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Boat Safety For Fire and Fumes

One of the most dreaded nightmares a boater who sails offshore is probably fire. Not only is a boat fire destructive, but it is also fatal. These fires are hazardous since fiberglass burns forcefully and release toxic fumes like carbon monoxide.

There are mainly three elements a fire needs to ignite: heat, fuel, and an oxidizing agent such as oxygen. Unlike in the case of a burning vehicle, there are no breakdown lanes offshore where you can park and run from a burning boat.

Keeping this in mind, it is necessary to educate yourself on how to protect your boat from catching fire. Here are some of the most common causes of boat fires.

Engine Electrical

If you have a boat that is at least 25 years old and your wiring harnesses and starters are still original, consider replacing them. According to a study, 20 percent of boat fires are associated with faulty electrical engine wiring. Most of these fires result from do-it-yourself installations. Instead of using electrical tape, use waterproof butt connectors or waterproof heat-shrink tubing.

It is a good practice to regularly check the electrical system. Look for corroded, cracked, brittle, or discolored wiring and make sure to replace them before going offshore. Replacing your electrical wiring may be time-consuming, but it is also cheap insurance.

DC Electrical

Loose battery connections, corroded battery cables, and aged battery switches are some of the most common causes of fire aboard. However, the leading cause of battery-related fires is operator error such as connecting them in series when they should have been in parallel or vice versa. Altering the battery cables is also one major battery-related cause of boat fires. Whenever disconnecting your battery cables, take a photo of the configuration first, label the battery cables, and mark the positive cable red to avoid electrical shock when you reconnect them.

Fuel System

Failure to properly maintain your boat can lead to both fuel and electrical fires. Make sure to inspect your fuel system regularly, particularly the fuel lines. If you discover any cracks, discoloration, softness or anything abnormal in the lines, be sure to replace them. When fueling your boat, follow the Coast Guard-recommended fueling procedures.

To keep the hoses secure and leak-free, get some stainless-steel hose clamps but be sure that they aren't too tight that they cut into the hose. If your boat has a metal fuel tank, inspect it every season for signs of corrosion and ensure it is secured in place. If you have a plastic tank, look for swelling, bulging, or any area of discoloration.


The United States Coast Guard states that at least five boaters die each year as a result of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. Also, thousands needed medical attention due to exposure to this lethal gas. Carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless, and tasteless gas that easily mixes with air. This is released whenever you start your engine or generator and can affect those who are in and out of the boat.

Carbon monoxide links itself to hemoglobin-red blood cells, preventing your body from absorbing oxygen. Take note that breathing is practically unaffected while you're already being poisoned, so no one would know unless the effects kick in.

Some effects may be experienced immediately after a single exposure or repeated exposures to carbon monoxide. These may include irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat, fatigue, headaches, dizziness, coughing, and upper respiratory congestion.

On the other hand, continual exposures to this deadly gas can lead to reduced lung function and breathing problems as well as lung cancer or cardiovascular diseases. Those with pre-existing cardiovascular or lung diseases are particularly susceptible to the effects of pollution and may find their conditions become worse due to exposure.

Here are a few tips to follow:

If you are going to swim near your anchored boat, be sure to turn your air conditioner off as you won't be needing it anyway
Maintain a flatter running angle. This makes your engine more fuel-efficient and safer
Be aware that a cold engine releases more carbon monoxide
Check exhaust hoses and pay attention to clamps and chafe where the hose runs through bulkheads. If you notice any cracks, be sure to treat them with foam or sealant
Inefficient combustion increases the production of carbon monoxide so avoid running a poorly tuned engine


These simple tips not only can help keep your boat from catching fire but more importantly, save the lives of those onboard, yourself included.