Should You Abandon Ship During a Boat Fire?

Abandoning ship can be a harrowing experience which is why you ought to pre-think your actions should fire strike aboard your boat.
Boat on fire
This boater escaped his burning vessel and watched the floating inferno from safety. Courtesy US Coast Guard, District 7 by BM2, James Roche

Fire aboard a boat can kill you at least four ways. The heat or flames can burn you. Ignited fuel or vapors can blow you up. Smoke inhalation can choke the life out of you. And, fire can drown you by chasing you overboard or by causing your boat to sink.

What should you do if a fire breaks out on your boat?

Whether or not to abandon ship looms as the biggest question in any discussion of fire aboard boats. Some fires can grow big and out of control in a blink of an eye and make the answer obvious. You may catch other fires early and act to extinguish them with confidence. Between those two poles exist a range of scenarios, from anchored at the sandbar, to plying the blue water.

The first act, then, is to wear a life jacket or to put lifejackets on. If you are at the cove or sandbar, and decide to fight the fire, order everyone else off the boat.

Many decisions and actions need to occur at once.

If the boat is underway, turn the boat so that the fire is downwind. This will minimize the ability of the breeze to blow more life and size into the fire. It will also help keep smoke off you so that you can see and breathe easier as you proceed with next steps.

Move your crew. Either ask them to gather as far away from the fire and out of the smoke as is possible aboard. Or, have them leave the boat.

Assign a crew member to hail the Coast Guard on VHF channel 16 or call the local authorities if on small, inland waters.

Fire-port installed on a boat
A fire port can be easily installed. It allows discharging a fire extinguisher into an engine space without having to open the engine box or hatch which would let in fire-feeding oxygen. Courtesy

For fuel-related fires, cut off the fuel supply, if you can do so safely. Many boats come with a fuel shutoff valve atop the fuel tank. There also may be a shutoff near the remote fuel filters. Know in advance how your boat is equipped.

If your boat is powered by an inboard, sterndrive or waterjet, and the fire is in the engine compartment, do not open the hatch. Doing so will only feed the fire and could burn you severely. If you have an automatic fire-extinguishing system installed, make sure it has deployed, and, if it hasn’t, activate the manual override. Boats without built-in fire-fighting systems should have a port through which you can squirt a fire extinguisher into the engine box without opening the hatch.

It’s well-known, afloat and ashore, that water should not be used on a grease fires and/or on electrical fires. This pretty much includes all engine compartment fires. It also includes almost all cooking fires.

Video: How To Check Your Boat’s Fire Extinguisher

If fighting a fire out in the open, use your fire extinguishers. But, be prepared to abandon ship if doing so does not work.

This article isn’t intended to inform you about fire extinguisher use and selection. There’s plenty of information about fire prevention available here, and elsewhere. This article is intended to get you thinking about fire aboard. Good seamanship demands we each make our own plan and preparations. In so doing, we can stand ready to act decisively if fire breaks out. If it does, clear thinking and quick actions will be required.