Recent Explosions Prompt Inboard Engine Safety Warning

By Cheryl Costello

Since the start of this year’s boating season, three powerboats with inboard engines have suffered major explosions in Maryland, injuring several and killing one.

There’s one single step boaters should take every time they put the key in the ignition to avoid such an incident. Bay Bulletin talked with the Natural Resources Police (NRP), who say it could be the difference between life and death.

We meet NRP at Long Beach Marina in Middle River in Baltimore County. The engine compartment of Michael Butt’s Sea Ray Sundancer 350 is wide open for us to see inside.

“Whenever I start the engines I always run the blower, every single time,” says Butt. That’s because one spark in a gasoline environment can cause an explosion to occur.

Cpl. Kevin Kelly of NRP says boaters should understand the risks that come with inboards. “Since the whole propulsion system is held inside the vessel and the fuel tanks, gasoline vapors can accumulate in the engine compartment,” he said.

Kelly says the gasoline vapors are avoidable, as long as you remember one safety step. “One of the most important safety measures is running the bilge blower that all inboard vessels are required to have equipped. You run that for at least four to five minutes before starting the engine and that will rid the engine compartment of any gasoline vapors that have accumulated since the last two you used the vessel.”

In May, a 37-foot powerboat caught fire on the Rhode River in Edgewater, leading to an explosion that could be heard from miles away. NRP reported that one the boat’s engines failed when two men were trying to dock the boat. When they tried to restart the engine, the boat caught fire. Luckily, they got off in time.

Then in late July, five family members were injured when the engine on their powerboat exploded in Eastern Bay off Queenstown.

The following weekend on the Bohemia River in Cecil County, Dr. Michael Steinmetz of the National Eye Institute died in a boat explosion.

“It appears that all the vessels were gasoline fuel-powered, so you have the gas vapors,” Kelly says. “With such an explosion, something flammable had to have ignited. And it was most likely gas vapors.”

The investigations into all three cases are still underway.

On Butt’s boat, there are twin engines and a gasoline generator. “All of those rubber hoses have the possibility of leaks occurring,” Kelly says. He says it’s important to sniff out any possible leaks and perform proper maintenance. Always shut down your engines and generators when tied up to a fuel dock. 

On Butt’s boat, there is a notice next to the push-button start, reminding him to run the bilge blower. “Even if you go somewhere to anchor and shut down your engine, run the blower before restarting,” says Kelly. “Because during that time, you could be at anchor for several hours—not even as long as overnight—and that gives the chance for gas vapors to reaccumulate.”

He says a gasoline fuel vapor detector can be installed in the engine compartment and a gauge on the dashboard would give a warning about any danger.

For Butt, the decision to go with inboard engines on his Sea Ray had to do with convenience. “They’re easier to deal with, in my opinion. The outboards you have to take apart and clean them up more often than you have to do with the inboards.”

If you choose a boat with engines tucked away like they are in a car, Kelly has some advice: take the time to understand safety before enjoying the beauty of getting underway.