Hey, the boat is on fire

That’s not a steak burning. Your boat is on fire. There are several quick ways to burn your boat to the waterline. One is to get out the torch and fail to employ hot work procedures.

Arguably, more fires are started onboard by welding, cutting, burning or brazing than from engine-room oil spray fires, smoking, cooking, and even lightning. Welding torch fires occur most often when the boat is in the shipyard or undergoing some repairs, but can occur anytime there’s hot work going on.

Most think that they’re an expert welder and can handle a torch like a Star Wars light saber. Cutting, welding, and burning aren’t rocket science. However, even starting a small fire while doing hot work is just asking for it to become a bigger fire that can quickly get out of control. You can’t afford to buy the company a new boat.

One time I found a friendly shipyard welder trying to weld a simple fender bracket to the hull without a proper fire watch. During that universal greeting between safety managers and offending employees a fire ignited. He ran for a garden hose because the fire hose was nowhere to be found. There wasn’t a fire extinguisher at the work site. Luckily the fire was eventually extinguished. If he had observed all the hot work procedures and requirements, the situation could have been avoided.

First, hot work is any work onboard that produces flames, sparks, or high heat. Your boat contains more combustibles than you think. They include wood, paper, solvents, paints and flammable fumes, and vapors.

You should observe the following procedures when doing any hot work.

  • Ensure your supervisor knows what you are going to do. 
  • Scope the job before you light the torch. 
  • Look for the hot work permit and, if necessary, the gas-free permit.  Get them before you start. No exceptions.
  • Perform any Lock-Out/Tag-Out and electrical safety steps necessary.
  • Have all of your PPE ready and use it.
  • Physically check all adjacent boundaries for flammables or other hazards. These include fore, aft, port, starboard, below and above your hot work.
  • Prep the worksite by removing excess flammables or cover them with welding cloth. 
  • Make sure hot work equipment and tools are working properly.
  • Ensure there is proper ventilation.
  • Have a trained and qualified fire watch with a functional fire bottle, hose or other approved means to put out the fire. Garden hoses don’t cut it.
  • When you’re done, inspect again for any hot spots or smoldering material.
  • The fire watch must remain at the site for 30 minutes after the hot work and check things again before securing.  Keep an eye on things for two hours after the hot work is done.
  • Clean up and properly stow your gear and the worksite, particularly gas bottles.
  • Let your supervisor know your work is completed.
  • Adhere to any additional Safety Management System procedures required.

Stick to burning the steaks, not the boat. Sail Safe.

(For additional information, go to Hot Work/Welding)


About the author

Capt. Peter Squicciarini

Capt. Peter Squicciarini is a licensed master mariner and marine safety specialist at the U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area Command in Portsmouth, Va. He has worked on towing, passenger, and fishing vessels, and was a safety and compliance manager for an East Coast tug and barge company. He also served in the Navy as a surface ship officer and commanded several warships. He can be reached at pdsquicciarini@msn.com.

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