Protests as ethanol leaves US boats dead in the water

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Car drivers in the United States do not usually notice when they fill their tanks with petrol mixed with 10 per cent ethanol, much of it manufactured from home-grown corn. If they did, few would complain. The blending process increases the fuel supply, helps to restrain prices, and it is kind to the environment.

There is an anti-ethanol rebellion brewing, however, but it is not happening on America's highways. The rumbles of protest are being heard instead on rivers, lakes and along its shores, as boat owners discover that ethanol can sometimes be ruinous to their beloved yachts and cruisers.

As more marinas follow the national trend by offering only fuels with the 10 per cent ethanol blend, boat owners find they have no choice but to buy it, even as evidence accumulates that ethanol, benign though it is to the atmosphere, can leave boats dead in the water.

The problems were detailed in a report published by the Boat Owners Association of the United States, or Boat US. They are particularly worrisome for people with older boats fitted with fibreglass fuel tanks. Introduce ethanol to them, and a chemical reaction produces a black muck. The muck and marine engines do not mix well.

Complaints are coming in from disgruntled captains from East Coast harbours to Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean - that boats are mysteriously puttering to a standstill and the suspected cause in each case is ethanol.

"The engine damage appears to be a tar-like substance - possibly from the chemical reaction between the resin and ethanol - causing hard black deposits that damage intake valves and pushrods, destroying the engine," Boat US wrote. For some owners this may mean their engines are wrecked. Others are looking for ways to cut out their fibreglass tanks and replace them with aluminium ones.

One man who knows all about the ethanol blight is Ale Tolentino, who captains a Dolphin tour boat in Hawaii. "It just melted things that was in the tank that's been in the boat since it's been built, sent it right through the fuel lines and the fuel lines were melting - and sending stuff in liquid form right through the engine and into the injectors," he said. "It came down to the ethanol doing the damage, it just killed us."

Another problem is that ethanol attracts water. In a car, where the tank and fuel lines are sealed, water is not an issue, but that is hardly the case when you are water-born, particularly if your boat sits for weeks at a time not being used.

The rush to introduce ethanol has been unstoppable. It is a boon for farmers, who have found an important new market for their corn, and is seen as an important step to mitigating, if only slightly, the country's dependency on foreign oil supplies. But boaters think that they have been ignored in the process.

"No options - that was our big problem, no options," said Mr Tolentino.

"It would have been nice if somebody did some sort of study before they just said it's done."