Rusty propane tank explodes on boat


By Bob Burton

After arriving in Spanish Wells on the northwest end of Eleuthera, Bahamas, I tied up my 52 Hatteras convertible at about 1600. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the 70-foot lobster boat Four Ways, parked four boats over, was about to become one of the main topics of conversation in the small fishing community for years to come.

After dinner at The Eagle’s Landing Restaurant, my group and I returned to the boat at about 2030. While sitting in the salon watching TV, I heard a loud noise that sounded like someone falling from the fly bridge to the cockpit. When I ran outside, the ripples in the water made me think that our 80-year-old traveling companion might have gone overboard.

[pullquote type=”left”]One tank leaked, heavy propane settled in the bilge and was ignited by a spark from a bilge pump.[/pullquote]

As I prepared to jump into the water, my son-in-law yelled, “There is a boat on fire!” It was the Four Ways. First on the scene, I disconnected the shoreline electrical cord and began putting out the fire.

Within minutes, hundreds of locals gathered around the Four Ways to help save what remained. They welded leaking through-hulls and salvaged the hull. The explosion took out both the fore and aft decks as well as the wheelhouse and bunkhouse. Two 225-horsepower outboard engines ended up on the concrete dock, and one of the wheelhouse doors sat next to my boat.

Fortunately, the explosion didn’t occur at sea or while the crew was aboard working. The captain, John Roberts, explained what had happened: Propane tanks normally kept on the deck were rusting and staining the deck, so after much discussion, they were moved to the hold. One tank leaked, heavy propane settled in the bilge and was ignited by a spark from a bilge pump.

The next day, I moved the small propane canisters used on my grill from the storage compartments in the floor of my cockpit to an open 5-gallon bucket on deck. Remember, propane can be deadly, so store it in a well-ventilated area above deck.

P/C Bob Burton, SN, of Pensacola Sail & Power Squadron, holds a U.S. Coast Guard Master’s License.

United States Power Squadrons, America's Boating Club logo

The Ensign magazine is an official channel of United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club, a volunteer organization whose members teach boating skills and best practices to help improve the safety of our nation’s waterways. Learn more.