Safety

The Risk of Battery Fires on Board Yachts

27 February 2023By Kate Lardy
Resolve Maritime Academy fire training
Courtesy of Resolve Maritime Academy

Written by

Kate Lardy

Based in Fort Lauderdale, freelance writer Kate Lardy got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, which has included stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

“In the galley of any boat over 30 meters, there will be a person with the title of chef whose duties include handling the equipment there. There’s going to be a separate, manual electrical cut off just for that equipment. There’s probably going to be a separate ventilation hood just for that area. The person who’s trained in that area will have their name on a muster list with specific duties outlined, and then there is probably some type of fire suppression.

“This is just to fry an egg. Yet in the back of the boat, we have next to nothing. There are more risk-mitigation measures, equipment procedures, and rules built around frying an egg or making French fries in the average yacht galley than there are for portable LiPo batteries.”

Training companies like Da Gama Maritime and Resolve Maritime Academy are working out how to include battery fire training, which is not part of current course curriculum standards.
Courtesy of Da Gama Maritime

This analogy comes from Capt. Herb Magney, a yacht captain for the last 26 years, as he makes the point that regulations have not caught up with technology. He has firsthand experience with battery fires when the LiPo (lithium-ion polymer) battery for his DEWALT power tool caught fire in his garage three years ago. More recently, he says, “I just had a buddy of mine literally have to throw a wet towel over the end of a battery out of a Lift board that was on fire because it had dropped on the floor. [He had to] throw it out the lazarette door. That one ended happily; a lot of them don’t.”

Headlines reporting yacht fires seem to be coming more frequently these days. In almost all cases, though, there are no quick explanations as investigations typically take at least a year to complete. But there is a pervasive and growing suspicion that Li-ion batteries might have something to do with some of the fires. In recent months, the industry has shown more concern about their potential for fire.

Da Gama Maritime Founder Steve Monk

At press time, Transport Malta’s Marine Safety Investigation Unit (MSIU) published its findings about 35-meter M/Y Siempre, which was destroyed by fire just over a year ago on September 6, 2021. It was unable to pinpoint the cause with absolute certainty, but its report states that the investigation unit “believes that it had either originated from a lithium-ion battery stored in the vicinity, or (was) due to a fault in the power socket of the water scooter, which was on the open aft deck.”

MSIU has surmised that a lithium-ion battery fire was “most likely” the cause of the Maltese-flagged M/Y Kanga’s demise in 2018. Furthermore, following the release of that report three years ago, the MSIU says it “was notified of several fires on board Maltese-registered vessels, which started from Li-ion batteries.” It released one other report about a fire stemming from Li-ion batteries on a container ship. “However, since the rest of the reported occurrences were relatively minor fires, a full safety investigation was not warranted into these occurrences.” The world’s largest yacht registry, Cayman Islands, mentions one fire in its 2021 accident and incident summary report that “occurred in the Li-ion battery for a watersport e-foil.” No other details were made public.

That’s part of the problem. “We work in a secretive industry where boats catch fire, but we don't hear about it,” says Steve Monk, founder of Da Gama Maritime in the UK.

Resolve Maritime Academy is helping write risk-mitigation procedures for handling LiPo batteries that can be added to a yacht's mini ISM.

Currently the MCA and USCG do not require firefighting training for Class D combustible metal fires, which include lithium. Most flag administrations and classification societies are yet to address the issue at all. Dan Holmes, business development manager, North America, for Bureau Veritas, explains that the reason isn’t that they aren’t concerned, it is that toys like electric scooters and e-foil boards, as well as electric outboard motors, are not overseen by class. “We’re stuck from a class perspective. They’re not traditionally safety critical. They’re not in a constrained environment, and it’s very difficult to understand how we would inspect them on a regular basis. There may be things that we can do, and we are looking at how we can address this issue because it does affect the safety of the vessel ultimately.”

Malta appears to be the only flag administration with a statutory reference in its commercial yacht code with guidance about charging portable batteries. It states that charging should be continuously manned or be within a station that has a gas, smoke, and heat detection system and an automatic fixed-fire extinguishing system, and that can be easily closed remotely.

Courtesy of Resolve Maritime Academy

Lithium-ion batteries have become much safer over the last few decades. But when they do rarely fail and go into the uncontrollable self-heating state of thermal runaway, it is a spectacular failure, complete with explosive fire and noxious gases emittance that doesn’t respond well to conventional firefighting methods. A few things can lead to this: battery damage, a manufacturer’s defect, overheating, or improper charging. Following the equipment manufacturer’s instructions to a T regarding proper charging and disposal of damaged batteries is most of the battle.

The seeming proliferation of battery fires, from both land and sea, stems from the fact that the market for e-devices has exploded. Take what’s happening in New York City, for example. “The New York Fire Department (FDNY) is battling LiPo fires daily. The basic mode of transportation around Manhattan and Brooklyn has become electric bikes and electric scooters. When you put more of those electric type modes of transportations on the road, you’re going to have more lithium-ion fires,” says Will Williamson, maritime training coordinator at Resolve Maritime Academy in Fort Lauderdale and also a lead instructor for the FDNY.

Courtesy of Da Gama Maritime

Like e-bikes in New York, e-toys have flooded the superyacht market lately, with electric hydrofoils being the must-have accessory. And they are at the epicenter of the controversy. Lithium-ion and lithium polymer batteries, the kind that make the yacht’s surfboard foil and its drone fly, are more susceptible to thermal runaway than lithium iron phosphate, the type of battery more likely to be found in the boat’s house battery bank. That’s one of the reasons toy batteries are getting most of the attention on this subject; the other is the fact that battery banks are overseen by class. “We haven’t really seen much of an issue where we have properly structured rooms for the battery banks,” says Paul Miller, director of underwriting at Millstream Underwriting in London. “I think the real problem we’ve got is all the toys that are brought on to the boat because there’s no control over that whatsoever.”

With the lack of any regulatory control, guidance is currently coming from people like Sam Powell, sales and service manager at National Marine Suppliers in Fort Lauderdale. “We are not only supplying the toys, we are also supplying the fire safety, we are supplying the fire boxes, we are providing them with the basic bones for a standard operating procedure in regards to charging, storage, [and] operation maintenance,” he says. He can offer items like ZARGES boxes that safely store batteries and extinguishers from LiCELL or Lith-Ex that use AVD mist that works specifically for lithium-ion fires.

A Li-on battery may have been responsible for M/Y Siempre's destruction.
Courtesy of Vigili del Fuoco

Powell is part of a working group that was started by Capt. Magney with the goal of creating a “package of risk-mitigation measures for the carriage and handling of high-power portable batteries, especially LiPo variants,” as Magney explains, to fill the void currently left by the flag administrations.

Magney has spoken to some insurance companies that are feeling this void. “They have told me, ‘We don’t have a plan or a checklist or anything to give to our folks, even as an outline, for them to take risk-mitigation measures so that we feel comfortable in saying, okay, if you do all these things, and you keep this up to speed, and you bring your staff up to speed with the training, then we’re going to go ahead and insure you, otherwise you’re on your own,’” says Magney.

Onboard training by Da Gama Maritime

He has teamed up with training companies like Resolve Academy and Da Gama Maritime, and other industry insiders to come up with a checklist of actionable items that insurance companies can request of their clients, in the same way they require a hurricane plan or a towing plan for a center console. After all, as Magney points out, right now insurance companies have the most to lose. Miller confirms this. “The only tool we really have is to get heavy handed and say, we’re going to exclude this, or we are going to start to amend policy conditions.”

The group hopes that their work will help speed up the work of the flag and class organizations, as well as shake things up. “The sentiment of ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ needs to be challenged at all aspects, and I am speaking primarily of course [about] curriculum standards set forth by the governing entities,” says Williamson.

Training at Resolve Academy

Williamson sees the group as a rare chance to be proactive in a reactive industry. “We’ve seen this in a lot of different aspects in the maritime world: You put a bunch of stuff into the industry and go, ‘Oh, wait a minute, this could be dangerous. Maybe we should create policy now.’ Or worse off, we have a whole bunch of cases where people have lost their lives or boats have burned to the ground, and say, ‘Oh, this is now a problem, we should fix it.’”

This feature originally ran in the November 2022 issue of Dockwalk.

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