How to stay safe from carbon monoxide poisoning on a boat

In July 2016, an experienced young sailor named Nicholas Banfield took his yacht out on the Sydney Harbour with his girlfriend. Two days later, she phoned her family in a confused state. She didn’t know where she was. A search was launched by police and friends.


The small yacht was finally found off Balmoral Beach. The young sailor had died from carbon monoxide poisoning. The woman was taken to hospital and survived. Nicholas had been sailing since the age of 7. He was a sailing instructor as a teen and have sailed to Vanuatu and back.


But carbon monoxide is a silent killer. You can’t smell, see or taste it, and it can be produced by boat engines, cooking appliances and generators. It’s also the same density as air, which means it’s able to flow easily through the air, and into confined spaces.


In Nicolas’s case, a gas stove was to blame. What happened to Nicholas could happen to any sailor, and sadly, it continues to. Late last year, four Victorian sailors were hospitalised after being exposed to carbon monoxide. Luckily, they survived.


Today, we’re delving into how to stay safe from carbon monoxide poisoning when boating. Here’s what you need to know.


How Carbon Monoxide (CO) builds up onboard

Carbon monoxide poisoning stops the blood stream from carrying oxygen. It occurs whenever carbon is burnt, since no appliance is able to combust fuel 100%. A person can be poisoned by low level exposure over time, or by extreme exposure over a short period.

But how does exposure happen?


  • People who boat are at major risk of carbon monoxide poisoning because of engines, generators, heaters, stoves and other appliances located in small, enclosed spaces.
  • Fumes can easily build up in enclosed spaces, such as a cockpit covered with a canopy or a sleeping area below deck.
  • Other risk factors include inboard petrol engines, poor ventilation, and machinery that is poorly maintained, which can result greater levels of carbon monoxide.
  • Boats equipped for sleeping onboard are also a risk, since people in an enclosed space could be subject to carbon monoxide poisoning overnight, without even realising it.
  • Using engines and generators while your boat is moored, or staying in marinas with a lot of traffic for long periods of time.
  • Motoring at low speed for long periods, particularly if there is a following wind.
  • Operating heaters or stoves in confined spaces with poor ventilation.


How to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning on a boat

There are practical steps you can take to radically lower your risk of carbon monoxide poisoning onboard.

  • Install a carbon monoxide detector in sleeping areas and enclosed spaces, including helm positions. Be sure to have them regularly checked by a professional.
  • Make sure your boat is naturally ventilated. Find out how fans and ventilation systems can be installed to your advantage. They’re not expensive and could save your life.
  • Check your boat to see if it has been modified. For example, cockpits that have been enclosed could increase the risk of CO building up inside. If a mod has been made, get advice from a qualified professional, who is up to speed with CO safety.
  • Get your engines, and any other appliances you have onboard serviced regularly. Make sure fittings, clamps and hoses work properly. If something leaks, get it fixed or get rid of it.
  • Stay aware of what’s happening around you. Carbon monoxide poisoning can come from vessels in proximity to you. Be wary of boats near your intakes and vents.
  • Brief your passengers and crew on carbon monoxide poisoning and its effects. These include a dull head ache, dizziness, weakness, nausea or vomiting, confusion and blurred vision. Eventually, the person affected will lose consciousness.
  • Be aware that boats can still emit CO in ‘limp mode’, which is when an engine automatically limits RPMs to keep the boat at a low speed when you’re heading to shore. This function is often on high end sports boats, and can lead to the build-up of fumes if the boat does not have proper ventilation.


Taking these precautions will help you and your crew stay safe from the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning. For more information on the impact of carbon monoxide poisoning, we recommend this resource from the Government of Queensland.


Stay safe

Whether you’re boating for pleasure or business, please stay safe out on the water. For more information on water safety, as well as the latest on innovations in the boating world, please check out our Facebook page.

If you’re looking to have your boat cover reviewed, to ensure you’re getting the right cover for your boating needs, please get in touch. We provide cover for boating businesses, recreational boaties, yacht and rowing clubs and other marine trades and classes.


For more information, please get in touch.