Is your boat out of gas? And you’re wondering, ‘Now what?’ You were probably having so much fun on your boat that you lost track of the fuel gauge—until your engine sputtered and quit. Luckily, you can redeem yourself by handling this situation like a pro.
Here are some tips to help you avoid running out of fuel, and ideas on what to do when it happens.
What Should I Do if I Run Out of Gas on My Boat?
- Stay calm, and take steps to secure the boat and your crew.
- Make sure everyone on board puts on a life jacket.
- Drop your anchor to maintain your current position.
- Call for assistance—that may be to a friend, marina manager, or professional boat towing company, like Sea Tow or TowBoatUS.
- Be prepared to give the precise longitude/latitude location from your boat or cell phone’s GPS.
- Conserve battery power for radio communication and re-starting the engines.
- If your boat is disable in a dangerous situation, never hesitate to contact local law enforcement or the U.S. Coast Guard for immediate assistance.
Securing Your Boat in Place
If you do run out of fuel, stay calm as you assess the situation. The first step is to secure the boat and your crew.
Start by getting everyone on board into life jackets (which they really should already be wearing already), so everyone is ready if the situation deteriorates.
Then drop the anchor so that your boat maintains its position so you can easily be located, and to prevent you from drifting in wind or current onto a shoal or rocks—your boat could get damaged, and nobody can help you if you are aground in shallow or dangerous water.
Calling for Help and On-Water Assistance
Once your crew and boat are secure, you’ll need fuel. If you are lake boating, this could be as easy as calling a boating buddy, a neighbor, or your local marina and asking them to find you with a jug or two of gas. Note your location on GPS if possible so it’s easy to navigate to you.
You could also try flagging down a passing boat—wave two hands over your head—and asking for assistance (remember that like in any good community, as a general rule, boaters are always happy to lend assistance to one another).
If you are away from home or on bigger water, and have a boat assistance and towing membership, now is the time to use it.
- Contact the service via VHF radio or cell phone to request help.
- Be prepared to give a precise longitude/latitude location from GPS if you can.
For step-by-step instructions on how to pull your GPS coordinates from your cell phone, be sure to read Tip 1 in Boating Safety Tips: Advice from Real Sea Tow Captains.
Waiting & Refueling Your Boat
On a calm day, adding fuel at sea is usually not too challenging. On a rough day, however, maneuvering two boats close together to hand over jugs of fuel, and then trying to pour that fuel into the boat’s fuel fill, could be tricky or even dangerous.
- In this situation, the safer alternative may be to be towed by another boat to calmer water. Towing another boat is an operation best left to professionals.
- If your boat is disabled in a dangerous situation, do not hesitate use your VHF radio or cell phone to contact local law enforcement, the U.S. Coast Guard or a professional towing outfit for help.
- While you’re waiting for help don’t run down your batteries. Instead of cranking the audio system, conserve battery power for radio communication and for starting the engines.
Re-Starting the Engine
Once you’ve added gas to the tank, the engine should be able to re-start.
- You can help most outboards by squeezing the fuel line primer bulb until it feels firm, an indication the fuel system has been re-filled.
- Sterndrive engines and larger outboards will have a fuel pump able to re-fill the system.
If you only take on five or 10 gallons of fuel from portable jugs that gas is not going to get you far, so have a plan to either get to a gas dock or to the nearest launch ramp or available dock, even if that’s not where your vehicle is parked. The priority should be to get your boat secured and your crew safely ashore. Then you can figure out how to re-fuel the boat.
When you run the fuel tank dry there’s a chance you’ve sucked up any crud from the bottom of the tank, so do inspect or simply change the fuel filters after you get back to home port. Then it’s time to consider how you managed to run out of gas, and how you’ll never let it happen again.
Don’t Trust the Fuel Gauge
Boat fuel gauges are notoriously inaccurate. Running your boat with the gauge tipping down toward E is asking for trouble.
Experienced captains still go by this old adage when considering range: Devote one-third tank to get to the destination, one-third to get home, and the last third as your margin of error.
- That margin will see you through changes in weather or sea conditions, shifting currents or wind, or a forced change in course or a navigation error, all of which can impact fuel consumption.
- That margin will also cover your inaccurate fuel gauge.
- Even for everyday family boating with no real destination, when the gauge gets down to one-third remaining, it’s time to start planning your run to the gas dock or service station.
If you notice your fuel gauge is getting low and you question whether you’ll make it back to home port, start looking for an alternative, closer source of fuel, or a safe place to dock while you secure some fuel, even if that means hitching a ride to a gas station with some fuel jugs.
Newer boats may have a digital display or digital instruments (pictured here) that measure how much fuel the engine(s) are actually using. If you know your tank holds 80 gallons, for example, you can set the fuel-use meter to zero when you head out with a full tank and monitor how much fuel you’ve actually used. This data is much more accurate than the fuel gauge.
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