Smoke on the water: What I learned after an offshore fire on board my 40ft boat

A suspected fire on board taught Broom 41 owner Keith Wheeler the value of preparing for the worst and hoping for the best…

Like everyone, we lost two seasons of boating through Covid and as we are on the wrong side of 70, every season counts, so we were determined to make this a memorable one. And so it turned out, but for the wrong reasons.

This season’s objective was the Netherlands. Having relinquished my annual berth in Plymouth, the plan was for me and my friend Colin to cruise my boat to the Netherlands in early May where our wives and families would join us for a leisurely summer, cruising some of our favourite rivers, meers and canals, and hopefully a trip to the Frisian Islands. At the end of September we would return to take up our new berth in Ipswich Haven.

Our Broom 41, Half Moon, is a great boat for this sort of trip. Described by Motor Boats Monthly as “Broom’s muscle boat”, she is built like the proverbial brick outhouse, will cruise happily at 18-20 knots and has plenty of comfortable accommodation. In summary she is ideal for both sea and inland cruising.

Half Moon was relaunched at the end of April, after her annual maintenance lift. She was looking immaculate having just been compounded, polished and antifouled. The weather, however, didn’t look so good.

It was changing on an almost hourly basis so the challenge was finding a long enough weather window for the leg from Plymouth to the Solent. To make matters worse, the weather gods were also dishing up lots of easterlies, making for uncomfortable head seas.

Day of reckoning

Thankfully, a gap appeared in the forecast and we set off under blue skies and bright sunshine on reasonably flat seas thanks to some north in the wind, which made it unseasonably cold.

Nevertheless, we were snug under the canopy on the raised aft bridge as we cruised from Dartmouth to the Solent at a relaxed 20 knots. All was well with our world… or so we thought!

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We had crossed Lyme Bay, stayed well clear of the race at Portland Bill and were now almost level with Anvil Point when suddenly the port engine revs died. Our first thought was mucky fuel but why hadn’t it manifested itself before, during the lumpy ride to Dartmouth?

I looked aft and saw a worrying plume of black smoke trailing behind us, which didn’t seem to tally with a loss of power from fuel starvation. Prudence suggested we should divert into Poole so I alerted the Coastguard that we would be heading into the Swash Channel with an engine problem and may need assistance if we lost power completely.

Little did we realise how soon or how urgent that would become.


Half Moon is a Broom 41 in excellent condition

Colin and I have cruised under sail and motor for over 40 years, putting in a lot of sea miles, so we instinctively work a boat together without the need for much chat about who does what. While I was busy on the VHF radio, Colin was scanning the engine gauges for any clues to what was causing all this smoke when the second engine began to die.

Things were now getting very serious as acrid smoke was starting to pour from the saloon and into the cockpit, enveloping the boat in a thick pall of black smoke. A motor boat out of Poole turned and ran alongside us pointing out that smoke was billowing out from the hull side air intakes as well. We both came to the same conclusion – we were on fire!

Fire on board

I don’t know about you but having a fire on board is my worst nightmare and one which now appeared to be a reality. We have all seen images of raging conflagrations with the boat quickly burning to the waterline before sinking below the waves.

Our survival instinct kicked in as Colin and I tried to recall everything we had learned about dealing with emergencies afloat. Over the years we have attended multiple training courses, including Sea Survival and VHF/GDMSS, so we thought we would be prepared for a Mayday event.

But this wasn’t a dress rehearsal, it was the real thing. The speed at which events were developing seemed exponential, so any proposed course of action was quickly superseded by another.

For some inexplicable reason my mind found a few nano-seconds to recall the words of the late great yachtsman and cockleshell hero, Lt Col ‘Blondie’ Hasler, who when asked about the improved search and rescue provision in ocean racing replied, “If you get into trouble at sea you should at least have the good grace to die like a gentleman and not involve anyone else in your misery.”

Sod that! I decided to put out a voice Mayday call, given that Solent Coastguard were already aware of our situation. If that failed to elicit an immediate response, I could then lift the cover and hit the red button.

Fortunately, Solent Coastguard responded immediately as did a number of other craft in the area, including the outgoing Condor ferry which had just cleared Poole harbour entrance.

Dealing with the VHF traffic between the Coastguard and other boats offering help seemed to take over and the well-practised VHF disciplines faltered as the need to get out of the choking smoke became paramount.

Fortunately, my fixed Garmin VHF has a remote handset so I was able to field communications from the windward side deck and with lifejackets on we at least had options – better wet than burned.

I had also taken the precaution of grabbing the handheld VHF from its charging cradle just inside the companionway door. Colin, meanwhile, had turned off the engines, taken a big breath and dived below to trigger the fuel shut-off valves before joining me on the windward side deck.


A lifeboat tows Half Moon to safety

By now, the Poole inshore lifeboat, which had been on an exercise nearby, was in attendance. The smoke also began to show signs of dissipating, so we assumed the fire suppression system in the engineroom had kicked in. At this point we felt it was also safe to go down and turn off the battery master switches in the aft cabin.

By now, the Swanage lifeboat had come out to meet us as well. They managed to put two crew on board who checked that we were okay before assessing whether the boat was safe to take under tow. Suitably reassured, we were towed to Ballast Quay, Poole, and met by two fire engines and members of the MCA.

After questioning us, the fire service felt confident enough to lift the hatches and use a handheld thermal camera to check the fire was out. Having declared the boat safe, we were towed to a holding berth in Poole Quay Boat Haven.

Dumbstruck by everything that had happened and with our throats still sore from the smoke, we adjourned to the pub to steady our nerves. It had been a very traumatic event that could have had a far worse outcome but for now we were celebrating being alive.

In retrospect, it would have been sensible to get checked out for the effects of smoke inhalation and shock.

Post mortem

In the days that followed, the insurance surveyor found that the clamp holding the exhaust onto the manifold of one engine had failed, causing black smoke to pour out into the engineroom.

From here it rapidly spread throughout the boat via the bilges and vents, leaving a thin film of oily soot on everything it touched. The engines had to be removed for remedial work to the turbos and injectors (thankfully our boat has a removable section in the roof and floor to facilitate this) and to allow for the engineroom and ancillary equipment to be checked and deep cleaned.


There was diesel smoke damage throughout the boat

Given that we do a lot of offshore cruising, often out of sight of land, I have always been meticulous when it comes to the engines. These are serviced and checked annually by a Volvo qualified engineer with all recommendations being implemented.

Naturally oil and belts are checked before departure. However, exhausts are not a service item, there was no evidence of any leaks and the clamps on my engines are hidden under OEM insulation jackets which are wired into place.

So how often should these be removed so the clamps and joints can be checked? Having seen the extensive damage this incident caused, the insurance surveyor’s advice is that owners should aim to remove any exhaust insulation jackets and check the exhaust system every 2-3 years.


A deep clean was carried out with the engine removed

It is hard to believe that this produced so much dense smoke so quickly but with uncooled exhaust gases escaping at circa 700°C perhaps it’s not so surprising. It was certainly enough to make us, and passing boats, believe that we were actually on fire, and we weren’t about to lift engine hatches in order to prove or disprove it. We made our decisions at the time based on what we believed was evidence of a fire in the engine space.

Were we scared? No, at the time we were too busy working out what to do. It was only afterwards that the reality of what could have happened sank in and that was very scary indeed! Had we been in the middle of the North Sea rather than close to land, we may have felt differently, especially if we’d had to abandon ship.

Has this put us off boating? The answer is an emphatic no. Every form of transport carries an element of risk and boats are no exception. Provided you and the boat are properly prepared, the joys of boating and its ability to make wonderful, lasting memories makes it all worthwhile.

As ever, our thanks go to the emergency services, especially the RNLI, who not only took great care of us but the boat too.

Lessons learned from fire on board a boat

Here are a few thoughts on things to do and check to help minimise the risk of fire on board your boat.

  1. Check engineroom fire suppression systems have been serviced and all elements are in date. If possible, choose an automatic system that also has a manual override.
  2. Install a smoke alarm and camera in the engineroom with the display near the helm.
  3. Do not lift engine hatches to see what is going on!
  4. Make sure you know where the diesel fuel shut-off valve is and that you can reach it without having to lift the engine hatch.
  5. Likewise the battery master switches.
  6. Remind yourselves and your crew where your handheld fire extinguishers are and check each unit is still pressured and in date and everyone knows how to use them.
  7. Ensure you have a back-up handheld VHF, fully charged and in easy reach of the helm.
  8. Check you can get yourself and crew members through the cabin hatches to ensure you are not trapped below if the fire is between you and the normal exit. As you get older your ability to lift your own bodyweight up and through a hatch diminishes significantly!
  9. If you carry a liferaft, make sure it is serviced and easily deployable. We don’t carry a liferaft as our plan is to use the mini-RIB we carry on davits. However, if our situation had worsened, we would not have been able to lower it in time so we have now added bolt cutters to our inventory so we can cut the cables and drop the RIB quickly.
  10. Wear a good lifejacket and make sure it is serviced regularly. Carry a grab bag and make sure it is easily accessible. Ours contains water, energy and chocolate bars among other things. However, it should have been up at the helm with us, not down below.
  11. Take a Sea Survival course.

First published in the October 2023 issue of MBY.

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