Smart Boater

Fire! Are You Ready to Fight One on Your Boat?


It was to be a normal ending to a pleasant day aboard the 70-foot yacht Too Elusive as they were preparing to dock at a marina in New Castle, NH. The owners were looking forward to dinner aboard and an evening walk with their two goldendoodle dogs. Instead, the owners, their dogs and a crew member all found themselves suddenly abandoning the boat as it erupted in flames.

Boaters nearby reported seeing black smoke coming from below decks just seconds before they saw flames engulfing the boat. Fortunately, those same boaters were there to rescue everyone, including the dogs, from the cold North Atlantic waters.

Fire aboard a boat is one of the most terrifying events imaginable. Boats contain all the ingredients for fire to spread very quickly, and because escaping the fire could mean jumping overboard, you go from one peril to another.

Once a fire is detected, you may literally only have seconds to begin extinguishing the flames while simultaneously preparing to abandon the boat if necessary. While prevention is always the most important, early awareness and the ability to extinguish a fire quickly is paramount to surviving.

Smoke detectors are the best means of early fire detection, but they need to be placed everywhere in the boat that fire could ignite. This means not only in all living spaces, but also in the engine room, the lazarette and behind electrical cabinets. It is possible that had the fire aboard Too Elusive been detected, even seconds before it was, the owners may have been able to extinguish the blaze and possibly save the boat.

Smoke detectors use two different technologies to detect fire: ionization and photoelectric. Ionization devices are generally more sensitive than photoelectric at detecting small particles often produced in greater amounts by rapidly starting fires. Photoelectric devices are generally more sensitive than ionization at detecting smoldering fires, which may smolder for hours before bursting into flames. For maximum protection, select a unit equipped with dual ionization and photoelectric sensors to detect fast- burning and smoldering fires quickly.

No smoke detectors are made specifically for marine applications; however, battery-powered household units are perfectly acceptable for a boat and are easily installed. Many come with non- replaceable batteries with a 10-year life. Some units still require batteries to be replaced every year. Whichever you select, a conservative policy suggests replacing the units every five years.

The ability to extinguish a fire quickly requires the correct type of equipment, properly maintained, and the training to use it correctly. Many fire departments and private emergency training facilities offer training on an actual fire in a controlled setting. Search for opportunities in your area. In the absence of that, high quality fire extinguisher training classes and videos are readily available online. All regular crew and family members aboard your boat should take the time to familiarize yourself with the type of fire extinguishers you have and how to use them.

Any boaters spending a lot of time aboard a boat, and certainly those voyaging offshore, may want to consider enrolling in an STCW Certification course. STCW stands for Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping, which was developed by an international convention as a basic set of rules for professional seafarers, including those working on private yachts.

The STCW Certification teaches how to identify safety hazards at sea and know how to respond in an emergency. Among other important items, such as survival skills and first aid, a primary component of STCW training is firefighting. A variety of private maritime training centers around the country offer the five-day program. The firefighting component teaches by extinguishing live fires and is taught by professional firefighters.

The U.S. Coast Guard issued updated fire extinguisher requirements as of April 20, 2022. For power and sailboats requiring fire extinguishers, the new standards state:

  • Fire extinguishers must be readily accessible
  • Be of an approved type
  • Must be within 12 years of manufacture date
  • Must not appear to have been previously used and be maintained in good and serviceable working condition
  • If the extinguisher has a pressure gauge reading or indicator, it must be in the operable range or position
  • The lock pin is firmly in place
  • The discharge nozzle is clean and free of obstruction,
  • The extinguisher does not show visible signs of significant corrosion or damage.

Fixed engine room fire suppression systems are an important part of many boats’ safety equipment. These systems release a fire suppressant into the engine room, which robs the space of the oxygen needed to support the flames. Fixed fire systems need to be serviced annually.

Unfortunately, this is a maintenance item too many boaters neglect.

Fixed fire suppression systems trigger automatically with a temperature sensor, additionally, some may have a manual release pin. If your boat’s fixed system has a manual release, just like with fire extinguishers, everyone on board needs to know where it is located and how to activate it. Some fixed systems have relays that automatically shut down engines, generators and blowers. Know whether your system has this feature and test that it operates when the system is inspected. If your system does not have an automatic shutdown feature, you will need to react quickly to shut off engines, generators and blowers in the event of a fire.

Another type of fire fighting device is a “condensed dry aerosol ball.” These range from 4-6 inches in diameter and contain a condensed dry chemical that is released within 3-5 seconds of the ball being exposed to the heat of a flame. The small balls can be permanently mounted in mechanical or electrical spaces aboard the boat or kept nearby and thrown into a fire.

You don’t need to become a victim of a boat fire. Have your boat inspected by a qualified surveyor, mechanic and electrician to look for defects or conditions that could cause a fire. Perform regular maintenance of all components to eliminate potential fire hazards. Carry the appropriate type of fire-fighting equipment for your type and size of boat, make sure it is easily accessible and everyone on board knows how to use it.

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