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Before heading to bed last Friday night, Feb. 21, we watched the horrible news about the La Conner marina fire, never imagining we’d be fighting our own boat fire within a couple of hours.
At 1 a.m. Saturday morning I was awakened by something and realized the boat was full of noxious smoke. I yelled, “FIRE, FIRE, FIRE, GET UP!” and my husband, Kirk, and I both immediately jumped out of bed.
We have owned and sailed our lovely Passport 40, Due West, for 22 years, and have lived aboard her for almost 12 years. We love her sea-kindliness, comfort and beauty. Our floor plan has the head forward in the bow, with a Pullman berth in the master cabin just aft of the head. We sleep with our head door closed to keep the draft from the chain locker out. We also keep the door to the main salon open. On the aft side of the head door is a full-length mirror, enabling us to see aft through the salon, to the companionway from our bed.
As we leapt out of bed, we could see in the mirror that there were small flames in the salon, near the nav station. Luckily for both of us, Kirk keeps a very cool head in emergency situations, and ran toward the fire to try and put it out. He noticed flames at the base of our electric radiator heater, and on the bulkhead between the settee and nav sation. Running past the flames, he immediately grabbed a fire extinguisher from under the companionway stairs and turned to spray it.
At the same time, I grabbed both our cell phones (and a pair of yoga pants, realizing I would be freezing in only a tank top and underwear, though I didn’t think to grab shoes!), opened the head door, reached up to open the overhead hatch and stepped onto the lid of our toilet to climb out. As I headed out the hatch, I had an after-thought that I probably should have closed the head door BEFORE opening the hatch, as that gush of air would likely fan the flames …
Sure enough, Kirk saw the flames starting to rage up the low bulkhead that separates the settee from the nav station, just as I opened the hatch and he grabbed the fire extinguisher. As I climbed out the hatch, I yelled, “FIRE, FIRE, FIRE” at the top of my lungs, in case anyone was on boats nearby (no one was), and then I called 911. I yelled for Kirk to get off the boat, but he yelled back, “NO, I’m putting out the fire!” (Apparently I have the “flight” and he has the “fight”!).
Never having actually used an ABC fire extinguisher before, and having an older model with the plastic nozzle, Kirk pulled the pin, pressed the lever, and … nothing happened. Then he recalled that he needed to lift the handle, which allowed the plastic tab to fall down and trigger the release of fire suppressant. He sprayed it at the base of the flames for about three seconds and the fire was out.
However, the carpet, several settee cushions, throw pillows, and two blankets were still smoldering. Wanting to make sure the fire was really out, he ran forward to our cabin and grabbed one of the two fire extinguishers from our bunk. Then he headed back and sprayed that one as well.
Station 41 from Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood arrived in nine minutes, but it seemed like forever as I waited on the dock, and then ran barefoot up the dock to let them in. I told them we thought the fire was out, but to be safe, they still brought hoses all the way down to our boat.
Meanwhile, Kirk had thrown the smoldering settee cushions, pillows, blankets and radiator heater onto the dock. The throw pillows were goose-down, and the dock was instantly covered with half-burnt feathers everywhere … looking like we’d just slaughtered and cooked a few geese.
The firemen checked everything over and assured us that Kirk had indeed put the fire out. But just to be sure, they did use our dock hose to spray water on the whole area before leaving.
We are SO thankful to be alive with our boat still floating, to have insurance that will make things right again soon, and that our boat fire didn’t cause a marina fire. But wow, what a stinky mess it left behind. As with most fires, the actual fire damage is relatively minimal compared to the smoke damage, ash and fire extinguisher dust. The ash and fire extinguisher dust even made its way inside of closed cupboards in the head, 25 feet away.
Many of our possessions (anything plastic, including TV housing, CDs, etc.) have to be thrown out. We are going cruising this fall and planned to purge some things off the boat before we leave, but this is not the way we had in mind. Still, we are trying to see the silver lining, make lemonade out of lemons and learn from this experience. We hope that our lessons learned may help some of you as well.
BIG shout-out to Station 41 Magnolia, and all of our amazing friends and family who have offered up so much help, support, lodging and love. We are so grateful to you all.
Things to ponder:
• Ironically, the radiator heater had been turned off before we went to bed two hours earlier, but it was still plugged in. We have no idea how the fire started. Was it a short? Was there a pinhole which leaked hot oil? We just don’t know …
• We did not have a smoke alarm or a carbon monoxide detector. Had we had either one, it would have woken us up long before the flames ever started.
• Ironically, we were slated to attend The Sailing Foundation Safety at Sea seminar on Bainbridge this past weekend, where one of the things we would have learned was fire suppressant techniques onboard.
• We are normally night owls, but had gone to bed early in order to catch an early morning ferry for the class. Had we not been getting up early, we likely would still have been up watching Jimmy Fallon when the fire started.
• Had this fire started about six hours later, we would have been on the ferry to Bainbridge, and the boat may have been a total loss, sunk, or worse, caught other boats on fire.
• Install a smoke alarm! Nearly every boater we’ve talked to since doesn’t have one, or if they do, they’ve disabled it because it goes off every time they cook. We are buying and installing one now!
• Install a carbon monoxide detector! Even without a fire, this could save you from a furnace exhaust leak, or other combustion issue.
• Be aware that any new air (from opening hatches, etc.) will fuel flames.
• Had we slept with our cabin door closed, the fire likely would have raged in the salon, burning up carpets, upholstery and wood before we ever awoke, if we ever woke up. If the door had not been open, we likely would have been dead.
• Stop, and assess the situation first. We had two fire extinguishers in our bunk that could have been used without having to go past the fire to get to the other two. But out of a deep sleep, it’s hard to think on your feet within seconds.
• We also learned after the fact that the toxic chemicals off-gassing from carpets, upholstery and plastics, rise to collect at the ceiling. These fumes can ignite, creating a flash-fire across the ceiling, like a broiler. We may have been close to that point as we had heat damage near the ceiling, far away from the actual fire.
• Possibly, having used a fire suppressant blanket or our Halon fire extinguisher may have caused less of a mess to clean up afterward. We have heard this from a few people, but don’t know for sure if either would have worked in our situation. However, we will be purchasing a fire suppressant blanket now.
• We were told by one of the firemen who responded to our fire, a boater himself, that while the electric radiator heaters are generally safer than the electric fan heaters, they aren’t designed to be used in marine environments. The salt air can corrode the electrical system inside the radiator, while still leaving the outside looking almost brand new. He replaces his every two years on principle. Also, if they ever fall over and get banged, they should be replaced immediately.
We are happy to answer questions or give out more info if it can help someone else avoid what we’ve been through. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.