Gasoline vapor explosion sinks Florida Yacht

From Ocean Navigator #135
January/February 2004
During the last two weeks of May 2003, Jack Fitzgerald, owner of

Ms. Fitz, a 60-foot aluminum ketch, was blown overboard by an explosion that tore through his vessel at about 0300. Had he not been standing in the pilothouse doorway, checking to see if his generator was pumping cooling water through the system, it is unlikely Fitzgerald would have survived the incident. As it was, he suffered severe burns on many parts of his body.

While not a total loss, Ms. Fitz sustained major damage above and belowdecks from fire, and both masts were destroyed. The boat was easily salvageable, however, thanks to the shallow harbor where it was moored.

The cause of the explosion was attributed to gasoline vapors leaking from an ondeck canister, which seeped into the cabin space, settling in the bilge, igniting when Fitzgerald fired off his generator to brew a pot of coffee.

Ms. Fitz was meticulously hand-built over a 10-year period by the owner at Toms River, N.J. Since launch in 1993, it has been moored in Vero Beach, Fla., and makes trips back and forth to the Bahamas with the owner from time to time.

A stickler for safety and no risk-taker, Fitzgerald decided to forego compressed and liquid stove fuels and had installed an electric stove. There was no propane on the vessel. He returned from a land journey and boarded the day before at about 1500, aired out the stuffy boat, which had been unoccupied for several days, and then fell asleep early that evening. Awakening at about 0300 and wanting to brew a cup of coffee, Fitzgerald went to the generator switch, which he had intentionally mounted next to the portside cabin door so that he could visually confirm discharge of the genset’s raw-water pump. He leaned out the doorway and hit the switch. The explosion blew him out the door and over the rail. Not knowing the extent of his injuries, early rescuers stood by, talking with the victim and waiting for professional aid to arrive.

Ms. Fitz was severely damaged by the fire and explosion. Several of the quarter-inch aluminum plates aft of amidships on the starboard side were damaged, and the boat quickly settled on its starboard side in the 6- to 7-foot-deep anchorage. Ms. Fitz was salvaged and towed to a nearby Fort Pierce yard the next day. Fitzgerald was hospitalized in Orlando with burns over 25 percent of his body but with a good prognosis for full recovery.

Speculation at this time is that a gasoline storage container, secured to a mast on deck and used for outboard engine fuel, may have been the culprit. It is possible, local firefighters said, that the container either overflowed in the daytime heat or was leaking. Those who operate in tropical climates know this phenomenon well. Fuel expands in the tank, and the volume can often exceed the capacity of the container. It could then have leached down the mast and into spaces belowdecks. The fresh air ventilation throughout the vessel over the preceding 12 hours may not have reached the lower, belowdeck area housing the genset. The fuel vapor may have settled in bilges below the engine room sole.

J.J. Stives

By Ocean Navigator