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Like more than a few of you, a lifetime of running boats of various sizes in different parts of the world has taught me lessons both easy and otherwise. And being an engineer and yacht designer, I see and hear about a lot of other things that make me glad it wasn’t me on the learning end of that particular lesson.

Many of these personal experiences and second-hand teachings have influenced my pre-cruise checklist in a number of ways, but it doesn’t mean all the bases are always covered. Recently, I was astonished to find that part of my diligent preparation for a cruise caused a new problem I’d overlooked. Perhaps this is one lesson that can be learned the easy way by you, dear reader, because of the unpleasant surprise I discovered inside a fuel tank.


Last summer I was getting my boat By Design ready for a three-week cruise, which included a stopover in Mackinac Island for the Huckins Yacht rendezvous. Having designed and refit a few Huckins recently, I was to be the black sheep of the Huckins event, arriving as I was in my non-Huckins yacht. So I figured I’d at least make sure By Design was looking her best, and that meant tending to the little details like replacing the faded orange portable gas tank in the dinghy.

This was not just any tank from some discount supplier, mind you, but an exact factory replacement for the original, with the engine manufacturer’s name molded into it. To boot, the fill cap and float gauge were now separate assemblies, a design “improvement.”

The new tank arrived a few days before the big cruise. I filled it with fresh gas, strapped it into the dinghy and dutifully fired up the engine to let ‘er run for five minutes, satisfied with the look and seaworthiness of my new acquisition.

A few days later I was at a marina in bustling Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin with my wife and apprentice crew, our 11-year-old son. Sturgeon Bay is home to thriving shipyards which serve the 1,000-foot cargo vessels that ply the Great Lakes. The city is cut down the middle by the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal, a miniature Panama Canal which was dug in the 1880s as a shortcut to Lake Michigan. As such, it’s a busy town full of eye candy for any mariner.

My son and I decided we’d run the dinghy with the new gas tank across the ship canal to the yacht club and check out the local fleet. With the Avon’s new tank pressed full of fresh gas, I pumped the bulb, fired up the 15-hp four-stroke and we headed off.

A few minutes later we were approaching the opposite shore and ... silence. The engine had quit. I gave my 11-year-old companion a look and fired it up again. It ran for a few moments and quit again. And again. I pulled the cowl off and fiddled with the idle screw while messing with the choke, but nothing helped.

Since the weather was beautiful, the crew and I decided we’d take a good look around, check AIS and be sure there were no 1,000-footers coming our way before rowing the quarter mile across the ship canal and back to our boat. There, we could pull the engine up and dig in.

After a vigorous row, I cracked the screw on the carburetor to let some gas flow through and pumped the bulb again. Nothing! “What the hell?” I thought to myself. “The tank is full!” I replaced the quick-connect fitting, sure that it was sucking air. That did exactly nothing. What else could it be?

Stupefied, and with little else in mind, I disassembled the brand new gas tank and lifted out its innards. Astonishingly, the tank had been manufactured and sold with no fuel pickup tube. The only reason the engine ran at all is because the tank was pressed full.

The new gas tank came from one of the world’s largest engine builders, yet it made it to this end user in an utterly defective condition. Am I supposed to add “take everything new apart before using” to my pre-cruise checklist from now on? You’ve been warned.

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.