Vessel Afire!
Date Posted: September 11, 2023
Source: Vincent Pica Commodore, 1st District, Southern Region (D1SR) USC

It would seem to me that one of the most frightening circumstances to be caught in is a boat afire.  It is loaded with high-octane fuel creating toxic smoke; using water to fight the fire can sink the boat; leaving the boat may entail going into another hostile environment – cold and unforgiving water.  It doesn't sound like there are many, if any, good alternatives.  Also, fire prevention professionals quote that on average a fire will double in area every 5 minutes.  At that rate, it wouldn't take long to engulf an entire boat.  So, time is of the essence, and it is highly unlikely that anyone can get to you in time to assist in the fire suppression.  You and your crew, most likely, are it.

Causes of Fires

According to many studies such as those conducted by entities such as BOAT/US, surprisingly, the engine is not the most likely source of fires on boats – electricity is.  More than half of boat fires (55%) start with wiring or appliance failures.  Next come fires started by an overheated engine but they are less than half as likely (24%).  Less than 10% of boat fires (8%) start with a fuel leak.  Of course, those can reach catastrophic proportions if the fire ignites the fuel tank itself.  The rest is a mixed bag of "miscellaneous" – dropped match, stove spills, flare "slag" landing on the boat, etc.

An electrical fire such as the one that starts from a frayed/chafed wire is very different than one which is fed by a malfunctioning inverter or generator.  The first is going to act like someone was smoking in bed – material is aflame but not being fed by the electricity itself.  But it counts as the cause of the fire.

Types of Fire Extinguishers and Who Needs What

First, fire themselves are classified into "A", "B" and "C" types.  (There is a type "D" for chemical/combustible metals fires such as would be created by the magnesium in a flare but I have never seen it successfully used before the flare involved surrounding materials – get the flare off the boat [let the fish below deal with it] and then deal with the fire.)  The easiest way to remember what they are used for is thus:

  • "A" – the fire creates ash – paper, bedding, clothes, wood, etc…
  • "B" – the subject afire can boil – "POLs" or petroleum, oils and lubricants…
  • "C" – a charge runs through it – electronic equipment…

As to fire extinguishers themselves, the rules changed on April 20, 2022 and you can find the newly published regulations for fire protection for recreational vessels at .

On note, if your fire extinguisher has a date of manufacture stamped on the bottle (example: "05" means 2005), and it is older than 12 years, the extinguisher is considered expired and must be removed from service. Look for wording on the bottle stating, "This product must be removed from service within 12 years after date of manufacturing".

How many do you need?  Here it is:

Where Do I Keep The Extinguishers?

Where I can get to them – plus the sleeping berths.  If you awake to a fire, you may have to fight your way out of it.  Every other extinguisher should be kept in a convenient place – near the galley but not in it, near the engine but not within the engine space, etc.  Use common sense.

Boats Afire – Now What!!??

Act quickly.  If you have help aboard, use it.  Have someone turn the boat so the fire is down wind and proceed ahead as slowly as possible to maintain steerage.  This will buy you time as the fire can't fight its way upwind easily.  And have the helmsman call the USCG on VHF-16.  Get the "rescue starts now" clock going.  While reaching for the fire extinguishers, yell – "everybody into life-jackets!"  If you do have to abandon ship, you are prepared.  Aim the fire extinguisher at the base of the flame, not the flames themselves.  You are seeking to smother the source of the fire, not the flames per se.  Move the fire extinguisher back and forth across the source of the flame to spread the coverage.  If the fire has a source such a flowing charge or liquid, and you can get to a shut-off valve, shut it off and starve the fire.

And be sure to call the US Coast Guard – ASAP.  Get the "rescue starts now" clock started as soon as possible.  They won't get there in time to stop the fire – but they will task someone or something to get there in time to fish you out of the water if you must abandon ship.  Be sure to let the USCG know how many people are aboard – they will look for that many people in the water.  No one gets left behind.


If you are interested in being part of USCG Forces, email me at [email protected] or go directly to the US Coast Guard Auxiliary "Flotilla Finder" at

Comment Submitted by Vincent Thaddeus PICA - September 16, 2023
John, you make a strong point - standards are essentially minimums (the USCG's point) which, in some sailors' minds, then become the maximum. I try to make the point to place as many as you need because "you may need to fight your way out" of, e.g., sleeping berths (which gets to your point about egress.) You can write a book about the tragedies and their preventions. Several years ago, my crew and I rescued a father and his young son off a boat in Moriches Bay, NY, afire in the engine space. The father had the engine space compartment open and kept staring first at the fire, then at his son, then back and forth. I directed him to send his son to the bow, where we intended to disembark him, and further directed the father to start applying the fire extinguisher that he was holding in his hands. We went and got the boy, returned to the stern see that fire was now "smoldering." I directed him to close the hatch (depriving the fire of oxygen) and to set the anchor so the boat wouldn't drift down the bay. We brought the father and son to a nearby marina where we knew a commercial tower was berthed. They later retrieved the boat for further repairs. semper paratus, Vin
Comment Submitted by John McDevitt - September 13, 2023
Fire prevention is very important but once you have a fire that you did not prevent, - Detection, Egress and Suppression become critical to the passengers and the vessel. Your article does not mention detection. Early warning detection is the most important fire protection provision of the 20th century - but still rarely found in a boat in the 21st century. The Dixie Delight had no early warning detection and eight people lost their lives. The Conception Dive Boat had no detection in the area where the fire started and 34 people lost their lives. Egress is a very complicated task during a boat fire. You do mention entering the water but egress from cabin spaces is frequently a problem. When fire blocks the primary exit, secondary exits are sometime blocked with tenders, unreachable or inoperable. Egress problems also played a part in both of the above mentioned fatal fires. Suppression is confusing - and this is the Coast Guard's fault. Your article discusses A-B-C extinguishers but only shows B extinguishers in your list of recommendations. The ABYC and the NFPA both require A-B-C extinguishers, the Coast Guard only B extinguishers. The Coast Guard's excuse is that these are only minimum requirements... We really need to do a better job with fire protection in the marine industry. Detection, Egress and Suppression are frequently a shortcoming when the outcome is less than desirable.
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