3 Lessons from a Boat Fire

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2014 • all rights reserved

Every boater's worst nightmare: waking up to find your boat in flames. Three lessons from a near tragedy.

In 2014, Heidi Husler Hackler posted the photo above on the Women Who Sail Facebook page, with the following note.  She graciously allowed me to use her photo and story to “spread the message.”

In Heidi’s words:

Early yesterday morning we had a fire aboard our Passport 40 at the dock (electric radiator heater caused.) Luckily the smell of smoke from burning carpet and upholstery woke us up (please install a smoke detector if you don’t have one, we are very lucky to be alive!) And luckily Kirk was able to put the fire out w/ two fire extinguishers before the Seattle Fire Dept showed up 9 minutes after I called 911. Luckily we are insured and everything is repairable…

At this time, I don’t have any more details on the origin of the fire.  Heidi plans to write up a post with more info, and when she does, I’ll add the link here.  UPDATE: Heidi wrote up her story but the link I had for it is now bad.

But for now, the three lessons:

  • Fire extinguishers.  Have plenty of fire extinguishers and know how to use them.  At least one fire extinguisher should be located where you sleep.  “Standard size” fire extinguishers only have about 20 seconds of “spray time” in them, so you may well need more than one to even get out safely, let alone actually put the fire out.  Read more about using a fire extinguisher.
  • Smoke detectors.  Just like houses and apartments, boats need to have smoke detectors.  How many you need and where you place them will depend on the size and configuration of the boat, but it’s a good idea to have one in the engine compartment(s) as well as in living areas.  Catamarans and tris need them in each hull.  Be sure to get battery-operated ones and not ones that plug in or are hardwired.
  • Heaters.  Almost any type of heater can be dangerous on a boat, but if you’re living aboard in a cold climate you may feel that you have to do something. Think carefully about leaving one on overnight and if you do, think about where it’s located and whether it could catch nearby items on fire.  Additionally, if you are using an electric heater or electric blanket, make sure that the wiring is up to the task — heaters pull a lot of amps!

In addition, a carbon monoxide detector is also a good thing to have (some smoke detectors also have a CO detector, such as this one on Amazon; you can get them at home improvement stores, big box stores and hardware stores, too).  Be sure to change the battery annually!

Heidi’s experience also makes me think of two other things.  First, if you are in a marina and have even what seems to be a minor fire, call 911 (or the local equivalent) and if possible, make an announcement on the VHF to both warn nearby boats and to get them to bring extra fire extinguishers.  Fires can get out of control quickly and your fire extinguishers may not totally put it out.  Get help on their way to you ASAP!  If you’re lucky, you can just greet them and tell them it’s out; if not, they’ll be there all that much faster, lessening the risk of the fire spreading.

Second, take the time to think about what you should do in a fire (read more) and have fire drills (read more).  They’re every bit as important as MOB drills!

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  1. Wow!

  2. That is the third boat fire I’ve heard of in less than a year. Scary.

  3. We have also recommended 5 blasts on a horn (the international danger signal). When sounded in a marina, we have yet to see it fail to bring people on deck.

  4. What a terrifying experience.

  5. Lyndon Humber says:

    Another valuable thing to have is a fire blanket or two. They can be very helpful if there is a fire, and they don’t make nearly the mess that a fire extinguisher does. An example is here: http://www.defender.com/product3.jsp?path=-1|135|2290089|2290092&id=1468422.

  6. Five blasts is what we say too.

  7. Belinda Wolfe says:

    Why do you say battery operated smoke detectors and not hard wired? Our boat survey came back with the requirement that our smoke detectors be hard wired for insurance purposes. We don’t understand why they would require this and would rather stay with the battery units. Your thoughts might help our cause.

    • I say battery because most hard-wired smoke detectors (actually ALL I’ve ever seen) are made for AC. That means that you have to have an inverter on and that will waste power. On top of that, they won’t have power if you turn the inverter off, or it has a problem . . . or if you leave the boat and, like us, turn off everything except the bilge pumps. I’d much rather just have a 9-volt battery and KNOW it always had power!

      • Domestic hard wired smoke detectors still use batteries as a backup. I agree with the extra drain on marine AC and the possible need to add or scale an inverter for them, but don’t be concerned that they won’t work with a loss of power (though you gain nearly nothing from the AC wiring in a boat). In a house it is to help with owners with an out of sight, out of mind tendency.

        • Thanks Matt! Ones that were previously installed in a condo I had 20+ years ago didn’t have the battery backup — which was why I ended up with several “extra” smoke detectors since I still wanted to be protected if power went out — and I didn’t realize they had changed.

  8. Fire blanket ! Please. They are available at west marine for less than a fire extinguiser and will control a kitchen fire in second without any cleaning you can continue cooking a minute later. For a heater trow it on the heater and turn off your breaker voila!

  9. Also had a boat fire in our marine this past weekend. Totally gutted the boat and was caused by the shore power connection on the boat was corroded! Check those plugs- I replaced mine 3 months ago.

  10. Wow. Thank goodness they are ok

  11. Rosemary MacLean says:

    Our shorepower cord melted at the plug, very scary but luckily we were home at the time. Install of installing it the same way we hard wired the cord in place! Problem solved.

  12. We had a liveaboard customer lose his boat last month as the shore power cord of the neighboring boat overheated and that boat caught fire. The fire spread to my customer’s boat – both were a total loss. Watch those connectors – check every week in winter.

  13. One of the scariest things for a boat owner. I liveaboard 9 months of the year and worry when I’am gone, the only thing I leave power to is the battery charger. I may stop doing that.

  14. Please be aware that the Dry Chem. Fire Extinguishers we all have will rust everything the powder lands on and it lands on everything. It is made from acids and it will eat through a Stainless Steel sink in less then 3 months if any powder is left on it. Unfortunately I learned that one from experience. Be sure to clean the whole boat after using one. First Alert has come out with a smoke alarm called the Atom. They are tiny little things and are not to noticeable but make lots of noise. We picked up a two pack at Costco for $30.00.

  15. Stuart Finlayson

  16. I’ve had it happen.

  17. Scary situation but thank God everyone is ok. Thank you for the great advice

  18. Also…keep your escape hatches clear and do not place your kayaks or skiff over them. We see this alot.

  19. Thank you!

  20. Absolutely essential information

  21. Minutes matter in a fire. On a boat you have a very short window between containing a fire and getting out. When in doubt, drop the fire extinguisher and GET OUT!

  22. Don’t forget baking soda by the stove!

  23. Worthy lessons for sure!

  24. One of my biggest fears on a boat.

  25. We have 2extinguishers but never thought about smoke detector thanks for the heads up !

  26. older boats often have wiring that will not carry the load of space heaters without overheating

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