May 2007

All It Takes Is A Spark And — BOOM!

By Tom Nunes

Every year, near every major recreational boating center, a shattering event will make the local and sometimes regional news. It’s not the type of event that the Coast Guard or Coast Guard Auxiliary finds satisfying, rewarding or invited.

In some respects, the only “good” that will come from this event is the inevitable object lesson. And as object lessons go, we’d rather not have this type of event from which to pull the example.

We’re talking about a boat explosion, folks. Every year, some mariner failed to follow proper fueling procedures, and the vessel exploded. We’re talking a big BOOM!

In a typical year, the Coast Guard will report over 15 explosions, with about 70 injuries and a couple fatalities. Property damage is estimated to be in excess of $3 million.

Some mariner was in too much of a hurry, or in denial, or failed to supervise his crew and guests, and Lady Luck just wasn’t on the mariner’s side. KABOOM!

In fact, during and after the explosion, every imaginable onomatopoeias can be heard. Enough onomatopoeias to make Batman proud (if you remember the 1960’s TV series). Unfortunately, it may have just cost someone’s life, and most definitely, property.

Fueling Your Vessel

Whether you’re using an outboard engine with a portable gas tank, or a 65-foot cabin cruiser, there are procedures that need to be followed to protect you, your guests, your vessel, and those who are around your boat. The procedures are simple, definitely not time consuming, and quite frankly, there are no excuses. Your life hangs in the balance.

    Here are the basic procedures prior to your pumping your fuel:
  1. Secure your vessel to the fuel dock.
  2. Stop all engines.
  3. Turn off your batteries.
  4. Close all hatches.
  5. Ask all your guests, crew and pets to leave the boat.
  7. Have a fire extinguisher nearby.
Let’s discuss these items, so we understand why we need to comply with them. Nothing could be worse than having your boat float away, while you’re not in it, so be sure you secure it to the dock.

Just like your car, you shouldn’t add fuel when the engine is running. It adds to the likelihood that you’ll ignite the gas fumes, as does having any electrical item running (why we turn off our batteries) and obviously no smoking because that cigarette is a great ignition source!

We close all our hatches so the fumes (gas fumes are heaver than air) can’t seep into the bilge, and for safety sake, if our friends are not on the vessel and something happens, they will be safer.

    While fueling, here are some more simple procedures:
  1. Always keep the fuel nozzle in contact with the tank opening.
  2. Don’t spill any fuel.
  3. Don’t overfill the tanks
  4. If you have a portable gas tank, remove it from the vessel and fill it up on the dock.
You need to keep the fuel nozzle in contact with the tank opening, since a) the tank opening is grounded to your vessel and b) you don’t want to create a spark. Spilling fuel can cause innumerable problems, from increasing the likelihood of a fire or explosion to an adverse environmental impact (and large fines that go along with fuel spills).

Remember, gas expands as it heats up, so we don’t want to overfill our gas tanks because the gas would end up in the water from the overflow valve. This too, would cause an environmental headache and possible fire/explosion scenario.

The safest place to fill a portable tank is on land. If you have one, take the safe route, disconnect it from the boat and bring it ashore.

    And finally, after you’re done fueling, make sure you follow these procedures:
  1. Make sure the gas tank cover is closed.
  2. Wipe up any spilled fuel.
  3. Open all hatches and ports.
  4. Turn on your bilge blower and ventilate the vessel for at least five minutes.
  5. Use the best gas-fume tester money can buy, your nose and sniff your bilge to see if there are any fumes.
  6. Return your passengers, crew and pets to the vessel.
  7. Leave the dock quickly, after safely casting off your lines.
Ever leave the gas station and you or the gas attendant forgot to close the gas cover? Gas spills all over the place — an unsafe condition on land and even more dangerous on water.

It’s the same problem with small spills around the fill opening. Clean them up and properly dispose of the rags at the fuel dock!

Since gas fumes are heavy than air, we want to open all our hatches and ports so fresh air can move around the cabin and through the bilge. This will, with the bilge blower on for at least four minutes, force any gas fumes that leaked into the bilge, out of the vessel.

But, let’s not take any chances – smell (sniff) the bilge and make sure there are no fumes before turning on the battery and starting your engine! Your nose knows!!!

This is the most dangerous time of the entire fueling process. So, once again, and with gusto: smell (sniff) the bilge and make sure there are no fumes!

The Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary want your boating season to be fun and safe. By following these steps, we can eliminate once source of concern, and lower the chances that your summer fun will be interrupted by tragedy.

To learn more about boating safety, contact your local Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla. You can find us on the web (

Members of the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, who are all volunteers, spend countless hours doing safety patrols, search and rescue and homeland security patrols, on the ground, on the water and in the air. We perform thousands of Vessel Safety Checks each year, as well as provide safe boating classes year-round.

Recreational boating is fun, and it’s more fun when you do it safely!