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Published: October 2010

Gates and Fingers

A 12-year-old boy lost his finger when it got caught in the aluminum gate of the pontoon boat his family was renting. The accident was similar to others that have occurred where the boat's curved gate meets the rest of the rail, creating a V-shaped slot (see inset) that can trap fingers or clothing. According to the mother of the injured boy, two other family members had similar experiences that same weekend, although neither sustained serious injuries.

Photo of an aluminum gate of the pontoon boat The Coast Guard has indicated a safety alert on its web site,

Although some pontoon boat manufacturers now install pinch guards (see inset) to "square off" the slot, none was installed on the 1995 Sea Hunt the family rented. The guards cost about $15 and are easy to install.

BoatUS Consumer Protection Bureau referred this accident to the U.S. Coast Guard office that handles safety defect recalls.

Boats, Trailers and Theft

According to the BoatUS Marine insurance claim files, boats on trailers are prime targets for thieves; all it takes is a scant few seconds to hook a trailer up to a truck and the boat will be bouncing down the road headed for the state line.

Boats stored at a marina or in a driveway with the tongue facing the open road are easy pickings, especially in winter when days are short and no one is around. The safest place to store a trailer boat is in your backyard or garage. But wherever the boat is stored, removing the trailer's wheels and storing them inside significantly reduces the chances of theft and also prolongs the life of the tires. If the boat has to be stored in the driveway, the tongue should be locked and facing away from the road.

Remember, a thief doesn't have to take the entire boat to make out like a bandit, literally. Outdrives are a frequent target and if a boat is going to be stored outside, it should be backed up with the outdrive against a wall and locked securely.

Spilled Gasoline and Common Sense

After trying to use a shop vac to clean up gasoline that had leaked into his boat's bilge, a man in Panama City, Florida was "engulfed in flames" this past summer according to newspaper reports and had to be flown to a state burn facility.

You might think that avoiding the use of anything electrical near spilled gasoline would be common sense, but there have been at least three other cases of boat owners using shop vacs to suck up gasoline from their boat's bilge and in each instance, the gasoline exploded and the owners were severely burned. The boat shown burning here, also the result of someone using a shop vac to clean up spilled gasoline, was in Washington state.

Photo of boat on fire

Should you ever encounter gasoline in the bilge, don't operate anything electrical, including the blower; it won't eliminate spilled gasoline.

Larger quantities of gasoline, more than maybe a cupful, should only be dealt with by professionals. Get off the boat and call 911. With small quantities that can be mopped up quickly, remember that it's the fumes that cause explosions. Fumes linger long after the gasoline itself is gone; the bilge must be thoroughly aired out before starting the engine or operating anything electrical.

Can Dock Lines Sink a Boat

When boats sink at the dock, the cause is usually traced to a combination of rainwater, maybe a leak or two, and — the number one accomplice of most dockside sinkings — neglect. Neglected boats are far more likely to sink than a boat that is cared for. In this case, however, the boat had a custom-fitted cover and was visited regularly by a conscientious owner. In fact, the owner had been aboard the boat only a few hours before it went down (Claim #0238004).

The cause of the sinking was something of a mystery until the surveyor who investigated the claim discovered scratches on the hull. After checking the docklines he concluded the boat sank because of a poor docking arrangement that had allowed the transom to get pinched beneath the dock. The tide came in, and down went the boat.

Photo of partially sunken boat

With any boat, large or small, there should be sufficient slack in the docklines to allow it to rise and fall with the tide, but not so much that the boat drifts under the dock or into pilings. Before leaving the boat, check the lines by giving each one a hefty tug; if the boat goes bump against the dock, take up some of the slack and try again. Don't rely on fenders to overcome a poor docking arrangement.

Using AC Power on Boats Stored Ashore

When a boat is afloat, its AC electrical system relies on the green grounding wire in the dock's AC system to protect against electrical shock. If that green wire is not properly connected throughout the system, current from a short circuit can find its way into the water with potentially devastating results ("A Preventable Dockside Tragedy", Seaworthy, October 2009).

Photo of shore power cord attached to a boat

The same potential for injury exists when boats are stored ashore. Electrical current that is shorted to metal fittings under the boat will find a path to ground whenever someone touches a metal fitting — a through hull, shaft, or rudder. If power is supplied temporarily to operate power tools, a multimeter should be used on the hull's metal fittings to test for leaking AC current. If even a few milliamps of current is detected, the cause must be located and corrected before reconnecting to AC shore power. An obvious corollary to all of this is that if you're walking about the boatyard, it's best to refrain from touching anything metal on boats that are plugged into AC power.

Wires and Fires

Claim #0913049: Shortly after the owner bought his 24-foot powerboat, he and a friend decided to add a GPS and VHF radio to the boat, which is always a good idea. But though neither he nor his friend knew much about boat wiring, they tackled the job anyway, which was a really bad idea. A few days after the "installation" the boat caught fire and was destroyed. The investigators found that while the wires were the right size, what the owner didn't do was add a fuse — specifically within seven inches of the power source, which in this case was the battery. The positive wire the men used to power the equipment shorted against a metal strap, possibly while the boat was being trailered home. While the boat sat in the street, the hot wires ignited something flammable and the boat caught fire.

Photo of a boat damaged by a fire

The reason fuses need to be placed so close to the power source is that their job is to protect the wires from igniting if there is a short, not to protect the equipment, which likely has its own internal protection.End of story marker