Lithium Batteries Continue To Wreak Havoc On Superyachts

It’s fair to say that 2022 was a bad year for superyacht fires. At the time of writing, there have been eight serious fires and, no doubt, many smaller fires, some of which may not have been reported. So, what are the reasons behind the alarming number of fires onboard these supposedly well-designed and maintained vessels with a trained crew onboard?

By Steve Wilkinson • 13 April 2023

In January, a 30m new build ready for delivery was destroyed by fire in Italy. In April, a 27m was seriously damaged in Valencia, Spain. In May, a 26m yacht was destroyed in the UK, resulting in a major incident and environmental damage. In July, a devastating fire broke out in a 27m off the coast of Italy. In August, another 27m caught fire and sank off Estonia, a serious fire occurred onboard a 34m in Ibiza, a 44m was destroyed off the coast of Spain, and another fire broke out onboard a new experimental yacht powered by renewable energy. September saw a 28m yacht destroyed in a shipyard in France. This is not an exhaustive list. If the trend continues, we can expect to hear of more casualties in the new year.

So, what are the reasons behind the alarming number of fires onboard these supposedly well-designed and maintained vessels with a trained crew onboard? Well, some of the answers can be drawn from the question. It goes without saying that we place a great deal of emphasis on the threat of fires onboard and prevention during our STCW training courses. While stopping a fire before it happens is a better option than fighting fires, here are the three main areas to consider when preventing fires:

  • Training
  • Maintenance
  • Good Housekeeping

All three are equally applicable for interior, deck, and engineering crew. Many fire investigation reports will highlight the lack of one or more of these as a contributing factor in the cause and development of fires.

Often with fires or accidents, several circumstances come together to produce the unfortunate event. By removing just one of these circumstances, a fire or accident may not occur, and the crew may not even realise how close they came to disaster. Fire prevention should always be on the crew’s mind when onboard. By carrying out correct maintenance and following safe-working practices, the risk of a fire can be largely mitigated. But fires will still happen even on well-managed yachts. Good training will enable crew to react, risk-assess and deal with a fire in its incipient or early developing stage. If this isn’t a safe option, then containment and using fixed installations should be considered.

From fire investigation reports, we have learned that crew who decided to discontinue first-response firefighting with extinguishers and evacuate the compartment altogether are usually better off. In this particular instance, they failed to contain the compartment when exiting, which allowed the fire and smoke to spread. Other reports show that contained compartments were opened, which allowed the previously-contained fire to spread.
Vessels are purposefully designed with several compartments so that if one can be sealed, ventilation shut down and the fire dealt with defensively or using fixed firefighting installations, the risk is limited, and the chances of success increase. This strategy should be the preferred option instead of an organised attack on the fire by BA teams. All these techniques are covered during the basic STCW FP&FF course and then built on by attending the STCW Advanced Firefighting course.

A good containment strategy has been put in place on a number of the ship fires I have attended during my career, and at no stage would we consider opening the compartments until we have seen a sustained drop in temperature, sometimes monitoring a temperature drop for days before making an entry. of course, if the situation is untenable, abandonment may be the only option. Even if the vessel is not lost to fire, the smoke and products of combustion may well mean you are no longer in a safe environment. When teaching STCW refresher courses, I always ask the students to share their experiences of fire on board and those that do often re-call their surprise as to how much smoke was produced, even from a small fire. The fumes produced contain vast amounts of toxic gasses resulting in an unbreathable atmosphere. Remember, there isn’t a vessel out there worth more than human life.

Training is one of the vital components to achieving a successful outcome when a fire breaks out onboard. Not all yachts carry out efficient training. Remember, not only is there a moral obligation to ensure crew are competent and confident to deal with fire but there is a legal obligation to carry out fire drills on board. Using a fire hose to wash the anchor chain or conducting a drill once at the start of a season isn’t acceptable. If your crew aren’t confident and they’re making serious mistakes during a training session, then you can guarantee if it happens for real, at three in the morning, during rough weather when smoke is travelling throughout your vessel, things probably won’t end well.

Many yachts these days complete their training records electronically and send them to the management company as well as holding them on board for any potential port state control inspection. As a fire investigator, I have, on occasion, worked alongside an independent fire investigator appointed by the insurance company, which is useful as we can work together to achieve a robust hypothesis as to the cause and origin of a fire. However, the additional consideration the insurance company investigator has is to whether there has been any breach of policy requirements. For example, in training, the records show drills have been completed but when the investigator interviews crew members individually about when and what training was carried out before the fire, the investigator will soon know how true those records are. The investigation into the fire that broke out on MV Conception in 2019 resulting in the loss of 34 lives showed the crew had not received adequate training.

Drills and training don’t have to be organised or carried out by the captain or officers. Arguably, the best person to give a lecture on the Breathing Apparatus (BA) set onboard is the newest crew member, fresh from their STCW training. Allowing all members of the crew to be involved in training delivery gives a sense of ownership, distributes workload, and keeps drills fresh and enjoyable. If full-scale fire drills are difficult during a busy charter, then a training session around the crew mess table discussing the type and location of fire-fighting equipment onboard and a refresh on the details of the yacht’s fire & safety plan provides worthwhile training. Alternatively, a tabletop exercise on fire in the high-risk areas on board. The vessel’s flag and class will dictate the frequency and content of drills required.

There has been much discussion in recent years about Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries being a common cause of fires. Whilst this may be the case, there are still several areas that can be improved regarding prevention, containment and dealing with this risk. The main concern of a Li-ion battery system is that the temperature will rise to such a level that it will go into thermal runaway. Thermal runaway is the exothermic reaction that occurs when a Li-ion battery starts to heat and burn which, in turn, produces explosive and toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen cyanide, benzene and toluene.

So, what can cause thermal runaway where the battery generates more heat than can be dissipated? Overcharging a Li-ion battery represents one of the highest possible risk scenarios; however, other incidents can cause failure such as:

  • Over-discharge - battery power has dropped below the manufacturer’s limits
  • Overcurrent - charging or discharging the battery at an excessive power level
  • Overheating - excessive temperatures can cause breakdown and ignition
  • Excessive cold - operating a battery in temperatures below its rated range increases the internal resistance
  • External short circuit - the electrolyte in a cell may ignite if the battery is rapidly charged or discharged
  • Mechanical damage - increased risk of the electrodes coming into contact and short-circuiting
  • External fire - elevated risk involving the battery system leading to direct overheating and combustion of all battery materials
  • Internal defect - the largest threat to a li-ion battery system because it cannot be detected by the battery management system (BMS)

The investigation into the fire which destroyed MY Kanga in 2018 concluded that in all probability the source of the fire was the Li-ion batteries. The investigation also found that the crew were unaware of the hazards associated with these batteries and continued to charge them even though they were leaking and giving off fumes. The investigation of the MY Sempre fire, which was a total loss in 2021, did not exclude that the Li-ion batteries onboard were either the cause of the fire and/or a contributing factor to the intensity and spread of the fire.

The garage space of Kanga was not considered a service space within the meaning defined by the Commercial Yacht Code 2015 and therefore additional measures to prevent the spread of, as well as extinguishing the fire, were not deemed necessary in the garage. Since then, several recommendations, legislative changes and reviews of the Large Yacht Code have been introduced. Notable changes are the requirements for battery management systems (BMS), safe working practices for the storage and charging of Li-ion batteries and suitable containment and extinguishing systems. Recent years have seen the development of extinguishers specifically for Li-ion utilising Aqueous Vermiculate dispersion (AVD) through to advance fixed installation systems such as Compressed Air Foam Systems (CAFS). An effective fire suppression system will be able to swiftly extinguish a fire in the place of origin and fulfil the functional requirements as stipulated in SOLAS Chapter II-2.

Several in-depth tests have been carried out to ascertain the best suppression system for lithium-ion batteries in vessels. The results showed that different systems provide different benefits, with unique strengths and drawbacks, providing no ‘silver bullet’ solution. Each battery installation will have to assess necessary barriers in consultation with the battery manufacturer to identify the suppression system most suited for that project.

The IMO’s 2018 adoption of greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and the global inclination to shift away from fossil fuels will undoubtedly change the way superyachts are powered in the future and with this change, we will also have to change the way fires on board are prevented and dealt with. One concern is that technology progresses more quickly than the associated legislation and training required to keep us safe. Quality training, prevention strategies and efficient safety management systems on board are key to keeping your yacht from becoming another statistic.


About the author:

Steve Wilkinson served 7 years in the Royal Navy before 27 years in the UK Fire & Rescue Service. Latterly in his career, he managed a specialist maritime unit that would respond to ship fires around the UK. He currently works as an independent instructor for Bluewater Yachting and Falmouth Training Solutions. He holds several Fire Service, RYA, STCW, and technical diving instructional qualifications.