  3. 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.
  4. Have enough aboard so that you can have them well distributed for instant easy access. The minimum required by law may be nowhere near enough.
  5. Sometimes you may need to place a fire extinguisher where it is somewhat exposed to the elements, as on a fly bridge or at the side of a steering console. If this is needed to have easy quick access, do it, but check them frequently and replace as needed.
  6. If there is any issue as to a fire extinguisher being readily visible, make signs so even someone new to your boat knows where they are.
  7. Know how to use them and know that others aboard do.
  8. Check all of them regularly.
  9. If appropriate to your boat, also have automatic fire extinguisher(s) installed by professionals.

Fire on some larger boats with "below decks" accommodations can result in ultimate terror because of the way some boats are built. Believe it or not, even in relatively recent years, there have been boats built that do not have adequate fire escapes in staterooms. The designers and builders may have reasons for this, but I have to wonder how important those reasons would be if one were in one of those staterooms, knowing that a fire is raging outside the room, and be unable to get out. All it takes is a hatch. This can open to deck or out the side. Yes, that would involve extra expense to make the hatch a part of the "window" or other type of installation, but in my opinion, failure to have a quick and easy escape from a stateroom or other enclosed space below decks on a typical pleasure boat is inexcusable. If you have such a boat, consider what you can do to remedy the situation.The smoke from a wood fire can overcome and kill you quickly. The oxygen deprivation created by any fire can do the same. Explosions or "collateral damage" caused by any fire can do the same. But gasses created by fiberglass burning and what they do to you if you try to go below to save someone or to fight the fire or to get survival gear is devastating. You can't handle it. What these fumes can do to you if you just stick 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 that had within reach on deck. Fire on your boat is a terrifying thing.

There are many different types of fires. One example would be slow overheating of an electrical connection until it ignites something nearby. You may have plenty of warning if you're sniffing about while checking about. Overheating electrical insulation has a distinct odor. Another would be of the explosive nature as when a spark ignites a gas tank or gas in a line leak. Another would be a situation such as that where a small pinhole leak occurs in a high pressure fuel line and sprays vaporized diesel fuel on a hot exhaust manifold. This occurs more than you might expect in "safe" diesel engines and the results can be a sudden conflagration for which you had little warning unless you regularly inspect your engine space.

There are many things you can do to increase the likelihood of survival from a boat fire or decrease the chances that one will occur. The first is to keep your boat well maintained. Don't put things off. Don't exclusively trust only yourself here. We all have a tendency to overlook things with which we're very familiar. An occasional visit by a knowledgeable friend or formal inspection never hurts.

Regularly check for potential problems and deal with them NOW. Checking should include, not just looking, but also smelling. Perhaps the only good thing about electrical overheating issues is that the smell of overheated insulation is usually so distinct. A prime example of a problem that you could see would be a blackened wire splice or terminal connection insulation. This indicates that the wire underneath has become overheated. This could be caused by things such as a loose connection, broken wiring strands which could be caused by vibration, poor installation techniques and damaged wiring from use of more current than it's rated for. Any of these things and more could cause a fire. Always replace and repair wiring with material rated for maritime use and for the specific purpose. For example, wiring should be tinned.

Also have survival gear at hand where you are located in the boat, not stuffed away under some cabinet where you may have trouble accessing it. This includes but is not limited to EPIRB and/or PLB, life jackets, handheld VHF and, of course, fire extinguishers.

These thoughts just barely brush the surface of a very serious issue for boaters. But it helps to know of the issue and to give it serious thought. Learn more, particularly relevant to your boat and type of boating. Have a plan for what to do in case of fire. Brief crew and passengers. Be ready for the worst even while you're having the best of times on the water.