What was supposed to be a relaxing weekend sailing and fishing took a turn for the worse when the owner – Peter – accidentally connected two exposed wires while cleaning below deck.

A spark jumped from the connected wires and landed in the engine bay, engulfing the area, and Peter, in flames. Despite suffering extensive burns to his lower body, he managed to reach a fire extinguisher and get the blaze under control. He then crawled into the shower, turned on the water and waited for Coastguard to arrive.

When the Coastguard volunteers reached his yacht, they found him in severe pain. The fire had caused significant burns and, by sitting under the cold water, he had started to slip into hypothermia. He was transferred to hospital and was very lucky to survive the ordeal.


As this illustrates, an onboard fire can be extremely dangerous. It’s one of the biggest hazards for boaties and, if one takes hold, the chances of getting it under control are slim. So it’s essential to maintain good fire safety practices at all times.

To minimise the fire risk, keep your vessel in ‘shipshape’ condition (no fuel/oil in the bilge), have gas/fuel lines inspected and fit smoke and gas alarms. Make sure they’re working. Ensure all heating, refrigeration and cooking appliances are properly secured and an emergency evacuation plan is in place. It is imperative the skipper and everyone on board knows how to escape in the event of a fire.

All boat owners need regularly-serviced fire extinguishers which are suitable for your type of boating and appropriate to the risks. Even small day boats should carry a fire extinguisher in case the trolling motor catches fire. A fire blanket should be mounted near the galley and crew should know how to use it.


The common types of boat fire extinguishers approved for recreational vessels include foam, dry powder, and carbon dioxide. The equipment on your boat and her construction are factors in determining which extinguishers would be the most effective. Don’t forget that a simple sturdy bucket with a robust handle may also be a useful to fight a fire.

When selecting a fire extinguisher, seek the advice of a trained professional to help you choose the best options for your boat. Using the wrong extinguishing method can make the situation worse. Know how to use the fire extinguisher and make sure it is serviced regularly.

Remember to refuel your boat at an appropriate fuelling station, rather than from portable containers which can spill, put fuel in the bilge, and slosh fuel over a hot engine. Take particular care with BBQs – make sure that flammable items are well away from the BBQ and that ‘fat flare ups’ don’t catch you by surprise.

In the event of a fire, having two forms of communication (VHF, mobile phone, EPIRB) could help avert a disaster. Obviously, there should be enough lifejackets for everyone on the boat. Make sure they are in good condition, easy to access and readily available for use in an emergency.

LEARN MORE As a skipper, you are responsible for the safety of everyone on board and for the safe operation of the vessel. A Coastguard Boating Education Day Skipper course is an introduction to boating safety and knowledge.

Visit: www.boatingeducation.org.nz for more information.