Imagine yourself on a partly cloudy Friday afternoon, tied up to a fuel dock at your local marina with several other boats and pumping 89 octane fuel into your boat for a weekend of fun with your family.  You are on a 22 foot outboard powered cuddy cabin boat with fishing rod holders in the gunnels and on the trailing edge of the cabin top.  You have a 50-gallon fuel tank and it was about half full when you started pumping gas which means you could add up to 25 gallons.  You suddenly realize that you have already pumped 35 gallons into the boat and still going.  A quick check of the fuel gauge shows that your tank is still at the same half full mark that it was before you started pumping…  and you detect a faint odor of gasoline even after you stopped pumping.  Translation, you have pumped more fuel into the tank than it can hold.  You have a serious problem.  This actually happened to a person we will call Captain Ahab.

This was the scenario when Captain Keith at Rescue Boat received an emergency call from a local marina.  It seems that Captain Ahab had pumped 35 gallons of highly explosive gasoline into a starboard fishing rod holder that was located very near his fuel fill and consequently put 35 gallons directly into his bilge.  When he realized what had happened, he told the young gas dock attendant who immediately ordered everyone off the fuel dock, then called Rescue Boat and the local fire department.

the boat that was now a ticking time bomb…..

Captain Keith arrived at the marina about 20 minutes later, wisely tied his rescue boat to a dock removed from the gas dock and walked over to the boat that was now a ticking time bomb.  His first step was to remove the keys from the ignition of the boat, then very carefully disconnect the battery to remove any chance of a spark igniting the fuel.  Doing this was inherently dangerous not just in case of a spark but also because if the automatic bilge pump had clicked on it would most likely cause the whole boat, and maybe even the gas dock to explode.  Captain Ahab was very lucky in one regard.  If he had pumped even a little bit more gas into the bilge it would most likely would have caused the float valve on the bilge pump to activate with devastating results.

Captain Keith’s next actions were to figure out what to do with the boat and how to get the gas out without causing an explosion and fire.  He decided to immediately get the boat off the gas dock with its huge supply of fuel, and away from other nearby boats, each containing large amounts of gasoline or diesel fuel.  Captain Keith towed the boat at a slow speed and relatively safe distance behind the rescue boat to a nearby launch ramp where police, DEM and fire personnel with equipment were waiting.  In most tow situations Rescue Boat requires an owner or owner’s rep to be aboard when a vessel is being towed…. but not in this case. 

Although other boaters were not happy about it, police closed the ramp until the whole process of removing the hazardous material (gasoline) was completed and it was safe to reopen.  Upon arrival the boat was hauled half way up the ramp such that it was parked at a steep angle.  From this position it was possible to drain the bilge via the plug hole in the boat’s transom and into 5 gallon gas cans.   Using gravity to empty the bilge reduced the risk of fire that might have occurred if electric or gas-powered pumps were used.  Once all fuel was removed the boat was thoroughly rinsed out multiple times with hoses from a fire truck.  Captain Ahab was advised to wash out the bilge again upon arriving home and to let the whole boat air out for a few days before reconnecting the battery and using his boat.   Captain Keith was pleased to return safely to Rescue Boat Base after yet another dangerous rescue. 

Captain Keith

Captain Tuna – Hal, Epilogue.  Fueling any boat is inherently dangerous.  The above true story is an extreme case, but serves to make an important point.  Before fueling be certain where you are putting the fuel pump nozzle.  Deck fittings for adding fuel, water, and for pumping out holding tanks can be deceptively similar, can all be located along the gunnels of your boat, and as in this case even rod holders with rubber caps can be misleading. 

When relating this story Captain Keith told me that the design of this particular boat was such that the entire bilge was largely sealed to be water tight and hence trapped the misplaced fuel and fumes with very little noticeable odor above deck.  This is likely true of many boats so always be doubly sure where you have placed the fuel nozzle before you begin pumping gas or diesel and obviously keep all possible sources of a spark, including cigarettes and cell phones well away from the area when fueling. 

If you find this story interesting and helpful, please check out the Rescue Boat Book for more adventure on the water and please share with us any similar situations you may have encountered.