By Vincent Pica, Commodore, First District, Southern Region (D1SR), United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

fire aboardIt 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.

Safety at Sea seminars, such as those offered by the Storm Trysail Foundation, the Cruising Club of America and Landfall, provide hands-on opportunities to use fire extinguishers in a non-emergency situation.   ©

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’s 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 BoatUS, surprisingly the engine is not the most likely source of boat fires – 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 backs up into the 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 extinguishers 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 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

They also come in sizes (pounds of suppressant). For the private boater, size 1 (I) or 2 (II) are the most common and manageable. The question is really, “How many do I need for my size boat?” And the answers are:

  • All powerboats, except outboards, less than 26 feet and of open construction must carry one B-I, U. S. Coast Guard approved fire extinguisher.
  • All powerboats 26 feet to less than 40 feet must carry two B-I or one B-II U. S. Coast Guard approved fire extinguishers.
  • 40 feet to less than 65 feet must carry three B-I or one B-II and 1 B-I U. S. Coast Guard approved fire extinguishers.
  • Larger vessels must adhere to Federal regulations about automatic fire-suppression systems in enclosed spaces.

Well, what are the suppressants and what is best for my boat might be the next set of logical questions. As would seem obvious to even the casual reader, carbon dioxide (CO2) is one suppressant. It smothers the fire by withholding oxygen from the “fuel-oxygen-heat” equation. CO2 has one not-so-obvious drawback. If you use it on a type-B fire, the high pressure of the CO2 coming out of the canister may very well spread the fire. So, hold CO2 aside.

Another suppressant type is “dry chemical.” It can handle “A”, “B” and type-“C” fires but it also has a problem. The chemical suppressant tends to be corrosive in a marine environment. Yikes… So hold that dry chemical aside, too.  What tends to be best, at least for “A” and “B” fires, is foam. It smothers the fire like a blanket. The foam is water-based, so the use of it on an electrical fire (“C”) can be problematic as it may give a medium for the electricity to reach the salver – you! Of course, in a private boat such as found in our area, a foam extinguisher will work just fine for your chart plotter that shorted out. I just wouldn’t use it in an environment where a generator is putting out high voltage power to a large vessel with a myriad of electronic needs such as A/C, TV, radar, microwave oven, refrigerator, etc. That much juice is clearly something you don’t want to be in the middle of!

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.

Boat’s Afire – Now What?!!

Act quickly. If you have help aboard, use it. Have someone turn the boat so the fire is downwind 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 lifejackets!” If you do have to abandon ship, you are prepared. Aim the 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. 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 have to abandon ship.

If you are interested in being part of the USCG Forces, email me at or go direct to the D1SR Human Resources department, who are in charge of new members matters, at and we will help you “get in this thing.”

Captain Andrew Tucci is the Captain of the Port and Sector Commander for US Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound. Captain Tucci is responsible for all active-duty, reservist and auxiliary Coast Guard personnel within the Sector. As Commodore of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary First District, Southern Region, Vin Pica works closely with Captain Tucci and his staff to promote boating safety in the waters between Connecticut, Long Island and 200 nautical miles offshore. Sector Long Island Sound Command Center can be reached 24 hours a day at 203-468-4401.

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