Tanked: mixology woes aboard

Jerry cans lined up on the dock

The dull thud of your heart sinking at that horrifying moment when you realize what you just did and consequences will follow: we all dread it. It happens anyway. Cruising comes with higher highs, and lower lows… pouring the wrong stuff in your diesel tank is one of those lower points.

In mid-2012, Totem was being prepped to move after five months mostly at a dock and a year and a half in Australia. This was the first step to depart Australia: shifting from dockside liveaboard to river mooring before sailing north to Papua New Guinea and beyond. Wrapping up school (the kids’ first and only formal stretch of four-walls education as cruisers), untangling the threads that weave a life integrated to shoreside people and places, packing up for multiple months off the grid and away from stores… we were a little busy, a little distracted.

One of our last steps before kicking off the dock: top of the water tanks. From below deck I listened to liquid gurgling in from the deck fill, and then came the unfortunate cry: “ah, shit.” Jamie doesn’t swear lightly. It hit me even before he filled in the detail, as sound locations processed: the water hose had been in Totem’s diesel tank fill.

Whoops. We own it now!

Water in the diesel tank

I dashed up to the cockpit and we looked at each other, mouths agape. Jamie got that faraway look in his eyes, then headed up to tell the marina manager we’d be late departing…regrets to the boat they had waiting for our berth.

The entire contents of our diesel tank were decanted and filtered, and like bad wine on a tropical island, salvageable.

Jamie started by turning off the valve between the diesel tank and primary fuel filter and lining up jerry cans to decant. Our magical dock neighbors, a French/South African family on the Dean 44 Merlin, offered time and support to get it done. Petroleum and water don’t mix, but kids play always!

Two little girls in climbing harnesses play by swinging in sailboat rigging

Greg helps his daughter, Clea, and Siobhan swing from the rigging aboard Merlin – Brisbane, 2012.

Greg brought over a diesel transfer pump they kept on Merlin which made the job far easier. Contaminated fuel was removed to jerry cans. At first we hoped that putting fuel through a funnel filter would remove the water – NOPE! Only trace amounts of water came out.

man using diesel transfer pump below deck on sailboat

Borrowing Merlin’s transfer pump to return diesel to Totem’s primary tank

Enter our old friend, Gravity. Allowing the water to settle to the bottom (it’s heavier) of a jerry can, diesel on the top could be pumped into a clean jerry can. Rinse, repeat with a series of jerry cans until the entire contents were filtered. Ten gallons of water were ultimately removed.

Gas in the diesel tank

Jump ahead to yesterday around tea time. This was a call from Serendipity, but not about serendipity. Anchored off Antigua with guests arriving soon and plans to head for Barbuda, it was time to top up the diesel tank. With their permission, sharing the event in Kevin’s words as related in the closed Facebook group for coaching clients, Totem Raft-Up (self-named – the TRU Crew!).

TRU Crew comes through again! This post is at my pride’s expense, but I’m going to eat the proverbial crow and share. It’s long but there are some lessons here and recommended gear that saved my ass today and could save yours.

They say bad decisions happen when you are forced into a movement due to timelines like company coming. Looking back, I think it played a part in my stupidity today. We have guests arriving to Antigua tomorrow, and we want to take them up to Barbuda Wednesday. I spent some time the last few days getting the boat ready, and one last chore was to fuel up with diesel. We were happy in an anchorage, it was Callum’s birthday (our 8 year old), and Stephanie was busy making a cake and cleaning up for arriving guests. I had a few hours to kill so I decided instead of moving the boat to the marina I’d just bring 30 gal worth of diesel cans in and fill them, then transfer to that boat. It would save us some time in the morning from having to motor into the harbor to fuel up. No problems…

TRU crew in Barbuda: Steph & Kevin from Serendipity (Live the Voyage) at center, Dave & Marcie from Kairos5 at right.

Well, as this plan was finalized Steph had a good idea to bring extra gasoline to Barbuda. We carry 15 gallons on the rail, but there is no fuel in Barbuda, and with guests from home visiting for week, we plan to spend a lot of time in the dinghy (snorkeling, tubing, etc). So I grabbed an extra yellow jerry can, wrote “GAS” on it, and proceeded to shore….I’m sure you know where this is going.

When I got back I unloaded the fuel, and started to fuel pretty quickly. I was distracted as it was Cal’s bday and wanted to get going. I used a shaker siphon to fuel, which is handy on a boat. I started the siphon and quickly put 5 gallons of fuel into the boat. I started my second can, and then went to clean up the first can and when I grabbed it I saw “GAS” written on the back side of it. Holy shit, 5 gallons of gasoline into my diesel tank. I seriously looked like Jim Carey on Liar Liar kicking my own ass!

Lesson – if you use a yellow can to fill gasoline, mark the shit out of it! 

Here is how TRU saved my ass. Going back to the fall, I lost my engine due to debris that clogged the fuel line. I got it running, but after had my fuel polished. Jamie was awesome help with this, and even though I didn’t use his recommended “emergency” polisher, I took his advice and ordered some parts that you may not think to have on board. It takes two pieces of gear to polish your fuel in a pinch. First, a 12 volt transfer pump, and second, a funnel with a filter.

You could pull the fuel out of the tank and back in through the filter, removing debris. Well, I didn’t use the funnel today but damn did that fuel pump earn it’s keep.

I opened the tank through one of the access holes and removed 23 gallons of contaminated fuel. I then used this handy pump to get the rest. I was able to empty all but maybe a couple ounces out of the tank. I’m going to put a minimum of 40 gallons in the tank before I start the engine. That’s 5,120 ounces. Even if there is a quart of contaminated fuel, that’s only .6% and only a fraction of that is gasoline. I think I’ll be okay, but damn, what a dumb move!

I called Jamie during all of this and he talked me off the ledge. Thanks! So don’t be me and don’t let distractions mess you up!

Serendipity’s crew recovered quickly. It helps to know you’re far from the first, and other TRU chimed in with their (mis)adventures in fueling. I didn’t even get to bringing up the story about our own cruising mentors and the time they added diesel to the water tank… a step further in the levels of cruiser hell. Our highs are higher, but our lows can be lower!

Meanwhile, this is Serendipity’s recent view. The squall passed; it wasn’t such a bad day after all.

TRU Crew anchored off Barbuda: thanks to Stephanie at Live the Voyage for this pic!

In both our situation and Serendipity’s, there was waste product that needed proper disposal. The water that settled in our jerry cans was contaminated, and the gallons of diesel/gas mix Kevin pumped out had to be disposed also. We were both fine, but finding a facility to take the waste fluids isn’t always easy the further out you get as a cruiser.

Gear to consider

A few bits that clearly can be really useful… and for more than just these scenarios, where the wrong liquid ends up in a diesel tank.

Twelve-volt transfer pump.

This diesel transfer kit from Orion Motor Tech would serve both Totem and Serendipity’s uses to pump tainted fuel out the tank. We purchased ours (similar to the model linked) just a few weeks after the water-into-diesel debacle in Australia from a cruiser unloading gear prior to selling their boat.

Other everyday cruising uses: our 12v transfer pump (see photo near the top of the post of Jamie using it) is currently loaned to another boat in the anchorage that needed to polish their fuel to try and remove a diesel bug (a microbial contamination gunking up their fuel, common enough a problem). It’s bailed us out from similar situations when we had a persistent diesel bug in Southeast Asia, and most recently helped polish dirty fuel we boarded at an outer island in the Bahamas.

Fuel filter.

Mr Funnel filters come in a range of sizes depending on how much fuel you’re running through them. We keep a small one for gas going into the dinghy and generator. And a large one for diesel. We also have a Baja filter, which haven’t been made for over a decade. Note that funnel filters remove debris and trace amounts of water (but not more).

Fuel is almost always filtered before it goes in our tanks. The only time we don’t filter is at a high-volume dock or place with a solid reputation. If there’s concern about fuel quality, we put some in a glass jar and wait a few minutes to see if there’s separation.

Siphon hose.

Self-priming hoses mean you don’t get your mouth involved in the siphoning process (yuck!). There are no fuel docks in most of the miles we’ve cruised; siphoning from jerry cans is a fact of life, and it’s good to be prepared.

Sponsorship/advertising note: we have zero association with these brands listed above. These recommendations do use Amazon’s affiliate program, so if you click through a product link and purchase something (anything) on Amazon, that slides some coin in our cruising kitty (thanks!).  I point it out since a couple of people have asked if we had sponsorship from any of products mentioned in our new tools on Totem article recently. Nope! No affiliation with them at all, just like these; we’re just sharing some kit that’s working well on board. Do we have sponsors? Yes, we do. It’s a very few, deliberately kept to the select products/services that we love can be genuinely enthusiastic about, and in limited number to avoid ever being taken as shills. For more information, see our Values Statement.