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Fire Onboard!


Seasoned boaters see their confidence disappear in an instant when a mistake almost causes the loss of their boat, and their lives.

Gaz and Liz Haring smile on a calmer day’s boating trip.

It was a fitting Father’s Day. The Gulf weather was perfect, with scattered thunderheads building inshore, washing the Florida mainland of oppressive summer temperatures. Their only impact on us was a cooling onshore breeze, as my wife and I enjoyed a great run from Tarpon Springs to Longboat Key. Pegasus, our 44-foot power cat, moved at eight knots through the narrow lift bridge that separates Longboat Key from Anna Maria Island. Fishing season had moved offshore to the cooler, deeper water, eliminating the multitude of small boats usually fishing the shallow water between the sand bank and shore paralleling the bridge, allowing us to navigate what can be a challenging maneuver for a boat our size. The sunny, calm conditions had brought out every father who owned a boat, accompanied by loved ones enjoying the clear, warm waters. Liz maneuvered us past the crowd to one of our favorite anchoring spots.

The Harings’ 44-foot power cat Pegasus.

The Reckoning

As afternoon surrendered to evening, we relaxed in the cockpit, as the boats around us thinned to just a few. Tonight, we’d be the only ones left in this beautiful anchorage enjoying the stars overhead. Just then, fishermen coming in from offshore, some in a hurry, plowed through the slow-speed zone, creating oversize wakes. We heard a crash below. The plate holding trout trimmings from the hors d’oeuvres we’d just enjoyed had slipped off the counter, sending its contents flying. I went down to clean up the mess. In an attempt to eliminate the fishy smell, I lit the Lampe Berger, a fragrance lantern. We’ve used these lanterns for years, at home and onboard, without incident. You burn the ceramic wick for a few minutes, then blow it out. It continues to smolder, releasing a fragrance without visible flame.

Fragrance lanterns like the Harings’ Lampe Berger have now been banned from their boat.

Liz and I chatted while waiting for the wick to heat. She was standing by the refrigerator. I was across from her on the opposite side of the galley. When the lantern was to temperature, I bent forward to blow out the wick. Holding the backrest of one of the permanent stools with one hand, I moved the lantern close to my face with my other hand, pulled in a breath, and had just pursed my lips to blow out the flame when another large wake hit. I fell, the stool broke from its mount, and I dropped the Lampe Berger while trying to grab the counter. There was a sharp pop, like a champagne cork leaving a bottle, instantly followed by a blinding, searing white flash.

More felt than heard was the concussion from the explosion of atomized fuel ejected from the lantern that crushed my glasses to my face and blew me backward onto the settee. Head ringing, I jumped to my feet, the cabin spinning, and looked to see where Liz was. It was then that I realized the cabin floor was in flames. I stood dazed, not actually registering the gravity of the situation until a searing pain in my leg jolted me back to reality. My shoe was on fire, flames lapping up my leg. Grabbing a throw pillow off the settee, I snuffed it out and heard Liz scream. Desperately I called out to her, imagining her on fire. A response came from the bottom of the starboard hull stairs where she was peering wide-eyed, pale, but un-charred.

How To Use A Fire Extinguisher

If you’ve never discharged a fire extinguisher, you’ll do fine if you can remember PASS — PULL out the pin, AIM the nozzle at the base of the fire, SQUEEZE the handle, and SWEEP the contents from side to side across the base of the fire until it goes out. But it helps to see how fire extinguishers work in the real world, and to have some idea of how many seconds they last. Check out the BoatUS Foundation fire extinguisher test, and watch videos to see how they perform on different types of fires.

Now Or Never

The air was turning acrid. We had only moments before it would be too late. Even as the cabin rapidly heated to oven temperatures, precious seconds were lost while a dozen scenarios of action flashed through my mind. I fought to make a decision. We had to move. NOW!

Between the flames, I pulled Liz up from below, dragged her across the salon, and pushed her out the companionway. Turning back to the mêlée, I could see the flames had not yet combusted anything of substance. When we’d ordered this boat, we requested only fire-retardant materials be used, but that just meant we had a few extra seconds before something burst into flames. The nearest fire extinguisher was engulfed in flames. In the cockpit, Liz frantically tried to break the zip-tie holding the safety pin of another of our extinguishers. Grabbing it from her, I ripped the pin from the handle and aimed. With a few short directed blasts, the flames vanished. This entire nightmare had taken less than 60 seconds. Recovering from shock, we collapsed on the swim platform and shook uncontrollably. Neither of us had anything to say as the sun sank beneath the waves on the horizon.

Just Dumb Luck

I’d considered myself immune to the idiotic incidents that sometimes befall novice boaters, a confidence founded in thousands of watery miles traveled over 47 years without ever having to call for assistance, or having an accident. We were knowledgeable, prepared, and experienced, ready for anything that came our way … we thought! When the proverbial hit the fan, however, Liz and I realized that a split second can change everything, no matter how well-prepared you think you are. We were just lucky.

Fire retardant from the extinguisher is tracked through the main cabin’s floor.

Amazingly little damage was done to the boat. The rugs took the worst of the fire, sparing the floor. The bulkheads had heavy soot but were unscathed. The biggest mess to clean up was from the fire retardant. Miraculously, neither of us had been injured. Liz was spared from the fireball by the galley counter, but was bruised from her fall down the port-hull stairs. Only inches from the blast, my hearing took the worst of it, but I was only lightly seared. My eyebrows grew back, what little hair I had got trimmed, and my leg had suffered worse sunburns. My glasses were broken but most likely saved my eyes.

I’m sure there would have been a different outcome if the jet of unspent fuel had sprayed either of us directly. At the very least, the time needed to save one of us from flames would have spelled the loss of the boat.

We had practiced fire drills, knew exactly where the fire extinguishers were stored and how to use them. But we were also very fortunate because, really, we were unprepared for the actual event. The Lampe Berger is now history, of course, never to see a boat again. Liz reminds me that I’m no longer above making amateur mistakes. The thing is, none of us are.

Firefighting Facts And Resources

The Right Fire Extinguisher

Fire extinguishers are classified by the type of fire they can put out. Class A extinguishers, for example, are meant to be used on solids, like paper, wood … or fiberglass. The three types are: Class A — solid; Class B — liquids (gasoline, kerosene, etc.); and Class C — electrical. But rather than carrying three different types, just buy an ABC-rated, USCG-approved extinguisher, one that works on all types of fires, so you don’t have to think at all if a fire is ever singeing your eyebrows.

Enough Fire Extinguishers

The Coast Guard requires that almost all recreational vessels carry fire extinguishers; the type and number depend on your vessel size. But too many fire extinguishers is way better than too few, especially if the fire starts between you and the only extinguisher onboard. You should always have a dedicated extinguisher in or just outside of the engine room, and at least one for the main living spaces. If your boat has a galley, you should have a separate one there. The more areas that could be isolated from the rest of the boat by fire, the more extinguishers you need.

Extinguisher Alternative — Fire Blankets

As the author found out, discharging a chemical extinguisher creates an incredible mess, and the powder is very corrosive. For small fires, like those that might occur in a galley, an alternative is a fire blanket made from heavy fire-retardant material. They can be found on the Internet in two sizes: 3′ x 3′ and 6′ x 6′. A small one in the galley and a big one in the main salon provide cheap insurance.

After The Fire — First Aid For Minor Burns

If all of the layers of the skin have been burned, don’t touch it — just call 911. If the burn is red or blistered but there is no real damage to the underlying tissue, you can treat it yourself. Cool it immediately in cool, not cold, water. Don’t use ice. Once cool, clean with mild soap and water. There is disagreement on whether or not to break blisters, but whether you do or not, you should not apply antibiotic ointment, lotion, oil, butter, or egg white (sorry, Grandma). Apply a thin layer of aloe vera if you have it and leave the burn open or wrap it in a dressing that will not shed fibers, leaving the dressing loose so that air can still reach the wound.

— Beth A. Leonard

Gaz Haring

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine