Skip to main content

17 ways to ease the pain at the pump

A few common-sense practices can go a long way in reducing fuel consumption

A few common-sense practices can go a long way in reducing fuel consumption

With gas prices expected to remain high this summer, we’ve come up with a list of 17 fuel-saving tips for sailors and powerboaters.

And while a visit to the pump might make U.S. boaters wince, consider the plight of the tax-burdened Europeans who years ago had to adapt to hefty fuel costs and still be on the move. In Amsterdam a gallon of unleaded costs more than $7.

Feel a little better? The good news is that common sense and due diligence cost little but can save a lot. Here are some solutions that offer instant relief.

1. Clean up your act: Keep your bottom clean because, as sailracers know, slick is fast. It’s not so much an issue with boats kept on trailers, but boats that are kept in the water stand to gain a lot by periodic bottom cleaning and maintaining a smooth, consistent cover of paint below the waterline.

2. Store the dink: Sailboats especially often putter along with a dinghy in tow, which produces lots of drag, making the engine work harder and burn more fuel. The 10 minutes it might take to hoist the inflatable on deck and stow it for a passage can boost your boat’s performance and reduce the fuel bill. And fold away awnings, Biminis and canvas enclosures that might not be needed. They also increase resistance and fuel consumption.

3. Go easy: Don’t open her up unless you have to pop a skier or wakeboarder out of the water. “Find the groove of your engine and your boat, because a happy boat is an efficient boat,” says Capt. Rick Kilborn of Boatwise maritime skills training in South Hampton, N.H. “If you can’t tell by the seat of your pants where it is, consult your owner’s manuals and talk to the manufacturers.”

4. Go light: Don’t top off fuel or water tanks unless you plan a longer passage. Liquids are heavy: 50 gallons of water weighs around 415 pounds, weight you shouldn’t be pushing around unless you absolutely have to. And take stuff off the boat after trips, otherwise she turns into a storage shed and puts on dead weight in the process.

5. Go smart: Travel using the most economical route, and use tide and current to your advantage. A favorable push is worth cold, hard cash. “If you run a 35-foot powerboat from Newburyport [Mass.] to Nantucket and back, using favorable currents can save you one night’s worth of docking fee,” Kilborn says.

6. Shop around: Call the fuel docks in your area and compare the cost per gallon. If you must bunker 500 gallons, paying 10 cents less per gallon might justify a detour.

7. Lug a jug: Trailer boaters can take advantage of cheaper fuel at roadside filling stations. If you keep your boat in the water and decide schlepping jerry jugs is worth the savings, be careful to use only appropriate containers, and be sure not to spill at the dock.

8. Avoid the idle: “Even when you are [stopped] for just a few minutes — for example, while waiting in line at the fuel dock — shut her down,” recommends Jeff Hustead of Carolina Captains, a Charleston, S.C., a firm that trains professional skippers. “It’s clean and saves gas.”

9. Keep up with the maintenance: A well-tuned engine is more efficient. Clean injectors spray fuel into the combustion chamber, while old and gummed-up tips can produce a jet that puts too much fuel into the chamber.

10. Check the propeller: Damaged or incorrect props can cost you a bundle. “Using the right prop for your application is a good way to boost the engine’s efficiency, but too often this is being overlooked,” says Greg Eck, manager of special projects at Yanmar USA. “Run your clean, light boat at wide-open throttle, and you should get 100 rpm more than rated maximum. When the boat is loaded for a day trip with gear, fluids and people, this number should be in line with your engine manufacturer’s recommendations.”

11. Find the right prop: Depending on load, a change in propeller pitch can improve fuel economy and performance. Less pitch increases rpm and vice versa. A 1-inch difference in pitch can cause an increase or decrease of around 200 rpm at wide-open throttle. Sailors often use folding propellers, which provide better performance by creating less drag when not in use. Under power these engineering marvels can surprise with their efficiency. Some, like the three-bladed Gori, can vary the pitch 2 to 3 inches to use either a standard or an overdrive setting.

12. Keep filters clean: Fuel, oil and air filters should be near the top of your regular maintenance list. Water or dirt contaminates fuel filters and can lead to fuel starvation and an overloaded engine. Clean air filters provide the right amount of cooling air, which is especially important for diesels.

13. Use instrumental smarts: “Our operators keep an eye on the fuel-flow meter and their trip computer to run at maximum efficiency, not maximum speed, when they go offshore,” says Capt. Joseph Frohnhoefer III, vice president of operations at Sea Tow Services International of Southold, N.Y. He also cautions against relying on the accuracy of fuel gauges. “Check your hour meter before and after the trip, and multiply the operating time of your engine with the average fuel consumption so you have an educated guess about the fuel left in the tank.”

14. Use fuel with additives: Treated fuel can have a positive impact because it contains additives that disperse water, remove carbon deposits and improve combustion. “We are adding several products to our fuel to help improve fuel economy,” says David Grochocki, vice president of operations at ValvTect, a supplier of marine fuels. “Our gasoline comes with the Octane Performance Improver, and our diesel has Diesel Guard and Bio Guard added to help remove carbon deposits and keep injectors clean.” These and other fuel additives typically are available from your local marine supply store.

15. Trim right: “If you have trim tabs, use them,” says Carolina Captains’ Hustead. “They can be of immense help to get on a plane faster and stay there longer.”

16. Repower: New 4-stroke outboards are up to 25 percent more fuel-efficient, and the new-technology diesels also sip less fuel. However, it’s not just about saving money at the pump. “Replacing engines should be thought of as an investment in the skipper’s happiness,” says Soundings contributing writer Larry Dario, a veteran boater who holds a Coast Guard captain’s license.

17. Look at diesel intelligence: Older mechanical diesels are being replaced by so-called “smart” power plants that use microprocessor technology to control internal combustion for higher efficiency and cleaner operation. Engines that feature common rail fuel systems or hydraulically actuated, electronically controlled unit injection (Caterpillar’s HEUI technology) can be run efficiently at a fraction of their rated horsepower, which makes it possible to cruise at lower speeds and conserve fuel without risking engine damage (see April Soundings).

“Complaining never helps,” says Christine Kaplan, owner and operator of the fuel dock at Gashouse Cove in San Francisco, where boaters can fill up with treated fuels that contain detergents, corrosion inhibitors, stabilizers and biocide. “In my experience, fuel prices don’t keep people from using their boats. They find ways to adjust and move on.”