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Tips For Safe Grilling At Sea

Capt. Steve Dougherty December 13, 2013

Do you enjoy steak, BBQ chicken and grilled burgers as much as I do? If so, you’ve at the very least thought about it, or have at one time or another executed a barbeque on your vessel while enjoying time on the water with family and friends. Some might think boats and barbeques don’t mix, but the truth is that it’s really a marriage made in heaven. Cold fried chicken and Publix subs only go so far. Whether you want to grill bacon-wrapped scallops while out for a sunset cruise on the bay or fresh swordfish steaks while drifting the Gulf Stream, there are a few things you can do to keep your onboard barbequing endeavors safe and successful.

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Nothing brightens crew morale quite like a juicy burger! Photo: Scott Kerrigan/aquapaparazzi.com

It should be clear to everyone that uncontrolled fire is a great hazard on a boat, but whether you opt for charcoal, propane or electric you can stay perfectly safe by planning ahead and considering numerous factors before firing up the grill. Safety concerns include the type of boat, location of the grill and its proximity to flammables, the ability for fumes to freely vent and finally, prevalent sea conditions. Obviously, a pitching and rolling boat is no place for an open flame. However, under ideal circumstances onboard grilling is no more hazardous than cooking in your own backyard. I can tell you for certain that one of the best grill sessions I’ve ever had was on the 51-line nearly 20 miles off the beach.

Perhaps the most important consideration is where you plan on grilling. Be very aware of the fuel vent(s) exiting your hull and always grill on the opposite side of the boat…

First and foremost, because you are introducing open flames in the proximity to flammable items it’s critical your fire extinguisher(s) are readily accessible and fully charged. Since your grilling exploits will take place in the harsh saltwater environment it is also highly advised you utilize a marine grade, stainless steel grill. Onboard grilling is no place for a disposable instant grill. Several manufacturers produce specialty marine grills with legs and attachments designed to firmly clamp on a railing or fit securely in rod holders and gimbals. Many boaters choose portable grills that hang overboard by means of an extended arm to keep hot grease from dripping on the deck or covering board.

Available options in marine grills include charcoal, electric and propane, with individual safety concerns for each. Charcoal grills are highly desired for their flavor enhancing abilities, but if you plan on using one on the water be sure to select self-igniting charcoals. The absolute last thing you want is to create a massive fire fueled by flammable lighter fluid. It is also vital to ensure all charcoals are fully extinguished and properly disposed of before stowing the grill.

Since portable propane gas grills light on demand and require no additional components, they are by far the most popular choice. The only real concern here is properly storing and securing the propane tanks. If you plan on transiting through rough seas, make sure the propane tanks are firmly secured. It is also a good idea to only bring enough propane to get you through the day.

Electric grills are also a popular option, especially for fixed grill applications like those found in the cockpit or bridge of a sportfisher. Electric grills eliminate much of the risk since they don’t use open flame or any sort of flammable gas, but grease fires are still a real possibility and you do need to power the appliance.

Perhaps the most important consideration is where you plan on grilling. Be very aware of the fuel vent(s) exiting your hull and always grill on the opposite side of the boat, as far away from these vents as possible. You should also place your grill away from your engines. In addition, since grilling on the boat may be a new activity for some, you’ll want to inform all passengers and certainly any children onboard to stand clear of the heat source.

Once you’ve selected a marine grill with the appropriate bracket or mount and designated a place to grill, you’ll want to assess the conditions before breaking out the burgers. Rough water and stiff winds are a bad mix when it comes to barbequing and you’ll be far better off eating a ham and cheese sandwich than trying to sear the perfect steak. In choppy, windy conditions you could risk the grill tipping over or charcoal embers blowing freely, so be very aware of the prevalent conditions.

It’s also important that the designated cook is focused on the task at hand, not fishing or drinking. Leaving a hot grill unattended for even a moment could result in disaster. Not only could you burn the steaks, but you could also miss an opportunity to prevent a fire hazard. Cook attentively, and once the grill is turned off you can relax and return to socializing.

The hazard of grilling on a boat isn’t limited only to fire. You’ll also need to take the necessary steps to avoid food contamination with lacking kitchen space and sanitation abilities. It’s a good idea to prepare and marinate foods in advance to avoid over handling and possible contamination. It’s also important you leave no footprint and remain aware of paper plates or napkins and plastic utensils that may blow overboard.

A boat is one of the worst places to see fire, yet with proper preparation and execution grilling on the boat will be your new favorite pastime. Going out to eat will take on a whole new meaning!

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