Boat Burn Tests

By Scott Croft

The BoatUS Foundation staged a dramatic test to make the point that seconds count when your boat's on fire.

Firefighters putting out boat firePhoto: BoatUS Foundation

The loss of Sandpiper, see below, may seem like a freak occurrence, something you may figure wouldn't happen to you on your boat. But think about these situations: a lone fire extinguisher buried deep inside a forward locker; corroded electrical connections; deteriorated fuel lines that smell of gas; a GPS that has yet to be coupled to the DSC VHF radio. BoatUS Marine Insurance claims statistics show that the most common onboard source of boat fires is AC and DC electrical, followed by engine exhaust/overheat and fuel issues. All can produce the same devastating consequences as in the Sandpiper scenario.

Our nonprofit BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety & Clean Water set up a demonstration to capture three dramatic fires on video for a Foundation public-service announcement designed to urge boaters to improve fire safety on their vessels. Attending were fire-safety experts and investigators, firefighters from the Huntingtown, Maryland, Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad, and boat-rigging specialists and members of the boating press.

These three fires were set on derelict boats obtained by the BoatUS Foundation, to emulate three common origins of recreational boat fires: electrical, engine room, and galley. Each of the test boats had empty fuel tanks and, in some cases, had their engines removed. The scenarios were designed to simulate common sources of boat fires using a range of combustibles to ignite each blaze. It was easy to imagine the results if the vessels' fuel tanks had been full and if boaters had been aboard. Each boat was set on blocks outside the fire department's burn-training facility. Small holes were drilled for camera installation and for fire-hose water to drain. With cameras rolling, a video crane aloft, and fire crews ready at the hoses, each fire was ignited.

Electrical

Electrical boat fire

The first fire was set aboard a small, outboard-powered center-console, Habanero, with the "electrical" fire starting inside the console. Of all of the boats torched in the name of boating safety that day, the 16-foot fishing boat with outboard motor best showed that there is no truly no place to hide on a small boat. Just four minutes after ignition, smoke turned from white to black as flames rolled out from under the wheel, threatening anyone who remained aboard. In less than 10 minutes, the heat was so intense that the boat's aluminum rail melted into a puddle, along with a cooler and a 10-gallon external plastic gas tank. The fishing boat had no enclosed compartments and was equipped with an external gas tank, so there was no mandatory requirement to carry a fire extinguisher. This means that buckets of water would have been the only hope for extinguishing the blaze before it rapidly grew out of control.

Engine Compartment

Engine compartment boat fire

Next, a fire was set aboard a typical inboard/outboard-powered cuddy-cabin 23-footer, Cayenne. An electric match set upon a small amount of gasoline ignited a spaghetti-like shredded-wood product called "excelsior," which stood in for the inboard motor, much in the way fuel and oil would contribute to an engine-compartment fire. For engine room/compartment fires, the first sign is often smoke coming from an engine vent or hatch. The boat may still be fully operational, so your first instinct may be to open the hatch to see what's happening. Don't! That blast of oxygen delivers fuel to the fire. After our "engine" caught fire and flames swelled when the hatch was opened, it was too late to put out the fire.

Four minutes from ignition, the only safe spot on this boat, and for only a few moments more, was the bow deck. Two minutes later, as temperatures soared and flames licked forward between the helm seats, the boat's windshield shattered.

Galley

Galley fire

Trained firefighters lit the galley window drapes of the biggest boat, Jalapeno, a 25-foot inboard/outboard-powered cruiser, with a flare, simulating a typical cooktop fire. After just three minutes, heavy black smoke at the helm of the cruiser left that location a questionable place to survive. Four minutes later, the entire boat was fully engulfed. The crew's only option would have been to jump overboard.

There's no requirement for recreational vessels to be equipped with working smoke detectors or alarms, even though each of these fires burned undetected for precious minutes. The amount of black smoke that emerged from each fire was huge. The National Fire Protection Association recommends smoke detectors on all boats 26 feet and larger with sleeping areas.

Lessons Learned From The Burn Tests

It gets bad quickly: In each fire, you'd have three or four minutes — to make a VHF radio mayday call, locate and use extinguishers, don life jackets, and prepare to abandon ship — before likely being forced overboard.

DSC

Having a working VHF with digital selective calling is critical. DSC messages provide coordinates, so anyone aboard can summon help and give rescuers your location by pressing the radio's red distress button. A waterproof handheld VHF with DSC is a smart idea as well, because in the event of a fire, an installed VHF will probably lose its power source quickly or be inaccessible.

Fire Drill

Do your guests know how to use the radio? The location of the fire extinguishers? Do they wear or keep life jackets close by? Do they know how to shut off the electrical system quickly? A five-minute guest briefing improves fire safety.

Water Drill

Beyond flotation and waterproof handheld VHFs, personal locator beacons, flares, and other signaling tools provide a lifeline from the water.

Fire Extinguishers

How many do you carry? Are they accessible in seconds? Are they rated ABC for all fires? Having several ABC tri-class extinguishers that go beyond the minimum U.S. Coast Guard requirements could save you and your boat.

Built-In Support

An engine-compartment fire-suppression system or, at minimum, an installed engine fire port into which you can discharge fire extinguishers can both contribute to the quick extinguishing of a fire, or at least buy you time in your fight against an engine-room fire.

PASS

Follow these four steps when using a fire extinguishers: Pull the safety pin. Aim the extinguisher at the base of the fire. Squeeze the handle. Sweep the hose from side to side while discharging.

Life Jackets

Many boaters bury them among the gear, then waste precious time locating them in an emergency. Regulations say that if jackets are not worn on board, they must be readily accessible.

Exit Route

Can you get out of the boat if the exit is blocked by fire? Carpet, headliner, cushions, curtains, and other flammables ignite when introduced to an open flame.

The Power Of Prevention

Are your electrical and fuel systems maintained to American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC.org) standards? Electrical faults are the No. 1 cause of boat fires. What's the condition of your fuel lines? If they're 10 years old or emit a gas smell from a rag rubbed down their length, replace them.

Refueling

How many minutes should you wait to start the engine after filling up at the fuel dock? Answer: At least four, with the blower on and windows and doors/hatches open for the entire time. End the four-minute period with a sniff test. 

The Final Voyage Of Sandpiper

A cruising couple must react fast to save themselves when an onboard fire quickly envelops their sailboat about 40 miles offshore.

Sandpiper in Santiago MexicoSandpiper on a mooring in Santiago, Mexico, not long before her final voyage.

The morning of May 13, 2016, we sailed our 43-foot Island Packet, Sandpiper, out of Marina Cortez in La Paz, on the Baja Peninsula, to begin a 250-mile passage to our home port of Mazatlán, Mexico. Weather reports predicted little or no wind for our crossing of the Sea of Cortez, so, anticipating lots of motoring, we topped off our fuel before departing. Perhaps it was leaving on Friday the 13th, bad luck, or maybe fate, but this was to be Sandpiper's final voyage.

The first day's run took us 65 miles to the small village of Bahía de Los Suenos (Bay of Dreams), where we anchored, had an early dinner, and retired for the evening. At daybreak, we raised anchor and began the 200-mile passage across the sea to Mazatlán. With no wind and a flat sea, the boat was moving well, making 8 knots with our turbocharged diesel engine turning over at 2,500 rpm.

Around noon, some 40 miles out, we noticed smoke drifting up the companionway. Anticipating an issue with the alternator, we immediately shut down the engine and electrical panel and disconnected it from the batteries. On inspection, everything in the engine compartment looked fine. But when we looked into the quarter berth, we saw a small fire at the foot of the bed, just above the rear-access engine hatch.

We had multiple fire extinguishers in place, and we immediately used one. The Type ABC dry-chemical extinguisher, designed for flammable liquid and electrical fires, smothered the fire. At this point, we thought we'd saved the day, but within a minute the fire returned — twice as big as before. We used a second dry chemical extinguisher and snuffed it out again. So far so good, but the powder and smoke made it difficult to breathe.

The fire erupted once more — this time, the whole quarter berth became engulfed in flames. We reached for our third fire extinguisher, but this one failed to work at all, despite the fact that we'd checked that they were all indicating green before leaving from La Paz.

Sandpiper burningDespite having three fire extinguishers on board, Ed and Annette were unable to snuff out the flames before they engulfed Sandpiper.

The situation was hopeless. We scrambled up to the cockpit. As we struggled frantically to remove the lines for deploying the life raft and dinghy, the fire emerged from the companionway and ignited the canvas dodger. With a roar, the entire dodger, bimini cover, and side sunshades burst into flames.

We had no choice but to jump into the ocean to escape the flames. We'd both suffered second- and third-degree flash burns — although we didn't immediately feel our injuries — and found ourselves in the water without life vests or flotation of any kind. The dinghy above us ignited, and both it and the life raft were soon in flames. It had taken less than five minutes from the time we noticed the initial smoke to our being in the water.

Within another minute, the fire had burned through the lines holding the dinghy and fenders attached to the stern of the boat, and the whole mess fell into the ocean. We splashed water onto the burning dingy and jettisoned the outboard-engine gas tank before it could explode. As we drifted away from our boat, it continued to burn furiously, and the propane and fuel tanks exploded.

We collected spare lines from the dinghy and retied the fenders so we could use them as floats. The dinghy remained floating, barely, having lost most of its inflation tubing. Fortunately, it had a rigid fiberglass bottom with an air pocket, so it didn't sink. We were able to recover the oars, which floated as well.

For the next 90 minutes, we treaded water and attempted to right the dinghy so we could get out of the water. All of our attempts to attach flotation failed. As we contemplated a different strategy, a sportfishing boat appeared on the horizon. We later learned they'd been more than 20 miles away when they saw the smoke. We frantically waved an oar until they saw us. With great relief, we were quickly brought aboard. As we sped away, we watched Sandpiper burn to the waterline and sink.

Annette was suffering from shock and hypothermia. Once out of the water, we saw that we both had serious open burn wounds on our arms and legs. Our rescuers took us to the fishing village of Los Barriles, where an ambulance took us to a local clinic and our wounds were bandaged. For the first time, we were able to call home and communicate our situation to friends and relatives. Next, we were taken 40 miles south by ambulance to Saint Luke's Hospital in San Jose del Cabo.

An agent from the U.S. Embassy helped us with temporary passports, we were met by our son Gavin at LAX airport, and we were never happier to arrive in California's Channel Islands. The day after that, we were examined by a top burn specialist, who had Ed admitted to the Ventura County Medical Center, anticipating he would need skin grafts. Fortunately, over the next four days his condition improved, and grafts were not necessary. In time, our wounds healed. We'll never know the cause of the fire, but we know we're lucky to be alive, and we plan to incorporate the lessons we learned from this ordeal into our next boat.

Sandpiper Epilogue

Ed Staples, a retired physicist, and his wife, Annette Alexander, a retired schoolteacher, have cruised to Mexico the last eight years along a route following the Southern California ports. The loss of Sandpiper was covered by their insurance policy, and they recently purchased a 2006 Catalina Morgan 44. Their "new" boat will be rigged with a fire-suppression system in the engine compartment, a temperature sensor in the engine compartment with a gauge at the helm station, and 50-foot collapsible fabric hoses in the fore and aft heads that will be plugged into the freshwater system. "Chances are it won't happen again," Staples says. "But just in case, we're ready for it."

— Ed Staples and Annette Alexander

— Published: April/May 2017


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