Last week I was sailing a very well equipped 50 ft yacht. Whilst on a mooring in Fowey we decided to check why the generator had overheated. The water filter had some weed in it and we decided that the impeller may have been damaged and would require changing.
About 2 minutes after the cover of the generator (a Fisher Panda) was removed, smoke and flames suddenly erupted out of the back of the generator (Just to make things interesting the owner was on a conference call on the satellite phone!).
The batteries were immediately isolated and 3 powder extinguishers used on the fire which was rapidly extinguished.
However, despite this being something that I have trained for, and thought about extensively I learned several new things (I have been on boats on 3 other occasions when we have experienced fires-delivering yachts is sometimes very interesting!)
Within 30 seconds it was extremely difficult to breath below. I decided afterwards that this was partially due to the fumes from the burning insulation. Mainly the problem was powder from the extinguishers we used that was suspended in the air by the heat of the fire. Perhaps a dust mask or even a cloth held over the mouth may have helped?
The fumes made it very difficult to send a radio message to the harbour master to call for someone to remove the crew from the boat. We had a hand held radio, so we could call from on deck, I would not have wanted to rely on using the main radios or the satellite phone. We did have a DSC radio so a distress alert could have been sent in 5 seconds if all else failed (it would have been nice to be able to do this from on deck also).
Those crew who were on deck took some time to realise the seriousness of the situation as the 2 people who were below were involved in putting the fire out and summoning assistance(because we reacted so fast the fire did not spread to the fuel system). I have always taught that what happens in the first 30 seconds of disaster situations often decides the outcome, I am even more convinced now.
The crew had been issued with lifejackets at the start of the cruise (they were stowed in each individual's area, as I would normally do, however when I needed to find them quickly I did not know where they had put them!), but I was unwilling to let them collect them from their individual stowage points because of the risk of them being trapped below. As a result I grabbed the extra ones from the main stowage point.
The life jackets were difficult to remove from their locker when under pressure because the bolt cutters were stowed in the same place and they had fouled the lifejacket leg loops. A stowage area dedicated to lifejackets only would have been useful.
By the time help had arrived the problem was solved. I am still convinced that calling for help immediately was the correct thing to do.
The automatic gas extinguisher in the engine space did not activate as it was over the engine not over the generator. I think if it was my boat I would fit a second one above the generator.
The fire only started when the generator cover was removed allowing oxygen in to the overheating wires. I believe the fault was cause by recent modifications to the electrical system-where possible check what has been done to your boat!
The mess created by powder extinguishers is incredible (not to mention the breathing difficulties), I am investigating the feasibility of having extra gas or foam extinguishers specifically for this use.
The main lesson that was reinforced was the importance of having a well designed fire plan, and practising it so that everyone knows what to do. On this occasions we were lucky, but a slight delay in reacting could have resulted in the loss of a very expensive yacht.
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