I didn’t know propane regulators could potentially sink your boat. Well, I suppose I probably would have realized they could if I stopped to think about it. I just never gave it much thought. Whenever I have to go into our propane locker, I usually give the solenoid a quick glance, make sure the locker drain is clear, and check the pressure on the gauge. But I never think much about the regulator itself.
So let’s back up a little. Rhonda and I have been retired for several years now, and our life generally moves at a leisurely pace. But this summer, we’ve taken a couple new to life afloat, Beth and Stephen on S/V Cattywampus, under our wings to help them develop their skills and confidence. The nice thing is that they’re pleasant people to hang with, and are eager to learn. Oh, and they give us beer, which is no small thing. The not so nice thing is that they both have full time, Monday thru Friday jobs. That means if we’re going to take them out and show them a thing or two, we’re back to having to cram everything into a Friday afternoon to Sunday window. That hasn’t been our modus operandi for quite a while here on the good ship Eagle Too. We’re much more likely to head to that one particular anchorage during the week when no one is there, and head back just when everyone starts showing up Friday evening. That’s just the way we roll.
Anyway, there we were preparing for a Friday afternoon departure from the marina, headed for our favorite anchorage at Pensacola Beach. The plan was to show the crew of Cattywampus the somewhat tricky entrance to Little Sabine Bay. Actually, it’s probably about a 2 on a 10 point scale of trickiness, but I know we were a little intimidated the first time we attempted it seven or eight years ago, so it’s nice to have someone to follow in your first time.
We were almost finished with our underway preps and about to start unplugging shore power and start the engine. As I headed up the ladder to the cockpit, I suddenly thought I heard a new and unusual sound. A hissing sound that I couldn’t immediately locate and isolate. Was it us? Was it someone else? It wasn’t there just a few minutes ago when I went below to flip on our instruments. But it was definitely there now. And then I smelled it. The distinctive and pungent odor of propane. We keep our small green 1 pound propane bottle that we use for our barbecue grill in the stern propane locker where our big 10 pound tanks live. My first thought was that maybe it started leaking? I know those little green bottles aren’t the most reliable things.
I climbed onto our stern and popped open the lid to the locker. I found the source of the hissing sound. It was the regulator. A jet of gas was shooting out a tiny hole in its side. I lifted the tank with regulator attached to look closer. The hole the propane was leaking from was labeled “vent.” Suddenly it all became clear. The diaphragm in the regulator had ruptured. Propane at 150 PSI was blowing out the regulator vent into our locker. No warning or indication. Everything was working fine and then it just apparently blew.
So why did I say that this could have sank the boat? Because while the propane locker lid closes with a gasket and vents out the bottom to the outside of the boat, it was designed to control and contain the type of low pressure, gradual leak you get when a fitting is a little lose or a gas line develops a small crack. But what we had here was the full 150 PSI gas pressure of the 10 lb propane bottle blowing out the regulator vent, leaking right past the locker lid gasket and enveloping the stern of Eagle Too in a cloud of propane. One errant spark could have produced a fireball, the likes of which would have been detrimental both to Eagle Too’s stern, and me standing there in the middle of it.
Some thoughts: How lucky we were that we just happened to catch it as it started. It wasn’t leaking, I went below for a few minutes, and then when I went back up topside, it was. If it had happened in the middle of the night, or while we were away from the boat, the entire tank would have vented. Maybe things would have still turned out OK, but I’m glad we didn’t have to find out. Also, I’m glad it happened here, where we have easy access to West Marine to pick up a replacement. If this had happened down in the islands somewhere, there’s no telling how long we might have wandered around without the ability to use our stove or oven, looking for a replacement regulator.
As it was, I was able to borrow Stephen’s car, pop up to West Marine, grab the only regulator they had in stock, rush back to the boat, and swap out the bad one for the new one. I even had a roll of the special purpose yellow Teflon tape onboard that’s safe for use in gas and fuel systems. Never use the white Teflon tape for gas and fuel lines, only the petroleum approved yellow stuff.
An hour later, we were on our way, with no harm done (except to our bank account) and a good story to tell. We even still managed to get anchored down before sunset. But tell me, does anyone think to carry a spare propane regulator onboard? We certainly never have. We carry one for the grill, but not for the main gas system.
So if you’re a cruiser, and your boat is approaching early middle age like ours, you might just want to think about adding an extra regulator to your list of onboard spares. Or potentially spend time eating cold Beanie Weenies while trying to source a new one down in the islands.