Fire in the hold! Superyacht blazes, their causes and preventions
Fires onboard superyachts account for about one fifth of the total paid out in yachting related claims by insurance firms each year, the most expensive claim type by some margin.
Only last weekend in Portals Mallorca a superyacht, its identity as yet unconfirmed, caught fire while moored in the harbour. Also late last month, Pamela IV of London, a sixty-year-old 30.5-metre superyacht, caught fire in the old port of Sanremo, Italy. Four teams of firefighters took several hours to dowse the flames. And in November last year a blaze engulfed two yachts undergoing reparative works in Fort Lauderdale, Florida amounting to millions of dollars in damage.
Then there was the Lalibela, which caught in fire two years ago in southern France and injured two firefighters attempting to tackle the blaze. Luxury yacht enthusiasts will also remember Barbie and The One, two multi-million superyachts, which were gutted by fire while moored in the port of Marmaris, Turkey in 2016. Superyacht fires then, are not uncommon occurrences. Indeed, Captain Iain Flockhart believes that the number of superyacht fires appears to be rising.
He told Superyacht Investor that “poor housekeeping” was the primary cause of fires onboard. In evidence, he cited an experience he had while on a relief job aboard a 40-metre superyacht in which a crew member had been over packing her locker with clothes in plastic bags. “There was a proximity switch on the locker door that was supposed to switch the light on and off as the locker was opened and closed. Due to so much stuff being in the locker the door could not close properly and the switch was unable to operate.
“The plastic was very close to the light and it caught fire along with the some of the contents of the locker. It was a relatively small vessel under 40 metres and if the crew had not all been onboard it could have been disastrous. It was completely preventable and caused by very poor housekeeping.”
Flockhart stressed the importance of good housekeeping on superyachts, especially when vessels are left partly unattended in a shipyard or port. Furthermore, when superyachts are docked, all non-essential power supplies should be disconnected.
“Exceptions to this would be the fire detection and suppression systems, but everything else that can possibly be shutdown should be,” said Flockhart. “All the power supplies and distribution to portable electrical tools etc. should also be completely disconnected at nighttime. Anything that can be done to reduce the possibility of any kind of electrical fire onboard has got to be a good thing.”
Pamela IV and The One were both delivered pre-1980. Since then, technological advancements in fire suppression, retardant materials and thermal monitoring have focused on minimising the risk of fire onboard, therefore modern yachts should, theoretically, be safer, said Flockhart.
But Alex Kemp, partner at law firm HFW believes older superyachts are no more vulnerable to fire than their newer sisters. There are a variety of reasons why fires break out aboard superyachts regardless of age, he .“We see fires caused by incidents undertaken in shipyards during refit and repairOne also sees electrical fires and you will be aware of the current concerns regarding lithium ion batteries. The other obvious source of fires is the engine room. Many fires will be of indeterminate cause – if the vessel is destroyed by the fire it can often be difficult to obtain the forensic evidence on which to base any conclusions,” said Kemp.