Dock Lines

Dealing with fuel spills

SAN DIEGO — The knock on our hull came early one morning. A fuel slick was spreading on our dock, engulfing our boat. Were we the source of the spill?

We quickly determined our boat was not the origin. A boat three slips down the dock caused the contamination. The owner, we learned, had fueled his boat the night before and overfilled his tanks, causing diesel to leak out his overflow vent. Fortunately the marina staff – trained in spill management and cleanup – responded rapidly at first notice of the slick, promptly stopping and containing its spread.

If you do cause a spill, make calling your marina staff a priority. If you don’t know how to deal with the problem, they’ll be able to guide you.

“The important thing is to report the spill, stop it and contain it,” explained Adam Veves, dockmaster of Shelter Island’s Kona Kai Marina. “We keep on hand a supply of absorbent pads, booms, diapers and emergency pumps. No matter what the size of the spill we call the National Response Center (at 800-424-8802) and report it as soon as possible.”

Representatives of the center show up quickly to oversee the spill’s cleanup, he added.      In addition, according to the spill response instructions laid out in the Marinas and Yacht Clubs Spill Response Communications Packet, prepared by Cal Boating (officially the Division of Boating & Waterways), the person causing the spill must notify the California Office of Emergency Services at 800-852-7550 or 800-OILS911 and local emergency services at 911. Expect to fill out reports for these agencies.

Do not, under any circumstances, try to disperse a slick with detergent or soap. It damages the environment and its use is illegal.

Marinas and response centers understand that accidents do happen – but don’t try to cover them up. Educate yourself about appropriate techniques in case you ever have to deal with a spill. Cal Boating’s website at, under the heading Clean and Safe Boating Practices for Boaters and Anglers, provides excellent tutorials on fueling, bilge care and preventing spills, plus informative videos.

Most important is preventing spills or leaks initially. If you’re a new boater or inexperienced in fueling your boat, be sure to view Cal Boating’s video on clean fueling practices. Don’t hesitate to ask fuel dock staff about best fueling practices. They want to avoid spills, too.

It’s not just fueling that produces spills or leaks – many of the slicks seen around marinas result from poorly maintained engines leaking motor or transmission oil into the bilge. It’s then pumped out with any accumulated bilge water. If you know your bilge is full of oily water, turn the pump switch from automatic to manual to avoid oily discharge. Find the source and repair whatever is causing fuel or engine oil leaks.

Cal Boating recommends using absorbent pads, sheets, “socks” or “diapers” to absorb oil when working on engines or cleaning oily residue in the bilge. If your bilge is extremely oily you may need to use a bilge pumpout service to dispose of accumulated bilge liquids appropriately and even a steam cleaning service.

Arv does all our engine work, always spreading absorbent sheets under the engines to catch drips. When he’s done he bags the absorbent material and discards it through a collection center. Ask your marina or fuel dock about the nearest collection site or contact your county household hazardous collection waste center. Listings are online at; search on hazardous waste.

It’s wise to prepare for emergencies. Keep well stocked with varied absorbent materials. With sound maintenance practices, you may never need to use them.

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