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Fires Aboard
Causes and results
February 2020

T
he Nautical Co-op of Oriental consists of the Neuse Sailing Association, the Sailing Club of Oriental and the Oriental Dingy Club. It is an umbrella organization that coordinates and fosters boating activities. One of their initiatives is the Winter Seminar Series.

These seminars are held, in the winter, on Saturdays at the Oriental Town Hall. I am a frequent seminar presenter. During my latest seminar on Risk Reduction, there was a lot of interest regarding fires. As a result of the interest, I’ve decided to dedicate February’s Captain’s Blog to fires aboard boats.

Marc Anthony is an international superstar. My teenage niece, who is the world’s leading authority on pop stars, reports Marc Anthony is the top selling tropical salsa artist of all time. The two-time Grammy Award and six-time Latin Grammy Award winner has sold more than 12 million albums worldwide. His net worth is over $80 million. He purchased his 120 foot Benetti in 2006 for $7.5 million. Presently, he is in the market for a new boat.

Fires AboardFires AboardFires Aboard
Mar Anthony’s 120ft Benetti Classic The Andiamo burns in Miami.

You are wrong (very) if you believe boats don’t burn quickly and easily. It took 40 Miami firefighters two hours to extinguish the Marc Anthony blaze. Firefighters finally gained the upper hand when the boat rolled over. The cause is still under investigation. But, an examination of other insurance claims reveals fire is the fifth leading cause of boating loss. While the probability of occurrence is low, the severity of an onboard fire is extreme. As I preached in my seminar, in order to prevent fires, you must understand how fires start aboard boats. Below is the breakout of the causes of all fires. These percentages have off-boat causes included.

Fires Aboard

Twenty-six percent of the time, a boat burns because something else has gone up in flames: storage facility, house, garage, neighbor. In more than 70% of the 26% (make sense?), it is the marina that burns; mostly because a fire has started on someone else’s boat. Every boat owner has a responsibility to prevent fires. Not only to protect their boat, but also to keep property, other boats and people safe. Below is the breakout excluding the off-boat sources.

Fires Aboard

Overwhelmingly, the most common cause is the DC electrical system. Of the 43%, 20% of that is caused by engine electrical issues. Wiring harnesses and starters cause a disproportionate number of fires. If your boat is more than 25 years of age with original equipment, the statistics are not in your favor. Consider replacing those parts soon. Battery systems contribute to 8% of the 43%; specifically, voltage regulators. The statistics show the failure rates of voltage regulators increase significantly after 10 years.

Lastly, Other DC makes up the final 15% of the 43%. This category includes loose battery connections, chafed cables and aged switches. Surprisingly, or not, the most common cause of battery related fires is operator error, reversing the cables or connecting them in series when they should be in parallel. When disconnecting batteries, I recommend taking a picture with your cell phone before you disconnect. Otherwise, the experience could be shocking.

Most AC electrical fires start between the marina pedestal and the shore power inlet. It is imperative that boaters use marine grade power cords with proper adaptor connectors. The thin, plastic, orange, electrical cord purchased at the Dollar General is not suitable for bringing alternating current into a boat.

Cords must be replaced at the first sign of wear on the cord or pitting on the blades. If the cord is scorched black anywhere, there is an issue that is generating excess heat; repair or replace immediately. If the shore power inlet on your boat is more than 10 years old, it should be replaced or at the very least, removed and inspected. The statistics are not in favor of older shore power inlets.

Fires Aboard
A burned shore power inlet.

The “Other Engine” category is mostly driven by overheating with impeller failures leading the way. Change your impeller every year, after every grounding or operating in gritty, sediment-filled water.

My informed opinion is the “Other” and “Unknown” categories are mostly housekeeping. Petroleum saturated rags, dirty engines and oil absorbent pads, improperly stored gas cans, etc. Sadly, I frequently see this when coaching aboard.

So, my final point in closing is that yes, it can happen to you. If Marc Anthony’s 120 foot super yacht with a full time crew of five can burn to the waterline, so can yours.

Take some time, gather some imagination and go through your boat. Utilize a critical eye. Imagine where your fire is going to start and get that fixed. Your new “piece of mind” will contribute to the positive boating experience you deserve.

Oh by the way, “Andiamo” means “Let’s go”. Sadly, that boat is not going anywhere but the landfill.

Fair winds,
Captain John Rahm


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Captain's Blog on TownDock.net is all about making your time on the water enjoyable. Captain John Rahm teaches sailing and boat handling at Third Wave Sailing.