Avoiding Propeller Injuries

How to Avoid One of Boating’s Most Horrific Accidents By Following a Few Simple Rules

Published: April 2012
 

According to the claim file, the accident occurred so suddenly that most of the people aboard thought the 20-foot boat had bumped bottom. It hadn’t. A man on the bow who was seated on the gunwale had been bounced over the side when the boat struck a wake at high speed, and a split second later, he was struck by the prop. The boat’s owner responded by throwing the engine into neutral and spinning the boat around, but it was already too late. Despite a frantic search, the body was not found until days later (Claim #0507632).

Of all the various types of personal injury claims, none are more frightening than those involving propellers. The injuries are often horrific and, equally as disturbing, may have been prevented by exercising good seamanship.

The following are a few rules that must be followed if prop accidents are to be prevented:

Guarding Against Propeller Accidents While On The Boat
  • Many guests don’t know a boat can bounce or lurch suddenly, and it’s up to you, as skipper, to make sure everyone is seated safely inside the boat. Never allow passengers to ride on the bow, gunwales, or transom. If there aren’t enough seats for everyone, extra passengers must remain ashore.
  • Even if everyone is seated inside the boat, slow down when you encounter a large wake. To minimize the impact, cross the wake at an angle, not straight on.
  • Avoid letting anyone aboard drink heavily, especially when the boat is underway. According to the claim files, alcohol was a factor with many prop injuries.
  • Wear your engine cutoff switch lanyard. Note that it may be necessary to shorten the lanyard when the operator is seated near the engine—smaller outboards with tiller steering.
  • Stay at least 100 feet away from diver-down flags in rivers, inlets, and navigation channels. On other bodies of water, stay at least 300 feet away. (State laws vary, so it’s best to check laws in your area.) Many divers have been killed or seriously injured by props. Turn away from diver-down areas; don’t try to idle by. Be aware that divers have difficulty gauging distance underwater and will often stray more than the legal distances from the flag. Current can also cause divers to be swept away from the flag.
  • Don’t let anyone onto the swim platform while the engine is in gear. Swim platforms tend to be slippery and people have fallen into the prop; this is especially likely to happen when the boat is coming into a dock and the boat bounces off a piling.
  • When launching or ungrounding a boat, keep people in the water away from the stern and prop. In the rush to get the boat into open water, it’s easy to forget the prop is back there.

The passenger on this boat's bow should be seated inside the boat.

Guarding Against Propeller Accidents While Waterskiing Or Swimming
  • Get back to skiers immediately; skiers have been run down by other boats while they were waiting to be picked up. The color of the equipment is very important; one skier who was run down had a kneeboard and life vest that were both black, which is less visible against the water. Life vests (required by law), wetsuits, and t-shirts, as well as skis and kneeboards, should be bright colors so that the skier will be easily visible to you and to other boat traffic. Skiers in the water who are waiting to be picked up can make themselves more visible by holding a ski out of the water.
  • NEVER put the engine in reverse and back toward a skier (or anyone else) in the water. A 44-year-old man was injured when the boat’s gears jammed in reverse and the spinning prop cut one of his legs. When you pick up a skier, make a gradual turn back and then shut off the engine before you are alongside. When the wind is blowing, always approach from downwind.
  • Do not put the engine into gear until you see that everyone who was in the water is seated safely inside the boat. Just because you hear a voice a few feet away, don’t assume he or she is aboard. In one injury claim, a man sitting on the swim platform sounded like he was on the boat and the skipper carelessly gunned the engine without looking back to check.
  • Don’t use an outboard or I/O’s lower unit for reboarding. Propellers are sharp, even when they’re not moving.
  • Never enter swimming zones.

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