Maintenance, basic precautions go far to prevent a fire onboard

Dec 5, 2013 by Guest Writer

There are few things more dangerous on a boat or yacht than a fire. They can spread quickly, and there is nowhere to get away from the heat and the smoke, short of abandoning the vessel.

That is exactly what two boaters — one in Florida and one in North Carolina — had to do when their boats caught fire in separate incidents in early June. In one case the boat was destroyed; in the other the boat had to be towed to keep it from coming into contact with other vessels in a busy waterway. Both men were rescued, but as the yachting industry knows, help is not always readily available when boating.

Fires can even occur when a boat is not being used. In January 2011, a fire at McCotter’s Marina in North Carolina destroyed an entire dock and more than 25 boats, and three people were treated for burns and hypothermia after being forced into the water by the flames.

Fortunately, there are simple precautions that can help reduce the risk of fire, and reduce the risk of injury or major damage if one does occur.

More than half of boat fires are reportedly caused by electrical problems. The fire at McCotter’s is believed to have started at a bad connection between the boat and its shore power cable. A periodic check of electrical connections, especially high-amperage connections such as shore power cables, alternators and battery chargers is vitally important.

If a wire, connector, or the surrounding area looks blackened or shows other evidence of heat damage, replace it immediately. Use proper crimps, terminals or solders with waterproof heat shrink for all connections; wires twisted together and taped up have no place on a boat.

Engine problems and fuel leaks are another major cause of fires aboard. Check the fuel system regularly for leaks, and look for other evidence of small leaks, such as an oily sheen in the bilge.

Overheating of the engine or transmission can also cause fire, so check the oil of both as well as the coolant level and the raw water intake each time you use the boat.

If there is an electrical or fuel fire, never use water to try to put it out. Use a fire extinguisher of the appropriate type. Fire extinguishers are required by the U.S. Coast Guard on all vessels with an engine and should be rated for Type A, B, and C fires, which means they will handle oil, grease, and electrical fires, as well as wood, paper, cushions and other materials common on boats.

Each fire extinguisher should be checked often to ensure that it is still charged. Automatic fire suppression systems can also be installed in engine compartments to put out flames as soon as they start.

If the fire cannot be extinguished, remember that personal safety is more important than property. Get as far away as possible, even if that means entering the water.

Through diligent maintenance of electrical systems, engines and fuel systems, and by carrying proper safety equipment including fire extinguishers, vessel damage, insurance claims, injuries, and loss of life due to fire can be prevented or minimized.

Being in the marine insurance business for more than 30 years, we frequently see claims regarding accidents that could have been prevented with a little maintenance and extra precaution at the dock.


Frank Atlass is chairman and CEO of Atlass Insurance Group in Ft. Lauderdale. He established the company’s Florida insurance office in 1981. Comments on this column are welcome at