Yacht on Fire
Why do yacht propane explosions happen? It may come down to a simple lack of experience on the part of the boat operator. According to United States Coast Guard (USCG) statistics from 2008, 79% of all boat operators have no formal boating safety instruction.
It has long been known that one of the most dangerous hazards at sea is the potential for fire. With almost 13 million vessels registered within the United States alone, unfortunately, this very scenario is played out each year when yacht propane explosions occur.
Let’s look at the facts. According to USCG Recreational Boating Statistics from 2008, the fourth cause of accidents overall were due to operator inexperience. A total of 429 incidents including 40 deaths and 315 injuries were recorded; even though propane explosions onboard a yacht are rare, 48 accidents and 37 injuries directly resulted due to the ignition of spilled fuel or vapor.
Looking at the statistics as a whole, it is interesting to note that the majority of the occurrences have taken place during a typical boating experience: with good daytime visibility, calm waves of less than 6’, light winds between 0-6 mph, and temperatures of 70-79°F. The states of Florida, California, and Texas rank as the top three states for accidents and deaths overall.
Further, these unexpected accidents occurred from October to December, between 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. on a weekend, with one or two passengers onboard a 26-40’ vessel, where the majority of boat operators are aged 36-55 with 101-500 hours of operator’s experience, again exemplifying a typical boating day.
Commonly used in onboard heating and cooking systems, propane is both inexpensive and efficient, but is also flammable and explosive. Unlike most gasses, propane does not disperse in the air; heavier than air, propane runs downhill (like water) and will sink to the bottom of a boat, collecting in the bilge.
The USCG and the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) have strict requirements for the “design, construction, installation, and maintenance” of propane systems on boats. Some of these regulations include the use of only Department of Transportation (DOT) or American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) approved propane cylinders, using a dedicated vapor tight locker for storage, and having a readily accessible propane shut off valve. All insurance companies will adhere to these requirements when accessing premiums and/or investigating a propane yacht explosion.
The standards go on to require installing a marine quality propane fume detector that will sound an alarm if the gas begins to build up in the bilge. Making regular rounds of the ship, observing the sights and smells (although propane itself does not smell, it’s additive does), turning off the propane at the tank when not in use, and even shutting off the fuel while a stove burner is still burning to completely empty the supply line can help to prevent a propane accident.
Fire safety plus proper storage, well maintained fuel systems with double shrouded lines, installation of both smoke and heat detectors, and a no smoking rule are all basic factors in preventing yacht propane explosions. Of course, having a properly trained boat operator and crew including fire and damage control training, is essential.
Statistics have relatively remained the same since 2004, but once again, even though yacht propane explosions are rare, in 2008, there were 136 accidents directly related to fire/explosion of fuel with 1 death and 89 injuries resulting in $4,542,417 in damages. An additional 25 accidents occurred from fire/explosion of unknown origin with 2 deaths, 10 injuries, and a further $15,980,500 in damage.
Yacht propane explosions can be prevented through proper installation and regularly practiced good safety habits.
United States Coast Guard
American Boat and Yacht Council
Boat Owner’s Association of the United States