Sea Tow Tips for Cleaner, Safer Refueling

A Coast Guard crew responds to a boat fire at a refueling station in Newport, Oregon. The crew put the fire out, dewatered the vessel and safely towed it to a nearby dock. Photo courtesy USCG.

Boaters sometimes forget that fueling their vessel can be a bit of a challenge. To begin with, boats often have larger fuel tanks. Dock gas nozzles tend to pump fuel at a faster rate than those at automobile service stations. Plus, gasoline fumes are extremely volatile. Most fires and explosions on boats happen during or immediately after fueling, so take as much care as possible when you’re at the pump.

Also, be sure to keep the marine environment clean by making sure fuel goes only in your tank and not in the water. Without precautions, fuel can drip off the nozzle, back-splash out of the tank, or discharge from the vent due to over-filling or expansion. All these small, dispersed sources can add up to a big pollution problem that threatens the enjoyment of recreational boating for everyone.

It takes only a small amount of a spilled petroleum product to cause a film or sheen over a large area of water. And even after the sheen is gone, the persistence of fuel in the water continues to threaten the marine environment. It can kill fish and other aquatic life and cause long-term damage to the natural habitat.

If you do experience a spill, regardless of the amount, be sure to report it to the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center. It’s important to perform a quick clean up — and it’s the law. To report spills, call (800-424-8802) or (202-267-2675). The Center is staffed 25 hours a day, 7 days a week.

A 25’ response boat crew from Coast Guard Station Yaquina Bay moored to the fuel docks next to a vessel that caught fire while fueling in Newport, Oregon. Newport Fire Department was first on-scene and was able to contain the fire. Photo courtesy USCG.

Safe Fueling Tips:

As is often the case with boating, a considered approach can avoid fires and keep you out of trouble. Follow these rules to avoid spillage and accidents when fueling your vessel:

  • If you are filling jerry cans or portable fuel tanks, take them out of the boat and refuel them onshore. This is safer as it will stop dangerous fumes from building up on your deck and around your boat.
  • Before fueling inboard tanks, close all hatches and other openings to prevent fumes from getting into interior spaces of the boat.
  • To avoid air locks and sudden spills, be sure your boat is level when refueling. Put passengers ashore or level your trailer if refueling at a service station.
  • Be sure you have a fire extinguisher within reach when filling up. Extinguish cigarettes and any other smoking materials or flame. Turn off engines, all electrical equipment, including radios, stoves, and other appliances. And never use a cell phone when fueling. Static electricity can create a spark. Turn cell phones completely off.
  • Do not rely on hands-free or automatic shut-off features. Attend the nozzle at all times, and never fill your fuel tank to the top. Fuel will expand as it warms up, especially in warm weather, so be sure to allow room in your tanks for this expansion to avoid leaking fuel into the water.
  • If you have a metal fuel tank, maintain nozzle contact with the fill pipe to prevent static spark and spills. Hold an absorbent sheet under the nozzle to catch any drips, and be sure to wipe up any spillage that should occur. After fueling, be sure to secure the filler cap to prevent fuel from leaking or water from entering the tank.
  • Before starting the engine on an inboard or I/O engine, run the blower for at least 4 minutes and check the bilge for any fuel vapors. Open all ports, hatches, and doors to ventilate. Do the “sniff” test. Make sure there is no gasoline odor anywhere on the boat. If there is, don’t start the engine. Instead, continue ventilating and checking for possible leaks.

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