Have you ever thought of what you'd do if you had a fire on your boat? What's the first thing you'd do?

Fire Aboard!

I want to start by saying I’m not any sort of an expert on the topic. But I find precious little information about what to do in case of a fire onboard available anywhere on the internet.  So I’d like to share my thoughts and hope others will add more information in the comments.

Every situation is different and how to react is different. But a bit of thinking ahead can go a long ways in dealing with a disaster.

I saw the boat above burn in the LaPaz anchorage, just outside our marina.  The owner was having dinner on another boat, and by the time the fire was visible, it was too far along to control.  Shelly B burned to the waterline.

In another case, the boat next to us in a marina had an electrical fire while the owner was aboard.  However, he was so flustered that he couldn’t figure out how to use his fire extinguisher and yelled over to see if we had one.  We readied one for use, handed it over and told him how to use it.  While Dave helped him, I started our engine and removed all but two dock lines (and ran those so that I could cast them off from the boat) — if the situation warranted it, I wanted to be able to get our boat out of there instantly (it wasn’t necessary).

Fires do happen.  I could list more examples, but that’s not the point of this article.  What I want to do is encourage you to think about what to do should you or a nearby boat have a fire.   Talk with others on your boat to make sure you’ve all got the same understanding of what you’ll do . . . particularly if you’ve got kids on board.

Here are my thoughts.  As I stated before, I’m not an expert and I welcome comments with more ideas. Also read my post on having fire drill and 3 lessons from a boat fire.

  • Never ignore a smoke smell or what looks like even the tiniest puff of smoke.
  • If you discover a fire, use your best judgment as to whether you can fight it or you need to immediately evacuate.
  • Immediately notify anyone else on board of the fire and what you plan to do.  If you’re evacuating, many of these won’t apply.  If there’s more than one of you aboard, you’ll able to do things simultaneously.
  • Next, cut the fuel source (if you’re not sure, do all).  Turn the batteries to off.  Unplug shore power.  Flip the main AC and DC power switches to off.  Turn off the engine.  If possible, turn the engine fuel off.  Turn off the stove, the solenoid and the propane at the tank.
  • If there are boats nearby that might be able to help, get on the radio or yell — depending on the situation, have them bring more fire extinguishers, call the fire department or even start prepping to tow the boat out of the marina.
  • If the situation warrants it, think about tossing jerry cans of gas or diesel off the boat.  Ditto for propane canisters.
  • Constantly re-evaluate the situation and whether you need to evacuate.
  • Grab life jackets and have them available if not at a dock.  Think about readying/deploying the lift raft or dinghy.
  • If at a dock — particularly with other boats — constantly be thinking about whether the best course of action is to tow the boat away from the dock before the fire spreads to any other boats or the dock itself.

Dave and I weren’t around when the fire below occured in La Paz.  A good friend of ours, Dick from Corazon, began towing the boat to deep water with his dinghy (make sure to stay upwind of the boat on fire and have a knife handy in case you need to cut loose) and a couple other pangas came to help.  This photo was taken by Dick’s wife, Judi.

Please add your thoughts on what to do in case of a fire on board in the comments.

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  • Julie Birbeck on Facebook
    Posted at 17 December 2012 Reply

    Great post. Thanks!

    • lee
      Posted at 04 May 2016 Reply

      Chapman’s Nautical Guides Emergencies At Sea has a list of how to react in case of fires.

  • Wendy
    Posted at 18 December 2012 Reply

    Thank you so much for another great post. This is truly valuable information. I’m consider myself a safety freak and you mentioned things I have never thought of.

  • Charles
    Posted at 18 December 2012 Reply

    I cannot highly enough recommend taking a STCW-95 Basic Safety Training course. It will open your eyes to your existing safety protocols and get you thinking about improvements.

    Particularly, the days which address Fire will get you actually USING equipment commonly found on boats. It will also tell you about how to maintain that equipment.

    Seriously, take a course. It costs about the same as an ASA coastal-cruising course.

  • James Giard
    Posted at 26 December 2012 Reply

    Back in the late 1960ss, our family was part of 3 boats was base in Malletts Bay Vermont, on Lake champlain. Ours was a 1961 25′ Chris Craft Cabin Cruser, the 2nd boat was the same as ours but a year older and the third was a brand New 1967 28′ Owns Cabin Cruiser.
    With bunch of us kids along, we cruised 2 years in a row up to Montreal to Expo 67 and in 1968 to Man and His Would that was on the same grounds as Expo 67, and the third year to Champlain canel.

    After that cruise the owners of the 28’Owns went for an overnight just themselves and no kids in an anchorage on the north shore of Malletts Bay. The next morning while cooking breakfest the alcohol ran out of the alcohol stove.They attemped to fill it back up without waiting for it to cool down and the spill some alcohol side of the stove and it caught on fire.They though they got the fire out with a fire extinguisher and went ot the back deck to catch their breath and was making plans to pull up anchor and head back home,

    With in a couple of minites smoke and flames started coming out of the cabin for what they did not relize that the alcohol that went behinfd the stove on and behind the wood work was also burning for eventhough they could not see the flame. A nearby boat came and pick them up before the boat burn to the water line and sank.

    Their are many lessons to be learn and my father gave us a fire safety lesson even we were just teenagers and with him handling all aspects of using the alcohol stove.He never had a problem with using an alcohol stove and even used it for cooking and heating his truck camper during deer hunting.

    When I got my 26′ Chris Craft, with that memory I got rid of the alcohol stove and went elictric, because we had a slip at a local marina and away from the slip I have a small propane grill to use.

    I know this posting is a bit long, but if it can save someone else from going through what our friends did all most 44 years ago and mayby have some other comments and stories to go along with this it will be well worth it.

  • John Barltrop
    Posted at 30 March 2013 Reply

    Couldn’t agree more with Charles. I had better agree seeing that I teach STCW 95 Certificate of Safety Courses among other things.
    One could probably spend many hours talking on this subject, but, when you look into the causes of the majority of shipboard fires, most of them could have been prevented entirely or at least the probability of fire greatly reduced by three things:
    !. Good housekeeping practices……..be generally tidy, wipe up oil or fuel spills immediately, don’t leave oil soaked rags laying around, put in a container with a lid on it (prevents spontaneous combustion)……..if you find a leak, fix it in an approved manner, if you don’t know how to do it, pay someone who does. (Unfortunately there are too many would be’s, if they could be’s………. and boy do they cause problems.)
    2. Makinging regular checks on particularly, but not only, mahcinery and electrical systems
    3. Carrying out regular maintenance according to manufacturer’s instructions
    Also of assistance, is having a vessel properly equiped with adequate and the correct type of fire fighting appliances. If the size of the vessel warrants it, fit a decent fixed fire fighting installation.
    Of course all this is ignoring the the fact of stupidity……..as shown in the previous post……just remember, if you do stupid things, you are a long time dead.

  • Elizabeth
    Posted at 11 August 2013 Reply

    I read to keep a wool blanket on board that you can toss on a fire to smother it. Obviously, it can’t be a large fire.


    • John Barltrop
      Posted at 03 July 2014 Reply

      Elizabeth!…………….that is why the make those things called fire blankets, but do not get the 1m x 1m blanket, they are next to useless, get the 2.1m x 1.8m……….not only are they particularly good for the galley, but they are good to use for a “human torch” as well.
      I might also add they may help someone escape from a fire zone.

  • Silk
    Posted at 11 August 2013 Reply

    The Marina just cross the creek from me is getting fire/smoke alarms for boats in their 96 boat facility. These new alarms are radio linked so that when one alarm goes off the alarms will sound on each group of 8 boats. They even asked if I wanted to “tie in” with an alarm on my boat. What a great community spirit. While this does not identify the boat which initiated the alarm, it gets everyone working on solving the situation. More expensive alarms can “call out” the alarm location, but these vocalizations are preset, to kitchen, bedroom, etc. Not too useful to ID which boat is reporting the alarm.

    Fire blankets would be better than extinguishers for galley fires to smother the fire rather than using an extinguisher which may spray burning grease or fuel around the boat. One quick search got me to http://www.fbdusa.com/Galley-P2.aspx for a fiberglass blanket for $40.
    A wool treated blanket, large enough to be cut down for 4 boats was $25 +$10s/h — but you add grab loops & make the wall bag for it if you want to hang it up. see: http://www.first-aid-industrial.com/product_info.php?cPath=32_160&products_id=534&osCsid=f3034ddebb2be50de22e2bae860cb2be

    I’m looking forward to an article on galley fire control. Maybe a reader will submit an article.

    Has anyone talked about using the deck wash pump on a below-deck hose to give you unlimited water?

    Stay safe!

  • Colin Mombourquette
    Posted at 28 June 2014 Reply

    Great post, thank you

  • S/V Kelly Nicole
    Posted at 28 June 2014 Reply

    We had a fire on our old boat. Alcohol stove refill didn’t work out as planned. I left a trail of fuel from the stove canister to the fuel jug. I lit the stove and the fuel jug went up as well. Pretty blue flame on the ceiling had me mesmerized until the curtains went up. No damage except to the curtains, but the extinguisher cleanup took days. I was in a rush because I was running late for a fire training exercise 🙁

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 28 June 2014 Reply

      Talk about irony . . . just glad that you were safe, even if the cleanup was awful.

  • Dan Thomas
    Posted at 29 June 2014 Reply

    We lost our Lagoon TPI 37 to an onboard fire. Our home was gone and our lives were wrecked also. Just now getting it back together and bought another boat. Ready for the liveaboard life again. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2695848916600&set=a.2686519083360.2111998.1267904793&type=3&theater

  • Dan Thomas
    Posted at 29 June 2014 Reply

    We lost our Lagoon TPI 37 to an onboard fire. Our home was gone and our lives were wrecked also. Just now getting it back together and bought another boat. Ready for the liveaboard life again. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2695848916600&set=a.2686519083360.21119

  • John Barltrop
    Posted at 30 June 2014 Reply

    Another major cause of fire aboard ships whether at sea, alongside or on the slip in particular is:
    Not carrying out correct procedures when carrying out hot work on board a vessel……..there are set down procedures for welding, oxy cutting, etc.,……….ignore them at your peril…………..many fires and loss of lives have resulted from bad/or no practices with hot work.

  • Frances Liz Fernandez
    Posted at 04 March 2016 Reply

    Great article and reminders. Every situation will be different. We had an electrical short, smelled smoke and for the life of me I couldn’t remember where the fire extinguishers were! Despite having two on board — visible and accessible. Panic can disorient you. I know better now! No damage but it could always get worse very quickly. I show my guests where they are located too along with other safety orientation.

  • Diana K Weigel
    Posted at 04 March 2016 Reply

    Good information. I might add something I learned in the Navy. Conduct frequent fire drills with different scenarios. Just as we practice Man overboard drills to know exactly what to to in an emergency we should practice fire drills.

  • LisaMarie Gauci Takacs
    Posted at 04 March 2016 Reply


  • Shawn Harlan
    Posted at 04 March 2016 Reply

    Almost have fire extinguishers on their boats I bet many do not have a fire blanket they’re not expensive and can be found fairly easily and I believe should be a must in the galley which can also be used to put out other fires quickly safely

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 04 March 2016 Reply

      I’ve written about them several times and there are links in that post to those other articles for anyone who wants more info . . . or see them here: http://amzn.to/1NUtZ1u

    • Angel Mercer Ganey
      Posted at 04 March 2016 Reply

      I bought this blanket, not knowing it was recommended. Glad to see it vetted here.

    • Shawn Harlan
      Posted at 04 March 2016 Reply

      Yup… same one i have, stowed right under the oven.

      • John Barltrop
        Posted at 12 January 2017 Reply

        “….right under the oven….”
        NOT a good idea……..have it hung on a bulkhead near the door to the galley or space where the oven is located………if a fire started in this space the chances are it would be in the vicinity of the oven/range………you may not be able to reach the fire blanket!!!!

  • Angel Mercer Ganey
    Posted at 04 March 2016 Reply

    Yes, boat fires is one of my primary concerns. We have a fire blanket and extinguishers; next come the detectors. I recently did my own fire drill where I made sure I could go up through the hatch located near our v-berth. Glad I did! Now I know where to put my feet, how to push myself up and out….although I’m sure all of that would be accelerated by a real fire. Thank you all for sharing your tips. Very important stuff. Maybe also a checklist (mental or otherwise) before leaving the boat to ensure things are turned off/closed?

  • Dave Skolnick
    Posted at 04 March 2016 Reply

    If I remember the numbers correctly from BoatUS statistical analysis the most common cause of boat fires is overheating at the shorepower inlet. Next is the galley, more often spills than anything to do with propane or alcohol. There are lots of other minor causes.

    Make sure your fire extinguishers (and fire blanket) are located so you are most likely to be on the same side of a fire as your extinguishing tools.

    When in doubt, get off the boat.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 04 March 2016 Reply

      I actually have two fire blankets — one on each side of the stove just so I can’t be caught on the wrong side. And multiple fire extinguishers.

      • John Barltrop
        Posted at 12 January 2017 Reply

        In a galley the best extinguisher is the Wet Chemical Extinguisher which was specifically designed for fat and cooking oil fires…………it can also be used for carbonaceous materials, (wood, paper, plastics, etc.), although, I would not recommend it for that use because it is not recommend to use it on the latter……its very messy to clean up, that said, it is still the best extinguisher for galley fires involving cooking fats and oils.

  • Edsel Falconer
    Posted at 15 June 2017 Reply

    I recently had a fire on board from a metho stove. Forgot to close the fill hole of the tank. When it rotated on the Gyball it leaked and spread the fire in the cooker space. Tried to smother it, but no luck. Reached for the extinguisher which is close at hand and put it out. The event has spooked me about using it and I would like to consider other options now.

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