Guest Commentary: Smoke alarms are a must on vessels

I want to share an interesting boating experience I had recently in Catalina. When we arrived at our moored sailboat, I found our stereo system and sump pump for the aft shower and sink were not working. The harbor mechanic easily replaced the float switch in the sump pump reservoir. We had a fabulous weekend and we settled in for a wonderful Fourth of July week.

On  July 8, I lifted the floorboard near the sink to get a bottle of water and was shocked to see about 2 or 3 inches of water in the storage compartment. I got a bucket and started bailing water. I dumped each full bucket into the shower but it did not seem like I was making much progress. It finally dawned on me that we must be taken on water so I rushed to check the bilge. Sure enough the bilge was full of water. Both of my bilge pumps were inoperable. I yelled for Pam to help me while I used a hand pump to rapidly pump out the water. She emptied each full bucket into the sink and within a short time the bilge was dry and we were not taking on more water. I discovered the newly installed float switch in the sump was catching on the strainer preventing it from turning on the pump. All of the water from the past 10 days as well as the buckets I dumped in the shower was going directly into the bilge. My adrenaline rush was now starting to subside. I called the harbor mechanic and he ordered new bilge pumps. It was hard for me to understand how both pumps could go out simultaneously especially when I installed new ones before the season.

I was awoken this morning at 5:30 a.m. by an annoying alarm. I rolled over thinking what the hell could that be and realized it was the fire alarm. The boat was full of smoke and we were on fire. I could smell it was an electrical fire so I immediately turned off the main breaker and began searching for the fire. I was relieved to see smoke starting to clear through the open hatches and portholes. I could sense the heat coming from near the navigation desk, which focused my search. I could feel the cushion on top of one of the storage compartments was hot so with fire extinguisher in hand I open the compartment. There it was. My inverter had shorted out clearly sending flames into the compartment but the fire was out. I called the harbor mechanic. It was quite the fire drill.

Pam and I feel fortunate that we were on the boat when the short-circuit occurred knowing that the boat would probably have been a total loss if we were not there. We are also grateful for the smoke detector fire alarm that our insurance company required us to install a few years ago. Our aft stateroom does not have an escape hatch so it could have easily been game over for us had that alarm not alerted us before the fire took hold. I called our insurance company and thanked them. We owned our boat about 10 years before installing the alarm.

I hope our experience will inspire all of you who own boats to install a smoke detector!

Tom Nix


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