Lessons from a boat fire

Joseph Murphy


Back in 2020, Beth and I took a cruise up North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound, accompanied by another couple in their boat. One morning, while putting together a quick, light breakfast on our boat, I turned to see our friends’ boat completely engulfed in dark brown smoke. I grabbed my fire extinguisher and jumped out of the boat to help.

By the time I got to their boat, the wife had escaped the companionway and was making her way off the boat. I helped her up to the lawn to get some fresh air. As I turned back to the boat, I saw my dear friend struggling to get off the boat and away from the smoke. The explosion had knocked him into the V berth. He had to traverse the fire to get to the companionway and out of the boat. Thank goodness he had the presence of mind to grab a fire extinguisher and put out the fire.

Paramedics arrived within moments and took him to a hospital. Within hours, they transferred him to a burn trauma center, where he received treatment and spent the night.

He sustained second- and third-degree burns on his face and hands. After three weeks, all his bandages were removed and most of his pain subsided.

Our friends had been members of United States Power Squadrons for many years and are extremely boat-savvy. In the following days we discussed many aspects of the incident. First, we counted our blessings. The fire could have happened where medical care wasn’t as quick to arrive. Then, we focused on the lessons learned.

Lesson 1: Boat fires are fast. Within seconds, everything was engulfed in smoke. Fortunately, my friend knew exactly where the fire extinguisher was, allowing him to find it immediately, and he knew how to use it. Even so, his knowledge and quick action could not mitigate the damage that took place in such a short time.

Lesson 2: Boat fires are blinding. Today, most boat interiors are made of vinyl and plastic, which burn with heavy noxious smoke and choking fumes. Had the fire extinguisher not been mounted near the companionway bulkhead, my friend would not have had enough time, much less visibility, to find it. Consider hanging a pair of swim goggles on the fire extinguisher. Having some type of eye protection could be a big help when dealing with smoke. Practice blindfolding yourself, moving about the boat and locating your fire extinguisher.

Lesson 3: Fire extinguishers must be immediately accessible. Place fire extinguishers where you can grab them immediately. My friend’s extinguisher would have been useless stored inside a cabinet, under a seat or anywhere near the stove. Consider having multiple fire extinguishers. Make sure at least one is mounted near an exit point. Your life is your first concern. If you can grab the extinguisher and turn around and put out the fire, that’s a bonus—but saving your life comes first.

Lesson 4: Placement of gas fume detectors is critical. We think the fire was caused by a leak where the fuel canister connects to the stove. The fumes accumulated at a lower level within the cabin and ultimately reached the stove’s open flame. The nose test failed since the aroma of what was cooking overpowered the faint aroma of the leaking butane. Think twice about the location of your gas fume detectors, and consider relocating them lower in the cabin where fumes first accumulate.

Joseph Murphy

Joseph Murphy and his wife, Beth, live in Atlantic City, North Carolina. He has been a member of United States Power Squadrons for 20 years.

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The Ensign magazine is an official channel of United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club, a volunteer organization whose members teach boating skills and best practices to help improve the safety of our nation’s waterways. Learn more.

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