Lessons Learned - January 2020

Marine Smoke Detectors

Almost anywhere you sleep, you can expect the space will be protected by a smoke alarm. Government regulations, insurance company requirements and industry codes all require smoke alarms to be installed in sleeping spaces, except on your recreational boat.

Fire Aboard

In nearly 20 years and hundreds of offshore boat deliveries, I have only had one occurrence of fire aboard, and it ended well.

Our DeFever is a long-range cruiser with a 1500-mile range, so our plan was to make the 1000 mile run from San Francisco, CA to Point Roberts, WA non-stop in six days. The seven-day weather forecast north of Cape Mendocino was looking great, but the forecast south of the Cape did not look good just two days from now. We needed to get underway while the weather south of the Cape was still acceptable.

At 1540 Tuesday afternoon, we are underway and heading north. The weather outlook for the zone from Point Arena to Cape Mendocino is looking worse with every weather update, and will probably be a bumpy ride by the time we get there. Worst case, we make for Fort Bragg and wait for better conditions. At 0600 Wednesday we are passing Point Arena with an 8-foot NW sea at 10 seconds, N winds around 20 kts, and 3-foot wind waves. We have been underway for 16 hours and the boat is running great. We are being bumped around a bit, but the Naiad stabilizers are up to the task. At 0200 Thursday, we have made it around Cape Mendocino, and the seas are not settling down. The expected rough weather has arrived ahead of schedule, and looks like it will be with us for at least the next 24 hours. Friday we just keep heading north albeit at a reduced pace and continued to enjoy our three gourmet meals every day. Having a chef on board that can prepare meals in a pitching, rolling boat is a rare treat, and I am enjoying it to the max.

Saturday morning at 0509, I had the 0200-0500 shift and am still on the bridge with my co-captain handing off the boat while our owner/chef is in the galley cooking breakfast. We look at each other in wonder as a rather unpleasant odor fills the pilothouse, and we ponder what Paul is burning for breakfast. Just then, Paul appears in the companionway and announces that we have a fire onboard, and smoke has filled the galley and saloon. On this particular DeFever design, access to the engine room is via a hatch in the galley sole. A quick look at the hatch and smoke is pouring from the gaps and filling the spaces. I feel the hatch, it is not warm. Engines are running, good. Gauges show normal operating temps. Steering and autopilot are operating as expected. Stabilizers are working hard, but working. From here nothing seems out of order. Our course of action: Call Coast Guard Station Tillamook (12 miles away), and alert them that we have a potential problem, slow the engines, change course for Tillamook, muster everyone in the pilothouse and open doors to get clean air to breathe, gather all hand-held fire extinguishers and prepare our abandon ship gear on the Portuguese bridge.

In a short VHF radio discussion with Station Tillamook, it was decided that we would rather not be alone in the middle of nowhere, with smoke coming from the engine room, and that they would launch a helo from Air Station Astoria and a 47-foot motor lifeboat from Station Tillamook.

We resisted the temptation to open the hatch to the engine room, busied ourselves with exhausting smoke, and quickly had most of the acrid smelling odor evacuated from the cabin.

At our slow engine RPM, it appeared there was significantly less being generated. The cabin sole was still cool to the touch, the fixed fire extinguishing system has not discharged, and we still have propulsion, steering and stabilizers operating flawlessly. Within 10 minutes of our VHF radio call, we have a bright orange and white Sikorsky MH60T Jayhawk helicopter hovering overhead, ready to drop a rescue swimmer if needed, or just to keep us company until the motor lifeboat arrives.

The company is very much appreciated and now that we have an escort it is time to access the engine room and see what is causing all this fuss.

At 0802 we arrived in Tillamook Bay under escort, but still operating on our own power. An investigations team is waiting for us at the dock and ready to assist us with determining the cause of the fire. Down in the engine room at first glance, the engines are still as pristine as the day we left San Francisco, no charred remains, no fluids where they do not belong, nothing obvious out of order. Then one of the investigators looks closely at the starboard Vetus flexible shaft coupling, it is charred and has the look of being overheated. Closer inspection reveals that there are only three of the six bolts still in place, and the remaining three are all finger loose. It seems the shaft coupling bolts have worked loose, allowing excessive flex during our 85 hours of continuous running in moderate seas causing the rubber parts to heat to the point of smoldering. Whew, glad that is all it was.

Fire Detection

Our recreational boats present several potential fire dangers, and certainly more than we find in a typical home. The materials that our boats are made from are very combustible, and that will probably not change anytime soon. Onboard most of our boats we carry a substantial amount of fuel, either gasoline or diesel, and sometimes propane, all of which are flammable. We have both AC and DC electrical systems that in a marine environment are subject to high vibration, hot and cold temperature extremes, moisture and corrosion. According to insurance claims, 55% of all fires aboard are caused by an electrical problem, yet there is no requirement for any regular inspections of the vessel′s electrical system. The other major causes of fire are mostly human error, smoking, unattended cooking and improper use of heaters or other appliances.

Unlike CO detectors, smoke alarms are not required on boats. But you should have one, especially if you regularly sleep aboard or have an enclosed cabin or engine space.

On November 16, 2019, two super yachts worth a combined total of $20 million lit up the sky over Fort Lauderdale early Saturday morning. The two pricey vessels burst into flames, according to Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue. Fire officials said one of the super yachts was a 161-foot Trinity yacht called Low & Grin, valued at $12 million. The other was a 107-foot Christensen yacht called Reflections, worth $8 million. The vessels were docked next to one another at Universal Marine. “Over the next five hours more than 60 firefighters and three fire boats would battle this blaze, preventing it from spreading to other yachts in the marina,” fire officials reported. “Thankfully no one was injured during this intense fire.” Fire officials said the cause of the blaze was under investigation, but the fire was believed to have started on the 160-foot yacht and then spread.

Marine Approved Smoke Detectors

Unfortunately, no marine-approved smoke alarms are currently available. It is a chicken-or-egg scenario: manufacturers do not make them because the industry does not require them, but they cannot be required unless someone manufacturers them. It is too expensive for a manufacturer to build a marine specific smoke detector unless they are required, as the device must pass numerous UL tests that are specific to the marine environment. The marine industry hopes that by modeling smoke alarms used in the RV industry, which already meet some of the marine environment requirements, they can be made to sell at a reasonable price for boats. Due to this work, boaters will likely soon see another life-saving device designed specifically for boats.

In the late 1970′s, the recreational vehicle industry recognized the need to protect its customers from the dangers of fire. The RV industry worked with Underwriters Laboratories, and developed a UL test for recreational vehicles. This test was more stringent than the normal household tests, and included exposure to both higher and lower temperatures and humidity, as well as shock and vibration. Surprisingly, the RV tests also included a 48-hour salt spray test, similar to what is required for marine devices. Since 1982, the recreational vehicle industry has had a requirement in place for smoke alarms tested to the Underwriters Laboratories UL-217 Smoke Alarm Standard RV testing criteria.

Despite a mid-1990′s study conducted by the United States Coast Guard, Underwriter Labs, and the American Boat Yacht Council, as of this writing, we still do not have tested and approved marine smoke alarms. The USCG and the National Fire Protection Association Watercraft Committee, have designated the UL Recreational Vehicle testing criteria for their smoke alarm requirements.

The Coast Guard has for years mandated smoke alarms in small inspected vessels with sleeping quarters. According to 46 CFR Part 181.4 and 181.45, small passenger vessels must be fitted with an independent modular smoke detecting and alarm unit that must meet UL-217 and be listed as a single station smoke detector, suitable for use in recreational vehicles.

The National Fire Protection Association in NFPA 302 Fire Protection Standard for Pleasure and Motor Craft requires the same UL-217 recreational vehicle smoke alarm device in vessels over 26-feet. The Coast Guard has also recently expanded their requirements for early warning fire detection aboard uninspected commercial fishing vessels, 46 CFR Part 28.325, and commercial towing vessels, 46 CFR Part 27.203. The Coast Guard does not have a smoke alarm requirement for uninspected, noncommercial vessels (pleasure boats), and it is unlikely they ever will, as they have not invested resources in their regulatory role within the pleasure boating industry for many years.

How Smoke Alarms Work

Smoke alarms use one of two types of sensors, ionization or photoelectric. Photoelectric relies on the reflection of a light source as smoke enters its beam. With ionization, a small amount of radioactive material ionizes the air between two electrically charged plates, a process that smoke disrupts. Ionization detectors are better at detecting and alerting to fast developing fires, while photoelectric are best for smoke producing smoldering fires. For marine use, a combination or photoelectric type smoke detector is best. Detectors can be hard wired into the vessel′s 12V electrical system, or have a self-contained battery. Battery powered units have the advantage that they will operate even if the ships battery system is dead, and newer detectors have batteries that last 10 years, which is also the service life of the detector. A good example of a UL-217 approved 10-year battery life, and dual photoelectric and ionization sensors would be the First Alert SA3210.

What to Do If the Smoke Alarm Sounds

Most of us have heard a smoke alarm sound, and we are pretty good at looking around for smoke when it does. Just because you do not see smoke immediately, do not assume it is a nuisance or false alarm. A high-quality smoke detector should alarm before you can see smoke. One of the more likely spaces that a shipboard fire will start is in the galley. If you do not see anything obvious, the next most likely space to check is the engine room. Beware however that opening an access hatch to the engine room may provide enough oxygen to a smoldering fire for it to suddenly erupt. Check hatches and bulkheads to see if they are warm, and if still cool to the touch carefully crack open a hatch just enough to see if this is the source of the smoke.

Lessons Learned

If you were to take a group of experienced yacht captains and ask them what worries them the most when they go to sea, weather might make the list, electronic or mechanical failures could be a concern, piracy might be another, but overwhelmingly, captains are most concerned about a fire onboard. Major fires aboard yachts seldom end well, even if the fire occurs in or near a port.

Because of their complex nature created by variables such as thousands of gallons of fuel, structural plastics that become extraordinarily toxic when on fire and complicated layouts that include multiple confined spaces, boat fires are classed as among the most dangerous types of fires to fight. For this reason, many fire departments will not board a vessel to fight a fire, unless there is an imminent danger to life. Even the United States Coast Guard has a strict policy against crew boarding another vessel in order to fight a fire that does not present an immediate risk to life. The most realistic expectation in the event of a fire is that responders will address any life safety risk, then attempt to contain the fire to the afflicted vessel and assist in protecting the environment. Heroic efforts to protect property losses are not typical.

There are no UL marine approved smoke alarms currently available, so choose one designed for the RV industry. They′ve been designed to the more stringent UL 217 standards, and are more rugged than those designed for home use.

In 2016, UL announced an industry file review for all smoke alarms and smoke detectors to address more than 350 technical changes manufacturers must make to their products to maintain their UL listing. In early 2018, the new and revised requirements in UL 217 and UL 268 were announced and represent the most significant changes to these standards since their initial publication in 1976. New fire and smoke tests were added to both standards, including a flaming polyurethane foam test and smoldering polyurethane test. Products that are being developed to meet the new requirements need to meet two important criteria, increased sensitivity to meet the two new polyurethane foam tests and the ability to distinguish between smoke from fire sources and smoke from cooking sources.

By May 2020, UL will no longer issue a UL listing for current smoke detectors, which do not meet the new UL-217/UL-268 standards. Another good example for smoke alarms is the Kidde 2070 battery-powered detector, which meets the new UL-217 standards and is available now.

The first three minutes are the most important in stopping a fire from spreading. If it is a guest who first finds a fire, they should know where to find a fire extinguisher and how to use it. When seconds count, time spent looking for help or trying to figure out an unfamiliar extinguisher may mean the difference between a diversion and a disaster. The most fundamental part of a fire safety plan is making the effort to prevent a fire from happening in the first place.

Winter boating can be so much fun, but it is also a time when we find creative ways to keep warm. Be careful with portable electric heat sources, and make certain they are safe for use aboard the boat. If you have a propane heater, check the CO detector for proper operation, and do not use the heater in any enclosed space.

I love a good story, especially a happy Christmas story. Hope everyone has a pleasant Christmas season, and please keep the letters coming. Send me an email at patcarson@yachtsmanmagazine.com H

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