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Ignite the BBQ, Not Your Boat

What’s better after a great day on the water than firing up the grill? Here’s what you need to know to safely cook out on deck.

Middle-aged white male and female grilling cheese burgers on a boat

Ahhhhh, the aroma of grilling burgers wafting through the evening air … the sound of brats hissing and popping as they near peak perfection … the sight of Uncle Louie madly beating at the flames threatening to engulf his “King of the Coals” cooking apron.

Grills are located above decks, so boaters tend to treat them with a more cavalier attitude when it comes to safety. Bad idea! According to the Insurance Information Institute, grills result in more than 5,000 fires, over 300 grill-related injuries, and at least 10 deaths annually. Let’s take a look at how you can keep your family’s “Lord of the Grill” from becoming a ­barbecue statistic.

Grill selection

When it comes to grill selection, the three primary choices (based on fuel) are charcoal, liquid petroleum gas (LPG, or propane), and electric, each coming with its own set of pros and cons.

Charcoal grills can be a challenge to light, but they stay lit afterward, in even the strongest winds. Staying lit is good for cooking, but the inability to shut off the grill in the event of an emergency (accidently spilling those hot coals, for example) is a negative. They’re also messy to use and clean, while fuel storage can be a pain. You’ll also have to refill them during extended grilling periods.

Gas grills are easier to light, offer better temperature control, and are easier to clean, although they can be more difficult to keep lit in a stiff breeze.

Electric grills are easy to power up (no worries about them going out), offer great temperature control, and are easy to clean. They do, however, require a source of AC power, which means having a generator onboard or using only while at the dock.

Installation considerations

Where will the grill be used on your boat? Will it be clamped to the cockpit railing, or does it have a fishing rod holder-style mount? Is your chosen location well clear of flammable items and located so that the grill doesn’t interfere with hatches, dinghy davits, and the like? If removable, where will it be stowed after use? Where can your fuel (particularly propane) be safely stored above decks? If coals or embers drop out, will they go overboard or onto your deck?

Set of four black and silver grilling tools in a protective black case

Long-handled barbecue utensils will help reduce burns.

Grill safety tips

While electric grills also have safety requirements, the following tips are primarily directed toward charcoal and gas grills (due to their use of combustion). We’ll discuss safety tips for each separately in a bit, but first, let’s look at some general, commonsense tips that can be applied when using most any grill.

  1. Read the owners manual.
    As with any piece of equipment, the first safety step is reading the owner’s manual. There you’ll find information on everything from assembly to safe operation tips. Still have questions not answered in the manual? Don’t be shy – give the manufacturer a call to clarify. (Write the customer service phone number on the front page of your manual for easy reference.)

  2. Always grill above decks in an open area.
    Barbecue grills are designed for use above decks in a well-ventilated area. Never barbecue down below in the galley or inside an enclosed area, such as a cockpit with full canvas curtains in place. In both cases, carbon monoxide can accumulate with lethal results.

  3. Securely mount your grill before use.
    Ensure your grill is firmly mounted in place and stable. Never use portable, camping-type grills, which can easily slide around or tip over. Grills should also be mounted where people and pets can’t accidentally come in contact with them. Never try to move a hot grill. Instead, allow the grill to completely cool to the touch before trying to relocate or stow it.

  4. Keep it under control.
    Never leave a grill unattended during use, and always keep some method of fire control nearby. Options can include a portable fire extinguisher, fire bucket (with a lanyard long enough to reach the water), or fire blanket. A spritzer bottle of water can help with minor flare-ups, but remove food from the grill first, if possible. Cleaning your grill regularly to remove grease and fat buildup will reduce the chances of fire and flare-ups as well.

  5. Use proper grilling utensils.
    Long-handled barbecue utensils (tongs, forks, spatulas) help reduce burns due to pops and splatters.

  6. Wear grill-safe clothes.
    No thongs, Speedos, or “au natural” grilling, please! On the flip side, avoid baggy, frilly clothes and loose, billowing shirts or bikini wraps that could catch fire.

Charcoal grill safety tips

  • If you use starter fluid, use only charcoal starter fluid (not gas from the dinghy jerry can). NEVER add starter fluid or any other flammable liquids to the fire once started, or even after the fire is extinguished if the grill is still hot. Charcoal chimney starters allow you to start charcoal using something like newspaper without the need for starter fluid.
  • When you’re done grilling, let the coals cool completely before disposal.


Never add starter fluid to the fire once started

LPG grill safety

  • Most boat grills use small (16.4-ounce), disposable LPG cylinders. Always inspect these for signs of corrosion, dents, gouges, or other external damage before use. If any problems are found, dispose of properly and use another cylinder.
  • Properly mount the grill outside in a well-ventilated area before connecting the cylinder.
  • Always disconnect and remove the LPG cylinder after use and before stowing it.
  • Store LPG bottles abovedecks in a well-ventilated area where escaping vapors can only flow overboard. They must also be protected from the weather and mechanical damage, including rusting. Possible options include a holder made from a section of PVC pipe or a mesh storage bag, designed and made for the purpose, mounted to the stern railing (well away from the grill of course).
  • Never lean over the grill when lighting (or cooking, for that matter) and keep the lid open to prevent flare-ups from gas buildup.

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Frank Lanier

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

Capt. Frank Lanier is a SAMS Accredited Marine Surveyor with more than 40 years of experience in the marine and diving industries. He’s also an author, public speaker, and multiple award-winning journalist whose articles on boat maintenance, repair, and seamanship appear regularly in numerous marine publications worldwide. He can be reached via his YouTube channel “Everything Boats with Capt. Frank Lanier” and website