An onboard fire is nothing to be trifled with — especially if you can prevent it

Smoking hot clothes aren’t necessarily stylish. Sometimes they are actually smoking hot – as in engulfed in flames. A smoking hot body doesn’t just come from pumping iron.

Why do I bring this up? Other than day boats and fleeting tugs, most towboats are likely to have a washer and dryer somewhere on board. When we see fires on boats, we tend to think first about the engine room. Statistically, this would be correct – theres lots of fuel and hot surfaces located there. Of course, there are other possible sources, like the stove, but the clothes dryer is often overlooked.

Believe it or not, many fires are started by dryers ashore and being on water doesn’t make you immune to the flames. At home, you can call the fire department, but on a boat you’ve immediately got real problems with no fire trucks in sight. I’ve always found the best firefighting to be fire prevention.

A dryer on fire. Islip, NY, Fire Department photo.

A dryer on fire. Islip, NY, Fire Department photo.

Imagine this scenario. Your washer and dryer are churning away in the engine room, upper level or fidley, or in some other space, such as a forepeak gear locker. (I’ve seen these things stashed everywhere.) You smell smoke. Then you see flames shoot out from the dryer. How can you prevent this from happening? First, dryers must be properly vented topside and not blowing heat, moisture, and lint into the space. Use a metal vent tube and not a cheap plastic hose (the latter is a fire hazard on its own). After proper installation, the biggest safety step is to keep the lint filters clean. You’d be surprised at how much lint quickly builds up when dirty socks get thrown in the dryer (hopefully after being washed).

But the real, hidden danger is the build up of lint in the vent hose between the dryer and topside. Unless you look, you can’t see this snake hiding ready to bite you. You’ve got to look behind the dryer and into the vent hose. This should be done regularly, or at least monthly. You can’t clean it too often, but you can clean it too little. Skip this simple maintenance step and you risk a fire that burns down the dryer, and very likely the boat. Also be mindful that the dryer is electrically safe and secured along with the washer so they don’t get underway when the seas kick up.

Finally, keep the hatches closed. By policy, I’m sure you are supposed to keep them closed anyway. There are many reasons to keep them secured, but a fire will quickly get out of control when air feeds it. Closed hatches can prevent this from happening.

Train and be ready to investigate and fight the fire if you can as a first course of action instead of immediately taking to the life raft. It's better to put out the fire than take to the raft and wait for the Coast Guard or a good Samaritan to pick you up.

Check your vessel’s dryer for lint build up and a fire hazard before you put the next load of laundry into it. In fact, check it now. Do not delay. You could be just one load of socks and underwear away from setting the whole boat on fire. Don’t believe me? Here are some pictures to prove it.

Sail Safe!

A collection of stories from guest authors.