This boat burned near The Wharf in Orange Beach on July 3.
This boat burned on July 3 near The Wharf./Photo by David Hutchins
Brian Wells of Sportsman Marina in Orange Beach.
Brian Wells of Sportsman Marina
By John Mullen
 
July 11, 2018 – Orange Beach, AL (OBA®) –  One thing Brian Wells has learned in his many years as general manager at Sportsman Marina in Orange Beach: All boats are different. Especially when it comes to fueling.
 
“We always teach ‘play dumb and ask questions,’” Wells said. “Lots of people are happy and on vacation and they pull up to a fuel dock and just assume that everybody knows their boat as well as they do.”
 
But just about each boat has a different way or port to get fuel in the tanks for a day on the water. 
 
“A guy loses his gas cap and he goes and buys a new cap and it says water on it,” Wells said. “Or loses his water cap and goes and puts one on it that says gas on it because that’s all they had and he needed a cap. How are we to know that’s happened to your boat? I’ve had every one of those things happen.”
 
Wells directs his dockhands to be diligent about fueling safely and correction.
 
“Always ask questions so that you know for sure that you’re exactly putting what you’re supposed to put in in the correct tank,” he said.
 
Inboard motors pose unique problems of their own. A recent boat fire in the Intracoastal Waterway near The Wharf is an example of what can go wrong in fueling. The boat in question had just left the marina fuel dock.
 
Wells said he’s not familiar with the specifics of that incident but says extra care is necessary so that fuel or fuel vapors aren’t trapped in the engine compartment before the boat is cranked.
 
“An inboard with a motor that’s under a cover if there’s fuel in the bilge or if you pumped the gas a bunch into the carburetor and it didn’t start those fumes are trapped in an enclosed environment,” Wells said. “When you hit the key the spark from the starter or a spark in the distributor cap can ignite the vapor that’s inside the engine compartment. 
 
“Most of them have exhaust fans or blowers. You suck air out of the engine compartment and put fresh air in it. You’re supposed to run a blower for a period of time before you try to start an engine.”
 
New technology has helped thwart some of the risks with fuel on inboard motors, Wells said, but accidents can still happen.
 
“With today’s newer boats most of them are fuel injected or throttle-body injected so you don’t have carburetors and they are much safer as far as having raw fuel outside the engine,” he said.
 
Orange Beach Fire Chief Justin Pearce.
OBFD Chief Justin Pearce
Chief Justin Pearce of the Orange Beach Fire Department said the main problem his department faces with marine fueling is not fires but fuel being put in the wrong container or tank or in the bottom of the boat.
 
“The bigger thing that we deal with a lot is when people are fueling their boats by putting the gas nozzle in the rod holder and filling the bilge with gasoline,” Pearce said. “We actually took care of one of those this weekend. Put the nozzle in the wrong hole, click it and let it run. We have several of those a year.”
 
Pearce said the fire department will offload the fuel and clear the hull of vapors but having the gas reclaimed and disposed of is the boat owner’s responsibility. Plus, they are out the cost of expensive fuel.
 
This is one of many reasons Wells trains his fuel dock crews to pay close attention to where the fuel is going and to stay with the nozzle during the entire fueling process.
 
“All marine fueling facilities should not have catches on their nozzles,” Wells said. “You shouldn’t be able to fuel the boat and walk away from the nozzle. We teach our guys their hand needs to be on the nozzle at all times because lots of boats don’t take fuel that fast.”
 
Photo by David Hutchins