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Boat Fires: Here’s What You Should Know
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Boat Fires: Here’s What You Should Know

There are few things as dangerous as a fire on a boat.

If you own a boat, rent a boat, or go boating on a frequent basis with friends or family members, then you need to make sure that you are informed about boat fires.

You never know when you'll need to react and respond to a fire out on the water. Although much attention is paid to boating safety, emergency preparedness for fires on boats is often overlooked.

According to the United States Coast Guard's 2020 Recreational Boating Statistics Report, there were 5,265 boating accidents that year in the United States. Forty-seven of those accidents involved the ignition of fuel or vapor, and one of those accidents resulted in a casualty and forty-six lead to injuries. There were likely many more boat fires that were not reported to the Coast Guard as well.

Although fires on boats are rare, they do happen, and they can cause injury or even death. It's wise to prepare for these sorts of accidents so if one does arise, you will know exactly what to do.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about boat fires so you can keep yourself and other boat passengers safe.

What Causes Boat Fires?

The first thing you should know to be prepared in case of a boat fire is to understand the cause of fires on the water. 

Although boats are surrounded by water on all sides, that doesn't mean that they are impervious to fires. In fact, it's just the opposite. Boats are very flammable, and they can burn faster than you might imagine.

For fires to start, they need heat, fuel, and oxygen

As you move your boat across the water, it is exposed to plenty of oxygen. 

If your boat has a motor on it, which most boats do, then it has fuel in the form of gasoline.

The only additional ingredient is heat, and that can come from a number of places. A match or a cigarette can be the heat a fire needs to get started. Or, something as simple as a spark from your ignition can be enough to ignite gasoline fumes that have settled in your hull. 

Unfortunately, in many cases, boat fires start small and smolder for a period before they become big and unmanageable. Sometimes these fires are out of sight and below deck, so the captain and passengers aren't even aware of them until they are out of control. 

Wooden boats are susceptible to fire because their interiors have been wet and then have dried many times. This can result in rotted wood or moldy wood that is out of sight but which can catch fire quickly.

Fiberglass boats can be even more dangerous when they burn because of as they melt, they may release toxic chemicals into the air.

No matter what kind of boat you have, a fire on board is very dangerous.


Don't Abandon Ship - Yet

So, what should you do if you have a fire on your boat?

It may be tempting to immediately abandon ship if there is a fire on board your boat, but doing so should be a last resort.

In fact, abandoning ship can put you in a far more dangerous situation. 

If you or your passengers are not good swimmers and you are far from shore, jumping in the water can be a bad idea, even if you are wearing life jackets.

The water may be cold and you might put yourself at risk of hypothermia.

If the water is rough, you could drown, even if you're an excellent swimmer.

If you're out in the ocean, there could be sharks or other dangerous creatures.

Only evacuate the boat at the very last resort. Stay with the boat as long as you possibly can.

How to Respond to a Boat Fire

The steps to take if there is a fire on your boat are simple.

First, turn the boat off immediately and move the passengers away from the fire. If there is a valve to the fuel supply, turn that off as well. Move any movable gasoline cylinders as far from the fire as you can. These steps will keep the fire from getting worse at a rapid rate.

If the fire is on deck, turn the boat so the wind blows the fire away from the rest of the boat. This will not only slow the spread of the fire, but it will keep the smoke away from you and your passengers. It may take some effort to keep your boat pointed in this direction, but do whatever you can to maintain this position.

If the fire is below deck, do everything that you can to restrict the fire. Close all hatches and ports to reduce the air supply to the fire. When a fire is restricted, it may even burn itself out. A fire needs oxygen to survive, so once it has used up all the oxygen it can in an enclosed space, it may disappear.

Meanwhile, make sure everyone is wearing a life jacket in case the time comes where you will need to abandon the boat and jump into the water. It's also good to have a life jacket on in case your passengers need to jump from your boat into a boat that has come to rescue you.

If the fire seems unmanageable, you should send out a distress signal. The faster someone can come to your aid, the better, so it's best to ask for help as soon as you think you may need it.

How to Put Out a Fire on Your Boat

If you have done all of the above things and the fire seems like something you may be able to put out yourself, it's time to start trying.

There are a number of different types of fires, but there are three common types on a boat. You must respond to each type in a different way.  

The first, an ordinary combustible fire, occurs when things like paper, wood, cloth, or plastic catch on fire. If an object is on fire but nothing around it has caught fire yet, you can throw that object into the water to put it out.

The second and third common types of fires onboard boats are flammable liquid and gas fires or electrical fires.

In all of the above cases, you should have a marine fire extinguisher onboard. Get it and begin spraying the flames at their base with a sweeping motion.

It may be tempting to use the water around you to put out the flames from the second and third type of fire, but you should never use water to put out an electrical or fuel-based fire. If you put water on an electrical fire, you could get electrocuted. A fuel-based fire could spread due to splashing water on it and it could also splash back and burn you.

Another great tool is a marine fire blanket or another heavy blanket. You can throw a blanket over the fire to smother it. With a large and thick enough blanket, this strategy can really do the trick. 

It's crucial that when you are fighting a boat fire of any kind that you stay calm. Also, stay a far enough distance away from the fire so you are not in danger. There will be a point at which it will be clear to you whether or not you will be able to defeat this fire on your own. When it passes the point at which you are able to control it at all, it's best to give up and begin to evacuate the boat.

How to Abandon Ship

If you tried everything to put your boat fire out and failed, then it may be time to abandon your ship. Make sure everyone is wearing a life jacket and communicate to your passengers that you will all have to leave the boat. Be calm, but firm, and discourage hesitation.

If you have a life raft on board, now is the time to deploy it. Tie it to your boat before you inflate it so it doesn't float away. Hold it near your vessel and allow your passengers to climb into it. Cut the line before or after you jump in yourself.

On the other hand, if you don't have a life raft, you and your passengers will have to jump into the water. If you are on a lake or are close enough to land to see the shore, encourage everyone to swim to shore as quickly as possible. Help people who seem to be struggling. Remember, this is a traumatic event for everyone; don't panic and be patient with others.

In either case, be sure to communicate with everyone and continue to call for help as you are able. 

How to Make Sure You Are Ready for a Boat Fire

Now that you know how to respond to a boat fire, you likely want to make sure that you are more than prepared if one ever happens to you while you are on the water. Hopefully one will never happen to you, but proper preparation will set your mind at ease so you can enjoy your boating adventures.

First, make sure you have enough life jackets on board for all of your passengers. If you might have children on board at any point, you must have life jackets available in their sizes as well.

You'll also want to purchase several fire extinguishers so that they are always within reach with just a few steps. Be sure to inspect them on a regular basis to make sure they are still functional. They should be visible and accessible to everyone on board.

If you have a large boat, you might want to install a fire suppressant system. This is especially wise if your boat has a galley. These types of systems allow you to respond to a fire from a safe distance and they are often more effective than any fire fighting response you will be able to muster on your own.

Regardless of the size of your boat, you should install smoke alarms below deck. This way you will know about a fire before it's too late if you are on deck with your companions.

Most of all, be sure to offer a quick safety briefing to your passengers before you leave the dock. This may seem somewhat formal for a fun day on the water, but if an emergency does arise, you'll be glad you took the time to go over the procedures, and your passengers will be glad that you did, too.

Happy Boating; Stay Safe

Most boaters never experience a fire on board their boat, but it's best to be prepared for a fire on board anyway. You never know when a problem like this could arise when you are out on the water, so you want to be ready. Most of all, do not panic and remain calm. Your passengers will be looking to you for guidance and leadership during boat fires, so be ready to offer it.

If you've ever wanted to own a boat but were hesitant, you might consider joining a boat club instead. Boat clubs give you access to a variety of boats on a short-term basis. If this concept interests you, please contact us today. We'd love to tell you more about it.