In May, a petrol-powered inboard open type boat exploded at the Mildura Marina with six people onboard, including a child.

The owner had only purchased the vessel recently and it is believed the engine cut out not long after refuelling. Attempts to restart the engine provided an ignition source that ignited the volatile petrol vapour.

All on board suffered minor burns.

Petrol vapour is heavier than air and it will settle in the lowest areas of a boat, usually the bilges and will explode violently when ignited.

Over the past 10 years there have been more than 100 boat fires and explosions, some of which resulted in very serious injuries, with more than 90 per cent occurring on vessels fitted with inboard petrol engines.

We strongly urge boaters to only use properly marinised engines, have them regularly serviced by a qualified marine mechanic, and utilise vapour detectors and bilge blowers that can help to prevent incidents such as this occurring.

Ten simple rules for refuelling

  1. No passengers are permitted on board during refuelling or restarting
  2. Turn off the engine and electrical equipment before refuelling
  3. Don’t overfill your fuel tank and clean up spills immediately
  4. Ventilate the tank and engine compartments after refuelling (a marinised, non-sparking blower will move a greater volume of air more quickly)
  5. Don’t start the engine if you can detect fumes (gas detectors can be helpful here)
  6. If possible, fill the fuel tanks away from the vessel in a well-ventilated, no smoking area
  7. When refuelling, use a wide-mouthed funnel and clean up any splashes immediately
  8. Regularly check perishable fuel lines for wear and tear and carry spares
  9. Don’t keep oily or fuel-soaked rags onboard
  10. Keep spare fuel in a tightly capped, secure container.
Photo: A boat on fire

Why do boat fires happen?

Ski boats with inboard petrol powered engines are most vulnerable to fire risk. Older vessels in which electrical and automotive components have aged and become worn are also commonly involved in fire related incidents.

Converted car engines or non-marinised engines installed in boats create a higher risk of fire or explosion, particularly where owners may have attempted to modify their boat themselves or used unqualified technicians to do the work.

Boats that spend long periods of time out of the water need to be carefully checked for fire hazards before being used for the first time in the season.

Follow these tips in addition to the refuelling rules.

Tips to reduce your fire risk

  1. Service your engine and the rest of your vessel regularly
  2. Only use marine parts for your engine – they’ll last longer in salt and sun
  3. Don’t DIY on marine electrics – incorrectly installed electrical components are more likely to cause fire onboard your vessel
  4. Electrical work done on your vessel must be carried out by a reputable and qualified person
  5. Ventilate the engine compartment before starting the vessel
  6. Engine fires don’t necessarily happen on the first start up – be vigilant throughout the day
  7. Make sure you have the right size and number of fire extinguishers on board, and keep any built-in automatic extinguishing systems serviced.

Read more about maintenance and fire prevention.