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A Refresher Course On Safe Refueling

Every boating season, we all hear or read about yachts exploding or catching fire during the refueling process. Studies show that the majority of these tragic accidents are the result of carelessness vs. ignorance. Fortunately, most can easily be prevented by taking proper precautions.


Fueling is one of the more mundane tasks associated with pleasure boating - and one we often consider to be a no-brainer. “Nothing to it…second nature,” right? Think again. Dozens of deadly accidents occur every year during the refueling process.


Gasoline and diesel are the most common culprits. The fumes from just one cup of gasoline can pack the explosive punch of five sticks of dynamite. What’s more, since gasoline vapors are heavier than air, these fumes tend to seep to the lowest point of the boat—usually the bilge area—where they lie in wait for a spark to ignite. Diesel, on the other hand, is less explosive than gasoline but still highly flammable. It has a higher “flash” or ignition point and won’t ignite as quickly as gasoline does, but diesel fires are difficult to extinguish and can damage and destroy just as easily as gasoline.

So, whether your yacht runs on gas or diesel, here’s a refresher course on refueling designed to protect your vessel, crew and loved ones...

  • Call ahead. When approaching the fuel dock, use your VHF radio to call and ask which pump you should use. Many diesel fuel docks have two different speeds of fuel pumps: regular (12 gallons per minute) and fast (29 gallons per minute). Unless your yacht is designed for high-speed pumps, ask for the slow pump. Not only will its smaller nozzle better fit your fuel port, it also won’t blow fuel out the port—causing a mess and polluting the water by draining overboard—as larger nozzles and faster pumping tend to do.
  • Check wind direction. If you have a choice as to which side of the fuel dock to land on, choose the windward side. This will allow the wind to blow fuel fumes from your boat away from you, giving your vessel the best ventilation possible.
  • Moor your boat tightly to the dock. Be sure it’s properly tied up with the four standard docking lines (bow line, forward spring, aft spring and stern line), both to prevent spillage and to avoid shifting or drifting out from the dock during the refueling process.
  • Extinguish all smoking materials and put your cell phone away. You see these warning signs every time you gas up your car, and for similar reasons, the same rules apply at the marina’s fueling dock.  
  • Send all crew and passengers ashore. Encourage them to take a walk and stretch their legs while you fuel up. Should a mishap occur, the fewer folks on board, the better.
  • Batten down. Close all hatches, doors, windows, ports and other openings to prevent fumes from entering your yacht. Shut off all valves and extinguish all open flames—such as galley stoves, pilot lights and oil lamps. Make sure all sources of ignition—engines, generators and fans—are turned off, since one tiny spark caused by a short circuit could cause an explosion. There is no need to turn off marine designed devices such as radios, batteries and electronic gear.
  • Do not run the engine blowers…yet. These are not designed to evacuate the engine space but to provide cross-ventilation—meaning one blower will blow air into the engine area, and the other will pull air out of the engine area. Thus, if you have fumes drifting around the fuel dock, the “blowers” may pull these into the engine area.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher within reach. And make sure it’s been recently inspected, is fully charged and is in proper working condition. If you have an automated fire extinguisher built into the engine compartment, confirm that it’s in working order and inspected, too.
  • Know which tank to fill first. If your yacht is equipped with saddle fuel tanks, fill the tank away from the fuel dock first. Once that tank is full, the boat will lean away—not towards—the dock. Since fuel weighs about 7 pounds per gallon, and water weighs about 8 pounds per gallon, 300 gallons of fuel can weigh a ton. So, if you fill the saddle tank nearest to the fuel dock first, the cabin, handrails or rooftop may lean against the dock piling and damage your vessel. When you take the fuel hose to the outboard tank first, keep in mind that you should never take it through your vessel cabin!
  • Get—and stay—grounded. While refueling, maintain full and firm metal-to-metal contact between the pump nozzle and your yacht fuel deck pipe. This grounds the nozzle and prevents sparks created by static electricity.
  • Avoid drips, spills and overflow. Handle the nozzle with the tip up, and wrap it with an oil-absorbent pad, fuel donut or “diaper” to catch fuel splashes or burping.
  • Stay with your yacht throughout the entire refueling process. Do not rely on automatic shut-off nozzles to prevent spills, as these often fail to shut off in time. Also, do not insert any objects (soda cans, pieces of wood) to hold the lever open, because it may overflow—spilling fuel—if you’re not watching it.
  • Be certain you’re putting your nozzle in the right port. It’s not uncommon for overtired, hurried or distracted skippers, crew or dockhands to mistakenly place the fuel nozzle in a boat’s rod holders or other non-fuel opening—and the results can be explosive. To be sure you are filling the fuel tank, monitor the fuel tank level gauge. Confirm that the fuel level is rising, then double check your engine compartment and bilge. You should never have fuel in your bilge. If you see or smell fuel in the bilge immediately STOP fueling and alert the dock master.
  • Avoid “topping off” your tank. Never fill a tank to the brim; instead, stop at 90% of capacity. Fuel expands as it heats, and if you leave your boat with a full tank on the water, it may vent fuel overboard. What’s more, the hose connecting the fill port to the fuel tank may have a long run and a curve or two, and this may cause the fuel to burp up into your face.
  • Screw the fuel cap back on tightly. This will prevent water from leaking into the fuel tank and fouling your filters or engine.
  • Wipe up and clean up. Use oil-absorbent pads to wipe any drops from the nozzle and boat dock, then discard these in approved containers on the dock, as these are considered hazardous waste. Never toss these in a trash can or anywhere on your vessel.
  • Open hatches, as well as doors, windows and ports to ventilate all enclosed spaces. If your engine is gas-powered, run the blowers for two to four minutes.
  • Do a sniff test. Check the bilge and engine compartment for fuel odors, keeping in mind that vapors have a tendency to sink to low spots near your engine starter. Some newer gas-powered boats have an electronic “sniffer” to check for gas fumes below deck, and installing a gas vapor detection/alarm system—as well as a carbon monoxide detector—is always a smart move, too. But remember that your best sniffer is the one between your eyes.
  • Start your engine. Do a quick visual check to assure that your engine is working properly and the bilge is free of fluids. Reload your crew and passengers, untie from the dock, cast off—and have a safe voyage!

Most marine stoves and grills use liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), a combination of propane and butane. It’s efficient, inexpensive and widely available. But it’s also highly explosive if not properly installed and maintained. If you use propane aboard your yacht, be sure:

  • Your tank meets industry standard safety requirements. Look for a stamp from the Department of Transportation (DOT) or the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) near the tank valve. Also, as a rule of thumb, fiberglass or aluminum tanks are more suitable for marine environments because they’re made of rust prevention materials.
  • It’s stored properly. The safest spot for a propane tank is in a properly designed propane storage locker isolated from the rest of the boat. Propane storage lockers should be vented for air and designed so that heavier-than-air propane vapor fumes will drain overboard—not into your cabin or bilge.
  • Turn on your tank at the valve. Check your circuit breaker panel to confirm the remote switch is activated. In the galley near the stove, you should see a switch panel with a red or green light and a control button, or lever, to turn on the electric solenoid between the tank in the storage locker and the galley. This is your safety system. Don’t forget to turn off the safety switch when cooking is completed to prevent possible leaks into the galley cabin.
  • Turn off the tank when you leave the boat. Just as you would with your propane BBQ grill at home, be sure to turn off the propane tank’s valves when you leave your yacht to go home.
  • Install a gas detector near your range. These sniffers constantly monitor the air for the presence of LP gas, activating an alarm and shutting off the solenoid when they detect gas at about 10% of minimum explosive level.


Spilled petroleum in our nation’s waterways not only threatens the marine environment, it also creates a safety hazard for boaters. Since fuel is lighter than water, it floats on top, and the current moves it closer to other boats, creating a fire hazard.

By law, you are required to report all—no matter how small—oil and chemical spills to the U.S. Coast Guard’s hotline 

(1-800-424-8802), as well as to the marina office. It is also unlawful to use detergent or other chemicals on a spill to disperse the oil or sheen. These products can cause the petroleum to sink into the water, causing further harm to marine animals and bottom sediments. 

Information provided by Captains Chris and Alyse Caldwell, owners of Captain Chris Yacht Services, LLC, 772.205.1859; www.captainchrisyachtservices.com Both are USCG licensed 100 Ton Masters and Cruising Coaches who offer Personal Boat Training online or onboard your boat anywhere! The Caldwells also offer training videos. You can email them at chris@captainchrisyachtservices.com.


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