Mark Bradley
...there are potential risks in using ethanol fuel in boats

Many Club Marine members and subscribers have been asking us lately about whether or not it is safe to use eco-friendly ethanol blended fuels in their boats. After all, the idea of it sounds great, right? We can help save the planet and ensure the next generation will still be able to get around once the world’s oil supplies inevitably run out.

And there has been some urgency to their inquiries of late, with winter lay-ups coming on as colder days loom.

One issue of particular concern is how ethanol-blended fuels react to long periods of inactivity.

Firstly, though, we need to delve a little deeper into the ethanol issue. Fuel containing a mix of 10 per cent ethanol and 90 per cent ULP, known as E10, is becoming widely available in some regions. It is well-priced and everybody is encouraging us to use it in our cars. And boaties, too, are starting to look at E10 as an option. The problem is that like most things in life, there is another side to the story. Overseas experience, including a string of class action lawsuits, tells us that there are potential risks in using ethanol fuel in boats, including evidence of damage to engines and fuel systems.

So, as a matter of urgency, and in order to provide a well-researched and reasoned answer to the queries from our members, I put our resident researcher on the job. Jeff Megahan was the perfect guy to come up with an authoritative answer, and fast. The countdown was on. Tick, tick …

Jeff spent a month reading every piece of relevant material he could lay his hands on as well as talking to boat and engine manufacturers, scientists, politicians, bureaucrats, industry associations, environmentalists and more.

Eventually he came back to me and in his strong Pennsylvanian accent – and with all the insight and confidence that only a man who has spent a month researching a subject can possess – he said: “I dunno, man!”.

“Not happy, man,” I replied, demanding to see what evidence he had gathered. Surely someone with some credibility out there knew the real ethanol story. I was determined to get to the bottom of the issue and pass on the findings to our members. Tick, tick …

Starting close to home, I saw great promise in a definitive statement on this very subject made recently by the boating industry’s peak body in Victoria, the Boating Industry Association. They know their stuff, I reckoned, or so I thought.

What I received was a media release from BIAV dated March 27: “BIA Victoria has warned Victorian boat owners not to use ethanol fuels in their boats to avoid potentially costly damage to engines and fuel systems.” Finally, I had the answer – or so it seemed..

But then, exactly 16 minutes later, this arrived in my inbox: “BIA Victoria wishes to retract the previous release regarding ethanol”.

Unsure of what took place in the ensuing few minutes – perhaps some groundbreaking research came suddenly to hand, or maybe a nasty letter arrived from the petrol companies or sugarcane farmers – I was left to continue my search. Tick, tick …

Eventually I discovered that the boat and engine companies generally say it is OK to use E10 fuel in their later models. The fuel companies typically concur and the farmers and environmentalists agree (first time for everything!).

But government agencies and scientists continue to say it is unsafe to use E10 in boats due to its short shelf-life, its tendency to damage fuel tanks, hoses and seals, and the likelihood of ethanol separating from petrol when stored in a boat for as little as a couple of weeks.

In fairness to Jeff, right now there is no definitive answer out there. My take on this is, it seems OK to burn E10 fuel in later model boats and engines, but you don’t want to store it in your fuel system for very long. And don’t use it at all in older rigs.

To read Jeff’s excellent article, and the views of the many experts he consulted, you should turn to p138. Take in all the facts, and make your own decision.

And if you really want to help the environment, why not throw away your engines and get out the oars? Or try doing 50 knots on wind power like the record-breaking boys from Macquarie Innovation – see p76.


Mark Bradley
Publisher and CEO
Club Marine Limited