How to Prevent a Boat Fire

Follow our 10-point fire-protection checklist to prevent boat fires.

How to Prevent Boat Fires
Want to avoid getting burned? Follow our 10-point fire-protection checklist to keep the flames away.Shutterstock

Boat fires are ridiculously rare. You’re much, much more likely to actually perish from a car accident, plane crash or even a cataclysmic storm than you are to even be injured from a boat fire. Out of the nearly 12 million registered recreational boats in the U.S., owners of only about 250 are likely to experience and report some kind of fire this year. You might as well rest easy and presume you won’t be in that tiny 0.002 percent of boat owners destined to burn, right?

Sure, that’s one strategy. But when it comes to protecting you, your ­family, your friends and your property — and even your fellow boaters — from fire, there are a number of surprisingly simple steps you can take to virtually guarantee you don’t become a statistic. Plus, you’ll probably find you feel much better about hitting the water knowing you’ve taken action to ensure a boat fire — possibly one of the most frightening experiences imaginable — will not happen to you.

How to Prevent Boat Fires
1. Careful, Sparky
Most boat fires are caused by electrical issues, with wire chafe at the top of the list. Builders do their parts to follow standards and provide proper circuit protection (chafe protection, fuses, breakers, ignition-protected components, etc.), and you can help by keeping an eye out for chafing and making sure electrical connections remain tight and corrosion-free. Any modification to your electrical system should be made with maximum care — preferably by a certified pro. Poorly done electrical DIY projects are notorious for causing glitches and problems — including countless boat fires. Tip: Know exactly how to shut off the power (battery switch, main breaker, etc.) in the event of a fire; otherwise, the fire can easily restart after being put out with an extinguisher.
Mike Telleria
How to Prevent Boat Fires
2. People Don't Plan to Fail, They Fail to…
If your fire plan consists of "I know I have at least one extinguisher somewhere on this boat," then you could do better. Knowing the exact locations of extinguishers (and how to use them) and how to quickly secure the engine, blowers and electrical power are good starts. You also need an exit strategy (escape plan) in case the fire is beyond control. And the most important part: practice. Getting in the habit of taking a few minutes to review your fire/escape plan before each outing can make all the difference. A fire can create an immediate and overwhelming fear and panic that can totally cloud any capacity for making decisions. Having a practiced routine will allow you to jump straight into action without thinking — and sometimes a few seconds can mean the difference between extinguishing a fire and abandoning the boat. Tip: This is for crew too. They should have a clear understanding of what to do, even if only to put on a life jacket and await further instruction.
West Marine
How to Prevent Boat Fires
3. Really — Has It Been That Long?
Does your boat sit for months (or even years) between outings? That could spell trouble. There were actually reports of an uptick in boat fires after the recession because, after as long as five years, people could finally afford to use their boats again. Years of gravity, corrosion, thermal expansion/contraction, weather and other forces can create any number of problems, including those likely to start a fire. The longer the boat has sat idle, the more time and thought you should put into recommissioning it for service before launch. Tip: Get the boat in shape and take it out for a shakedown cruise a few weeks before bringing friends and family aboard. This will give you an opportunity to expose any serious problems and have them fixed rather than face a potential catastrophe with a boat full of people.
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How to Prevent Boat Fires
4. Hot Stuff!
A fire needs three things to start and sustain itself: fuel, oxygen and heat. The first two are basically all around (gasoline, wood and fiberglass can be fuel, and air is everywhere). Heat is the outlier that usually gets us into trouble. Sparks, short circuits and overheating engines are the main sources of unintentional heat that can start a fire. But there are also "intentional" heat sources, such as propane barbecues and stoves and portable electric heaters, which start a few fires every year, often by overloading a boat's circuitry. Your fire radar should go on alert the moment any such heat-producing device is turned on. Make a quick mental note of how/where to turn it off and where the nearest extinguisher is. Tip: Never leave the boat unattended with a space heater turned on — and don't count on plug-in timers that could be set wrong or malfunction.
Wikimedia Commons/Lisa Redfern
How to Prevent Boat Fires
5. More Is Better
When it comes to fire extinguishers, the pros recommend having two or three times the required number for your size of boat (the law requires a minimum of one extinguisher for boats less than 26 feet, two for boats between 26 and 40 feet, and three for boats between 40 and 65 feet). Why? Because a typical 2.5-pound extinguisher lasts only 9 to 10 seconds, and people often make errors during the panic of fighting a fire. The standard guidance is to use the PASS method: Pull the safety pin. Aim at the base of the fire. Squeeze the handle. Sweep from side to side. It also makes sense to have ABC-rated extinguishers that are capable of putting out any type of fire (solids, liquids and electrical). Add extinguisher familiarization to your preflight checklist. Mentally check off where they are all located. Go over PASS in your head a few times. And remember extinguishers are a maintenance item — monthly checks for charge and yearly professional inspections are suggested. Tip: Check out the BoatU.S. Foundation's fire-extinguisher testing videos online — they're very informative (boatus.org/findings).
Mike Telleria
How to Prevent Boat Fires
6. Where There's Smoke…
There's really no good reason not to use smoke detectors on a boat. While there's no law on the books, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends smoke detectors on boats 26 feet or larger with sleeping areas, which makes sense when you consider that smoke inhalation is the main cause of fire-related fatalities ashore. Most boaters who use smoke detectors put them in all accommodation areas, and sometimes even in machinery areas. Larger boats and yachts often have centralized detection systems with smoke detectors in most areas, and heat detectors in engine spaces and galleys. Anything that gives you a head start on responding to a fire is golden. There have been reports of land-based statistics showing that people put out the fire 80 percent of the time when alerted by a smoke alarm. Tip: Be sure to use UL 217-listed smoke detectors approved for use on recreational vehicles (RVs), which have to stand up to the elements better than detectors approved for residential use.
West Marine
How to Prevent Boat Fires
7. Consider Automatic
An extra layer of protection and peace of mind can be had by equipping the engine space (where 90 percent of fires happen) with an automatic fire-suppression system. The simple version is just a large extinguisher bottle in a size to protect the space and an indication panel at the helm. The panel will show that the system is powered and the bottle is charged. If there is a fire, the heat from the fire will melt a trigger link on the extinguisher that will actuate the extinguisher to put out the fire and sound an alarm on the panel. A more comprehensive system will include a shut-down module that will shut down the engine(s), blowers, dampers, generator, and any other gear in the compartment that should be secured to prevent additional fuel and air from entering the space. It's important to remember any doors, hatches or other openings to the space must be kept closed for the system to work properly; otherwise, the suppression agent could be allowed to escape to another compartment or outside the boat. Tip: Automatic systems come with a pull cable that can be used to manually actuate the extinguisher from outside the space. If you know there is a fire in the compartment, you can pull the cable instead of waiting for the extinguisher to pop by itself.
Mike Telleria
How to Prevent Boat Fires
8. Avoid Common Pitfalls
Many explosions happen right after refueling. Overfilling tanks, spillage and system leaks can introduce vapor into the boat. Gasoline vapor is heavier than air, so it will fill the bilge and lower machinery areas first. Always run the engine compartment exhaust blower for four to six minutes before each start and after refueling. Turn off the dock breaker before plugging in or unplugging the boat; otherwise, you might get an arc that can char and damage the plug and inlet, creating a fire danger. Don't just pop in a larger fuse or breaker for a blown fuse or breaker that won't reset. There could be a short circuit or other fault that needs to be addressed. A larger fuse or breaker might not open in time to prevent the wire from melting. An obstructed or blocked engine-cooling water intake can quickly result in melted-down hoses and impellers (and lots of smoke from cooking rubber). Don't throw the engine compartment hatch wide open and really get the fire going. Kill the engine and use an extinguisher fire port or just crack the hatch open enough to insert the extinguisher nozzle. Tip: Always keep the fuel nozzle in contact with the metal fuel-fill inlet on your boat to prevent static buildup that could start a fire while refueling.
Mike Telleria
How to Prevent Boat Fires
9. Shipshape
Preventative maintenance not only ensures you'll be ready for your next outing, it also helps prevent fire dangers from developing. Make regular checks for leaks and drips on any fuel lines, and for brittle and cracked fuel hoses that could fail. Any sign of corrosion on an aluminum fuel tank should be investigated and addressed by a professional. Tend to frayed or chafed wires that might short circuit and to loose or corroded electrical connections that can generate heat. Keep the engine in good repair and make sure all replacement parts are marine-rated. Keep the bilge clean and dry so you'll notice right away if something puddles up. Don't stow oily rags aboard (or store them in a tight metal can if you must), and keep portable fuel jugs sealed and in a locker that vents overboard. Ensure passageways and docks are clear and tidy so you and your crew can move quickly in an emergency. Tip: Keep a maintenance log. It doesn't have to be fancy. Dates and a few details can really help problem troubleshooting later on.
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How to Prevent Boat Fires
10. Gas Go Boom!
More than half the boat fires and explosions in 2014 involved some kind of vessel fuel, with gasoline and gasoline vapors making up the vast majority. Often a small fuel leak results in fuel collecting in the bilge. The fuel evaporates and the vapors mix with the air (and oxygen needed for fire). Once the explosive limit is reached, any little spark can do the rest. There are countless stories of men, women and children blown (far) off a boat due to engine hatches exploding. Standards call for ignition-protected components in any space where gasoline vapors might gather, but sometimes owners are unaware and replace engine parts with nonmarine automotive parts or install nonignition-protected bilge pumps, electrical components and other equipment. If there's any question, hire a professional to ensure ignition-protected components are where they need to be. Tip: Use your nose (and your head). Look for leaks if you smell any gas while away from the fuel dock — usually around the engine, bilge or fuel tank. Find and fix problems before using the boat again.
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Mike Telleria is a marine systems engineer and technical writer for Nordhavn Yachts, an ABYC Master Technician and a regular contributor to Boating.