When a boat turns into a bomb
The old saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," is especially accurate when it comes to fires, and even more so when it's about fires aboard boats.
For the average boater in Hawaii with a 24-foot outboard, the gasoline on board -- when vaporized -- can have more explosive power than dynamite.
So, with National Fire Prevention Week coming to an end, it seems appropriate to take a quick look at the steps boaters should take to avert such disasters.
According to the state's "Hawaii Boating Basics" guidebook, most boat fires occur just after refueling, due to improper boat design, poor maintenance or carelessness.
To prevent such fires, the guidebook first recommends that boat owners periodically check their fuel systems for any leaks, as engine vibrations may loosen fittings.
Then, before beginning the refueling process, all doors, windows, hatches and ports should be closed to prevent fuel vapors (which are heavier than air) from settling inside the boat.
The engine, and any electrical equipment or motors that could create a spark or heat, should be turned off, and of course, smoking is an absolute no-no.
Portable fuel tanks should always be removed from the boat for refueling, as this will eliminate the potential for fuel vapors on board.
While refueling any tank, the nozzle should always be touching the tank or its filler-pipe to prevent a build-up of static electricity that could cause a spark. And the tank should never be overfilled.
After refueling, any spills must be wiped up, not washed off the boat, and the cloth must be aired out to dry or placed in a covered metal container.
Before the engine is started, the boat should be aired out by opening all doors, windows, hatches and ports, and turning on any bilge-blowers or explosion-proof fans with spark-proof switches for at least 5 minutes.
Giving the boat's interior a "sniff test" for fuel vapors is also highly recommended.
Another petroleum-product fire hazard can be in the galley. Boaters should always cautiously use approved alcohol, kerosene or propane stoves for cooking, rather than gasoline or gravity-fed stoves.
As for non-fuel-related fire prevention measures, the use of fireproof or fire-resistant material for pillows, cushions, mattresses, carpets and curtains is advised.
Also, good housekeeping measures, such as keeping bilges clean and stowing gear properly, can be effective in preventing onboard fires.
Of course, even after taking every precaution to prevent fires, the importance of having fully-charged Coast Guard-approved fire extinguishers on hand -- and knowing how to use them -- can never be stressed enough.
Ordinarily, fires start small and can be extinguished quickly if someone acts immediately with the proper knowledge. All boaters should be prepared for such emergencies by practicing before the real thing occurs.
is a free-lance writer based in Honolulu. His column runs Saturdays in the Star-Bulletin. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org