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Triton Survey: Veteran captains reveal how common fires on yachts are

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Recent serious yacht fires got us thinking about fire safety onboard and how common blazes on yachts really are. In recent months, local and global news organizations and social media have been airing images of yachts afire with smoke billowing and rescued crew piled in safety rafts. The Triton’s Feb. 1, 2016 post of news of the fire and subsequent sinking of M/Y Camarina Royale garnered more than 30,000 views. Comments attached to the post were asking why so many fires were happening so often. So we wondered, are yacht fires happening more often or are they being captured and reported more often on social media?

From full blown abandon ship scenarios to small fires that captains and crew have snuffed out with minimal damage, results of this month’s survey reveal that a majority of veteran captains have faced more than one fire onboard in their careers.The odds are that the longer you’re at sea, the greater the chance you’ll face a fire.

But we wanted to know more than if fires have occurred on yachts, so we explored safety training, inspections, where they were happening and what might be causing them.

Captains came through with a series of experiences and advice that may not only help prepare others to fight a fire, but possibly to prevent one from happening at all.

More than half of the captains we surveyed have been at the helm for 20 years or longer.

We started with the basic question Have you ever had a fire incident onboard?

More than 85 percent of the captains responded “yes” so we asked them to rate the level of seriousness of those fires.

A full blown abandon ship scenario was reported by 6.4 percent of the captains. The majority, 44.5 percent surveyed, revealed that they had fought a fire onboard and beat it and 34.5 percent said they were able to nip a fire in the bud, so it amounted to just smoke with no threatening blaze.

Less than half of the captains (41.5 percent) said their experience with fire was limited to the one time. In fact, 31.9 percent said they faced two fires, 18.1 percent said they had battled three fires over their career, 5.3 percent answered four fires, 2.1 percent said five fires happened under their watch and 1.1 percent had experienced six to 10 fires with zero reporting more than 10.

What about from afar? With the close berthing arrangements at marinas and boat shows, captains and crew have to pay attention to emergencies that happen on neighboring yachts. So we asked Have you ever witnessed a fire happening on another yacht?

A whopping 80.7 percent said yes.

In the spirit of The Golden Rule, we asked captains about their level of involvement when they have witnessed a fire on a nearby yacht.

Did you assist? A majority, 43.9 percent said they went to the scene to help. Others, 9.8 percent, said they were able to send crew to help with the emergency and 7.3 percent said they helped by calling 9-1-1 and reporting the emergency.

“In a number of cases the crew and I grabbed equipment and went directly to assist,” commented a veteran captain with 35 years experience on a more than 220 -foot  yacht.

Another captain of yachts ranging from 201 to 220 feet with more than 25 years of experience shared this experience he had in Antigua.

“In 1989, while working on a yacht called Azzurra, we were moored in Antigua stern to the dock. The small sailboat next to us was cooking a turkey and it caught (fire). I witnessed the smoke from Azzurra and then quickly ran down to tell the crew onboard what was going on next to us. With help from the second engineer onboard Azzurra, I got an air pack on me and with a fire extinguisher I ran over to the sailboat and went below and put the fire out.

“Once the fire was out, we opened the yacht up to cool and to start the clean up. Needless to say, they were left hungry. Since I was only wearing shorts and a T-shirt, I got a good “sunburn” from all the heat in the galley when I went in. That was before the fire suits of today.”

One captain with more with 20-24 years experience on 141-160-foot yachts was impressed with how the fire on a completely lossed Benetti was handled.

“Watched from a distance while shipyard and local fire teams contained a fire to a new 54M Benetti in Livorno,” the captain commented. “ Vessel was a total loss. Shipyard actually send men into the sub deck to open sea-cocks to scuttle vessel evenly to the bottom to prevent roll over and resultant spilling of fuel oil etc.”

Another captain with 15-19 years of experience on 121-140-foot yachts said he/she carried out a post-fire inspection on another yacht.

“I was the bosun at the time on a 48m. I got dressed in turnout gear to go in with a fire extinguisher to inspect the galley for residual fire, assist with de-energizing the circuit and standby for watch until we could accurately determine the fire was extinguished.”

In an effort to pinpoint where fire hazards are prevalent on yachts we asked Where did the fire incident(s) originate? It might not be a surprise that the majority, 52.9 percent, of reported fires in our survey happened in the engine room followed by 22.4 percent reported starting in the galley. Extensive fire damage to the yacht may have prevented 12.9 percent of the captains surveyed to say they were not able to determine where the fire started.

We wanted to know what captains learned from the fires they experienced so that advice might help prevent more fires from be caused the same way. So we asked about the most serious fire our survey participants had encountered. Could it have been prevented?

A majority responded with a definite “Yes.” And offered advice with their explanations.

“By simple danger labelling,” advised one captain with 35 years experience. “Had the engineer put a sticker on the circuit breakers that controlled the electric to the equipment he was working on. Then the first mate would not have switched them on while doing his normal rounds on watch. Caught it just in time,” he continued.

“We could have lost that yacht if we were a few minutes slower on the response. No one hurt, but it was close to being an out of control disaster!”

Another suggested having “a fire watch while the welding was going on.”

A captain with 20 to 24 years of experience on 141 to 160-foot yachts suggested “Regular inspection of all areas inside yacht with an infrared heat detector.”

“Inverters can be particularly dangerous during an electrical fire,” offered another captain. “The crew may think they have disconnected the electricity to the ignition source, but the inverter(s) may still be producing AC power to feed the fire.”

We know all yacht crew are required to receive fire training through the The Standards of Training, Certification & Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). We asked the question Do you feel trained to handle minor and major fire incident(s)?

Close to 90 percent of those surveyed said that they did feel adequately trained. So we probed further to find out how captains emphasized fire training with their crew.

Do you conduct onboard fire drills onboard? we  asked. Turns out not all yacht crew receive fire training onboard the yachts they work. At least 12.2 percent of the respondents said “no” to this question.

But the 87.8 percent who responded “yes” explained in the next series of questions how they ensure fire safety through drills and inspections. How often do you do these drills? We asked.

About half of the captains answered that they hold fire drills either on every trip, season or at least once a year. But the other 53.3 percent answered “other” to this question.

We asked for more details about fire drills to get a feel for the extended or yacht specific training that occurs. We asked What does your fire drill entail?

Answers ranged from a variation of drills at least once a month to full fire gear dress rehearsals when crew least expected them.

“We do different fire drills at least once a month,” commented a captain of a more than 220-foot yacht.

“Engine room fire, galley fire are the most common.”

Another captain urged a variation of drills. “Practice different scenarios. Get the crew used to thinking about fires in different areas and getting to know where fire equipment is.”

One captain emphasized talking with the crew after the drill was carried out. “Full crew, varying scenarios, full BA team, debrief afterwards,” they commented.

What a about a drill every week? One captain with 30 to 34 years of experience on yachts larger than 220 feet described drills carried out once a week. “Dress out, operate hose stations. Simulate secure power and ventilation. Train on various pieces of equipment from safety locker.”

And the more realistic, the better one captain commented. “A typical fire drill will include tripping a heat or smoke detector to observe and fine tune the responses of all crew from hearing the alarm to communication and coordination of the attack at the scene until all clear given.

“Many times, hoses and bunker gear are involved, though our primary response is to attack with extinguishers before a small problem can escalate. Renting a DJ’s smoke machine can do wonders for a surprise fire drill!”

One crew would hear this, said one captain. “Fire! Fire! Fire! Galley, Galley Galley! Drill!”

Then, all crew onboard were required to grab the nearest extinguisher and come to the site of the drill.

With new crew joining yachts on a regular basis, one captain with 20 to 24 years experience suggested this approach.

“We drill on fires in different areas as in engine room,galley, etc. Basics include inspection of problem areas that may contribute to causing a fire. Inspection of extinguishers and periodic discharge of extinguishers. Blocking off air supply to fire area. Notification of fire onboard to authorities. Marina Office or Coast Guard. Periodic inspection of fire suppression system by certified parties. Checking of crew to make sure they all know where all extinguishers are located. Especially new crew members.”

Extra fire precautions such as bringing in an inspector as a way to identify potential problems are utilized in most industries, so we asked Do you bring in a third-party inspector to sign off on fire safety? The response was almost and even split with 49.5 percent saying that they did use the extra advice of a third party to look for any hazards onboard. And those who do use an independent inspection company did so mostly once a year (63.1 percent). Very few brought on an inspector before every trip (3.1 percent).

The lessons learned by those captains surveyed is perhaps the most important feedback we received. We asked What did you learn from your experience with fire on yachts? and Do you do anything differently now than you did before the experience?

These responses proved to be invaluable, so we have included them all, just in case.

Comments:

Yacht captains offered advice for dealing with fires onboard and possibly preventing future blazes:

Be sure to take care of the electrical side of things and monitor often, including shore power connection on the dock. Most smaller vessels are not equipped with the man power (crew) to safely fight a fire without serious risk to human life.

l l l

Yes!! More drills than before the 1st one = and it has certainly paid off !

l l l

You have to be as prepared as possible. Drills are essential to get the crew as familiar as possible with the gear and procedure so that, in a real life situation, there is less confusion. Their functions have to be as automatic as possible.

l l l

Expect the unexpected.

l l l

We carry bunker gear and make sure all the fire systems are up to code.

l l l

Fire watch while welding.

l l l

Good housekeeping helps prevent fires. Also regular testing of electrical circuits by Megger and thermal imaging. Do drills often. Train the way you’ll fight. Fire doesn’t care.

l l l

Keep training.

l l l

More drills, more preventive maintenance.

l l l

If we can not put it out with a fire extinguisher, we are leaving. It (the yacht) is insured. Lives come first.

l l l

Inspect all equipment carefully for signs of deterioration.

l l l

No, same routine. We had a stack fire that was caused by a blown oil seal in a turbo charger. Main engine shut down and cooled the exhaust system with fresh water.

l l l

I make sure all detection points are checked monthly at minimum and all crew are capable of donning bunker gear in less than 2 minutes.

l l l

Be prepared, and do drills.

l l l

Learned how quickly it can happen, nothing different, just more alert to the rapid pace of ignition.

l l l

Just confirmed that the drills and experience paid off. Fire inspectors and insurance investigators both concurred, decisive immediate correct action taken.

l l l

Yes, drill and be prepared for the worst.

l l l

All crew get to use a fire extinguisher and hose.

l l l

Keep doing drills.

l l l

Always on guard to prevent.

l l l

Each fire I’ve dealt with was due to careless people. As then, and now, I do my best to see the future. That’s real fire prevention. Then if it happens, you’re all on the same safe page.

l l l

Perform a thorough inspection prior to getting underway that targets fire hazards and gear adrift.

l l l

They scare hell out of me. Can start from a halogen light in a closet stuffed with pillows or sparks on a battery.

l l l

Just greater awareness from a preventative perspective.

l l l

Pay closer attention to the maintenance of the various fuel/hydraulic lines.

l l l

Learned that our regular testing of the engine room fire suppression system and yearly re-certification proved invaluable, along with crew knowledge of how to operate it. The system performed as designed and suppressed the raging fire. Also learned that fire damper systems may not completely eliminate air ingression into the engine room. We took further steps to seal off all air intake and discharge ducts.

l l l

Yes drills.

l l l

Increased awareness as to cause.

l l l

I pray a lot.

l l l

It can happen, be prepared.

l l l

General awareness and discussion. Watch walk arounds off charter and underway. Prevention ahead of time.

l l l

I told crew if they think something is wrong, it probably is wrong. If you smell, see or think something is not right, bring it to the attention of someone else. Never hurts to have a second opinion.

l l l

Try to reinforce safety, proper stowing of chemicals and paint supplies.

l l l

We had a fire on the yacht I was on. It was caused by dirty rags with dissimilar chemicals in the same bucket and a very hot August day.

l l l

Learned there is a very real possibility of it happening on any yacht at any time. Even before any of the three fires I have experienced, I require underway a human nose and eyes are doing an engine room every single hour underway, and regular yacht walk-throughs. Fires I had would have been MUCH worse, maybe unsurvivable, without having caught them early this way.

l l l

Keep training.

l l l

Fires spreads quickly. Crew awareness is key. Always have a fire safety chat with the chef.

l l l

Create in everyone a high level of consciousness of the importance to maintain (keep) all crew aware of the situation. By practicing fire drills, the crew became more focused and act in a positive way that could save a life and possibly minimize damages to the vessel.

l l l

Quick action and crew training. I never did this before.

l l l

Yachts are the most flammable thing on the water with the interiors filled with highly flammable materials of sorts, and varnished to make them get fully involved and fill with toxic smoke all that much faster. The only place on a yacht that is designed to deal with fire reasonably well is the engine room. Even galleys are poorly constructed, and the launders is just a death trap disguised as a lint trap. If a fire starts spreading in an interior, DO NOT continue to fight the fire, go to abandon ship. The fire is most likely already in the walls and you cannot combat it.

l l l

Stay calm.

l l l

There is no substitute for training and practice, and fiberglass burns faster than steel or aluminum. People are harder to protect when they panic.

l l l

No candles aboard.

l l l

Be more careful with electrical system.

l l l

Treat electrics with the most respect.

l l l

We keep a hot water hose hooked up in the engine room at all times.

l l l

Be more diligent.

l l l

Risk assessments and added precautions. Engine room tidiness and all flammable material correctly stored away from engine room.

l l l

We were lucky that we got it under control really quickly. The engine room fire was caused (on a 1961 yacht) by a fuel line to a boiler that had been repaired eons before with a bit of plastic hose. CO2 system extinguished it almost instantly. The other one could have been disastrous to due to location at middle of a spiral stairwell running from tank top to sundeck.

l l l

Never assume it won’t happen, always be aware.

l l l

There is so much inherent risk associated with what we do every day that my job is to earnestly try to eliminate unnecessary risk. Being unprepared for a fire or any emergency is an unnecessary risk. We prepare. I find that in being prepared the crew, as a whole, develops a better sense of responsibility, has a sharper eye and can catch accidents waiting to happen, and provides a team building mentality. We are better at responding to emergencies as a team and we all play a critical part in one another’s wellbeing.

l l l

Inspect fixed systems, and know the locations of handheld extinguishers. Fast response can save the ship.

l l l

I am very aware of the yacht, and what happens during each day. I keep a good eye on things.

l l l

Better to launch tenders early, than fight a bigger one. SOS early on.

l l l

 

We asked for any other thoughts about yachts and fire.

We are adequately prepared for small/controllable fires. Other than a safe evacuation, no one is prepared for an uncontrollable fire.

l l l

Being conscious of emergency situations and pre-planning what to do – how to react quickly = saves lives! (safety first is a good rule to live by!)

l l l

You can never have enough fire extinguishers.

l l l

In my case, it was in the design of the vessel built before today’s standards. Designs have changed since and fire suppression systems are much better.

l l l

Always be prepared.

l l l

Cover yourself with a wet blanket to aid escape.

l l l

You must train.

l l l

Training on fire prevention and proper use and stowage of flammable products and materials is key to fire safety.

l l l

Stressing rapid response anytime an alarm is triggered is the most crucial part of prevention. Aside from modern detection equipment, your nose is the best for early detection too. The slight plastic smell you notice walking through the boat, could be someone’s cell phone charger or power adapter left unattended in the early stages of becoming a problem. Do not stop looking for a burning smell until you find it…you will!

l l l

Vigilance is key, always investigate strange smells.

l l l

Bloody scary , decisive immediate corrective action MUST be taken!!!!

l l l

Every scenario is different – don’t judge others as you are not in their shoes. Prepare your crew and be as ready as possible for various scenarios.

l l l

I’ve put out the many fires others have started due to poor safety practice.

l l l

Yachts and Fire. Fire Training other than basic training required for a 100 ton license is nonsense within the context of private yachts. Pretty much every private yacht built as such up to about 140’ does not carry and\or was not built to fight any major fire incident. The plain fact is 95 percent of all yachts under about 130’ just do not carry enough scot paks and protective clothing for more than a couple people. It is a one shot mission and should one of those people get trapped or go down, there is no backup. Also, the companion ways on yachts are smaller than on most commercial vessels. The Coast Guard training is skewed toward commercial vessels. Nothing wrong with it, except it does not reflect the real world day-to-day operation of private yachts and the limitations of fighting fire on them. We need a separate 200 to 250-ton Yacht Master License that covers vessels 150’ or less.

l l l

On a fiberglass boat, the fumes are so toxic, if you cant put it out at the “trashcan” stage get the life raft over.

l l l

I do not consider the majority of yacht crews skilled enough to fight major fires especially in confined areas, Boats can be replaced, lives not. If a fire can be beat, it should be done in the first several minutes, if not (if possible) leave it to the full time fire fighters.

l l l

Fire and flooding are the two emergencies that can lead to an abandon ship scenario. Fire is perhaps the most serious as it can kill before it’s even detected (smoke while sleeping).

l l l

You can never practice enough. Eddie Cooney on the Feadship Aviva was a prime example of the proper way to train and fight the fires aboard.

l l l

Drill, be prepared. Don’t skimp on costs for safety equipment and maintenance.

l l l

Lost a 120-foot motor yacht in 1982 in the West Indies on charter. Fire started in guest lounge. Wood boat burnt to waterline, fuel tanks exploded and she sank in “the bight” in Norman Island, BVI .

l l l

Fires are very dangerous and happen very fast. You can have a total loss in just a matter of minutes.

l l l

Power strips are one of the reasons for fires, crew always overload them. Plus, they always purchase the household brands instead of the ones made for vessels that are used by the Navy and USCG training, It’s all about the training, Getting crew comfortable using fire fighting equipment, doing drills weekly, everyone says it won’t happen to me, I can guarantee if you stay in this business long enough it will.

l l l

Galley fires are very scary, I had to tell the crew they could not cook anything when they came home after being in the bar. One of my crew members almost started a fire at 2 a.m. I know a friend that this happened to about 3 years after I had implement the “no cooking” after drinking policy.

l l l

Anywhere on land where people sleep and could just run outside, there are required by law to be smoke detectors present and operating. Why the hell in the MORE dangerous situation of sleeping below deck are smoke detectors NOT REQUIRED on private yachts!!! I’m not stupid, if I’m going to sleep on someone’s yacht I bring my own detector and tape it to the ceiling because I KNOW most yachts don’t have any!

l l l

Most are built and maintained so badly they are an accident waiting to happen.

l l l

Fire is a serious situation aboard, but you can minimize the losses by training and practicing fire drills. Because drills create security to all crew at the time of a real emergency, The crew involved will not ask him or herself, WHAT I SHOULD DO? Instead, she or he will act as they had been taught to during the drills. No question should come their minds, just actions and procedures.

l l l

Yachts are viewed as luxury toys so all safety standards are basically ignored. They really only start to take affect when you add the thirteenth paying passenger and need to meet SOLAS.

l l l

Pay attention to condition of electrical equipment and wiring.

l l l

There are very few truisms on boats, but, when it comes to equipment, for fire or anything else dealing with safety, “It’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.”

l l l

Too often we do quick electrical repairs and then they are real fire hazards, hard to extinguish and hard to see.

l l l

Ban halogen light bulbs, they generate too much heat. Safety isolation switches in galley and laundry. No late night drunken cooking allowed by crew. Galley out of bounds and use of electrical or gas appliances restricted after hours. Strict no smoking policy. Correct use of ironing equipment and proper storage. No open flames allowed without proper precautions. Use of candles for dinner tables and ambience setting is to be supervised by chief stew and correct stable candle holders are to be used and securely anchored to surfaces. Guest ash trays are to be the covered type and cleared regularly.

l l l

It spreads real fast – don’t spend too long fighting it – get off safely and in good time.

l l l

I wish you asked in this survey what caused the fire and how it was extinguished. Like most incidents, especially minor ones, they go unreported. And we all know that serious fires begin as minor incidents and go unnoticed or unresolved. I’d love to know what causes the majority of fires onboard. I’d also like to know how many times actually donning a full fire gear team has successfully extinguished a fire. I run a smaller vessel now with a crew of 3. I don’t have the capability of a fire team. Our approach is if we can’t get it with an extinguisher, we are containing the fire as best we can while abandoning ship. I wonder if this isn’t a better approach as a whole on yachts. I am doubtful that these fire teams that I have had to train and perform in front of class and flag state inspectors are actually effective or just downright risky.

 

Suzette  Cook is editor of The Triton. Comments on this survey are welcome at suzette@the-triton.com.

 

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