Life jackets, kill switches are no-brainers in boats
The empty boat churned in an endless circle, the torque created by the spinning propeller of its running but unattended outboard motor pushing the swivel-mounted engine as far as it would go in one direction and keeping it there.
People who have witnessed this phenomenon commonly call it “The Circle of Death.” It is not hyperbole. It is a tragic, dangerously deadly circle that easily can be avoided with a simple action - one available to every operator of a powered boat but used by as few as two out of 100.
It is one of two actions that Simon Cosper is convinced he religiously will take every time he cranks the outboard of his fishing boat. He has witnessed “The Circle of Death.”
“It just drove home how important it is to use a kill switch and wear a life jacket,” Cosper, who spends 250-plus days a year guiding fishing trips on Lake Livingston, said of the experience.
After launching his boat around dawn a little more than a week ago, Cosper and his clients were preparing to enjoy a morning of fast fishing for Livingston’s abundant white bass. But as they were gearing up, Cosper noticed something in the lake near where a bridge spans the reservoir’s Kickapoo Creek arm.
“There was a boat doing doughnuts,” he said. “I couldn’t see anybody in it. I told my customers to wait on the shore; I needed to go check this out.”
As he approached the circling boat, he noticed people who had stopped their cars and were standing on the bridge, looking at the spinning boat. He couldn’t see anyone in the boat or anyone floating nearby. He suspected the worst. Then he knew it.
“I saw a shoe - a Crocs - floating in the water. I told myself, ‘This ain’t good,’?” his voice trailing off as he recalled the moment.
Later that morning, members of the Onalaska Volunteer Fire Department located and recovered the body of the 71-year-old man who had been in the boat alone. The cause of death has not been released, but the man, by all accounts a veteran angler and boater, may have had a health emergency that caused him to fall overboard or let go of the outboard’s tiller and had the torque of the boat jerk the vessel into a hard turn, throwing him out. Or he could have hit some obstruction - a submerged stump - that caused the boat to take a sudden, unexpected sharp turn, sending him flying over the gunnel and into the water.
Such accidents are not common but certainly are not rare. They happen. The outcome can be tragic, especially if boaters don’t take advantage of two simple safety precautions - engaging the engine’s emergency cut-off switch and wearing a personal flotation device when the vessel is underway.
“They are such simple, effective things,” Cosper said. “I know people forget or they think they’re invincible. But it can happen so fast, and those things can literally save your life.”
Emergency engine cut-off switches, commonly called kill switches, are designed to stop an outboard motor when the operator is thrown away from the steering mechanism, whether it is a tiller or a console. Every outboard-powered vessel today comes with an emergency engine cut-off switch. Almost all are lanyard-operated systems where a lanyard on the outboard (for tiller-steered motors) or the console (for console-steered boats) has one end connected to a plug and the other attached via a clip to the boat operator. If the operator is thrown from the steering position, the lanyard yanks the plug, which shorts the electrical system of the engine, stopping it.
New wireless emergency engine cut-off devices have hit the market in recent years. Those devices, which kill the engine if the operator, who has the device in a pocket, moves too far from the console.
Kill switches are crucial safety devices that prevent some of the most deadly boating injuries.
Boat operators or passengers can be thrown into the water when a boat makes a sudden, sharp turn as can happen with a mechanical failure of the steering system or the striking of an unseen obstruction such as a stump or even when control is lost through inattention or taking a wave at the wrong angle.
Without an operator, the running boat will almost invariably begin circling. This most often brings the boat repeatedly back at the boaters now in the water, where the vessel can strike the boaters, with the outboard’s spinning propeller causing severe and often deadly injuries.
That is what happened on Lake Livingston four days before the incident Cosper witnessed. A boater was thrown from his vessel and struck by the still-running boat’s propeller, causing severe injuries to his legs.
Barely a month before, a 38-year-old man on an afternoon fishing trip with his 2-year-old son to Denton Creek near Lake Grapevine was thrown from his boat and killed when struck by the engine’s propeller. The driverless boat then plowed into the bank where the 2-year-old climbed out and survived a cold night alone in the woods until found by rescue personnel the next morning.
The body of the boy’s father was recovered four days later. He, like so many victims of fatal boating accidents, was not wearing a personal flotation device when thrown from the boat.
Personal flotation devices are called “life jackets” for a reason. Boating safety officials invariably say that wearing a PFD is the best safety measure any boater can take. Drowning accounts for the huge majority of boating accident fatalities, and wearing a life jacket is cheap, easy-to-use insurance against that.
While use of PFDs and emergency engine cut-off switches has been proven to significantly reduce boating injuries and fatalities, few boaters take advantage of the safety measures. Texas game wardens, who enforce water safety laws on state waters, say their anecdotal observation suggest only 10 to 20 percent of boaters engage their kill switches when operating their vessels, and perhaps a third of boaters voluntarily wear PFDs when underway. Research in other states has found as few as 2 percent of boat operators engage their kill switches when the vessel is underway, with most reporting kill-switch use ranging from 5-15 percent. PFD use hovers in the 25-30 percent range.
States taking action
Slowly, some states are taking boating safety regulations as seriously as motor vehicle safety rules. A handful of states now mandate use of kill switches and wearing of PFDs by all boaters. Others are imposing those rules on operators of some vessels. Louisiana mandates use of kill switches on any boat less than 26 feet in length and powered by a tiller-steered outboard. It also mandates all persons in tiller-steered vessels less than 16 feet long wear PFDs when the boat is underway.
Under current Texas laws, only persons younger than 13 in a vessel less than 26 feet in length and anyone operating or riding as a passenger on a personal watercraft are required to wear a PFD. Only operators of personal watercraft are required to engage the vessel’s emergency engine cut-off switch.
That might change.
A bill mandating use of emergency engine cut-off switches by operators of vessels less than 26 feet in length could come up for a vote in the current session of the Texas Legislature. The proposal - HB 1988, by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio - was recommended for adoption by a House committee and awaits scheduling for a vote by the full Texas House.
The text of HB 1988 notes the legislation is to be cited as “Kali’s Law,” a reference to a tragic 2012 boating accident near Rockport that took the life of 16-year-old Kali Gorzell. She died when the boat on which she was a passenger took an unexpected sudden turn, throwing her overboard, where she was struck and killed by the motor’s propeller.