One of the most dangerous threats you’ll ever face on the water isn’t on the list of the top causes of boating casualties. It’s an onboard fire—either in the open water or at a marina. Accident investigators say most recreational boats aren’t well-enough equipped to detect a fire early, to fight it effectively, or to help crew members escape easily.
That may seem surprising, given the Coast Guard’s annual statistics on boating accidents. The latest report (for 2013) shows the leading causes of boating mishaps are collision, flooding, grounding, and waterskiing accidents. It barely mentions fires or explosions. The numbers show only 219 of them, a little more than five percent of all marine casualties that year.
But insurance figures provide a different perspective. The Boat Owners Association of the United States (BoatU.S.) reports that although explosions and fires constitute only two and a half percent of the claims filed by its policy holders, they cause a sizable-enough amount of damage to rank them high in the total dollar value of claims the company pays.
Captain John McDevitt, a Mid-Atlantic marine accident investigator, who heads the National Fire Protection Association’s watercraft standards effort and has testified as a vessel fire expert in court cases, argues that an onboard boat fire is far more dangerous than other maritime threats because there’s less you can do to escape it.
It takes firefighters a long time to reach you if you’re out on the water—if they can get there before your boat burns to the waterline, McDevitt points out. And it’s often more difficult for you to escape from a boat’s cabin than to get out of your home ashore, where you usually have door escape routes and can just cross the street or go next door to get out of harm’s way.
“Boat fires aren’t a big problem statistically, unless they occur on your boat or a neighbor’s vessel,” McDevitt says.
But that isn’t all, McDevitt cautions. Most boaters aren’t adequately prepared for onboard fires. They typically don’t have early warning systems to help detect a fire, don’t carry enough working fire-extinguishers to control a blaze, and don’t have enough hatches to enable occupants to escape. Many hatches are hard to reach or are blocked by dinghies or other gear. To top it off, government and industry fire-protection standards aren’t as demanding as they should be.
The Coast Guard requires that recreational boats carry B-Type fire extinguishers, designed to put out fires involving flammable or combustible liquids. But most onboard fires stem from electrical problems, which B Types alone won’t handle. Since small, hand-held extinguishers can run dry in less than 10 seconds, having only one or two may not be enough.
McDevitt points out that the Coast Guard doesn’t require pleasure boats to undergo regular inspections of their safety and fire-fighting equipment. Most state boating laws simply echo the federal language. Neither federal nor state agencies strictly enforce the standards for recreational boats. It’s up to the boat owner to make sure the vessel is well-equipped.
One reason the government and BoatU.S. statistics differ so sharply is that the Coast Guard accident statistics primarily involve those that occur in open water—not on vessels that are docked or moored, where most boat-related fires break out. BoatU.S. statistics do count fires on moored vessels, but they’re limited to the company’s own customer claims.
BoatU.S. figures show that 55 percent of onboard fires stem from electrical problems; 24 percent are caused by an overheated engine or transmission; and eight percent come from fuel leaks, especially when a boat is being refueled. The remainder involves miscellaneous mishaps, such as a misdirected flare or spontaneous combustion from a pile of oily rags.
McDevitt has these suggestions for preparing your boat for a possible onboard fire:
Upgrade your onboard fire-extinguishing equipment. Buy approved hand-held extinguishers labeled Type A-B-C, which can handle fires caused by combustibles (A), electrical equipment (B), and combustible and flammable liquids (C). Install more portable fire extinguishers than Coast Guard regulations require. Place them at key positions in the boat.
Make sure your engine room fixed fire extinguishers are installed high in the space and away from mechanical and natural ventilation.
Check to see that crew and guests can easily escape from anywhere on the boat: from the cabin, staterooms, and the engine room. Few people can fit through port lights and small hatches. Where there are hatches, can people actually reach them, or might they need a ladder? Will the hatches open easily in an emergency?
Equip your boat with battery-powered smoke alarms, just as you have at home. The best kind are those that set off all alarms at once, so if you’re up on the fly bridge, you can tell that there’s a problem in your engine room. Install new batteries in the spring and test the alarms once a month. McDevitt says there are no commercially produced marine-approved smoke alarms available, but he says even installing household alarms is better than not having any at all. He recommends a wireless version, First Alert One Link. He cautions to be sure to test the alarms frequently. They won’t do much good if they don’t work.
Keep your boat shipshape, always. Most onboard fires are caused by poor maintenance and housekeeping practices, whether it’s allowing wiring or equipment to corrode or letting oily rags or other flammable materials to accumulate.
Conduct frequent fire drills. Just as with your man-overboard procedures, you should make sure that your crewmembers are familiar with and have practiced what they need to do when a fire breaks out or an explosion occurs. That should include how to shut off fuel systems and utilities, how to use a fire extinguisher, and how to exit spaces below decks.
McDevitt’s to-do list for when a fire breaks out: Cut off the air supply that feeds the burning space; close all hatches, ports, doors, ventilators; and shut down the boat’s ventilation system, if any. Cut off the boat’s electrical system and fuel supply. Use portable fire extinguishers to fight the fire, aiming the stream at the base of the flames. Maneuver the boat to minimize the effect of wind on the fire.
Finally: Break out lifejackets immediately! If you are unable to control the fire right away, notify the Coast Guard and neighboring vessels by VHF-FM radio. Use channel 16 and start your message with “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY.” Don’t wait to get help.
About the author: Art Pine is a Coast-Guard-licensed captain and a longtime sailor and powerboater on Chesapeake Bay.