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Fire Extinguishers

Coast Guard approved fire extinguishers are required on boats where a fire hazard could be expected from the motors or the fuel system. Extinguishers are classified by a letter and number symbol. The letter indicates the type fire the unit is designed to extinguish. Type A is for solids that will burn (paper, wood, fiberglass). Type B for example is designed to extinguish flammable liquids such as gasoline, oil and grease fires). Type C is for electrical fires such as generator, shore power wiring or engine wiring shorting out. The number indicates the relative size of the extinguisher. The higher the number, the larger the extinguisher.

Extinguisher markings can be confusing because extinguishers can be approved for several different types of hazards. For instance, an extinguisher marked "Type A, Size II, Type B:C, Size I" does qualify as a B-I extinguisher.

Look for the part of the label that says "Marine Type USCG"

  • Make sure Type B is indicated

  • Portable extinguishers will be either size I or II. Size III and larger are too big for use on most recreational boats.

The following are the types of fire extinguishing chemicals, and the types of fires against which they are effective:

Carbon Dioxide A,B,C
Halon/Freon™ A,B,C
Dry Chemical A,B,C,D
Foam B
Water A

Fire Extinguisher Guidelines:

PWCs and boats up to 26 feet must carry one B-I fire extinguisher. Boats 26 to 40 feet must carry two B-I or one B-II. If there is a permanently installed fire extinguisher system only one B-I extinguisher is required. For vessels 40 to 65 feet, three B-I or one B-II and one B-I extinguishers are required. Vessels in this class with permanently installed fire extinguisher systems are required to carry two B-I or one B-II extinguishers. Vessels without combustible fuel onboard, no gasoline engine or no areas where vapors can be trapped are not required to carry a fire extinguisher.

A U.S. Coast Guard/UL Marine Type approved fire extinguisher is usually very effective for most types of boat fires. Approved fire extinguishers have the "Marine Type USCG Approved" label with size and type symbols along with an approval number. The Coast Guard requires that a class B-1 Coast Guard approved portable fire extinguisher in working condition be aboard every PWC and all boats that have closed compartments under seats where fuel tanks may be stored, closed storage compartments where flammable or combustible materials may be stored, or boats with permanently installed fuel tanks. Check frequently to be sure that your extinguisher is properly stored and undamaged. Be sure to check the fire extinguisher's operational capability on an annual basis. Replace all cracked or broken parts and keep nozzles free from obstructions. Check the pressure gauge often. Make sure the locking pins and sealing wires are in place.

Depending on the fire extinguisher's model there are a couple of ways to check to make sure they are "charged". Some models have a green button located at the top of the extinguisher. When the button is pushed in (depressed) it will quickly pop out if the fire extinguisher is charged and ready for operation. Other fire extinguishers have a gauge that will show whether the charge is full or empty. The needle should always point in the full range. If it doesn't, it is time to re-charge the extinguisher.

Extinguishers must be mounted in an accessible area but not near the engine or in a compartment. Remember, you need to be able to get to a fire extinguisher as quickly as possible. However, in the case of a fire, PWC operators may not be able to get to their fire extinguisher. They should get away from the fire as quickly as possible and use another boater's extinguisher.

Carbon Dioxide Dry Chemical Halon

Take measures to prevent but be prepared to deal quickly and efficiently with fires. A key to understanding fire suppression is to know that eliminating one of the fire's key ingredients, fuel, oxygen or heat, can extinguish a fire.

Here are some basic practices to follow that will greatly reduce the chance of fire.

  1. Make sure ventilation systems have been installed and used correctly.

  2. Make sure fuel systems are free of leaks.

  3. Follow safe fueling procedures. (see Chapter 18)

If a fire breaks out while your boat or PWC is underway you should stop the vessel. If you or any passengers are not wearing a PFD they should put one on immediately and keep the fire downwind. Use a paddle to turn the boat if necessary to keep the fire downwind.

On a power boat, if the motor catches fire, shut off the fuel supply. If the fire is in an enclosed compartment be careful when opening the compartment or hatch so as not to fan the flames. Have the extinguisher ready, aim the fire extinguisher at the base of the flames and use a sweeping motion to put out the fire. If you have additional extinguishers aboard have them ready if needed. Most extinguishers do not last a long time. If possible attend a class on use of fire extinguishers conducted by your power squadron or Coast Guard Auxiliary. Also, never use water on a gas, oil, grease or electrical fire. Water will spread a gas fire and will conduct electricity. If you have a VHF radio onboard you should summon help immediately.

Due to a PWC's size and where the fire extinguishers are typically mounted, common sense suggests an operator deter from the normal procedures outlined for traditional motorboats. Since most fire extinguishers on PWC are mounted either under the operator's seat or in the front storage compartment, opening either area will add more oxygen to the fire mixture, thus fueling the fire. The recommended action in this case, is to jump off and swim to safety - away from the burning PWC. This is the only time "abandon ship" is suggested as an immediate course of action.


On fiberglass boat fires, the part of the structure that burns is not the glass matting itself, it's the resin used to bond the fiberglass together. Getting the chemical agent from the extinguisher in between the fiberglass layers can be hard. Most fiberglass fires are extinguished using firefighting foam or sinking the vessel to smother the fire in the water. The smoke can be toxic and should be avoided.


Before each trip on your PWC or in your boat remove the extinguisher and invert it. Hold on to it and hit it s couple of times on the bottom to loosen the dry chemical powder inside, replace it in the holder checking the safety lock, gauge, or discharge indicator.

Ventilation Systems

A ventilation system is designed to remove flammable gases that could cause a damaging or life-threatening explosion. All powerboats with enclosed fuel tanks or engine compartments, or bilge areas where flammable gases are likely to accumulate, must have at least two ventilation ducts fitted with cowls to remove the fumes. For PWCs or boats with a power ventilation system they should be turned on and left running for four minutes after fueling. This is done before the engine is started.

The following is a diagram of a natural ventilation system. When the vessel is under power and traveling forward, the fresh air is drawn into the forward intake cowl, which is opened toward the bow, by the forward movement of the vessel. It is then directed into the engine and bilge area through the intake duct. The air then flows through the bilge and engine area and the air along with any flammable gasses flow out through the exhaust duct and out through the exhaust cowl which is opened toward the stern. Thus any fumes are exhausted out the exhaust cowl and not allowed to accumulate in the bilge or engine area.

Note: PWCs and boats built after 7/31/80 that contain power exhaust blowers in fuel engine compartments must have the following warning posted near the instrument panel: Gasoline vapors can explode. Before starting the engine, operate the blower for four minutes and check (using your nose) the engine compartment for gasoline vapors.

Safety Advisory from the Coast Guard

All owners are responsible for keeping their boat's ventilation systems in operating condition. This means making sure openings are free of obstructions, ducts are not blocked, torn, or not attached to the intake or exhaust cowls, blowers operate properly, and worn components are replaced with equivalent marine type equipment.

It is dangerous to remove, change, or modify the ventilation system installed by the boat's manufacturer. Owners must also keep the bilge and engine area clean and free of trash. Having an oily engine or bilge with trash allows explosive fumes to collect and inhibits the flow of fresh air and the proper operation of the ventilation system.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon Monoxide Hazards on Recreational Boats: The Facts

Carbon Monoxide can be a "silent killer" on houseboats and other recreational vessels. Each year, boaters are injured or killed by carbon monoxide. You cannot see, taste, or smell carbon monoxide gas. Virtually all of the carbon monoxide poisonings are preventable.

Carbon monoxide is a by-product of combustion of carbon based material such as gasoline, propane, charcoal or wood. Common sources aboard boats include main and auxiliary engines, generators, cooking ranges, space heaters, and water heaters. (Note: Cold and poorly tuned engines produce more carbon monoxide than warm properly tuned engines).

Carbon monoxide can collect within a boat in a variety of ways. Exhaust leaks (the leading cause of death by carbon monoxide) can allow carbon monoxide to migrate throughout the boat and into enclosed areas. Even properly vented exhaust can re-enter a boat if it's moored too close to a dock or another boat, or if the exhaust is pushed back by prevailing winds. Exhaust can re-enter boats when cruising under certain conditions - the station wagon effect - especially with canvas in place. Exhaust can also collect in enclosed spaces near the stern swim platform.

What To Do?

  • Schedule regular engine and exhaust system maintenance inspections by experienced and trained mechanics.

  • Be aware that dangerous concentrations of carbon monoxide can accumulate when a boat, generator or other fueled device is operated while the boat is at a pier, seawall or alongside another boat. Do not run engines or equipment for extended periods of time under these conditions or without continuous monitoring.

  • Keep forward facing hatches open to allow fresh air circulation in accommodation spaces, even in inclement weather.

  • Keep people clear of the rear deck area and swim platform of the boat while either the generator or engines are running. Always monitor the swimming area.

  • Do not confuse carbon monoxide poisoning with seasickness or intoxication. If someone on board complains of irritated eyes, headaches, nausea, weakness or dizziness, immediately move the person to fresh air, investigate the cause and take corrective action. Seek medical attention, if necessary.

  • Install a carbon monoxide detector in each accommodation space on your boat. Check the detectors periodically to be sure they are functioning properly.

  • In many boats, especially double cabin vessels, the exhaust lines pass through the aft cabin on their way to the transom. You must be able to inspect every joint and every flexible component for wear, cracks or loosened clamps. If the exhaust lines run behind cabinetry, install inspection ports or removable panels in the cabinetry.

  • Do not use any flame-producing device in a non-ventilated area. Alcohol heaters and stoves, propane heaters and stoves, catalytic heaters, oil or gasoline lamps, and charcoal stoves and grills consume oxygen. As oxygen levels in an enclosed space fall, fuel is incompletely burned and carbon monoxide is produced. A clue this is happening is that a normal blue flame becomes yellow and smoky.

Carbon monoxide from an adjacent boat can invade your boat through hatches, doors, or even drains.

Carbon monoxide production is greater while combustion chamber surfaces and gas passages are cool. To minimize carbon monoxide production, boaters should ventilate their boats, operate their boats so that they will permit the maximum dissipation of carbon monoxide, and minimize the time spent getting underway.

On a monthly basis during boating season, make sure all exhaust hose clamps are in place and secure. Look for exhaust leaks, hose soft spots, bulges, cracks, holes, or signs of wear and corrosion. All exhaust hoses should be double clamped.

On an annual basis get a qualified marine technician to inspect the engine and exhaust system. A well running system will greatly reduce the chance of carbon monoxide poisoning.


The United States Coast Guard advises boaters not to "Teak Surf". Recent boating fatalities revealed that carbon monoxide [CO] emitted from a vessel's exhaust has resulted in CO poisoning and the death of some teak surfers. Teak surfing places the individual in position directly exposed to the CO in the engine's exhaust. This may result in a loss of coherent responses and even death. In addition, teak surfing dangerously exposes the individual to a possible propeller injury, and since it is done without a life jacket [PFD], it significantly increases the probability of drowning. Therefore, the Coast Guard stresses, teak surfing is a very dangerous activity and advises boaters not to participate in it. That is why we cannot stress enough that you protect yourself and avoid activities such as teak surfing, since it places you directly in the path of carbon monoxide exhaust.

Carbon monoxide is most often produced in the following areas:

Fuel system: Fuel that is contaminated, stale, or of the wrong octane number for the engine.

Carburetors/injectors: Dirty or clogged flame arrester, malfunctioning automatic choke or faulty adjustment of manual choke plate, worn flat needle valve and seat, high float level, incorrect idle mixture adjustment, and dirty or worn injectors.

Ignition System: Fouled or worn spark plugs, worn points or improperly gapped points, shorted or opened circuit high tension spark plug cables, and incorrect timing.

General Items: Worn piston rings and valves, low engine operating temperatures (cold-running engines increase carbon monoxide production, while engine operating at a higher end of the manufacturer's temperature range produce less), exhaust back-pressure caused by modifications to the exhaust system, and restricted engine compartment ventilation.


Noise has been a major issue regarding PWC operation. It is also a concern for all other powerboats as well. A PWC or boat must have either a factory installed muffler or exhaust water manifold for noise reduction or another effective muffler system.

PWCs or boats built after 1/1/93 must not exceed a noise level of 88 decibels while PWCs or boats built before 1/1/93 must not exceed a noise level of 90 decibels.

Flame Arrestors

Gasoline vapors can explode. Before starting the engine, operate blower for four minutes and check (using your nose) engine compartment for gasoline vapors. Vessels built after July 31, 1980, with power exhaust blowers in gasoline engine compartments, must have a warning decal near the instrument panel. Enclosed gasoline engines installed in a vessel after April 25, 1940, except outboard motors, must be equipped with an acceptable means of backfire flame control. The device must be suitably attached to the air intake or carburetor with a flame tight connection and is required to be Coast Guard approved. Regularly check the backfire flame arrestor for damage and clean it regularly for safety. This will prevent any flames from a backfire to exit the carburetor through the flame arrestor. Having a clean flame arrester will also allow air to enter the engine with little restriction which is best for the operation of the engine and fuel economy.

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