Jim Dobie is chief instructor and training manager for Vortec Marine Training. An RYA examiner, instructor and Oceanmaster he has spent his life on the ocean and is an accomplished ocean/offshore racing skipper and yacht training specialist. He also spends his time writing, speaking and advising on yacht safety.
Fire at sea is one of the most terrifying things that can happen. Smoke, heat and alarms can quickly lead to disorientation, panic and in the worst case tragedy. Knowing how to quickly and rapidly get the situation under control is vital and that means not only having the right equipment on board but all the crew knowing what every bit of equipment does and when to use it.
Invariably this comes down to having the correct training and running a thorough safety briefing. Bear in mind that on shore we are taught and drilled that on hearing a fire alarm we should evacuate the building, head for the muster stations and wait for the fire service to arrive.
RAISE THE ALARM
On a yacht we have no such luxury and have to take fast and decisive action. Immediately raise the alarm “FIRE, FIRE, FIRE” and follow up by fighting the fire. I have experienced two fires on board: one was an electrical fire (short circuit) and the other was a suspected engine fire. On both occasions I was skipper and both times the crew’s reaction was to freeze and be unsure of what to do, even after a comprehensive safety brief.
On finding or suspecting a fire your actions need to be definite and fast. Remember the fire triangle and remove fuel, oxygen and heat. If it is an electrical fire you need to shut off the electrical supply, which is achieved by using the battery isolator switch that every yacht should have fitted. Once isolated you can then fight the fire with extinguishers be it powder/CO2 or water.
WHAT TO DO
If you have a suspected engine or generator fire, shut down the machinery, shut the fuel supply off by activating the shut off valves, close any vents and then tackle the fire. One of the best ways is to have an automatic fire suppressant system fitted in the engine compartment that is heat activated. However never ever open the compartment as you will immediately introduce oxygen which will feed the fire. Instead set off an extinguisher through an extinguisher access port.
With a galley fire again immediately turn off the gas supply; the easiest and safest way to do this is to shut the gas bottle off on deck. If it is a cooking or pan fire then use a fire blanket remembering to wrap it round your hands and hold it in front of you smothering the fire. Never use water on a pan fire.
Knowing the theory is a good foundation but until you have actually put the theory into practise and used an extinguisher or a fire blanket, listened to the alarms and experienced a smoke filled space you will not know how to really react which is why you and your crew should get training. This does not have to be an expensive course and for as little as £75 you can have a go in Vortec Marine Training’s fire simulator where you actually experience a smoke filled environment, real fires and the sounds of alarms. Priceless.