Make Fueling Your Boat Cleaner – And Safer

Some useful tips to remember when filling up at the pump.

USCG putting out a boat fire

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 1-800-424-8802 or 202-267-2675. The Center is staffed 25 hours a day, seven days a week.

Finally, whatever your destination, plan to have enough fuel on hand. A best practice is the one-third rule: one-third to go out, one -third to come back, and one-third on hand for emergencies and dealing with adverse currents, winds, or weather.

Fuel Safely

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. Let’s keep our marine environment clean.
  • 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, run the blower for at least four 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.

Fuel Efficiently

How well you maintain and operate your vessel can have a huge impact on fuel economy. To make the most of what’s in your tank, consider these tips:

  • Chart your trip to reduce unnecessary run time. Use the tides and wind to your advantage. Boating against the tides and wind takes more horsepower and fuel.
  • Be sure to keep your load light and well-balanced to reduce the horsepower required to propel it through the water. Travel at steady, moderate speeds to reduce fuel consumption.
  • Keep your boat well maintained: Be sure your engine is tuned. Clean spark plugs and proper timing will improve mileage. Keep your hull clean. Perform regular hull maintenance to prevent hard marine growth that creates a rough hull and adds to underwater drag. Check your propeller. Are the blades clean and in good condition? A damaged propeller provides inefficient propulsion and burns extra fuel.
  • Prevent stale gas by running the tank to empty before any long periods of inactivity, and always store portable fuel tanks in a cool dry place to minimize condensation.

The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency’s Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit