By Mawgan Grace

Apart from sinking, fire is the main reason crews abandon ship and therefore it’s essential to act quickly. The first purpose of having fire extinguishers onboard is to provide an exit path out of the cabin away from toxic fumes and smoke. Hulls are made out of plastics and timbers held together with resins. They also contain fuel and electrics – a potentially deadly cocktail that causes boats to burn fast and furiously.


  1. Fit smoke detectors with alarms
  2. Keep electrical and mechanical areas clean and away from objects that could interfere with normal systems. This includes cleaning up any spilt oil or fuel immediately. A clean boat is a safe boat.
  3. If you have gas onboard, turn it off at the source when not in use. Make sure the gas storage area is vented and your saloon is fitted with a gas alarm. All crew should be trained to use the gas system. Better still, don’t have gas onboard at all.
  4. Fit an automatic fire extinguisher system in the engine compartment.
  5. Don’t smoke onboard. If you must, make sure it’s on deck away from flammable items.
  6. Check and maintain all fire control equipment regularly.

Fire Triangle

Fire needs air, fuel and heat to survive. Remove one element and you will stop any fire. Extinguishers have been designed with this in mind so it’s important to know what extinguisher you are using and how it works.

Classes of fires

Fire Extinguishers

All new extinguishers are painted red with coloured bands showing the type of extinguishant they contain. They are rated by type and size for the fires they are suitable for. 

Dry Powder (A, B, C)

Blue Colour Band

For use on burning solids, flammable liquids such as fuel and gas fires but not cooking oils. Dry powder is effective in knocking down and suffocating flames but if you are not careful the residual cloud can cause choking and suffocation if used in confined spaces. There is a great demonstration on “Crash Test Boat Fire” by Yachting Monthly on YouTube ( showing that in a confined space, dry powder causes a complete loss of visibility. Therefore, be aware of your exit before setting off the extinguisher. The other disadvantage is that dry powder is corrosive and hugely messy. It will take a lot of cleaning after use.

Water (A)

No Colour Band

On boats, we are surrounded by water so naturally, we don’t use water extinguishers! Having a handy bucket with a lanyard will provide you with unlimited cooling water. However, do not use water on burning liquids such as cooking fat, gas or electrical fires.

Fire Extinguishers Continued

Co2 (B)

Black Colour Band

Not usually seen on vessels due to its limited use on only flammable liquids. It is also easily dispersed outside by the wind and there is a risk of severe cold burns if used on a person due to its rapidly expanding gas.

Foam (A, B)

Cream Colour Band

Foam can be used on solids and liquids but not cooking oil, gas or electrical fires. It can run off solid objects, leaving them with the potential to re-ignite.

Engine Room

Automatic extinguishers for use in engine compartments were traditionally of the Green Halon variety. However, Halon production was stopped in 1994 due to harmful effects on the environment. Today only aircraft, the military, and police can use Halon. There are now environmentally friendly alternatives such as Halocarbon Gas which will also not damage the engine or its surroundings. 

Micro-Powder Fine Powder extinguishers were developed by the Russian space program. The powder is generated by the aerosol, providing a very fine powder that reacts chemically with the fire. It won’t damage the engine or turbocharger and the fine dust can be easily vented after use leaving minimal residue. The extinguishers also said to have a shelf life of over 10 years. 

Dry powder is the common engine room extinguisher using a cable pull or an automatic firing head to activate. After use, the engine will require a deep clean.


Your ideal ‘fire extinguisher’ at home in the kitchen, or in your galley, is simply the humble fire blanket. It can also be used as a fire shield when passing close to a fire.

TIP – Wrap your hands inside both corners to protect them from the fire (as shown below). Don’t locate the blanket right next to your cooker as is often the case. Put it a short distance away so you can access it in the event of a fire.

The Law and Basic Common Sense

In the UK, pleasure vessels over 45ft (13.7m) are required to fit minimum fire-fighting equipment as prescribed by the Merchant Shipping Regulations for Class XII vessels. There are also other requirements if conducting commercial operations such as charters. 

Position fire extinguishers at the exits of cabins so they can be used to assist in an escape. Use smoke and gas alarms in strategic areas and an automatic extinguisher in the engine room.


  1. Most fire extinguishers have a five-year expiry date. Make sure you respect this and replace them when required.
    (See Fig.1)
  2. Make sure the extinguishers are properly stowed so they won’t become a projectile in heavy seas causing injury.
  3. Check the pressure indicator is in the green band. (See Fig.2)

TIP The powder inside the Dry Powder extinguishers will compact with the boat’s vibrations and create a solid mass at the bottom. It’s recommended to either store powder extinguishers on their side or turn them upside-down at least every six months and tap them with a rubber hammer whilst listening to the powder fall inside.


Fire Fighting

  1. First of all shout “FIRE”!! To alert the crew
  2. Keep a clear exit behind you when fighting a fire
  3. Keeping the extinguisher upright, aim at the base of the fire and make a sweeping action whilst keeping a distance of about two metres. 
  4. After putting out a non-electrical fire use water to cool it. 
  5. Avoid opening the engine compartment unless it’s absolutely necessary. Just open a small crack big enough to insert the extinguisher nozzle.

If you cannot extinguish the fire then prepare to abandon ship. Instruct the crew to don their lifejackets, press the DSC button on your radio and transmit a MAYDAY, launch distress signals and the life raft and abandon ship.

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