Glenmar Sailing Association
Sailing the Chesapeake Bay

Fuel Spill? A few steps now can change your incident from catastrophic to just simply bad.

Have you ever had a diesel fuel spill overboard? I have! I learned a few things during the correction process that are worth sharing. Had I done a few quick steps earlier, this wouldn’t have been as bad.

  1. Review your insurance coverage now to ensure that a “fuel spill” is covered. I had not done this step. I didn’t think to review the policy for this in advance, but luckily, I was covered.
  2. If a discharge occurs or if you witness a fuel spill, you must report immediately to the National Response Center (NRC) by calling 800-424-8802. They will do a quick interview to determine how the spill can be contained. Then they’ll give you a report number.
  3. If the fuel spill remains onboard your boat, and not overboard yet, turning off your bilge pump will keep the spill contained on your boat and not discharge to the environment. The expense and damage will grow exponentially when the spill is discharged into the environment.

My engine cut out shortly after leaving the dock one morning. I was able to tie off to a fixture and wait for a tow back to my slip. While investigating the engine problem in my slip, I noticed a drip in the bilge. I didn’t know what the drip was, but there was a small leak somewhere. While looking for the source of the leak, my bilge pump automatically turned on. I raised my head from the engine compartment to see a pink fluid being pumped into the water, from my bilge. The pump turned off in a few seconds, but a sheen could be seen on the water. The sheen grew to about two hundred feet across in thirty minutes. 

Now I knew what the leak was and why the engine stopped. I traced the fuel lines and found a loose connection going into the lift pump. I tightened the nut, but the fuel had already been spilled in the waterway. I reported to the National Response Center and the Coast Guard was on its way to investigate the containment situation. They arrived two hours after the spill occurred and determined that no containment was needed. The spill had dissipated and could no longer be seen on the surface of the water. However, I had to sign a document stating that if containment was required, I could be subject to a fine of up to $47,357 per day. 

It is unlikely that the government or authorities will contact you to inform you that your case is closed and you will not be subject to any fines. They will contact you if you will be subject to fines and penalties. When you’re unsure about your fine and penalty situation, discuss it with your insurance company. The insurance company will make payments to marinas, mechanics, surveyors, clean up professionals, etc. When everything is paid and closed, the insurance company should keep your claim “open” just in case sometime in the distant future you are notified of fines and/or penalties you owe. The insurance company still might pay these fines and penalties up to your policy limits.

After correcting the fuel leak and having the bilge pumped out and washed, I filled the tank. I needed five gallons of diesel and had used the engine about five times for approximately four hours since the tank was full. My total fuel lost in the spill was about four gallons. Some of this was spilled in the waterway and some was vacuumed from my bilge. It wasn’t as catastrophic as I first thought it might be, but entire process took my boat out of service for about four weeks.

Paradise Lost – Or At Least Our Fishing Rods

If you have ever lost or broken a fishing rod you will understand our pain.   13 Penn Internationals gone.  

Many of you fish offshore and know the costs associated running to the canyons.   A thousand-dollar gas tab along with $200 for bait and ice are the norm.  Lures start in the $25 range with $400 for a dredge (you need two) not unheard of.  For those not familiar with the offshore world the rods cost close to $400 and the reels run in the 600-dollar range. Each!  Add 1000 yards of line and it is easy to reach $1000 per rod very quickly. We normally troll 9 lines in fair weather.

So now you are asking about the rods.  Stolen? Fire?  Divorce?  All are good guesses but let me start at the beginning.

1992   An exciting time as Ron, my buddy and co-conspirator in this rod debacle, purchased our first offshore boat, a Baja 28 center console. OK, not a great or even good offshore boat but 30 years ago the choices were few as center consoles were new to the boating scene and larger twin engine varieties were rare.  We had been running my 23-foot Imperial out to the Jack Spot where we would catch our limit of Bluefin tuna before lunch fishing Penn 6/0 Senators and using a handheld Loran to locate our destination.  Basic but as there were tons of fish back then we were happy with this set-up.  

But we all know the 2-foot boat monster that demands a new vessel be purchased every few years which is larger and more expensive.   We justified this move as the new boat would have radar, a life raft, and twin engines but secretly our real reason was to pursue Yellowfin Tuna, Marlin, Wahoo, and Dolphin that resided 40 to 70 miles offshore – out of reach of our little 23 foot Imperial.  Equally important was to maintain our appearance and upgrade our Penn Senators to those expensive Penn Internationals I mentioned earlier.  Gold Penn Internationals do look cool and we all know how important that is!

I know, what about the lost rods??  I’m getting to them.   

We fished this new boat for 13 years trailering the boat to Hatteras winter thru spring and fishing Ocean City in the summer and fall.  Great times but a little scary as this boat was not designed to fish 8-foot seas in January off Cape Hatteras which we did.  Frequently.  Over the years we lost many fishing companions as they came and left with remarkable frequency.  About as often as we lost rods….   While Ron and I were excited to run through the inlet and catch 50-pound tuna we found our guests enthusiasm decreased in proportion to the size of waves we fished. 

This new boat was great, but our techniques were still in the learning curve and the reason for our first lost rod.   It was around 1994 when we, (me, Ron, and Bob), were fishing off Hatteras one cold and windy April afternoon.  Rain was not just falling but coming down in buckets.  Hard to tell it was raining as sheets of water came off the bow as we trolled through 20 knots of wind and 6 footers.  Around 1 pm we had a quadruple knockdown of 50-pound yellowfin which would normally be great but not today.  We each reeled in a fish and then started searching for the fourth rod. What we found was an empty outrodder which was pointing aft and sitting 6 inches lower than normal.  If you are not familiar with an outrodder it is an aluminum bracket that fits into a rod holder and allows you to position the rod to point directly out from the side of the boat.   Great for increasing your spread of lures but when the tuna hit and pulled hard on the line which was tight due to our drags being in the strike position the tension caused the rod holder pin to snap allowing the outrodder to swivel backwards and the $1000 rod and reel to shoot overboard and to the bottom of the sea.  

Now some of you are reading this and saying, “they should have had safety lines on their rods.”  Yes, we should have but this is early in our offshore career and remember we were pioneers in this sport as most who ventured offshore went in charter boats and very few private boats ran further than the 20-fathom line.  But we learned our lesson and built safety lines with snaps and swivels and used them in the years to come.

A safety line did not help the loss of rod number two.   One summer day found us anchored 42 miles off the coast of Ocean City chunking for tuna at a spot called the Hot Dog.  A very popular location even 25 years ago as it can hold thousands of hungry tunas and this day was no exception.   We were enjoying a typical day of hooking tuna that would follow our chunk line up through the depths and provide us some exciting moments.  As a little background I would like to share that Ron and I took pride in our skills and approached all tasks with enthusiasm and perhaps a little too much exuberance.  This day was no exception as when one of our guests pulled a tuna to the surface I gaffed and lifted the 65 pounder over the gunnel in one big swoop.  Unfortunately overtop my head was a rocket launcher filled with International rods and reels.  My gaff caught one which crashed down on my head and immediately launched itself overboard along with a $200 pair of sunglasses.  We did not have safety lines on rods that were stowed in the rocket launcher.  Rod number two gone.

But all this was just a warm-up for losing the next 11 rods.  We had graduated from the minors into the majors and decided that losing one rod at a time was for amateurs.  We were ready for the big leagues and proved it a few years later.

2005 found us entered in the White Marlin Open.  We had three friends fishing with us and a great week of weather ahead even if a bit choppy at the beginning of the week.   Our first day of fishing was not spectacular and at noon we decided to move in from the deep, (we were fishing the Washington Canyon), and fish the tip of the canyon between the 50 and 100 fathom line.   At 3:30 pm it was lines up as deemed by the tournament rules, so we reeled in and started the 65-mile run back to the inlet.   It was a beautiful sunny day so Brian, one of our guests, and I sat in front of the center console enjoying a cold beer as Ron steered a course for home.   

Now is a good time for a lesson in boat dynamics, physics, and stability.  Expecting fish, we had filled the fish box with 200 pounds of ice which was in bow of the boat.   A small cabin, also in the bow, was loaded with gear and a 100-pound life raft.  Brian and I were sitting in front of the center console and I may have consumed a few more cheeseburgers over my lifetime than was good for me and I will just say we added a few hundred more pounds to an already overloaded bow.  The wind was against the waves and what had been fun rolling 6 footers now got a little steeper and less fun and caused us to slam and climb up the backs of the next waves.  See where this is going?

We climbed up the back of one of these steeper waves and zoomed down into the trough as we had been doing for the past hour.  The difference was this time the bow dug in and a wall of water shot back through our open boat filling it and rolling it over as the next wave caught us seconds later. Within 10 seconds our Baja was upside down and I was 100 yards away as that wall of water that came over the bow blew me out of the back and broke a few ribs while depositing me astern of the overturning boat.

Story getting a little better eh?

So, I find myself treading water without a life jacket and with broken ribs far away from our boat. I was surrounded by items that had also been washed overboard and spied a can of WD-40 which I shoved into my shirt hoping it would provide at least some flotation.   I then spotted the back seat floating nearby and gave it my all to swim to and climb on top of.  Now that I knew I was probably going to survive I looked around and spotted my buddies clinging to the upside-down hull of the boat bobbing violently in those 6-foot seas.  I counted heads and saw we were all accounted for but not out of danger as we were 45 miles off the coast and surrounded by a blood / bait slick being constantly discharged from our sinking boat and the gashes on my mate’s limbs.   Again, for those of you not familiar with offshore fishing a great place to fish for sharks is the 30-fathom line which is where we decided to park the boat.

Our rods?   11 Penn Internationals.  A mix of 50s and 70s.  We were done fishing so no safety lines and when a boat is upside down, they fall out.   Poor design on the part of the boat manufacturers but in their defense a low priority by most of their customers.

And us?  We were very lucky as our moving to the 50-fathom line saved us. At the 3:30 lines up we were inside of the fleet and on a rhumb line from the canyon to the inlet and confident a boat would venture by eventually.  About an hour after our mishap a fellow tournament boat, “The Cat in the Hat”, from Montauk, NY swung by to see what was floating off their bow.  What they found were 4 guys clinging to the stern of an overturned boat and one fat guy drifting off into the distance on a boat cushion.  

I would like to end the story by sharing that we saved our boat and retrieved some of our gear including a few rods.   Nope.  The next morning, we were awakened by a call from the Coast Guard alerting us that our boat was still floating and was a hazard to navigation and asking what we were going to do about it.  We made a deal with a salvager but had to alter the contract after he found the boat in worse shape than what we described.   It seems a vessel had lifted our boat onto their deck with some type of crane and cut everything off the boat that had any value.  Gone were the engines, props, T-top, leaning post, etc. and our gear (and extra rods we stowed in the cabin!)  The damaged hull was then thrown back into the water and still had to be towed in as it did not sink and was still a hazard to navigation.

Is there a good ending to this story?  Well, kind of.   We lost 11 rods that day but what we did not lose was even more important.  While we laid in the hospital being patched up the attending physician shared that he hoped we did not have the winning fish on board.  Confused we asked him why he would wish such a thing.   His response was to remind us that losing a boat and all our equipment was bad enough but also losing a million-dollar fish would have been too much.   I guess it was a good day after all!!

The article was written by Joe Borrison

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