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How to Avoid Running Out of Fuel While Boating

Boaters are routinely rescued due to a lack of fuel.

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Boater being rescued after running out of fuel
Use the old-school rule of thirds. That is, use one-third of your fuel for going, a second third for coming back, and keep a third in reserve for the unexpected. Tim Bower

I’m writing this in December 2021 after reading a report about the US Coast Guard’s rescue of two boaters plucked from their vessel as it foundered in raging surf off Daly City, California. Good job, Coasties, and kudos as well to the TowBoatUS captain who alerted them to the plight of the crew aboard the reportedly “disabled” 37-foot boat.

I placed the word disabled in quotes because these boaters didn’t have engine problems, nor were the props fouled, nor did they ground out on an uncharted shoal. They ran out of fuel.

Please understand me: I am glad they are OK. But their experience highlights the importance for boaters to manage their boat’s fuel supply. An early-evening, close-to-shore cruise should not result in a near-death experience. But there it is.

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In fact, TowBoatUS reports that some 6,035 boaters—7.4 percent of its 81,557 calls for assistance in 2021—came as a result of boaters running out of fuel. We can do better, boaters.

Please make a habit of keeping your tanks topped up. I advise writing down fuel purchases and noting engine hours. This serves as both a check and a backup to your boat’s fuel gauge. Additionally, pay attention to how much fuel your boat’s engines burn at common speeds you run. Be particularly attentive to how heavy loading, such as a large crew or boxes full of ice and fish, or environmental conditions, such as head seas or stiff winds and currents, further affect fuel consumption.

Most newer marine engines offer excellent fuel-management systems. Use them. In addition to this technology, use the old-school rule of thirds. That is, use one-third of your fuel for going, a second third for coming back, and keep a third in reserve for the unexpected.

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