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Fire Aboard: Cruisers’ Worst Nightmare

Yikes, what a mess. But, of course, it could have been so much worse.

© Andrew Rosen

"Despite all the sensational stories of whale-caused sinkings, fire is and should be the greatest concern for cruisers," writes South Pacific cruiser Andrew Rosen of the Marina del Rey-based Beneteau 46 Murar’s Dream. "It can happen so quickly and so unexpectedly." 

Having done the 2011 Baja Ha-Ha and the 2013 Pacific Puddle Jump, he was cruising in Fiji when a sudden fire on board threatened both the boat and his life.

"After docking at Vuda Point Marina between other boats in very close proximity (Med-mooring separated only by fenders), we settled into our new, temporary home as we planned the next leg of our journey to Australia via New Caledonia. That evening I turned on our air conditioning unit, which cools our aft cabin and operates via shore power (using a 220-110 step down transformer) or generator at 110 volts. It just did not sound right, so I quickly turned it off. Thinking nothing of it other than it would need to be checked out by the local electrician, I sat down at our navigation station and began to write one of our sailblogs.

And you thought you had serious cleaning projects.

© Andrew Rosen

"About 20-30 minutes later, I was interrupted by the smell of smoke and, upon entering the aft cabin, saw flames behind the air return vent coming out of the A/C unit. Fortunately, I was still awake and not sleeping, so I quickly grabbed one of our two, one-lb fire extinguishers and shouted, “Fire, fire, fire!” to get help from other cruisers. Within only a few minutes, the port side of our aft cockpit was in full flames and, with the aid of four other cruisers, seven fire extinguishers, and lots of water from two garden hoses (but only after turning off the electric power to the boat), it took us almost a half-hour to finally extinguish the flames. 

"But for the fact that we were docked at a marina with access to water and additional fire-fighting equipment, I am sure that Murar’s Dream would have sunk, and we would have been seeking rescue aboard our liferaft while our EPIRB was sending out its distress signal, and we were calling on our Iridium satphone.

Needless to say, this fire was incredibly hot – enough so that it melted the bimini fabric.

© 2013 Andrew Rosen

"As a result of this fire, we have some recommendations to fellow cruisers to prevent or deal with this type of disaster, especially when you are at sea without access to further assistance:

1.  You cannot have enough fire extinguishers aboard, either in number or size. You should have ABC powder extinguishers of at least a 5-lb size.

2.  Install at least one good smoke detector and test it regularly.

3.  Check for corroded wiring as a regular maintenance item for any device which uses high voltage (110 or 220 volts) or amperage. (We have learned that this is a chronic but hidden problem in this salty environment.)

4.  Once the fire has started, make sure, if possible, that you open the area above to let out the hottest gases. In our case, opening the lid to the compartment where the fire originated. Once the fiberglass ignites, it is almost impossible to extinguish.

5.  If the fire is electrical in origin, shut off all your main battery switches as soon as possible.  Do not use water on the fire until the electricity has been eliminated.

6.  Do not wait too long to ready and launch your liferaft and grab your ditch bag (for international travel, your passports and some money should be in your ditch bag) for a speedy evacuation once you realize that you cannot extinguish the fire.

"The bottom line," says Andrew, "is that, without the help of fellow cruisers, something that we have experienced throughout our cruising days, extinguishing this fire would have been an impossible task in light of the equipment that we had onboard."

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