By Brent Howard

All it takes for an explosion is fuel fumes and a small spark.

The 1955 Century boat explosion is a heads up to evaluate boats for explosion risk and take needed action to insure our boats are safe to enjoy.

Take a safety tip from Pilots. Before each flight, pilots do a walk around and check essential equipment. If they do not, do not board the aircraft.

Antique and Classic boats were fairly safe when built. 50 to 70 years later, well past intended life of 15 years. it is a different story. It is up to us to maintain and retrofit for safety, or risk significant consequence.

Pre-launch: Make safety inspection mandatory each and every time you launch. Raise the motor box, or hatch, smell for fumes and look for signs of fuel on carburetor, fuel lines, fuel pump, and in the bilge. Check the safety devices you installed and other safety items like flotation vests, etc.

Bilge blower: Run the blower(s) 4 to 5 minutes before starting the boat. Make sure the vent hose is attached from the blower to air exit and lower end is near the engine and keel. Run bilge blower when boat is on idle and air is not forced though vents at speed. Turn bilge blower off when fueling. Cruiser ~ Install separate bilge blower for each engine and one for generator.

Wiring: Marine Grade wire, stranded copper, tinned, and marked marine. Marine grade connectors and or Solder. Romex and wire nuts are pieces of a bomb.

Fuel Lines: Marine ‘inboard’ (not ‘outboard’) fuel lines and copper. Flexible marine fuel line from fuel pump to and attached to stringer, then fuel cutoff, then copper fuel line. Hose clamps all stainless and double clamped in opposite direction.

Fuel filter: Some engines use glass bowels – gaskets get old and leak ~ sometimes a lot. They are actually for sediment collection. Use ‘metal’ in line filter secured in place.

Fuel tank: Two fuel shut off’s. One at tank, and one on the end of the copper fuel line where fuel hose connects to fuel pump. Both shuts off’s secured to frame or stringer. If the fuel tank copper vent tube has been replaced with hose, check hose condition, make sure it is marine ‘inboard’(not ‘outboard’) fuel hose. Hose clamps all stainless and double clamped.

Exhaust: Look for cracks in manifold and blown gasket(s). Hose should be Marine Wet Exhaust. Clamps all stainless and double clamp.

Replacement parts: Absolutely use marine parts if they handle fuel or electricity; Ignition, Switches, Carburetor, Generator, Alternator, Starter, Fuel Pump, and Fuel lines. If marine replacement parts on older engines are not available, rebuild. Marine parts contain fuel in the system and are ignition proof. Automotive counter parts do not, and are not. Automotive parts are pieces of a bomb.

Other Equipment: Fire extinguisher(s), Fume detector with alarm. Small light to show bilge pump is running. Battery switch. Fire suppression system. Cruisers: add Carbon Monoxide Detector, Fire Alarms, and Fire Suppression System.

Best equipment: Clear head focused on safety when approaching a boat to launch.



  1. Here is my two cents on blowers in our wooden boats.
    They are useless!!!
    Let’s look at the design of a wood boat compared to a modern fiberglass boat.
    A fiberglass boat has stringers with flotation on outer sides. The gunwales, for the most part, are open. The front center is usually a ski locker or storage. The fuel tanks are usually mid ship with filler, breather and gauge fitting all between the stringers. The engine is usually just behind the fuel tank. So a blower has a clear path to clear any fumes that may have built up during fueling or mooring.
    A wood boat has frames along the bottom which greatly impleads any flow of air in the bilge. The floor also acts as a sealed compartment holding in any fumes that may become trapped. The side frame and side panels become individual compartments for these fumes. I cannot see how a blower would extract any fumes from these compartments once fumes are trapped.
    A fuel tank in a wooden boat is usually in the rear of the boat. There are many reasons fuel leaks in our wooden boats, any boats for that matter. One example: fuel lines actually run lower than the lowest point in the tank and can cause a siphon problem. So any leak on the suction side of the fuel pump will fill the bilge with fuel.
    My recommendation is to place a gas fume detector at the engine. I would recommend the Xintex G-1BB-R. This unit will control a relay that you can hook up to the starter wire if you wish.

  2. Another item to double check is grounding wires/circuts. If any modifications are made to a fuel system lke adding rubber hoses between the copper fuel line and the fuel tank or the engine, a natural grounding circut has been interrupted. A ground circut must be maintained between, as a minimum, the gas tank, the engine, either the rudder assembly or a ground pad on the bottom, and the gas tank and the filler spout. Remember not to paint the rudder assembly or the ground pad. This will insulate the item from the water and negates any contact to the water. Depending on the boat, there may be other items to to include in the grounding circut. Sometimes adding an item for safety’s sake (rubber hoses to eliminate flexing or vibration problems) opens a door to another problem area.

  3. It is interesting the foredeck blew off of that boat. That raises the question of was it a utility or a runabout.
    What it suggests is the fumes went under the floorboards and accumulated in the bow. As a result it becomes an issue of where to place a fume detector.
    In calculatiing what I needed for a fire extinguisher in my runabout I measured and then estimated the cubic feet of the engine area plus the bilge area. I never considered the total bow area but hopefully when I went 150% on my estimate I may have come close.

  4. Also, I might add: Consider The Time of Season. Nearing Labor Day, substitute high school kids fill in for their older brothers. Beware the inexperienced! Here on Lake George, a couple of years ago, a young substitute was refueling a fiberglass boat, borrowed by a conciencious borrower who was refueling before returning it to the owner’s slip. When the borrower went to start away, the sparked-fuel blew both of them clear of the flaming boat. Investigation showed that the dockboy pumped gallons of fuel into a screw-capped gunwale fishing-rod holder. Thankfully, both survived.

  5. I’ve only known of two explosions right after fueling in our area over a period of 50 years. There’s an absence of blower instructions at gas docks which seems like a tremendous over sight. There ar so many amateurs running small boats via trailer that I’m surprised that it doesn’t explosions are more frequent. Extremely good article. Thanks much,
    Mississippi River boater.

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