By Tom Rau
The Coast Guard’s latest annual report on recreational boating is stained with the blood of boaters dying or being maimed from boat propeller strikes. According to the Coast Guard’s 2007 report, 166 injuries inflicted by propeller strikes resulted in 24 fatalities. Injuries often involve dismemberment, permanent physical scars and lingering psychological trauma.
The report’s leading causes for propeller strikes raises its ugly head in the report’s top ten contributing factors of accidents.“ Operator inattention” ranked number one as the leading cause of boating accidents. Over the years of reporting and investigating propeller strikes, I concur: inattention is indeed the leading cause of propeller strikes. I plead then with boaters to pay attention to the following boat smart advice.
I have performed numerous open-water recovery drills with persons in the water (PIW). My standard procedure was to keep my hands off the engine throttles when a person was alongside the boat. I even avoided engaging the throttles with a person off the bow. I preferred approaching the PIW at a slow rate of speed, then bringing the throttles to neutral and coast up, keeping them at a safe distance off the boat.
Then I would direct a crewman to toss a rescue heaving line and pull the person to the boat. I stress: a rescue heaving line is a critical safety item that all boaters should carry. Go to www.Boatsmart.net for information on rescue heaving lines.
Also, I can’t stress enough to stay focused and never assume where the PIW might be: leave the throttle(s) and find out for sure. On June 28, 2004, near a Michigan City beach, a 28 year-old male backed down a 34-foot powerboat onto his ten-year-old niece after she jumped off the stern. She died from propeller strike moments later, despite the valiant first-responder efforts of off-duty Coast Guardsman Troy Wile. He happened to be with his girlfriend on a nearby beach. Wile said, “The prop struck her leg first, then pulled her tonsil into the prop. She was dead before we reached shore.” The girl’s mother witnessed this gruesome nightmare while standing at the stern. Her brother thought the girl had jumped off the bow.
Advice to those in the water: do not approach the stern of a boat until the operator has either placed the throttles in neutral or has shut down the motor. And do not take the word of other people aboard the boat—get confirmation directly from the boat operator. Miscommunications could result in a missing limb or worse yet….
Propeller strikes can also occur when someone falls off a moving boat. Coast Guardsman Scott Leahy told me he responded to an emergency off Cape Charles, Virginia. Two teenage girls, while bow riding aboard a 18-foot power boat, popped off the bow after the boat jumped a wave. The propeller instantly killed one girl; the other died from severe bleeding moments later after rescuers transported her to shore.
Leland marine deputy Bruce Garland advises if a person falls overboard, the boat operator should turn the bow towards the direction that the person fell. This will kick the stern away from the person in the water. Garland described a case where a person fell off a boat in Lake Leelanau, Michigan. When the operator approached the PIW with the seas on his stern, he turned the helm hard over away from the person, which threw the stern into the PIW, striking him in the rump with the propeller. It required fifty stitches to sew up the wound.
George Miller, Director of Flight Operations, County Rescue Services, Green Bay, e-mailed me about an emergency MEDIVAC he flew in late August 2005 near Iron Mountain, Michigan. According to Miller, a young female along with friends were riding along on the front of a pontoon boat. The young lady slipped and fell between the pontoons and was struck by the boat’s propeller. The propeller sliced off her right breast and the prop entered her right lung; it then continued down her right side, inflicting severe deep gashes. On top of that, dirty water had entered the wounds. She survived thanks to the quick response from those aboard the boat who rushed her to a nearby hospital. “She will survive her injuries but she will never forget how she received them nor will her friends,” wrote Miller.
Gruesome? Yes. Avoidable? Absolutely. How? Boat smart, take command—pay attention.
Tom Rau is a retired 27-year Coast Guard veteran, boating safety columnist, and author of Boat Smart Chronicles, Lake Michigan Devours Its Wounded. His book is a 20-year journal of recreational boating mishaps with valuable lessons learned. It, along with recent rescue stories, can be viewed at: www.boatsmart.net
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