M/Y Hot Spot was back at her home berth after an owner trip and most of the crew were off the boat enjoying their newfound freedom. The captain left the mate in charge and went to spend the night with his family, while the second stew drew the short straw and stayed behind to assist the mate on watch.
Late in the evening, she was in the middle of a really good movie on the skylounge’s big screen when the mate popped in to say he was going to nip down the dock for a few minutes to see a friend. Fully engrossed in the plot, she mumbled acknowledgement. When the film later ended, her hazy brain finally registered an odd smell that had been lingering. But having just joined the boat before the owner’s trip, she wasn’t really familiar with what was normal and not.
Well, no alarms had gone off, she thought, but it wouldn’t hurt to do a walk-around, and where was the mate anyway? She first checked the alarm panel on the bridge — all okay there. Working her way down though, she could feel something was off; the smell got much stronger on the main deck and when she entered the galley, she could see smoke coming up the stairway from the crew quarters. Clearly, the detection system had failed. As she hadn’t yet participated in any fire drills, she didn’t have a clue where the closest extinguisher was, so she ran off the boat in search of the mate. By the time she located him and they returned, the fire had reached the galley and was out of control. There was nothing to do at that point but call for assistance and watch haplessly as the yacht was engulfed in flames.
“Most insurance policies include a broad statement that it’s the responsibility of the owner for the upkeep of fire equipment, but nobody really reads their policy. It doesn’t resonate with them that they need to get them inspected.”
Unfortunately, fires happen on yachts. There’s a good reason for the licensing training requirements and the onboard suppression equipment mandated by flag states and classification societies. But fire doesn’t necessarily have to spell disaster, says Chauncey Naylor, director of Resolve Maritime Academy, a firefighting training facility in Fort Lauderdale. Very few fires start that are so big a fire extinguisher system and proper procedures can’t handle it, he explains.
“Crew have a good chance of catching that fire in its incipient or very beginning stages because they live on board,” says Naylor, adding that they are so familiar they can navigate a smoke-filled corridor blindfolded. “And when they have the right stuff in the right places, like early-warning detection and first-response incipient firefighting equipment, such as portable extinguishers and small hoses, they have a really fair shot at containing and extinguishing that fire before it becomes a vessel killer.
“It’s the [fires] you hear about where the detection system wasn’t present or wasn’t functioning, or the crew was lax in training…” Indeed, within the last year, the destruction of at least nine yachts made headlines from Palm Beach to Phuket. (Recent incidents in South Florida led the International Superyacht Society to address the topic, partnering with Between Two Yeti’s to produce a program viewable through superyachtsociety.org.)
While our worst-case scenario’s malfunctioning detection system is fictional, there are plenty of private, un-classed yachts that don’t make yearly inspections a priority. As opposed to commercial yachts, “They have no real governing body checking that the equipment has been inspected within twelve months,” says Glyn Day, director of marine services at Fort Lauderdale-based Fire Ranger, which provides, inspects, and services yacht firefighting equipment. “The only time it comes up is if they have a survey for a change in insurance carrier or something of that nature. That’s when we turn up and find it’s not been done.” Based on the database of yachts he has serviced, he estimates about half the yachts in a marina have out-of-date equipment.
Part of the problem is education. “Most insurance policies include a broad statement that it’s the responsibility of the owner for the upkeep of fire equipment, but nobody really reads their policy. It doesn’t resonate with them that they need to get them inspected.” Captains also might not see the value in it, he adds, “if they feel someone is just coming on, looking at it for ten seconds and charging a fee.”
A professional company that follows proper procedures can remedy that notion. It should be accredited, licensed, insured, and have approvals by the MCA, flag states, and the International Association of Classification Societies, not simply hold a permit to inspect fire extinguishers. “If someone comes on and they don’t have manufacturer and classification approvals, if they don’t even know what a flag state is, that is a red flag,” says Day. “I suggest you get them off your vessel straightaway.”
A proper company also can advise a captain of their options above and beyond the minimum standard. It may be beneficial to have slightly larger equipment with more volume, a higher rating, and a longer discharge time.
From the training standpoint, it’s also possible to do more than the minimum, namely training the crew as a whole, says Naylor. “There are no standards for crew training to train as a team, and that’s what we promote. We always start with ‘what do you have on board? Is it adequate, does it meet the minimum standard, and can you do better?’ Then it’s the old practice makes perfect.
“A lot of times we’re not teaching anybody anything — they already know it. We’re just giving them the opportunity to put it into practice and build their team; that’s really what is most important. It’s not a one-person sport.”
This article originally ran in the June 2020 issue of Dockwalk.