Refuelling in developing countries

Refueling your boat at home is rarely a problem; there are plenty of jetties, fuel barges and marina dock fuel points to choose from, all selling fresh clean fuel. Cruising overseas, however, can be another story.

During our travels through Indonesia, Malaysian Borneo and the Philippines we found that generally the only available option was to refuel manually, by 20 litre diesel container. There were very few fuel barges or wharves and those we found would not sell to us as the locals bought fuel at a subsidised rate and they had no ability to charge anyone else the unsubsidised rate.

We would dinghy our containers ashore and carry them to the local ‘fuel outlet’. In Indonesia this was often a shack near the beach with several rusty 200 litre drums sitting on the sand.

The local distributor would usually pump fuel into our containers by using a hand pump attached to a long spear that went to the bottom of the drum. At one small village the main fuel dispenser was an old one litre Coke bottle repeatedly dipped into an old painted 44 gallon tank!

When the containers were full we then had to carry them back to the dinghy, transfer them to the boat, lift them on board and siphon the fuel through a filter and into the tanks. It was a very messy business and exhausting for all concerned.

Our worst day was in Ternate Indonesia, when we manhandled 1300 litres aboard in this fashion.

We were also concerned about the quality of this fuel, after seeing where it came from. Initially we used a West System filter funnel, but it was tricky to manage when pouring/syphoning into it while balanced over our fuel filler. It also became clogged quite quickly, which necessitated frequent stops in the filling process to manually clear it.

We quickly learnt some ways to improve the system. We would hire a local lad to help us. Sometimes this was more trouble than help but, generally, we would always find someone keen to earn a few rupiah/pesos and who could carry heavy drums. We would hire a local tricycle or small truck to do the distance between shore and the fuel outlet.

However, our best investment in this whole refuelling caper was to put together a fuel transfer pump system. This meant that those dirty and dripping fuel containers could remain in the dinghy while the fuel was pumped aboard. Thereby cutting down on diesel spill, removing the necessity of lifting the heavy drums on board and spilling diesel while trying to filter it as it goes into the tank. This little gadget saved our sanity at refuelling time.

It must be a necessity for boats cruising through third world countries.

A fuel transfer pump is quite simple and the components are available commercially in most countries. The transfer system can be put together fairly easily. The materials needed are:

  • 240V ac or 12-24V dc fuel transfer pump

  • 30 micron spin-on fuel filter

  • approx. 12m of ½” reinforced feed hose

  • approx. 2m of 1″ reinforced suction hose

  • approx. 0.5m of ¾ rigid plastic conduit with an elbow at one end approx. 10cm long

  • a solid plastic crate about 40cm x 40cm x 30cm high – an Australian milk crate.

It is a fairly straightforward assembly. The fuel pump and attached filter should nestle on a rag or spill tray in the crate bottom, with the pump’s power cord.

They stay in the crate at all times, so this minimises the potential for damage. The thicker hose, ie. the pick-up hose, is attached to the pump’s inlet with the conduit spear at the end with the small elbow at the hose end. The ½” hose, ie. the delivery hose, attaches to the pump’s outlet and should be long enough to reach all fuel filler inlets.

To set it up for fuel transfer on board, we place the crate containing the pump and filter near a scupper. We poke the thicker hose out through the scupper and down to the dinghy tied alongside, where there is enough length to enable the conduit end to reach to the bottom of all containers. The smaller hose is unwound and the end placed directly into the fuel filler. The pump’s power cord is plugged in, turned on and away we go! We leave the pump running between containers and just move the conduit spear quickly onto the next container.

When the hoses are coiled into the crate for storage it should not take up much more room than the dimensions of the crate. We estimate that our pump has a speed of approximately 20 to 30 litres per minute. It takes us ten minutes to set up, 15 minutes to transfer 200l and ten minutes to ‘milk’ the delivery hose empty and pack away. A big bonus is that can all be done easily by one person if necessary.

This system can also be used to pump fuel out of 200 litre/44 gallon drums if you have a longer conduit spear. We have even taken it ashore to help pump fuel out of large drums into our containers when electricity was available.

Our system has drawn a lot of admiring reviews by locals and one local fuel distributor even asked if he could purchase it!

It certainly has eased the refuelling burden for us. We no longer have aching backs, a slippery dirty deck and too much wasted time when we refuel.

Together, with the fuel polishing system that we have also installed and the judicial use of biocide and/or water-absorbing additive, our refuelling problems in the lands of dodgy fuel have been greatly minimised.

Sue Woods
Sun Odyssey 380
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Lagoon 51
M.O.S.S Australia
Listings Added
Lagoon 51