While at anchor
at Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays, we had the misfortune of our alcohol stove catching fire, nearly burning us down to the waterline. If we weren’t actually watching the stove at the time, it could have easily turned out a nightmare. Here’s what happened…
Sunny Spells (S.V. Sunny Spells · The chronicle of Sailing Vessel Sunny Spells
) is fitted with a MaxiMarine alcohol stove (two burner with grill) of fairly recent vintage, installed on gimbals. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the procedure for lighting
the stove, which feels a bit like starting a barely controlled fire. A little methylated spirit (metho) is dripped into a tray around the burner and lit to pre-heat the burner. This liquid metho burns and heats up the burner itself. Once the burner is hot enough to vaporize the metho, the alcohol flow is turned on again and the metho vaporizes and burns cleanly, a bit like a propane
Getting just enough metho into the tray initially is a bit tricky, and you either don’t have enough or the alcohol burns quite vigorously while you watch it (very nervously).
On this occasion, we had all three burners going, including the grill
. For some reason which I still can’t determine, the metho started pouring out of one of the burners (I suspect the grill), flooding the bottom of the stove and then running onto the cabin sole
. When this caught alight, it was seconds before we had a roaring fire!
Fortunately, the fire blanket was close to hand and this was quickly thrown over the fire and I then closed all the control knobs on the stove. Unfortunately, the fire was still burning and getting out of control. I then grabbed the fire extinguisher, took a couple of seconds to remove the safety
pin and work out which way to point it, and then discharged it into the fire under the fire blanket… The fire went out instantaneously - to our combined relief! The fire blanket had helped to slow down the fire, but in future I’ll be grabbing the fire extinguisher at the same time!
To say we were all a bit shaken, if not stirred, is an understatement. In the seconds before using the extinguisher I was about to urge everyone to abandon ship, it was that close…
The inside of the boat was covered in powder, a substance we found pretty difficult to clean up. We took the stove outside, cleaned it and then started the two burners (not the grill) on deck
, where it operated flawlessly. The stove was reinstalled and used for the rest of the trip without any incident.
The problem now, of course, is that I don’t trust the devil…
I’ve learned a lot from the experience though:
- In my initial safety briefing I concentrated on sea safety (MOB procedures, harnesses etc..) but we didn’t cover the fire-extinguishers, which I left for a later briefing which never happened. When I briefed the crew on the use of the stove I eplained the use of the fire-blanket, but the most experienced crew member, who had used an alcohol stove before, was on the helm at the time. Of course, she was the one doing the cooking when the stove decided to go up in flames! Lesson 1: make sure the crew is briefed on fire fighting and that they all get the opportunity to handle the fire blanket and fire extinguishers.
- I was intrigued by my subconscious resistance to firing a $20 fire extinguisher while the boat was going up in flames… Lesson 2: Be mentally prepared to use the fire extinguisher.
- I fumbled with the fire extinguisher: first I couldn’t get it out of its bracket, then I had trouble getting the safety pin out and, finally, I had to force myself to loook at it carefully to find the trigger and make sure the nozzle was pointing the right way (while having a very urgent, flaming distraction in front of me). Lesson3: Familiarize yourself and the crew with the fire extinguishers so you can use them with your eyes shut.
It does raise the old question again about cooking
on board: propane
vs alcohol? I don’t know the answer to this one. I do feel a bit biased against the alcohol stove now though, but is an explosion better than a fire?