The recent tragic fire that destroyed a 48' Nordic raised helm sedan motoryacht in Bellingham's Squalicum Harbor was a great loss: The boat, originally the Wild Rose, Nordic's "brochure boat", had just been completely refurbished and was becoming once again a show boat. It was owned by our fellow BYC Member Elmer Bernstein.
The fire caused several of us to ponder the fire's cause and whether there was some way the fire could have been prevented. There may be a lesson helpful to all of us.
The outside temperatures were in the low 40's at the time of the fire. That would mean that conceivably all of the heaters on the boat could have come on at one time --- although the folks responsible for the boat's care believed only two were left in the "on" position. The boat had three built-in electric heaters, each with a thermostat and fan, and each on a separate, built-in, circuit-breaker-protected circuit. One was in use. In addition, a portable, three-heat, thermostatically-controlled fan heater was in the engine room, midships of the engines on the aluminum flooring, and was set to the low-heat position.
Power was fed to the boat from the shore power circuit, protected on the dock by a 20-amp breaker, and on the boat by a 30-amp breaker. So it's clear that a "short" wasn't the likely cause: too many breakers in each circuit, any of which would have tripped.
But then we started to think about other possible causes, and we focussed on items likely to get hot, and here we may have struck at the cause. (The fire investigators believe, at least preliminarily, that the fire began in the forward port engine room area. There may have been a shore power circuit breaker box in this location.)
There are few boaters who have not felt a hot shore power connector at some time or another. This is usually caused by a female connector that has lost the temper in its receptacle blades due to overloading and thus, overheating. In the case of the Nordic, the shore cable came aboard on a single 30-amp cord which tee'd into two connectors. These connectors were located in the port-side walkway step, near the forward port corner of the salon. It appeared that the fire did not originate here, perhaps because the load was wisely divided between the connectors. But from here, the shore power wiring went through the engine room, where a shore power breaker may have been located, then to the power panel, then through two large rotary selector switches, one for "generator-shore" and the other for "inverter-ships" power. Could it be that one of these switches or the engine room breaker was somewhat worn, and, with both heaters "on" at the same time, got hot enough to ignite the blaze?
Of course, we'll never know for sure. But the circuit breaker box, in the engine room, was mounted on a wood panel, bulkhead, or floor beam, and in the enclosed area behind the power panel and switches, heat could build up fast. The panel trim and frame, near the switches, was teak and teak-faced plywood, dry and nine years old. Given significant heat, any of these mounting surfaces could easily ignite.
Perhaps by the time you read this, the Bellingham Fire Department will have announced a cause. But in the meantime, a suggestion: while you're aboard your boat, turn on enough electrical load on your shore power circuits to bring the load up to near it's full rating, say 28 amps on a 30-amp circuit. Keep it there for a while, at least 30 minutes or even better, for an hour. Then, after removing power, feel the circuit lines and especially switches, breakers (and boxes) and connectors to see if they're warm. If they are, replace or properly repair them! And if you don't feel competent to do this, call Rasmussen Marine Electric or some other qualified vendor to do it for you.
Perhaps, as a result of the time taken for this little exercise, you won't suffer the loss and anguish that the Elmer and Eve Bernstein did. Let's hope not!
If you know of a satisfactory alarm system for hot spots in a boat, let me know. Address Boating Tips in care of the Yacht Club office. Thanks --- and happy, safe boating!
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