By: Captain Bill Jennings
Boaters don't expect a fire aboard their boat. A hot time maybe, but not a fire. This was my excuse for not recognizing that my boat was on fire.
As the story goes, I was boating with my wife and another couple to a lunch destination while blissfully absorbing the warm sun and easy breeze. We were one of several performance boats all running together. Ours was a 34' twin engine 'go fast' with headers and through transom exhausts.
"Hey, I smell smoke" said my wife, dashing my euphoric mood in one sentence. I know that my sense of smell works inversely proportionate to the size of my nose so I took her comment seriously, but after a quick look around, I saw and felt nothing unusual. Performing a careful scan of all the gauges noted that every gauge was "in the green." I reasoned that if there really was a fire in the engine compartment, the Halon bottle should snuff it out. So, I slowed slightly but continued in an effort to stay with the group.
Then someone yelled, "Hey, I see smoke!" I spun around to see small whiffs of black smoke swirling out the back of the engine compartment. Time to stop.
I hesitated to open the engine hatch because introducing oxygen could cause a flare up if indeed there was a fire. Opening the hatch would also impede the ability of the Halon to extinguish the fire. We waited for about 30 seconds, but the smoke did not let up. Grabbing a fire extinguisher I decided to cautiously peek into the engine compartment. There were small flames behind the port engine, very close to a fuel tank.
I remembered the acronym PASS, as the procedure to use for extinguishing fires. Pull the extinguisher pin. Aim the extinguisher at the fire. Squeeze the trigger and Sweep the contents at the base of the flames. To my surprise and delight, the fire was instantly extinguished. The problem was resolved without any emergency calls.
Our travel time to this point was around 35 minutes. Limping back to our marina on one engine took us over 4 hours. The cause of the unwanted interruption was a blockage in the water line that cooled one of the exhaust headers. The extreme temperature on the neoprene connection between the header and the metal thru-hull caused it to ignite. At least it was an easy fix but more importantly, the resulting fire was contained.
Reflecting on the details, a similar problem could happen on any boat. In this case, the 'hands on' fire extinguishing course that I had taken helped save the day for four people and a boat. This is also my requisite time to remind you to carry proper PFD's and have a pre-trip plan for every outing. Just in case.
They say that such experiences make you a better boater. This may be true -- or maybe we were just lucky.