According to 2015-2019 statistics, fire is the 5th most common cause of boating accidents in the U.S. 21% of all boat fires in America can be linked to engine/motor electrical problems. Most fires begin in the boat motor where the fuel and ignition source are likely to meet. Most importantly, boat motors are prone to fires. Since boat fires are more prevalent than most people think, what should you do immediately your boat motor catches fire?
Steps to Follow When your Boat Motor Catches Fire
Step 1: Switch off the boat and cut the fuel supply
This is the first most important step to consider. Boat fires can be worsened by running engines since the fuel is still being pumped to the motor. To stop fuel from spilling out or accelerating the fire, cut the fuel supply. Boats usually have a safety mechanism allowing this.
Step 2: Turn the boat downwind
To slow down the fire, ensure the wind is fanning the fire away from you. Turning the boat downwind also ensures you and other occupants in the boat don’t inhale smoke (Carbon Monoxide) from the fire. Inhaling carbon monoxide can cause incapacitation making it difficult to fight the fire. Since the motor is supposed to be switched off immediately after a fire is detected, use a paddle oar to maintain a downwind position.
Step 3: Call for help
Proceed by calling for help. Boats usually have a radio that can be used during emergencies. Find it and call for help.
If the U.S. coast guard operates in your area, call their emergency line first. Otherwise, call any powerboat in the area that is capable of towing your boat to safety.
Step 4: Put on a Personal Floating Devices (PFD)
Once you call for help, ensure you and other passengers are wearing life jackets. You should have enough life jackets (personal flotation devices) on board for every passenger as it is boating law in every US and Canadian jurisdiction.
Proceed by mustering passengers to the safest area, furthest away from the fire. This tip is important just in case you need to jump/abandon the boat.
Step 5: Turn off Gas Cylinders
If there are gas cylinders on board, ensure they are turned off. Gas cylinder nozzles should be shut to prevent gas leakages should the fire reach the gas lines. While gas cylinders can explode due to heat, turning off nozzles reduces explosion risks.
If you are on a personal watercraft (pwc) like a Sea-Doo, there is usually a lever located by the gasoline intake to completely cut off the fuel supply. If your have an outboard motor you can completely disconnect the gasoline hose.
Step 6: Try to extinguish the fire
Boats are supposed to have fire extinguishers on board at all times. Once you have considered the above steps, you can attempt to put out the fire. Marine extinguishers (Carbon dioxide and foam extinguishers) are the best for putting out the fire. Never use water to put off a fire, especially if the cause of the fire is suspected to be grease or leaking fuel. Oily substances like fuel simply float on water spreading the fire easily. You should think of ways and means of choking the fire by denying it one of the main ingredients – oxygen.
Fire safety precautions on boats
Since prevention is better than cure, it's should just be about what you should do immediately a boat motor catches fire but also about the precautions you must take to prevent a boat motor fire in the first place. Every boater should observe basic fire safety precautions below;
HAVE WORKING EXTINGUISHERS: Before boarding, ensure there is a well-equipped marine extinguisher/s.
MOTOR INSPECTION: Before boarding, it is also good practice to inspect the engine and fuel system ensuring everything is in perfect working condition. Extinguishers should be vetted accordingly to ensure they have carbon dioxide or foam and their mechanisms are working.
CONTINGENCY PLAN: It's also good practice to have a fire contingency plan in place that everyone, including passengers, understand and remember. Ideally, all passengers should go through a safety drill before boarding. The drill should address ideal responses to any onboard emergencies, including fire.
FIRE DETECTION SYSTEM: Boats should also be equipped with fire detection systems such as carbon monoxide detectors, smoke detectors, and/or fire alarms. Gas vapor detectors are also important in boats with cabins and bilge areas.
TURN OFF EQUIPMENT AND OPEN FIRE SOURCES: Boat equipment should also be turned off when not in service/use. It’s also recommendable to avoid open fires from cigarettes or other sources of fire like flares. Cigarette buts should be extinguished completely using a wire ashtray. Alternatively, there should be no smoking onboard.
HAVE A FULLY-EQUIPPED FIRST AID KIT: It is also important to have a first aid kit onboard. You should have an equipped first aid kit in your boat to ensure passengers can get quick first aid in case of any injuries. The kit should have bandages, scissors, gauze tape, and other essentials for treating burns, among other injuries that can happen onboard.
EMERGENCY COMMUNICATION EQUIPMENT: A boat should also have emergency communication equipment onboard such as VHF radios, sound devices (megaphones), flares, etc. that can be used to call for help in case of a fire or other emergencies onboard.
GAS CYLINDER SAFETY PRECAUTIONS: Boat occupants should also beware of the appropriate safety precautions if there is a gas cylinder onboard. For instance, valves should be off when cylinders are being changed. Also, naked flames shouldn’t be left unattended.
ELECTRICAL SYSTEM SAFETY PRECAUTIONS: To avoid motor and electrical system-related fires, boat owners should hire qualified marine mechanics and electricians when doing any repairs or service on the boat. Motor loads should also be monitored constantly, and passengers warned about overloading sockets.
FUEL SYSTEM PRECAUTIONS: To avoid fuel system-related motor fires on your boat, inspect fuel lines regularly for leaks or fissures. Fuel should be stored away from the motor or other potential sources of fire. Refueling should also be done when the motor is switched off.
Since boat motor fires are more common than we think and boater exams tend to ask what boaters should do in case of a motor fire, the importance of knowing how to handle such a situation can't be overlooked. It is equally important to take the necessary precautions as a boater to reduce the likelihood of fire and increase preparedness.