Holiday up in flames


A couple launched their 7.5 metre trailer-sailer on the Murray River with the intention of a leisurely cruise along the river. They had owned the yacht for some 20 years, and were familiar with its operation.

About three days into the cruise, they decided to refuel using a 10 litre jerry-can whilst the yacht was moored near the river bank. Prior to commencing the fueling, the male owner ensured that there were no naked flames alight on the metho stove. He then returned to the upper deck to commence fuelling. His wife was in the forward cabin. Unfortunately, however, he had forgotten to extinguish the pilot light of the gas refrigerator. Soon after commencing fuelling, there was a loud explosion and flames engulfed the interior of the vessel.

Flames soon engulfed the jerry can and the male owner’s lower legs, so he jumped into the water to extinguish them. His wife exited through the forward hatch, but had the foresight to throw two 1 kg fire extinguishers (dry chemical powder type) through the hatch before her. The male owner climbed back onto the yacht and emptied both extinguishers into the flames with little effect, before returning to the water with his wife, and watching their vessel burn to the waterline. Fortunately, the owner’s burn injuries were not serious.

Lessons learned

  1. When refueling boats, all persons should be ashore or on deck.
  2. Fuel and naked flames do not mix. Ensure that all sources of naked flames are extinguished before commencing fuelling operations. This includes all gas operated galley equipment, lanterns, candles, cigarettes.
  3. Checklists are valuable for any operation that includes several steps, such as fuelling, start-up and shut-down procedures, and anchoring procedures. Boat owners would be well advised to consider various on-board operations that occur, and develop simple checklists for each one. This particular owner had owned the vessel for many years and conducted refueling many times, but on this occasion, had forgotten the refrigerator pilot light. A checklist would have prompted him to remember.
  4. Ensure that the extinguishers are of an appropriate type and capacity/number to be able to effectively fight any fire. Be aware of what extinguishers are suitable for different types of fire, for example, foam and water extinguishers are not suitable for electrical fires.
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