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From a yacht insurer’s point of view, fire is one of the most destructive forces leading to the largest individual losses. Whereas a storm may cause considerable damage to a number of vessels in an area, a fire will often cause a total loss of an individual craft and if this happens in a marina, for instance, can also lead to considerable damage to adjacent craft.

The main causes of fires are problems with electrics, fuel, especially petrol, gas, (although gas problems are more inclined to lead to explosions rather than fire), and accidents when cooking or with other volatile substances such as meths in a spirit stove or glues used in refit or repair work.

A fire at sea is probably one of the worst situations you might encounter. With built in units and concealed electrics in many modern yachts it can sometimes be quite difficult to reach the seat of the fire with your fire-fighting apparatus and this can allow the fire to gain a hold despite your best efforts to douse it.

As a fire grows the problem of smoke then arises, acrid smoke that makes it difficult to breathe when trying to fight the fire. Burning electrical cables and GRP produce poisonous fumes which will soon mean you will have to retreat to the deck. Thereafter preparing the liferaft may be your only course of action. A vessel once well alight will usually burn down to the waterline and then sink.

So what are the best courses of action to avoid a fire? I’m sure the Recreational Craft Directive and the Boat Safety Schemes have helped to improve standards but these may only be as good as the day the vessel is built or inspected – if you subsequently modify the vessel without adequate knowledge, or allow someone else inexperienced to do so, you may be heading for trouble. We have seen fires where a simple in-line fuse in a modification would have made the electrics entirely safe.

If you are leaving your vessel laid-up with a heater or de-humidifier running on board, be sure that you have taken the best advice possible from the manufacturers or suppliers regarding the installation of such equipment.

As insurers we encourage, indeed, often require, owners to have fairly regular surveys by qualified yacht surveyors, who will give an experienced, unbiased opinion on the safety of a vessel and raise concerns about aspects which might be an unacceptable threat to an owner, his passengers or crew and his insurers.

Otherwise be aware of the possible problems, think ahead and be careful. Sometimes problems are unavoidable – that’s why you insure.

D. Long - 6/2/2012

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