For sailors, there is no hotter topic than fire on board. Sticky Stapylton looks at methods of prevention – and ways of dealing with fire should the worst happen
Boat fire prevention: tips to stay safe
Each year there are around 100 fires on privately-owned boats in the UK, and these fires are responsible for a yearly average of three deaths, writes Sticky Stapylton.
I do not wish to be a ‘doom and gloom’ merchant, but fire is one of the most dangerous threats to a boat and it must be treated with respect.
Luckily for me I have never experienced a boat fire, although I have had a close call. I also witnessed a boat on a nearby mooring starting
to emit smoke, but the crew managed to extinguish the fire before it took hold.
If a boat fire is not dealt with quickly the average GRP boat will be destroyed.
This is why you should ensure you have a well-considered plan for dealing with fire, have sufficient and suitably positioned fire extinguishers, and brief your crew before you set sail on what actions must be taken to stop flames taking hold.
Your crew should also be thoroughly familiar with abandon ship drills should the worst come to the worst.
The boat I witnessed starting to emit smoke was on the Solent. We had just breakfasted and were getting ready for a day’s sail; I was in the cockpit enjoying a cup of tea when I heard a commotion on a motorboat moored to a buoy a short distance away.
I looked up to see smoke coming from the stern of a 30ft cabin cruiser, and two crew on deck armed with fire extinguishers.
Fortunately we had our radio on, having listened to the weather forecast from the coastguard a few minutes earlier; it was also fortunate that we had a well-set-up boat with a remote microphone in the cockpit.
Grabbing the mic, I put out a Mayday relay which was immediately acknowledged by the coastguard.
In the meantime, the crew on the motorboat seemed to have the fire under control; the smoke had dissipated and they were looking somewhat more relaxed than before.
Pumping up our dinghy, we rowed over to find out if there was anything we could do to help and to tell them that we had alerted the coastguard.
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As we rowed over, the harbour master arrived in his launch. The motorboat’s owner was satisfied that he had sorted things out and thanked us for our help.
It turned out that the flexible gas pipe to the stove had ruptured and the galley had caught fire.
The crew had acted quickly; one had turned off the gas bottle by activating a solenoid switch, while a second had dowsed the fire with an extinguisher before the flames could develop.
I learnt an interesting lesson from this incident.
The harbour master told me that if we had sent our Mayday relay on the dedicated channel for that harbour, he would have been warned much more quickly than by the call he received from the coastguard after my message on Ch16.
His office and launch were only half a mile from where we were moored, and the coastguard had clearly worked out that he could get to the
incident more quickly than the lifeboat; but I wonder if it would be worthwhile for harbour masters to consider being on dual watch?
Boat fire: alarms
Modern boats have a plethora of equipment on board, making it time-consuming to check regularly while at sea: it is therefore essential to have some form of alarm system.
Smoke alarms are not expensive and give off a piercing shriek when activated, enough to wake the heaviest sleeper.
The problem I have found with these is that they are so sensitive that even making a piece of toast on the grill is sufficient to set them off.
A lot of sailors get round this problem by siting the alarm in the aft cabin by the galley and keeping the door shut when cooking.
It is important to fit your alarms in places where they can be heard clearly – they are not much use in a cabin isolated from the rest of the boat when the door is shut at night.
I always encourage crew to sleep with the cabin doors open where the alarm is fitted in that cabin – partly because the human body gives off at least 700ml of water per day just breathing and an open cabin door cuts down on condensation in the cabin, but also, from a safety point of view, because the alarm is more likely to be heard.
In large boats of 40ft (around 12m) or more you should consider having linked alarms which all go off at the same time.
Always test the alarm whenever you go on board and never disconnect it or remove the batteries.
Action if there is a boat fire
In the event of a boat fire, you should have a drill which will include the following:
- Sound an alarm; the crew should have been briefed on this. My plan is for a very loud banging on the hull, maybe using a winch handle or similar.
- All crew should grab lifejackets if coming up from down below; those on deck will be wearing them anyway. Any crew member who has the presence of mind to collect the grab bag will earn a commendation! (The grab bag should preferably be stored on top of everything in a cockpit locker.)
- Tell the skipper where the fire is and its size. On most boats of 45ft (around 14m) or less, this will be pretty evident.
- Get everyone on board to a safe place.
- Send a Mayday – this can always be cancelled later if the fire is small and has been completely extinguished. Try to put out the fire while delegating someone else to send the Mayday message. This is where a remote microphone in the cockpit or a handheld VHF set will earn its keep.
- Work out what type of fire it is and how best to extinguish it. I am usually the oldest on board, and therefore the most expendable, so I expect to be the firefighter! I ask for one man to watch me and be prepared to haul me out of the area where the fire is should he see that I have collapsed. I normally nominate the most gorilla-shaped crew member in the hope that he will have the strength to yank me out. If I can, I will soak my handkerchief in water and tie it over my nostrils and mouth: any form of smoke and fume filter is better than nothing. We must restrict the fire by starving it of air and turning off the electrics and fuel supplies. Hopefully this will be done immediately on discovering the fire.
- We should position the boat so that the effect of wind on the fire is relatively minimal; this could mean heading into wind.
- Be prepared to abandon the vessel if you’re unable to control the fire or if there is risk of an explosion.
- Be ready to launch the liferaft.
- If there is the slightest risk of explosion – take to the liferaft.
Good discipline in the galley is essential. A boat cooker or stove should never be left unattended, particularly if you are cooking in a heavy sea.
A draught could blow out the flame and an explosive air/gas mix could fill the cabin.
If your stove or cooker is not fitted with a flame failure device, it’s best to get one.
On passage, it’s much easier for the cook to prepare the evening meal if the boat is hove-to: if the galley is on the port side, not only will this be more comfortable cooking, but you can also be on starboard tack and be the stand-on vessel with other boats under sail provided you are not the windward boat.
I always insist that we never fry at sea: there is the danger of fat spilling onto a flame and catching fire, and also the possibility of hot fat spilling onto the cook’s skin.
The latter problem can be prevented by wearing oilskins, but fire prevention is more important.
Fire advisers recommend that a spark device (proprietary gas-lighter) is the safest way to light a stove without its own igniter.
On a number of boats, I have found the fire blanket positioned right by the stove: in some cases, if you wanted to gran it you would have to reach over the cooker.
If there was a pan fire it might not be possible to get hold of the blanket, in which case you would have to use a fire extinguisher – so make sure your blanket is well clear of the stove.
If you do have to use a blanket always remember to turn off the heat source and allow the item to cool before removing the blanket.
The use of gas
Another of my rules is never to have the gas pipeline from the bottle filled with gas unless the gas is lit; I therefore turn the gas off at the bottle every time I finish using the burner and allow the gas to bleed through the system before turning off at the stove.
Turning off at the cut-off switch between the gas bottle and the stove inside the boat is insufficient: there must be no gas in the boat while the cooker is not being used.
The problem with this rule is that someone has to go to the gas bottle locker and turn on or off at the regulator switch – easy while the crew are on watch in the cockpit, but at rest, and in filthy weather outside, the chore can easily be missed.
Yuo can get round this by fitting a solenoid switch controlled from within the boat.
When a gas bottle has to be changed over, I either do it myself or ask that two crew members do it together so that a through check is made of the connection to the new bottle.
Electrical boat fires
Electrical fires are often due to faulty wiring.
Check your boat’s wiring carefully or, if you lack the necessary expertise, get it examined by a professional marine electrician.
A leak in the pipework from your fuel tank to the engine is a possible cause of an engine fire.
On modern boats, the fuel lines are on the opposite side of the engine to the exhaust, so a dripping fuel line is less likely to be ignited.
I was once on a motorboat that has just arrived at a berth, with its engine still running: looking over the side of the boat to check the fenders, I saw the automatic bilge pump was pumping out diesel.
Down below, I pulled up the engine covers and saw that the return fuel line had fractured and was sending a jet of fuel across the engine bay.
The engine was shut down immediately, and a good few turns of self-amalgamating tape on the fractured pipe effected a temporary repair.
For dealing with fire in the engine compartment, one method is to have an automatic extinguisher mounted in the compartment: if the temperature reaches a certain level, the extinguisher sprays the whole area.
Alternatively, you can have a hole in the engine casing with a sliding cover: if this is slid to one side, an extinguisher nozzle can be poked into the hole and the contents sprayed in.
It’s important not to simply open the engine compartment – this allows a free flow of air to the air, which can rapidly become worse.
As part of my crew briefing, I show all on board where all the fire extinguishers are located; we check whether they are in date and the exact method of use.
We also discuss handling of each type of extinguisher with the various types of fire.
Boat fire safety round-up
The amount of briefing and demonstration just on the subject f fire could take some time and delay your departure to go sailing.
If possible, I just cover the essentials in the initial briefing and then introduce lower-priority subjects as the cruise progresses.
This way there is less of a need to issue matchsticks to prop up people’s eyelids and more information can be taken in!
I said at the start that fire is probably the most serious situation a skipper will have to face: if not prepared for it and if the reaction is not immediate, the safety of the whole boat and crew is at stake.
A well-maintained boat with a switched-on skipper who has thought through all the ‘what ifs?’ has a much better chance of survival.
The essentials for dealing with a boat fire are:
- Having the right fire warning equipment.
- Having the right equipment for dealing with a fire – equipment which is up to date and has been checked.
- Briefing your crew on how to use the kit.
Fires are classified as follows:
Class A fires involve wood, paper, material, cloth, etc. You will need a foam, powder or water fire extinguisher for these materials.
Class B fires involve flammable liquids such as petrol, spirits, diesel, solvent and oils (not cooking oils), or fires involving
electrical equipment. For this type of fire you should use a CO2 extinguisher.
Those with a swivel horn should not be held by the horn because it can cause freeze burns. You could also use a foam or a powder
fire extinguisher, but beware of using powder in the engine compartment.
Class C fires are flammable gas fires. You should use a powder fire extinguisher to deal with these.
Boat fire prevention
As with most things in life, prevention is better than cure, especially where fire is concerned.
Before sailing, carry out careful checks to ensure you have taken all possible measures to minimise the chance of a fire.
An excellent brochure from www.boatsafetyscheme.org gives advice on preventing boat fires.
- Keep galley are clean: any spills on the stove should be cleaned up as soon as possible.
- You engine area should also be clean – free of grease, oil dribbles and particularly fuel. If you have an outboard motor and this is stored in a cockpit locker, ensure the tank is closed off before storage and that any spare fuel cans are properly sealed. Ideally, this locked should be self-draining, but not many boats have such a facility for fuel.
- Smoking should only take place on deck, if at all, and preferably downwind of any non-smokers.
- Keep fabrics and paper away from anything hot like hobs, flues and light bulbs. Energy-saving light bulbs such as LEDs do no get as hot and are therefore safer.
- Are you electrics properly set up with the correct fuses, circuit breakers and wire dimensions? If you have main power on board, are you happy that your set-up is as safe as it is at home, if not more so?
- Inspect the lagging of engine and heater exhausts for deterioration and damage, and check nearby items for signs of heat damage or charring.
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