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What’s that smell?

April 26, 2016

We attach an account by one of our clients, Michael Fordham, of a fire onboard his Princess Flybridge, appropriately named ‘Wotapalava’, whilst berthed in Swanwick marina. The article is essential reading because there are vital lessons there for all of us. Michael showed great determination in fighting the fire, but as he happily acknowledges, luck played a large part in the avoidance of a total disaster.

My Princess Flybridge Wotapalava was moored on her permanent Swanwick marina berth last April. I was sitting on the outside cockpit seat with the cockpit door pulled too, as it was a little damp overnight with some early morning fog but another sunny day was in prospect. The smell of bacon wafted down the pontoon – all was well with the world! 

Some previously fabulous spring days filled with sunshine had seen the cockpit cover off and the boat was well and truly ready for the season ahead. 

After a while I could smell a slight burning odour, similar to an over enthusiastic polishing buffer, but as far as I could see no 'local' work was being undertaken and breakfast had long since passed! Running it through in my head I did a mental check for anything electrical that may be plugged in – saloon: no, galley: no, forward cabin: no, starboard cabin: yes.  I had a dehumidifier ‘running ‘in the starboard twin cabin but this had been moved to its regular 'when on board' position between the two single berths and was set to medium.  

Usual practice when the boat is unattended is to position the dehumidifier in the galley with a water drain into the galley sink. Once on board it’s moved to the starboard cabin and emptied when needed thus maintaining a dry atmosphere whilst on board. The cabin door is generally closed when the saloon is open and left ajar at night.  

I remember entering the starboard cabin only the day before to empty the water container, and all was good, so surely that couldn’t be the source of the smell – could it?  

The burning smell became stronger and stronger and naturally, by this stage I was becoming increasingly concerned, in particular, as I could not trace a third party source. It therefore became apparent that the burning smell may indeed be coming from inside the boat.  I opened the cockpit door. There was a slight mist. As I moved into the galley area, the smoke grew denser and the smell even stronger.  To my horror, thick smoke outlined the door to the starboard cabin. I grabbed the fire extinguisher from the galley, visibility was poor, making removal of the safety pin by feel alone.  I tentatively opened the cabin door, afraid of what I would find, aimed the fire extinguisher and pressed the button – nothing happened – I pressed again - still nothing. By this time, the dense smoke was making breathing difficult, I was constantly coughing and my eyes sore making it almost impossible to see. I quickly closed the cabin door.  What do I do now? I headed for the cockpit, looking at the fire extinguisher as I went. I could see that the trigger from the top of the unit was missing along with the safety pin - no wonder it wouldn’t work.  

Several thoughts went through my mind, do I try and tackle the fire again, this time perhaps using the domestic hose on the pontoon nearby?  However, I quickly pushed this idea aside, it would take too long and opening the cabin door during the failed first attempt had only made the fire worse. While shouting for help, and with the adrenalin pumping, I decided to try and get a second fire extinguisher kept in the forward cabin. The smoke was even heavier now and I had to crawl on my hands and knees. I retrieved the fire extinguisher, ensuring this time that I removed the safety pin where I could see it. Still on my hands and knees I reached up and opened the cabin door.  I discharged the unit onto the base of the flames, this allowed me to hazily see through the smoke. Once fully discharged I quickly closed the cabin door and decided it was time to evacuate. I really thought this was it, I was going to lose the boat, the flames were large and I had no idea if my second attempt at tackling the fire had been successful. Black smoke billowed out of the cockpit as I stood shaking on the pontoon. 

To my relief, I could see some other boat owners and several contractors running towards me, as well as marina duty staff - all armed with fire extinguishers ready to help.  

I was afraid that I may not have fully extinguished the fire but knew it was a case of wait and see. It was such a relief, that after several anxious minutes, there were no flames coming from the main helm or foredeck. I’d been successful! Soon we were able to re-board and check the cabin – no new smoke – a positive sign. The fire was out. All that was left was the remains of one, very much melted dehumidifier – clearly the source of fire. What a mess! 

Further inspection also led me to find the missing trigger together with two guard/safety pins – in my haste, I’d obviously knocked off the trigger on the first extinguisher when I removed the safety pin but due to the very dense smoke hadn’t noticed. A flaw in design that’s for sure.  

Whilst I looked at the damage caused by the fire, the relief was immense – things could have been so different – what if the fire had occurred a few hours earlier? What if the cabin door was open? What if..? Any one of these what if’s could have resulted in me not being here to tell my story. I was lucky, my poor boat, not so.   

I telephoned Pantaenius. Speaking with one of their claims handlers I relayed details of the incident. I was still in shock. Pantaenius provided comfort and reassurance, telling me that my safety was paramount and that whilst I had made the decision to fight the fire, they would never have expected me to put myself in personal danger to do so.

I had no idea of the costs involved in repairing the damage or whether it would even exceed my deductible. Imagine my relief when I was told that because it was a fire claim NO deductible applied, neither did they require me to get a survey. 

The first instruction was to commission a full interior professional clean as soon as possible. Their message was clear, the sooner things got started the sooner I could be back sailing.

It was good to know that whilst I took the decision to fight the fire, Pantaenius was adamant that my safety is paramount. 

Their support and advice throughout this traumatic time has been priceless.  

I discovered soon afterwards that had the boat been a total loss, Pantaenius would have paid the Agreed Fixed Value without question, and without the application of a deductible. Very reassuring!

So what did I learn? 

1. Change compressor type to desiccant

2. Fit smoke alarm

3. Fit fire blanket

4. Change type of fire extinguisher to one with metal trigger (which cannot snap off!)

5. Consider an additional foam or water extinguisher


I was lucky. If you don’t want to rely on lady luck consider checking the firefighting equipment you have on your boat.