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Yacht fires light up crew training, awareness

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By Dorie Cox

November saw motoryachts Lohengrin, a 161-foot Trinity, and M/Y Reflection, a 107-foot Christensen, go up in flames in a shipyard in Fort Lauderdale. It was one of the city’s largest financial losses on record. Then in December, the 120-foot M/Y Andiamo burned while docked at a marina in Miami.

These are just a few of last year’s incidents that have ignited the attention of the yacht industry.

In response, yacht captains and crew have taken another look at safety on board, industry professionals have encouraged conversation about those safety issues, and the business of yachting has continued.

Coming at the topic from two different angles, fires are on the mind of Capt. Hamish Chilvers, who is both a yacht captain and an insurance broker with OnlyYacht Superyacht Insurance. While at work on board a yacht in January, he experienced an electrical engine room fire.

“The only reason I knew was that I lost the generator and main engine,” Capt. Chilvers said. “The smoke detector did not go off and we’re not sure why. We went deadship and pulled the fire suppression. It happened fast.”

With 40 years in the industry, he had never had a fire and said he was amazed at the speed of the incident. It reinforced his emphasis on safety equipment, especially that crew really test smoke detectors and not just activate the test button. One way is to trap smoke in a bucket and release it under the detector. He also recommends checking detectors in all of their locations onboard.

“No one checks smoke detectors until they beep,” Capt. Chilvers said. “It’s a forgotten thing.”

In December, the 120-foot M/Y Andiamo burned while docked at a marina in Miami.

Yachts are filled with safety equipment, but it is important that crew understand how each component works, said marine surveyor Guy Clifford, of Patton Marine in Fort Lauderdale.

“Safety is the main thing we emphasize, that crew check the safety equipment. It is something the crew should do,” Clifford said. “We find that captains on the larger, classed vessels check, but often on non-classed vessels there can be issues. Unfortunately, it takes accidents to make people aware of what needs to be done and what they need to be aware of.”

Occasionally, crew members will say they have tested the safety equipment, “but if we do a random test, we find sometimes that systems don’t work,” Clifford said. “Most don’t test their systems, and that’s why bilges and smoke alarms don’t work. You have to be honest and be diligent.”

Electrical equipment starts many fires and the majority are caused by shore power plugs, Clifford said. This is a place yacht crew can be at the front of prevention.

“We write this up all the time, and it’s most always the boat side,” he said of incorrect shore power configurations and equipment. “The locking ring ideally should be secured, but that gets tossed and then the shore cord is hanging, the boat is moving, and it works loose.”

Fire plans are another useful safety tool for crew to use and understand.

“If you look at a fire plan, you see different areas have different fire boundaries, and many people don’t understand the seriousness of it,” Clifford said. “If a fire starts, crew don’t have time to get suits on, hook up the hose, and get the pump running. Most of the time, they just have to get off and call for help.”

At the core of safety is each yacht crew’s understanding of how all safety systems work, not just the ones in their departments. It is a good idea for everyone to become familiar with equipment in the entire boat, Clifford said.

While safety policies are in place at most marinas and yards, the recent fires can – and should – help crew increase awareness on land as well. Regular inspections are a part of Lauderdale Marine Center’s procedures, said company president Doug West. 

A full-time certified health and safety environmental manager makes daily rounds and can write citations in the case of hazards. Crew can watch for these dangers around the yacht, like the proper storage of flammable liquids. Recently, LMC’s officer found a golf cart plugged into a charger with the cord running under a can of solvent.

“That would be a huge issue,” West said.

Equipment is but one part of the safety equation; it is protocol and training that put them to use. And although standard operating procedures are in place for fire safety on most large yachts, Capt. Jay Kimmal on M/Y Status Quo considers yacht fires as an opportunity to optimize his boat’s SOPs.

“Each new fire makes everyone listen,” he said. “I try to take the latest accident and apply it to our drill schedule and use it as our scenario.”

After learning that crew were on board during the Andiamo fire, Capt. Kimmal’s fire drill last month included emergency contact access procedures.

“Say it’s a nighttime watch at the marina, only two crew on board,” he explained. “Are the phone numbers for marina night security posted or in the watchkeeper’s phone for local and marine fire units?”

To avoid delays, his crew aims for the quickest response through local numbers. When in a new marina, Capt. Kimmal invites the marina guard to the boat for introductions and visits the local fire department or fire boat.

“If crew try to call the marina at night, there may be no answer,” Capt. Kimmal said. And that’s why local numbers need to be programmed in for crew watch phones or radios. “The person on watch has that phone,” he said. “They can’t use the excuse, ‘My phone doesn’t work.’ ”

All the crew are trained to handle basic fire emergencies, but considering the potential danger, the safety of the crew and all on board comes first, he said. 

“Our SOP is to save lives, not endanger them, so at the dock we only fight fires from outside if all persons are accounted for, and then let the pros take over when they arrive,” Capt. Kimmal said. “The only time to suit up is if someone is on board, that would be a guest that could be stopped by smoke or fire.”

Malcolm Elliott always has fire hazards on his lists as surveyor and president of Florida Nautical Surveyors. Within his work is a focus on safety education.

“Manufacturers and brokers should be showing people,” Elliott said. “Anyone involved in selling, even surveyors, should point out safety features on boats.”

He hopes that captains and crew take notice and train often.

“Crew safety training is a lot better than when I started 50 years ago in the merchant navy,” he said. Most crew have the basics, but participating in an actual fire-fighting situation takes practice. The worst thing is to stick crew in a dangerous situation with little training, he said. During a yacht survey, Elliott often questions crew about safety and has found that “there is lots of head scratching.”

Yes, the trend toward training on yachts has improved, but how an emergency is handled still comes down to the specific people on board, he said. Without repeated training, equipment such as onboard fire hoses can be a challenge. The hose and the nozzle are typically not connected, and crew need to practice with the wrench.

“Not an hour or two a month – we had weekly drills,” Elliott said. “It’s not like taking an hour off work. You have to learn, give exams. It’s really training, training, training.”

Along with all of the training, crew can be on the frontline of prevention by paying attention to details. Aside from the recent fire, Capt. Chilvers recalled a previous incident on board a yacht that nearly had a fire during a refit period. The closets had halogen lights that activated when the doors were opened. During the work, duvets and pillows were stacked high inside the closets. Someone left a door open.

“I said, ‘I can smell smoke. I’m telling you there is a fire somewhere,’ ” Capt. Chilvers said.

The crew found a smouldering blanket in a closet. “If we had gone to lunch, we would have lost the boat.”

As training and attention to safety equipment increases after a yacht fire, another trend may be in the works: Watch schedules and manning on yachts seem to be changing in response to yacht fires, according to Capt. Chilvers.

“With large yachts, it used to be one crew on watch. Now it’s a watch team,” he said. Some yachts add crew on board full time who are capable of maneuvering the vessel and handling flood, fire and damage control.

“In the old days when I was a captain, after a long trip and we pulled in to the dock, one person would pull the short straw and have to stay on watch,” Capt. Chilvers said. “Gone are the days you could take the weekend off. You need a damage control team that can go in and put out a fire, fix a bilge problem, etc.”

Marina and yard fires have the potential to spread, and occasionally nearby vessels need to be moved. If the captain is away and no one can drive the vessel next door, there has to be a deck officer who can maneuver a move in the case of an emergency, he said.

As he monitors this trend, Capt. Chilvers expects it to lead to more time on, less time off. Hours of work and rest come into play.

“Then crew burn out easier,” he said. “There will be more rotation, I think, and we’ll see more rotational crew with say, four months on, three off.”

Trends with insurance claims after yacht fires also are on Capt. Chilvers’ mind.

“Anytime there is a large loss, it is going to affect the rates,” he said. “The yacht’s hull insurance is generally a small percent of the value of the vessel, then the insurance pays out a total loss at $7-10 million? Or above $500 million? That changes the market and basically means that rates go up. It’s trickling down.”

The yacht budget on M/Y Status Quo has been hit with insurance increases, Capt. Kimmal said.

“Oh yeah, it’s going up 10-20 percent, and the year before it was 5-10 percent,” he said. And there was more of a challenge to find an insurer.

“We only had one or two that would look at us,” he said of insurance companies.

Although talk on the dock increases when a yacht fires happen, neither Elliott nor Clifford see yacht owners getting out of the business.

Yacht fires are always happening, but now people see them on news, social media and the internet, Elliott said. Most conversations are constructive about prevention and causes. With 49 years in the industry, he said he has not seen fires send yacht owners out.

“The only trend to stop buying is when the economy goes down,” he said. 

Although fires do get people talking, this helps lead to better safety, Clifford said.

“The volume of work and the number of boats add to the numbers [of fires],” he said. “It’s like, if there are more cars on the road, there are more crashes. There are more people involved, more workers, more management, more language barriers – so many things contribute. It’s important to stay on top of this and maintain awareness of what really can happen.”

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.

About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

View all posts by Dorie Cox →

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Comments

One thought on “Yacht fires light up crew training, awareness

  1. Duncan

    Smoke in a can is the best way to test detectors (no one smokes any more, certainly my yacht is a no smoking zone). The caned smoke is so convenient to walk around with on a weekly check and give a detector a squirt each month, or more frequently if needed. Fires are certainly my biggest fear on the small expedition yacht that I run. I’m based in Bali Indonesia where the shore power can be questionable and the local fire service under funded and trained, so we have regular drills on board, monthly, when all emergency gear is tested and the drills logged. But as mentioned the insurance premiums are still rocketing up.

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