This Fire Is Out of Control: That Time My Sailboat Caught Fire…


Sailboat Fire


A sad sight…

 First, a story of stupidity

In 2004 my sailboat was in Charleston, SC while my job had moved to Kings Bay, GA. I was planning to live aboard SeaWitch, my 1970 Cal 28, in the quiet city marina in Fernandina Beach, FL. Unfortunately, I continued to run into problems delivering my home. Between finding the time, a good weather window, and my cranky inboard Atomic 4 engine, everything seemed to be against me. After doing maintenance one day, I decided I’d give the old engine a paint job to complement all of the mechanical work I’d performed.

I figured it wouldn’t take too long, as many parts were already off and being reassembled. They could be spray painted with high-temp before assembly. I could quickly tape off the block and touch up the spots I wanted to. This baby would be a beautiful fire engine red. Women would be attracted to its raw marine power, and likely drape themselves over it while professional photographers made SeaWitch’s engine compartment the next cover page for Hot Rod magazine.

I probably dumped about four cans of spray paint into this job. I had my engine blower running as well as several fans. Since SeaWitch used petrol gasoline for fuel, the blower was an easy mitigation against fume built up. That’s right: a sailboat is a giant Tupperware container, keeping water out and gases inside. Like, paint fume gases…

Later that afternoon, as I was preparing dinner, I decided to light a candle for dinner to help mask the lingering scent of the paint. Hatches were open and the fans were doing good, but it was still evident. I dropped the match, and a half second later heard the loud “POOF”, watched the cabinetry fly open, and saw through every opening in the sailboat’s cast interior the flash of light caused by the flames. I had just set my boat on fire.

General Quarters, Action Stations!

The first thought that went through my head was “I’m highly embarrassed I just set my boat on fire. I hope no one notices my stupidity.” Hey, what can I say?

That thought quickly changed to assessing the situation. I could see orange light in the bilge areas around the engine. This was from some loose paper towels used in the project. I grabbed the nearest fire extinguisher (in the settee) and got to work. Pin pulled, canister aimed, and a couple of short bursts at each flame. Once the visible flames were out, I rapidly opened all lockers that hadn’t blown open and did a search for any remaining flames. Once done, I was in consequence management mode.

The first problem was not smoke but fire extinguisher agent. The typical extinguishing agent aboard a boat is powder driven by compressed gas. It’s possible to have small sized CO2 or liquid extinguishers, but powder is pretty common. It works on a number of fire types, can be maintained relatively easily, and packages well compared to its firefighting capability [i.e. bang for the buck.]

This powder was everywhere. It’s fine and spreads rapidly when touched. Thankfully I had my particulate mask nearby and was able to throw it on while finishing my search for flames. Once the search was complete, I began the process of airing out the cabin. First I ran the bilge blower for about ten minutes to completely evacuate gases or anything heavy out of the bilge area. Then I ran a box fan from the forward hatch to drive smoke and powder out of the main cabin. At sea, I would have used both the 12VDC cabin fans and opening the forward hatch to catch the wind.

As the atmosphere got better, I began the detailed search and battle damage assessment. Was anything still warm, indicating flames behind it? Any smoldering bits in dark corners? On the submarine we had a thermal detector to assist us in this effort, but on SeaWitch I had to rely on my eyes watching for wisps of smoke or changes in color in the darkness.

I ventilated the cabin for a good hour. My smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detectors were reset and indicated everything was tolerable. It took several days of part-time cleaning to vacuum up the known powder, and months later I still found spots where it collected. A vacuum with HE filtration helped immensely.

What went well

1) Knowing where the extinguishers were, and how to operate one.

2) Keeping a level head and fighting one thing at a time (one fire at a time, then ventilating).

3) Conducting a thorough deep search and staying aboard for several hours after to ensure things were safe.

What didn’t go well

1) Should have ran the bilge blower the entire time I was working. On shore power, there was little reason not to. The cabin fans were unable to lift enough gases from the bilge.

2) Bravado: while I still don’t think firetrucks were necessary, it was poor of me to think “This is my problem.” It could have easily changed into everyone’s problem. Thankfully the fire was extinguished quickly. If it took more than a minute though, getting help would have been the next major thing to do.

Attainable Adventures has a great article covering fire safety aboard sailboats. Well worth the read as it treats the details with ease.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user Peter Robinett)