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Safe at Sea: Mayday! Fire on board!

By Staff | Sep 11, 2019

Early one evening during the 1974 Bayview Mackinac Sailboat Race, 40 miles from the nearest land, our cook was preparing the evening meal when the alcohol stove fuel spilled out across the cooking area. Flames immediately engulfed the galley and the entire off-watch crew sprang into action to put out the fire. After several anxious moments, the flames were extinguished and the only casualty was my wet weather jacket and pants that someone used to smother the flames.

We all learned some valuable lessons from that experience. First, once a fire starts, it can spread very quickly and can be very hard to put out. Second, a fire on board – regardless of its source – will likely happen suddenly and without warning. There needs to be a plan for responding to the situation. There are three things you must do immediately at the first sign of smoke or flames.

– Send out a “mayday” call on VHF Channel 16 identifying your boat, giving your location, describing the issue and providing the number of adults and children on board. Hit the distress button if the radio is DSC equipped. It will send out an automatic distress message with your location to the Coast Guard.

– Everyone must put life jackets on immediately.

– Decide if you will try to fight the fire or if you need to abandon ship. A fire extinguisher should be immediately accessible, the location known to every crewmember, and crewmembers should be able to use it. (If you have a Kidde fire extinguisher on board with a plastic handle or plastic push-buttons, it may fail to work in an emergency. Kidde has a recall in place for those units. Go to kidde.com and select “Product Recall” for details. Kidde has a replacement program that is user-friendly and provides a brand new extinguisher for each recalled unit.)

If the hull is fiberglass and it starts to burn, there is little that can be done to save the boat. If you determine that you need to abandon ship, make sure all of the crew are accounted for, have their life jackets on and exit the boat in an orderly manner.

A burning boat produces a thick, black, toxic smoke cloud that can be seen for miles. Nearby boats will likely arrive on the scene quickly and pick up any crew who have abandoned ship, but should never try to rescue people off the burning boat due to the risk of catching fire themselves.

Prevention is the key to avoiding a fire emergency at on a boat. Check engine electrical wires and wiring harnesses for chafing and make sure battery connections are tight. Check fuel lines for leaking or seeping gasoline. Always use the blower before starting an enclosed inboard engine, close doors and hatches when refueling and if you smell gasoline fumes in the boat at any time, do not start the engine. Make sure the water intake is not blocked and the impeller is operating properly so that the engine does not overheat. Finally, the alcohol stoves that caused our fire have been replaced by safer propane, butane and other cooking systems, but caution remains the key whenever cooking in the galley.

Bob Orr is a member of America’s Boating Club of Sanibel-Captiva. For more about the chapter and the courses it offers, visit www.sancapboating.club or contact education@sanibelcaptivasps.org or 239-985-9472.