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Updated: Nov 22, 2021

Author Contributor Steve "Flipper" Boughton. 8th October 2021

The purpose of this story is to save a life or two and maybe some excruciating pain for possible victims. Please read it and absorb the consequence from my own painful experience, act on the advice I give, you won’t regret it.

“Just ain’t nothing like muckin around in boats”

Way back in 1983 I was a very busy boy, “Living the dream”. I was working as a shipwright and rigger around Mackay Harbour, I had a line-up of both new yacht masts I was fabricating, plus maintenance rebuilds of rigs in my backyard in sleepy tropical Slade Point.

I had the mobile “Small Ships Fuel Supply” in Mackay Harbour and a sail alteration & repair loft. I was getting involved in some exciting race boat builds and doing a lot of offshore race miles.

And importantly with my AYF Offshore Yachtmaster Instructor TL4 & TL6 Certificates, I was Principal of Mackay Yachting School and teaching navigation & seamanship at Mackay TAFE. I have a string of formal credentials in both maritime services & skills plus also land-based construction and business.

Usually, as preparation for the start of each cyclone season, all of the southern visitors to Nth Qld would migrate home for summer, this included a succession of delivery jobs for me and my regular delivery crew. Invariably not wanting to punch the SE trade winds paid deliveries are the go for. This particular season we had already delivered a little endeavour 30 to Brisbane, a 50ft concrete sloop to Mooloolaba, a 50ft Cheoy Lee ketch to RQYS Brisbane.

The next job was a compass 38ft which had been in storage in Mackay, on the hard for over 12 months, I had done a basic refit on the vessel, mostly general maintenance. Engine rebuild, bilge pump diaphragms replaced, complete check over of the wiring, replaced running rigging, serviced the anchor winch and brought all the safety equipment up to date including a life raft service.

On replacing the rusty LPG bottle in the compliant self-draining cockpit locker I charged the line and went through with a shaving brush and soapy water to check the integrity which proved all good, with no leaks. On the first shakedown sail, we had a forestay failed just off Slade Island, 12 knots of breeze and hard on the wind, the luff of the headsail took the load for the moment required to bring the boat to windward and save the mast, the owner wouldn’t agree to replace all the standing rigging so I didn’t argue, (how I’ve changed, nowadays I’d refuse the job).

We left Mackay Harbour at 22:00hrs on the 24th of December 1983, destination Wollongong Small Boat Harbour, intention to lee-bow the flood tide out to Double Island to anchor the boat and check everything over, basically settling the crew in gently. The crew on-board was the very reliable Mr Bob Muir (a proud indigenous Woppaburra man from the Keppel Coast), Tony McLaren who is now a very respected Yachtmaster (commercially ticketed), my new girlfriend to become my wife and mother of four of my children, (Sue was about two weeks pregnant with my son Leon).

My eldest son Carlos aged 10yo was on board, he had previously done many passages, me being a single dad he came everywhere with me, (we lost his mum when a yacht being delivered went down with all hands on-route to New Zealand 1977).

Another crewman arrived to join the vessel very drunk, he was told to go home as he was a problem I didn’t want or need. After a very pleasant night sail in a 12-knot S/E breeze, we arrived at Double Island around 40 N/M, ESE of Mackay Harbour a bit after 5:00hrs. The crew enjoyed the day on the island and exploring around the island in the rubber duck, I spent some time fixing a few minor issues, had a sleep and prepared a slap-up meal before the planned departure next morning early for the non-stop passage to our destination.

Out through the Nth East Passage to outside the 100-fathom line and keep going, this was pre GPS days so a passage through the reef country had to be very well planned. The main course of dinner was a pressure cooker of chicken and vegetables, steamed pudding and ice cream for dessert. The crew returned to the boat from the island before sundown, I had the saloon table laid formally and we all sat down to eat.

Never being able to stop and relax I just had to start the engine and charge the batteries before dinner. It was raining so I lifted the companionway step and with my arms and head in the engine room, using the starting solenoid button and holding the decompression lever I tried twice, no start? Unusual, it had just been rebuilt and was running perfectly, whilst attempting the third time I suddenly realised I could smell LP Gas.


At the same instant, I realised the engine was starving for air because of the propane rich atmosphere “I HEARD THE LOUDEST EXPLOSION I HAVE EVER EXPERIENCED!” Not only that, I was in the epicentre of a gas bevy (a burning gas cloud). I was blown out of the engine room, I saw the rest of the crew all pressed against the mainmast, compression bulkhead except Sue who was wrapped around the galley, my arms, fingers, chest and hair was all on fire, my large spade beard was gone.

I managed to grab the closest extinguisher and put the engine room flames out, at the same time Bob was wrapping me in a towel to put me out, the ring-pull of the extinguisher was removed from my finger three days later in surgery while I was still unconscious. The first task was to check the soundness of the hull, when I was satisfied with no structural damage the crew sat me down in the saloon and started pouring ice water on me and wrapped me in ice water towels.

The next task was to get me to the hospital, being the only HF Radio operator on-board I had to explain to the crew how to select a frequency and manually tune the antennae, we got a Pan to call out to Brisbane Radio, explained the situation, gave precise coordinates, 21deg 22’S and 149deg 49.4’E, and our position as Northwest Corner of Double Island.

I talked to Bob and Tony about getting the boat back to Mackay after sunrise and prepared for a spotlight response in the cockpit for the rescue chopper. After nearly one hour Bris Radio are telling us the chopper is at our position, my man on deck is saying “No it isn’t”, after an argument on the radio I told them to check the coordinates I had given them, this was very quickly replied to with a very sincere apology from the operator, the chopper was hovering at Double Island / Wide Bay South Qld.

“I’m the injured party and skipper”

Around this time they also asked who was I? “I’m the injured party and skipper” I replied, this brought about another apology from Brisbane Radio. They very quickly arranged for Mackay Sea Rescue to send a rescue cat out with an Aust Navy Reserves Doctor on board, Dr Ian Gibbs, after I was administered a large amount of morphine, the boat was prepared to be left at anchor and the whole crew came ashore with me.

On being placed in the ambulance at the boat ramp, nearly sunrise now, so nine hours after the explosion I relaxed and went unconscious, I was in and out of consciousness for two weeks, I woke up on a stretcher on a jet to Brisbane and then I awoke at the RQ Hospital, I went through very clever but very painful twice each day treatment in the Royal Brisbane Hospital Specialist Burns Unit. Getting the 3rd-degree burns on 30% of your body scrubbed twice each day by a team of nurses whilst laying in a bath of saline solution is not fun.

What caused this explosion? After any gas explosion causing injury, the Federal Department of Mines & Energy is required to investigate. They found 13 irregularities in the LPG installation. Including the main cause, an unsupported length of pipe, in a cockpit locker next to the engine room, a build-up of sand & salt behind the pipe with the vibration of the engine, had worn the side out of around 300mm of the pipe causing a steady dump of gas into the engine room while the gas bottle was turned on (only when cooking). “Turn Gas Off At Bottle When Not In Use” with electronic solenoid cut-offs etc are all great, but they aren’t foolproof. What suddenly inspired me to write this?

Recently I have been doing a few surveys, on one particular vessel when discussing the LPG system I was told that, “It’s really safe, we turn the gas off in a locker below the stove as well as at the bottle”. All I could think when I heard this was, OK I wonder what the pipework between is like? On investigating with a torch in hand (No 1 survey tool), under the cockpit behind the engine near the lazarette, I could see the most grosse lumps of green-blue corrosion on the LPG line.

This concerned me as the level of pain and potential loss of life is just not worth the level of casualness that people display with their gas systems. It needs to be recognised that LPG has only been a common cooking fuel on yachts for 35 years, how many 25-year-old vessels are ready for an explosion? How compliant is your LPG system and is it minimum standard or above required standard? I couldn’t go out in the sun for over three months, I wore long white gloves, compression bandages, carried a big black umbrella and went to TAFE at night to do a gas fitters course. I never want to experience that again.

LPG can be safe

LPG is the most wonderful, safe and efficient fuel you can get for cooking on a boat, but for goodness sake, take the safety seriously, it’s not hard. Licensed Gas Fitters are trained, possibly not to understand the marine environment fully but they are highly trained. Ask them to look for corrosion behind pipes, at the bottom of lockers, pressure test properly, install a solenoid shut off at the bottle with a red light above the stove. Make sure your bottle locker drains to the outside, and replace your bottles regularly. LPG is heavy, it flows like water you can’t see, it expands around 270 times in volume when changing from liquid storage to ambient pressure meaning nine kg of gas makes 2.5 cu/M of volume, that’s a big explosion. Postscript. to my fire story that I probably should have included in the text but mostly pertinent to tropical waters.

I have had so many people over the years have said, “Why didn’t you just jump in the water to clean the wounds and stop the burning?” This is an insane idea but seems to be a natural first thought for many. With the concussion, I was struggling to stay conscious. The warm tropical water is not clean, warm with reef spore, and the burns were already a mass of open wounds, sterility is number one in burns treatment. The tide in the Beverly Group of Nth Qld can run at 5 knots around an island and 4 knots in open water, who can swim that fast let alone after being in an explosion? How many people have practised getting an injured or unconscious body back onto a boat? It was dark and I as the skipper had lots to contemplate and arrange, I did not have time to go for a swim. You know the old saying, “When things start to go wrong everything WILL go wrong”?

Well, the lad I sent home from the wharf before departure had topped the water tanks earlier in the day before he hit the yacht club bar, I never checked if the filler caps on the deck had been installed tight. They were loose and we sailed out to Double Island with a normal amount of splash on deck, the water in the tank was tainted with salt, therefore we were already rationing water and arranging with old Andy Martin at Middle Percy Island to score some clean water for the passage. Luckily we had a 20 litre of emergency water in the lazarette. So there we have good reasons not to go night swimming in this instance.


Author Contributor Steve "Flipper" Boughton. (Sailoroo Profile)

For the purpose of safety at sea, I make this document, in its entirety only, free to be used via publication or presented at any Sea Safety & Survival Course, providing it’s NOT done for commercial profit or gain. Please contact the author for commercial use. Steve is available for presentations any aspect of a lifetime of experience of disasters at sea set amongst the many wonderful times.

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1 komentaras

Great article.

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