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Fire Precautions

Fires On Board a vessel is dangerous at best.

Catastrophic and life threatening an easy leap.

Over my years at sea I have had several experiences none of them pleasant. However to this day I have never lost a boat nor injured crew.

This tale of the singed captain Robin is transcribed from the current master of Centaur Thomas P. The date of the log entry is October 14, 1988, the location the Varrazano Narrows, almost under the Varrazano Narrows Bridge.

Centaur, is a John Hanna designed motorsailor built in 1929 that I had recently purchased south and brought back to New York City to refit and live on as I replenished the finances.

Thomas at the time of this writing has been living aboard Centaur for 6 weeks and we are returning from a after a training run to Sandy Hook.

From Thomas P's Logs.

I was on the fly bridge, playing helmsman when Robin came up from one of her many engine rooms checks. (A habit that saved many a nasty surprise during the early days of her refit) In a relatively calm but concerned voice she said, "we have a fire in the engine room" and we have lost all oil pressure, try to maintain a steady course. Then disappeared below. Once again the adrenalin began to flow. It seemed like hours that I was on the bridge not knowing what was going on but we were in an active channel so I did my best to keep us on course. All the time worrying about Robins safety. The next thing I knew was that the engine began to race wildly and then quit.

A blackened Robin appeared and informed me that the fire was out and her concern was for the loss of oil pressure which had caused her to add considerable oil, the oil leak began belching clouds of oil fueling the runaway engine racing out of control. When she used the emergency shut down to still its racing before it blew up.

We were dead in the water. Robin was quickly on the radio to the Coast Guard as we were drifting just off mid channel. We drifted a bit further before Robin could get the anchor to set and we waited.

Ultimately we were ignomiouly towed back to Liberty Harbor after a second attempt after dispatching too small a craft to deal with Centaurs 65 tons.

I kept the helm while we were under tow until it came time to dock, there Captain Robin took over and saw us safely berthed. The event report was very cordial as everything was in order and as Robin was showing the latest Rock video I finished playing with the lines and anchor rode.

End excerpt from Thomas P log

The subscript of this excerpt is that this event shook me, control is something one must learn when voyaging as shorthanded or single handed all you have between you and disaster is preparation and practice.

The fire had started when the engine driven 5KW generator #1 wire feeds to the panel shorted under the forward engine mounts causing an electrical fire that then set the facing of the engine room ceiling insulation alight. The fuel leak was caused by a neoprene line connecting the fuel filters. When I entered the engine room the entire ceiling was ablaze and smoke so thick that I could barely see 3 feet let alone breath.

Had my preperations been any less complete, the outcome could have been extremely different. I credit my success of handling the event to several factors.

  1. There were 2 5 lb CO2 extinguesher's beside the engine room door and two more halon 5 lb extinguishers available beside the generators area directly inside the engine room to starboard in easily accessible but secure storage.
  2. I always left my spare air (a divers small emergency air reserve bottle) in the lockers beside the engine room companionway. This enabled me to breath in the intense conditions.
  3. I donned a wool borax soaked balaclava and wool sweater ( kept for fire emergencies) before attempting top fight the fire.
  4. I knew where, and how to use the emergency shut down on the 8-71 engine.
  5. I had practiced emergency procedures so there was no fumbling nor any non working equipment.

Never get me wrong, I do not need those sort of thrills. It was a very dangerous situation in a busy shipping lane. We were to some extent lucky that thomas kept his head and trusted me to do my job, while he did his.

You may never have the luck or misfortune to captain a 65 ton classic vessel like Centaur. I hope that none of you ever experience an engine room fire. On our new vessel which is far smaller there are automatic extinguishers which well exceed the engine room volume. The moral is simple things go wrong on boats which are living things which work far more than you might imagine. being prepared and practiced for all emergencies is your best defense in avoiding a unhappy outcome.

The following are standard fire facts. I would recommend that you try to take the opportunity if you can to try extinguishing fires and practicing the use of fire extinguishers with some expert advice for your own safety.

There is nothing like a hot blase and leaping flames to make the adrenalin run. Best one should experience it under controlled conditions first.

If you cannot control or extinguish the fire one is going to end up swimming. Then the question is to where?

It may not be practical for the recreational boater who reads this to carry extensive survival gear or liferafts. How far can you swim? A mile - perhaps.

So caution and prevention are the best course of action.

A fire requires three things to exist. Those are fuel, oxygen and heat.

You require all three to start a fire, and the absence of any single one can extinguish a fire.

The above story illustrated the additional dangers of a fire by feeding a diesel additional fuel therefore creating another entire set of complications

Worse yet is the danger of explosion or flash fires. Both gasoline and propane, can be very dangerous. There are now strict rules regarding propane insulations and fueling.

The fumes of gasoline and propane are heavier than air and sink to the lowest areas of a vessel such as the cabin sole, bilge and other lowest areas of the boat. Boats have lots of oxygen all that is required for a fire to start is heat. This could come from a spark from an ignition component.

Statistics prove most explosions and fires occur during or right after fueling.

When fueling you should:

  1. Disembark passengers
  2. Extinguish pilot lights and flames
  3. Ground your fuel fillers
  4. Open windows
  5. Operate your blowers
  • Be Prepared
  • Practice using your equipment
  • If you can not practice read and understand the instructions on your fire extinguisher(s)
  • Above all act ... Do not hesitate.
  • To use a fire extinguisher activate it as per instructions.
  • direct the discharge it at the base of the flames in controlled short bursts sweeping it from side to side.

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