Fires on boats are thankfully rare occurrences and it is something that the vast majority of boat owners will never have deal with in their boating lives.
Yet when the worst does happen and fire does break out, whether at sea, on anchor or in a marina, it is imperative to know what to do and have the necessary and up-to-date equipment on board.
What Causes Boat Fires?
According to insurance companies (see our guide to Marine Insurance), electrical fires are the main cause of fires on boats, accounting for around 35% of all fires, while the fuel systems, batteries and galley fires are other culprits. Wear and tear on the wiring is an inherent danger, as are poor maintenance practices.
Boat fires can spread quickly and, when they occur in marinas, can cause serious collateral damage, as was the case in 2016 in Marmaris, Turkey when the acclaimed 70 metre yacht The One caught fire and set light to the neighbouring 52 metre Barbie. Likewise in the Abu Dhabi Marina Yacht Club, eight boats were involved in a fire. While these are extreme examples, fires started by something off the boat account for around 23% of cases. What this means is that not only do you have a responsibility to yourself and anyone else on board to maintain fire safety standards, but to other boats around you.
Prevention is Key
Regular and thorough maintenance is imperative in the prevention of fires. The DC electric system and all its components must be checked regularly (up to every month during the boating season) to ensure all connections are tight along the entire system from the batteries to the alternator. Wiring should be secured to minimise the impact of vibration and chaffing, and battery terminals kept clean and their cables properly installed. Older boats are generally at greater risk with regards their electrical systems, and it is recommended that boats over 25 years old have outdated wiring and harnesses replaced. (See our guide to Pre-Purchase Surveys)
We want our boats to have all the home comforts of air conditioners, microwaves, fridges and other electrical appliances but, poorly maintained, these can be fire hazards. Most AC electrical fires start near the boat’s shore power inlet, so it is important to inspect it regularly for wear and tear. The use of adequately-sized, marine-grade power cords and adapters is recommended, and you should inspect the boat’s shore power inlet every few years.
Check for signs of the engine overheating, which can happen when motoring through murky waters and cause a cooling water intake blockage, and replace your impeller every two years. Likewise, on older boats you will want to keep an eye out for faulty voltage regulators.
Fire Safety Equipment and Protocols
Each country has its own stringent fire safety requirements which will differ depending on the size of the vessel. It is important to know what the minimum requirements are for you boat as soon as you take ownership. You can find more detailed information about these at the Boat Safety Scheme and RYA. The requirements dictate the type and minimum number of fire extinguishers which must be on board, as well as offering detailed fire system requirements and advice.
It is a good idea for yourself and any crew to complete the Standards of Training, Certification and Watch-Keeping (STCW-95) Basic Safety Training, which includes a full day of fire-fighting training. In addition, you will want to create a fire protocol and ensure that anyone who comes on board knows the drill, safety exits, muster points, and location of fire extinguishers. Pleasure vessels are not required to carry a radio, although it is highly recommended that you have one on board. Likewise, smoke detectors should be installed and checked regularly, and extinguishers kept near exits.
Should the very worst happen ensure you don’t enter a smoke-filled area, keep low down where the air is clearer, try to starve the fire of air by not opening any hatches or doors, get everyone on board into life jackets and contact the coast guard with a Mayday call and/or distress signal. Use life rafts if necessary to get everyone off the ship.
While all this may seem daunting, it is important to remember that boat fires aren’t common, but it is imperative to take fire safety seriously, adhere to all regulations and practice good maintenance. The good news is that newer boats are being constructed to ever higher safety standards with state-of-the-art flame resistant technology such as automatic steel fire doors, advanced smoke detectors, and fire suppression systems.
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