Boats can be fun, but the laughter can soon turn to tears when disaster strikes. On board fires aren’t common, but neither are they rare enough for you to throw caution to the wind. Understanding the most common causes of boat fires and working to prevent them is the first step in ensuring your and your passenger’s safety. Knowing what to do if the worst happens is just as crucial.
Common Causes of Boat Fires
According to safe-skipper.com, some of the most common causes of on-board fires include:
- Smoking below decks
- Galley cookers
- Build-up of butane or propane gas in the bilges
- Faulty wiring
- Petrol/gasoline vapor in engine bay
- Flammable paints and solvents
How to Prevent Boat Fires
As you can see from the list of common causes of boat fires, most fires can be avoided by performing proper maintenance checks and applying basic common sense. To minimize the risk of fire:
- No matter how desperate you are for nicotine, don’t smoke below deck. And don’t let anyone else either, no matter how much they beg. If you smoke above deck, use metal ashtrays and make sure the cigarette is properly extinguished.
- Unless you’re actually using the gas, keep the valves on the bottle and cooker turned off. While we’re on the subject of gas bottles (not to mention any flammable liquids), make sure they’re kept in cockpit lockers that allow overboard draining and venting.
- Never leave naked flames unattended.
- Vent engine bays before starting the engine.
- Check any electricals and wires regularly, and make sure the fuse boxes are equipped with the proper fuses.
- Fit gas and petrol vapor detector alarms in the bilge and cabin.
- If you’re sleeping on board, turn off all appliances before you retire for the night.
- Don’t leave candles burning unattended.
- If there are children on board, make sure any matches or lighters are kept safely out of reach.
- Avoid fitting drapes near cooking equipment and never dry clothing or towels over a cooker.
Follow these tips, and you should hopefully have years of happy boating in front of you. But no matter how safe you try to be, accidents can sometimes happen. Making sure you and your passengers have a fire action plan in place is therefore vital.
Plan a Fire Action Plan
As boaterexam.com notes, the first thing to do if you notice a fire is to stop the engine immediately. Even if the fire is small, don’t even think of dealing with it while the engine is still running. Once you’ve turned off the engine, position the boat in a direction that allows the wind to blow the smoke away from the boat. Not only will this minimize the risk of smoke inhalation, it can also stop the fire spreading further. Identify the source of the fire and, if possible and safe to do, remove the fuel source. This could mean turning of the power supply in the case of an electrical fire, or disconnecting the gas tank. The next (and perhaps most vital) step in extinguishing a fire is to work out what kind of fire you’re dealing with. Not all fires are the same, and not all benefit from the same treatment. Unless you want to make a bad situation worse, spend a little time finding out about the different types of fire, before making sure you have an extinguishing agent to match on board.
As Boatus.org explains, fires fall into one of the following classifications:
- Class A fires: Class A fires (commonly known as solids fires) are the type generated by combustible solid materials. This includes paper, wood, cloth, rubber, and, of particular note in the case of boat fires, the fiberglass reinforced plastic that’s commonly used for decks and hulls.
- Class B fires: Class B fires (commonly known as liquids fires) burn on flammable liquids such as grease, acetone, varnishes, stove alcohol, oil-based paint, kerosene, oil, wood oil, paint thinners, gasoline, and diesel.
- Class C fires: Class C fires (commonly known as electrical fires) are usually caused as a result of faulty electrical equipment. If a water-based extinguishing agent is applied to a Class C fire, there’s the potential for electric shock. Turning the electricity off at the source will change a Class C fire to a Class A or B fire, thus allowing for safe extinguishing.
Once you’ve identified the type of fire, take the applicable extinguishing agent and aim it at the base of the fire. Pull the pin and squeeze the 2 levers together to activate the extinguisher. Use a sweeping motion while aiming the agent at the base of the fire.
Make a Back Up Plan
Not all fires can be extinguished. In case of a severe fire, having a backup plan in place to ensure you and your passengers are able to safely escape the boat could be the difference between life and death. As part of your basic escape plan, make sure you can tick the boxes on the following: Emergency escape exits are clearly marked, free from tripping or slipping hazards, and not obstructed. Having to battle your way through a load of junk before you can exit the boat wastes value time. Plan out a second escape route just in case you’re unable to exit via the primary route. Make sure that the doors and windows that feature in your escape route are easy to open. Keep their keys close to hand. Keep a heavy object and towel near the escape windows so you can break them if necessary (wrapping the towel over the jagged glass will help prevent any injuries). Make sure all passengers on board are aware of the escape plan, and are properly prepared in case of emergency. If a fire breaks out, don’t panic. Panic won’t put the fire out, but staying calm, organized and remembering your plan could well be the difference between a minor incident and a catastrophe.
If you aren’t able to put the fire out or if it’s too large or widespread to try, get off the boat as soon as possible. As you evacuate, stay as close to the floor as possible to minimize smoke inhalation. If you or another passenger catches alight, remember the basic rule of ‘stop, drop, roll’. Ensuring you have a fire blanket to hand and know how to use it can, quite literally, be a life saver in such situations. Once you’ve left the boat, don’t go back regardless of what you may have left behind. And don’t let any of your passenger’s, either. Things can be replaced easily enough. People can’t. Dial emergency services and leave the rest of the work to the professionals. A boat on fire is something no one wants to experience. But remembering the basic rules of fire safety and ensuring you’re prepared for an emergency can make all the difference to how the situation ends.