Eight lessons learned fighting a real fire aboard our boat

This May, Three Sheets Northwest and Fisheries Supply are partnering with marinas across the region to encourage every boater to install a smoke detector aboard. You can help by spreading the word to your boating friend.

Our goal: more than 100 boaters without a detector aboard install one this month. Will you help?

Learn more here, including how to get a discounted detector for your boat.


Station-41-Magnolia

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 …

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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.

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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.

total-fire-damage

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.

Lessons learned:
• 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 svduewest@gmail.com.

aftermath

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13 Responses to Eight lessons learned fighting a real fire aboard our boat

  1. Jason May 1, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

    Maybe it’s different from our fixed systems on ships but DO NOT use a halon extinguishers in anything other than a closed space that you are NOT in. Halon chemically bonds with the oxygen in the air preventing the chemical reaction between oxygen and fuel a space that’s been filled with halon is not a hospitable place for humans or pets.

    Second you should try to remember to kill all power in the event of a fire on board. An electrical fire could flare up if it is still getting current and could electrocute you if you use water to fight your fire.

    Glad you’re both safe. Can’t recommend fire safety courses enough especially for people living aboard.

  2. Fred Roswold March 6, 2014 at 4:33 am #

    We agree that a smoke detector is critically important.

    It is also pretty smart to take extra care with your AC electrical cords and electric heaters of all kinds. Electrical fires involved with heatrers are common. While we never had a fire, one of our Marintec plugs got hot enough to turn black. Our friends on Mollyhock, a Westsail 32 in Shilshole, had a serious fire when a plug from a heater igniited upholstery on a settee. And Warrior, the Chance 50, was an insurance write-off after a heater fire in Seaview Boatyard(although the boat was restored and is doing well now, 35 years later).

    Keep plugs, connections, and the heaters themselves, away from inflamable materials and wooden walls, and inspect the plugs and heaters often. A warm heater is good, but a hot plug is a danger sign.

  3. SheltieJim March 4, 2014 at 4:11 pm #

    Heidi and Kirk! I’m so glad that you were not injured and that the fire was quickly brought under control. I know it’s terribly frightening and more than a little sad to see the damage to Due West. But everything will be OK once the insurance check arrives and the repair work gets done.

    I’m especially happy that Due West did not burn, because it would have been the first Passport 40 that I would have known for sure was no longer sailing! Needless to say, I’ll add something about this experience to your entry in my Passport database.

    And congratulations to you both for doing the right things so quickly!

    Sighing in relief,
    Jim

  4. Wade Biggs. (M/V HONU) March 3, 2014 at 4:57 pm #

    Wow. Good thing you two are (pun intended) cool under fire. That’s a scary story, especially as I keep one of those oil-filled electric radiators running in the engine room on low heat all winter. I certainly will be examining mine very closely. Did you by chance save the heater? I would be very curious to know if disassembly of the switch/thermostat assembly on the heater gives any clues as to the failure mode.
    I had not thought to install a smoke detector aboard, but I will do so immediately. By the way, I believe a CO2 detector is mandatory aboard boats now, as is a CO2 placard similar to the “no oily discharge” placards we are all familiar with.

  5. Terry & Kathy Fontaine March 2, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

    We are so glad you guys are safe. We had one of those on Fandango and I never thought they would cause a fire.

  6. John McDevitt March 2, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

    You were very lucky to awaken. Smell is one of the senses that diminishes when we sleep. A smoke alarm would have awaken you sooner and your damage may have been minimal. Smoke alarms have been required everywhere we sleep for nearly 50 years but are still not required in a boat. The RV industry has required and installed smoke alarms since 1982.

    I have installed First Alert One Link smoke alarms in my boat. They are household devices and not rated for harsh marine use. They should be installed in the dry spaces of the boat and replaced every 5 to 7 years. These devices can be easily programed to recognize each other as a system. All devices alarm at the same time and give a location for the problem. My engine room is programed as the ‘basement’. I am not conected with the First Alert company – I just think their products fit my needs for early warning detection in my boat.

    There are always a number of notable boat fires anytime of the year. Smoke detectors are a no brainer when we consider the extremely combustible nature of a boat’s construction materials and the limited means of egress from hatches and portholes, not to mention cabin and engine rooms fires while we are underway.

    I will sent you a Fire Protection article I wrote for Professional Boat Builder via separate email.

    Thank you for telling your story. John McDevitt – jmcdevittcaptain@aol.com

  7. Paul March 2, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

    We used some not-too-industrial Velcro strips to attach our smoke detector to the upper wall in our galley…when captain wifey cooks she just pulls it off and puts it somewhere else so it doesn’t go off…works pretty good:)

    -Paul

  8. Alan March 2, 2014 at 8:41 am #

    Thank You For Sharing A Potentially Life Saving Article.

  9. Jim March 1, 2014 at 10:24 pm #

    Fire on a boat is a traumatic experience. Glad you are both safe. Hope your story will boost fire and CO detection device sales.

  10. Terry March 1, 2014 at 2:56 pm #

    Hmm. That reminds me; I think I’ll go install a smoke alarm on Thistle Dew.

  11. andy March 1, 2014 at 12:39 pm #

    Glad you were able to put your fire out so quickly! I also replace my heaters every 2 years, needed or not. They should also be cleaned. It’s amazing how much lint/dust I can blow out with an air compressor.

    How to fight a fire?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aL_VdzjM-24&list=PLKUg-wF-eKBw0w5OR6SpBt6sjD6XMdY7a&feature=c4-overview-vl

    They have a lot of good videos about fighting a fire, sinking, dismasting, gas explosion, rolling, etc… One boat destroyed in the end but lots of knowledge gained.

  12. Rick Schnurr February 28, 2014 at 8:38 pm #

    Quite a harrowing story. I’m glad that you had a combination of quick thinking, action and good luck.

  13. Kaci February 28, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your story Heidi! Glad you’re both okay and that fate, luck, God, whatever… had you both there to stop the fire when you did. Whew. I’ll never leave a heater plugged in again. On land or on a boat.

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