A Lesson on Boat Safety
On Monday, January 3, 2011, a boat, fueling up at the Delray Harbor Club, a very good fuel dock, did not follow basic Boat Safety rules, blew up sending 2 people to the hospital and killing 1 person. You can read the article in the Palm Beach Post. According to the U.S. Coast Guard Boat Safety, there were over 2,600 boat explosions in 2009 causing some 5 deaths and 1900 injuries. The explosions can be caused by many different situations but mainly from just the simple fact that they didn’t follow the Boat Safety with gas engines. Remember that we are talking about Gas here, not diesel fuel.
I remember back as a child I was at Lake Shasta in California sitting on the beach when a saw a boat towing a skier blow up with the parents and 3 kids in the boat and one kid skiing. I remember people screaming and helping to get all the people to the beach waiting for emergency vehicles to get there from the closest town that was over 20 mountain miles away. I don’t know the final outcome but I remember the burned kids and parents and the fear in the eyes of the girl that was on the skis.
Fast forward to 2009 and I was moving a boat from Miami to Boca Raton in the evening. As I was passing by the Haulover inlet, I heard a Mayday on the radio. A boat, not more than a mile away, had blown up and someone had one of the severely injured people on board and was heading to the Fire Station at Haulover Inlet. They were asking the Coast Guard to notify them that he was coming. The process that the Coast Guard follows in receiving a Mayday call takes time and the person had arrived at the Fire Station before the USCG had even picked up the phone. How that process works could be another article. The explosion was caused by the boater getting on his boat and not following the proper Boat Safety procedures, especially for a boat that had been sitting for quite awhile, and starting his generator causing the explosion severely injuring him and several others including a child.
Gas engines in boats are not like gas engines in cars. Improper fueling can create a bomb on your boat. First, let’s understand that Gas does not explode, Gas Fumes explode. You can have a puddle of gas with a lot of ventilation or wind and spark all day long and nothing will happen but take a small amount of gas that creates fumes in a closed area and create a spark and you will have an explosion. Gas fumes are heavy and in a car they just dissipate into the air below the car. In a boat, the gas fumes, being heavy, sit below the ventilation that is available creating a pocket of fumes. Therefore, in a boat those gas fumes will collect in the bottom of a bilge and below the windows in a salon. Fumes are created when gas is exposed. It might be a leak in a fuel line or overflow in the carburetor but it is also caused by fumes that are generated when gas passes from the gas nozzle at the fuel dock into the gas tank on the boat. If the gas intake is on top of or inside the highest part of the gunnels, the fumes can float over the edge into the cockpit or even into the engine room and create an invisible cloud just waiting to be ignited. In a 1978 article in Popular Mechanics, the Coast Guard said that one cup of Gas is equivalent to fifteen sticks of dynamite. Because of this, strict Boat Safety rules have been created and should be followed on every gas boat. One of those Boat Safety rules is to close all hatches and doors before fueling. Do not let someone enter the lower areas while taking on gas. I’ve had that happen. I am normally fueling up with diesel, which is a very safe fuel in terms of explosions. It may smell really bad if leaked but you are not going to blow up because of a spark. One trip where I was moving a Gas driven boat, we needed to stop to fuel. I closed all hatches and doors and my wife, not aware of the differences, opened the door and went below. After fueling up and running the bilge fans for awhile, I also opened every window to make sure that the lower area was totally ventilated. I got my nose working until I was happy that there were no fumes. In Boat Safety, your nose is your best defense. As seen in the accident in Delray where the cousin of the owner had apparently gone down below before the ventilation and then, and the actual facts will come out later as to what really happened first, the owner either attempted to start an engine or the cousin attempted to start the generator when the explosion occured, he was below and his body was recovered 2 days later. As a general rule, never let a person stay below when fueling with gas and definitely do not let them go below while starting the engines. Had he at least been topside, he would have had a chance to survive.
Even in 1978 they knew the boat safety rules:
1. Before gassing up, always first shut off the engines and electrical devices.
2. Close all hatches and doors so that gas fumes, displaced from the tank as gas goes in, don’t settle in your bilges.
3. Don’t smoke.
4. Wipe up all spills.
5. When done, let your boat air out by opening all hatches
6. Turn on all blowers and use an electrical fume detector if available.
7. Finally, sniff for any gas smells before starting your engine.
Spending a little time, even 5 minutes, can save a life, save your boat and prevent a disaster.
LATEST BOAT SAFETY UPDATE: Gentleman that was killed, after they took apart the boat and found his body, was down in the engine room with the hatch open. They were putting in Gas trying to look for a Gas leak. The Girl on the dock was smart and told them not to start the boat while fueling up. They decided not to listen to wisdom and tried to start the engine. The sad, but predictable results, followed.
They are there for a reason. Your life could depend on it. Follow the Boat Safety rules.