It started with a puff of smoke, seeping slowly into the clear and sunny St. Thomas air on a mid-March afternoon. “I went into a meeting, and when I came out, it was very on fire,” recalled Ryan Nichols, who witnessed Positive Energy, a reportedly $2.5 million yacht, go up in flames.
The now-ironically named yacht was hauled off to sea to avoid damaging other vessels, which was the case when two multimillion-dollar yachts caught fire in the Abu Dhabi Marina Yacht Club in early March, taking six boats with them. Two months earlier, a fire damaged two superyachts at a marina in Marmaris, Turkey, and another superyacht, the 95-foot Queen Anna, burned in Fethiye, Turkey.
“Almost always, when a boat catches fire and it's in a marina, and there are numerous boats downwind from it, the fire spreads pretty rapidly,” explained Al Golden, president of the Grasonville, Md.-based International Marine Insurance Services, which insures around 14,000 boats. Cynthia Sailor from the Florida Yacht Brokers Association put it more bluntly: “One cow kicking over a candle, and the whole city goes up.”
The string of yacht fires raises the question: Is there something about these multimillion-dollar investments that makes them susceptible to fire?
The short answer: No, not really, well, probably not. Experts consulted by Bloomberg agreed that despite the vessels' length and height, the size of the boats aren't to blame. This appears to be a conflagration of coincidence.
It's the older and smaller boats that are typically more at risk, says Joe F. Foggia, a yacht sales broker at Northrop & Johnson in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “As wires get older and they chafe on the metal structure, any of that kind of stuff can create a fire.” Much as in land-bound houses, electrical fires are most commonly to blame on yachts, from faulty connections to docks, wiring damage from salt water, and amateur captains trying to make repairs while out at sea. Issues in the fuel system and galley fires are also concerns.
If anything, extravagant superyachts (commonly defined as longer than 78 feet) are built to higher standards and tend to be packed to the brim with the latest in flame-resistant construction technology, including automatic steel doors to seal off the ignited area and widespread smoke detecting and fire suppression systems. They must meet rigorous requirements set by international classification societies and appease insurers who are risking multimillion-dollar policies.
What they do need more of, though, is upkeep.
“Typically, however the boat is classed, with whatever regulatory society, you have to do an annual [inspection] with them,” Foggia said. The ship’s crew, which can run several engineers deep on a superyacht, also has to maintain certificates to prove they can keep the vessel seaworthy.