Boating Safety Blog
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Boating Safety

Fires, Explosions And Prevention

There is probably nothing more devastating and frightening than a fire on a boat! There is simply nowhere to go except jump over board. If an explosion occurs the damage is catastrophic. Worse yet, if the fire occurs in a marina, the fire often spreads to surrounding boats.

Boat Fire Slide ShowFortunately these rarely result in deaths. Although there were 221 fire and explosion accidents in 2006 in the US, there were only 4 deaths. But that doesn't mean they aren't dangerous. Fires often result in horrendous injuries and massive burns to the body.

These types of accidents are divided into two categories, those from fuel and those from other sources. 146 were fuel. 75 were other. Other is usually electrical.

Fuel fires are usually the result of a fuel leak some where in the fuel system.  These leaks are almost always where a hose connects to a fitting.  On rare occasions there will be a pin hole leak in a hose or tank, or a leaky gasket.  The vapor from the fuel is then ignited by a spark from electrical equipment causing an explosion. This is why it is extremely important to make sure your fuel, electrical and ventilation systems comply with USCG, ABYC or ISO standards, all of which are similar. ( ) It is also important to check the system regularly. A fuel system pressure test is a good way to make sure there are no leaks. This can be done by most marine service providers. Electrical systems should be inspected at least annually, and ventilation should be checked as well.

To prevent fires, adequate ventilation of engine and fuel tank compartments is required. ( ) Making sure electrical equipment is ignition protected so that it will not produce sparks is vital.

Electrical fires are equally as devastating.  Corrosion is an electrical system's worst enemy. Even a correctly installed system can develop corrosion at connections which results in high resistance and heat. Heat is what starts the fire, but the real culprit is bad connections, either from loose connections or corroded connections. Many fires result from the shore power inlet plug corroding or loosening while the boat is sitting idle over the winter months. Boat owners should check their boat frequently. They should not only look for flooding and other problems but, especially if they have a heater on board that is left running, they should make sure the power cord is not loose and not heating up. They should pull the plug and check the conditions of the metal prongs. Any sign of corrosion or discoloration should be looked into for the cause. The cause may not be on the boat. It could be the shore pedestal. So if everything on the boat checks out have the marina check the shore pedestal.

Last but not least, what do you do in the case of a fire? It depends on the situation. Very minor fires can be fought with a fire extinguisher.  But if the fire lasts more than 30 seconds you probably won't be able to put it out.  Engine room fires require more effective equipment such as an automatic fixed fire fighting system. If you have a fixed fire fighting system, make sure it will also automatically shut off the engine room blower. You don't want all your fire fighting agent simply blown out of the engine room. 

Electrical fires, if caught quickly, can usually be stopped simply by turning off the power or disconnecting the shore cord. However, if any of these fail the best action is to abandon ship. If you are underway and have time, put out a mayday and don't forget to give your position. If you have an EPIRB you can activate it and it will automatically send out a distress signal. If you are at the dock, get off the boat and call the fire department. If possible move other boats away from the boat on fire. Sometimes it is actually possible to tow the burning boat out of the marina, but leave this to the Coast Guard, Marine Police or fire department.

The best way to put out a fire on a boat is sink it. It probably will sink anyway if the fire is really bad. However, this may also result in pollution from leaking fuel. But once you are off the boat leave the fire to the professionals to fight.

If you are underway when this occurs, getting off the boat may not be as simple as it sounds. Going into the water may not be a good choice, but it might be the only choice. If you have a dinghy or inflatable it should be mounted in such a way that it can be released and put over the side. For offshore boats an inflatable life raft will automatically release itself and inflate. Make sure if you do go over the side you are wearing life jackets. This is why they must be worn or readily at hand. It is very difficult to put one on in the water so you want it on before you go in.

Most onboard fires do not occur at sea. In fact most occur at the dock or shortly after fueling. So rescue is usually close by. But properly maintaining your boat, checking your fuel and electrical systems will prevent most problems. Knowing what to do and practicing an abandon ship drill will help too.Fueling Procedure

Here is a poster listing the correct fueling procedure: It is available as a pdf at

The key to all of this is following proper maintenance of fuel and electrical systems, and fueling procedures. I cannot stress maintenance enough. Every spring, check your fuel system. Replace any hoses or fittings that are questionable.

Have the tank and fuel system pressure tested for leaks.

Check the clamps that keep the hoses in place. If they have started to corrode, replace them. Make sure the clamps you replace them with are 316L stainless steel, including the screw that tightens the clamp. Often the band is stainless but the screw is not. Fuel systems are not the place to try to save a few bucks.

Make sure the hoses are USCG Type A hoses. Look for the label on the hose. Automotive fuel hose is not the same thing.  Again, donít try to save a few bucks here. 

Do not use automotive parts, either as hose or electrical parts on the engine. Do not replace starters, alternators and carburetors with automotive parts. They may look the same, but they are not the same. Electrical equipment needs to be marine UL listed, and ignition protected.  If your boat is an outboard, replace the fuel hoses with Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) hoses. They are designed to be UV resistant and must meet marine industry standards.

Every time you use the boat, check the engine compartment first. Take a look at the fuel system and fittings. Sniff for fumes. Adequately ventilate before attempting to start the boat. Run the blower for at least four minutes.  If the engine doesnít start donít keep cranking.  It isnít good for the starter, and it could overheat the wires to the starter.  Wait a minute, and try again. If after a few tries it still wonít start, stop trying and find out why it isnít starting.  Fix the problem before trying again.

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