Lessons from a dinghy crisis averted


“STAY AWAY FROM THE PROPELLER!” From below deck I heard Jamie shout from the cockpit, and froze. It was our last day in Comoros; our sixteen year old son, Niall, had just left with the dinghy– those words could only mean one thing, and it terrified me. Niall was in the water, and the outboard prop was still dangerously spinning.

He had departed Totem moments earlier for a late afternoon meet-up with friends on a neighboring boat while we entertained a group of NGO workers on board. Wind coming down the hillside to the harbor gusted 25-35 knots, causing the anchorage to chop up. Three things happened as Niall pulled away in our RIB: 1) a strong gust hit the dinghy on the nose, 2) the dinghy’s bow was lifted by a wave, and 3) Niall throttled up to get underway. Without weight in the bow, these three factors combined to lift the dinghy to a near vertical position in the water. Knowing his weight could literally tip the scale and not wanting to be underneath and overturned dinghy, Niall bailed out.

We first experienced a runaway dinghy in the summer of 2009, not even a year into cruising. A visitor to Totem started his outboard up without realizing it was in gear, was immediately thrown in the water while the tender churned circles in the water right next to him. Jack could easily have been killed, and gave us an early lesson in the importance of wearing the kill switch cord even before the engine is started. Earlier this year, a cruiser in Mexico had his lower leg amputated after a man-vs-dinghy prop accident. The USCG reports more than 150 prop-related injury accidents in 2014, of which 22 of were fatalities.

No outboard? No problem. Boys visiting by dugout in Anjouan, Comoros.

A kill cord should be worn every time the dinghy is used. I’m embarrassed to admit we usually don’t use ours: there is no excuse for skipping a simple safety precaution that saves lives. We need to take it seriously, and model that for our kids.

My usual, lame reason for not having the kill switch on is that it’s hard (impossible for me) to start the outboard while wearing it. So I start the outboard, then put it on- IF I’m not distracted by the usual chaos of loading / unloading / untying / disentangling from nearby painters / etc. There’s a great idea from Carolyn Shearlock on The Boat Galley: put the lanyard around your ankle instead of your wrist. For me, that solves the problem of being a weakling who needs both hands to pull the start.

Imagining Niall in the water with a prop spinning nearby is right up there on my scale of worst nightmare events on Totem. I didn’t yet know he had the presence to cut the outboard before jumping out, which was masked by the noise and chop from the wind and water. He got back in the dinghy, back to Totem, tied up and climbed aboard. Calm as a cucumber, it was only as he stood dripping while I hugged him that adrenalin take over in full-body shakes.

Other than shattered nerves, the only fallout from this accident was the loss of a computer. Niall had packed up a laptop and accessories into a backpack to use for games on the other boat. It’s a water resistant backpack, but it’s not intended to be waterproof – much less submersible. The computer is toast.

Normally, I’m pretty possessive of our tech devices on board. They aren’t cheap and we rely on them: this was the kids’ primary computer for learning and held all the books, videos and tracking for their Khan Academy math lessons, literature, and more. Fortunately Jamie is a data recovery ninja and managed to recover files from the hard drive, even though the directory structure is ruined. But we can’t replace this computer right now, which stinks. Honestly? I could really give a damn, because it is just too easy for me to think of other, far more devastating outcomes to that spill in the bay than a lost laptop. Maybe we needed a lesson that would stick.

It’s been three weeks since the accident, but it’s taken me those weeks to be able to put what happened in writing. I’m grateful to be able to share our adventures to help fuel the dreams of others who aspire to the cruising life. And sometimes, I think that my generally ebullient view on the cruising life – how much we enjoy it, how very good it is, the miles and countries and experiences we’ve chalked up – may make it seem like we have the answers. We don’t have the answers, we screw up, and sometimes we screw up in a pretty big way.

This post is syndicated on Sailfeed.

30 Responses

  1. Behan,

    Thank you for sharing and brining this potentially life altering possibility to our awareness. Growing up on a farm with big farm machinery my grandpa was always warning us of dangers of this or that equipment so we grew up with a wariness of things that move.

    I have watched grown men and women charge across an anchorage standing up in their dingy like it was a water chariot. I am sure it is fun but things can happen fast as so you eloquently pointed out.

    We will send you something to help with the new computer.

    1. Thanks Victor. I think some people feel more secure in that water chariot position (better visibility maybe?) but I won’t pretend to understand it. Hopefully they have a kill switch attached!

  2. eeek scary stuff. I read a book a couple of years ago where someone had been scalped by a propeller when he feel over the bow of the dinghy as they were motoring along.
    So easy to forget to put the kill switch on your wrist isn’t it.
    After reading that I went out and bought a propeller guard. Now I can rest a little easier when our kids are off playing in our dinghy. It’s the other dinghies I worry about now though.
    So glad he was ok and sorry to hear about the computer.

  3. Great advice! Years ago I was thankful to be wearing a kill cord to the jet ski I was thrown off of. I had hit a wave, was going too fast, and was hit in the chest by the jet ski. I had the wind knocked out of me and was also thankful to have a life jacket on, as I couldn’t move for a few minutes. Because of the kill cord, I was able to climb back on once I got my composure. Things could have been really bad if not for that cord and life vest!

    Glad your son was okay!

  4. We have met and count as a friend the gentleman in Mexico who lost his leg to a propeller, sadly trying to assist the charter sailor who did not wear the kill switch and fell out of the dinghy. After meeting him and hearing the whole story, we are pretty vigilant with wearing the kill switch, but I suspect after a few more years of no incidents, it could be easy to become lax. Thanks for sharing this story as a reminder to us cruisers that the easy, simple safety measures are there for a reason.

  5. I feel the maternal adrenaline shakes from all the way over here. So, so so relieved everyone’s OK. And yeah, killswitches FTW. I always wear mine on the leg; I think that’s the only way us short women can manage to start the silly outboards…

    1. It just occurred to me: probably helps that we seldom (almost never) wear shoes in the dinghy. Easier to get the lanyard ON, but what if it too easily slipped out? Still think this is a better way to go for the, um, vertically challenged like us. 🙂

      1. Behan–thanks for sharing Niall’s experience. If the dinghy motor’s kill switch lanyard is prone to slip off a shoeless foot, perhaps a simple fix would (as mentioned) be a surfboard ankle line, or make one from a short, small diameter line. Throw a bowline on one end of the tether line, thread the line back through the loop and you have a simple tether that will tighten around an ankle. Tie the free end of the short line to the kill switch lanyard.

  6. Oh Behan!

    What a scare!

    None of us are immune to accidents. Thank you for sharing the good with the scary, as it helps many of us who plan to follow in your footsteps.

    So grateful everyone is fine, minus a laptop. (that DOES stink!)

  7. Eeek! What a scary few moments and definitely one to learn from. Although we had a rowboat for our dinghy while we were cruising, I teach sailing now and this is a great reminder to stress the importance of the kill switches on our charter boat dinghies. Telling stories like this one is certainly a more effective way to instruct on safety issues so your lesson learned will be passed on. Thanks again for sharing Behan.

    Katie and Mark

  8. Glad to hear that Niall is safe and that the only loss was a computer. Stories such as this one remind all of us cruisers that we often face numerous safety issues that need to be taken seriously yet we grow complacent when no accidents occur.

    Cheer up! A good lesson learned at a relatively low cost. See you soon.

    Fair winds and calm seas.

  9. We found Ayla happily pushing on a gimbaled stove whilst a pot of boiling water swirled above her head – we were shaking for days afterwards, so know how you feel. And do you remember that night in Pangkor when Elora fell off the pontoon? Thankfully she could swim (just) but Braca couldn’t….

    1. I remember that night very well… it was pretty sobering! We’ve all had those wake up calls, esp with kids. Our first was realizing that Mairen- who wasn’t walking yet- could in fact climb up the companionway and into the cockpit. you know, WHILE WE WERE SLEEPING… *freaky*

  10. thank you for sharing this. it is so easy to succumb to the notion that safety precautions are ‘needless’ or ‘overkill’ when over time there has not been an occasion to deploy these precautions. however it does pay to remember that it requires just one mistake for things to go awry. the kill cord on the ankle is an excellent suggestion. and kudos to Niall for having the presence of mind to kill the outboard before the dinghy flipped. stay safe on your adventures. -chetan

  11. Glad that your son merely has a story to tell rather than a permanent reminder.
    Years ago I ran over a piece of driftwood and got pitched out of our inflatable. No, I didn’t have on the kill switch lanyard because “it always got in the way”. After the incident I modified an old surfboard leash to wear around my ankle. It’s long enough to allow complete movement in the boat so I never feel constrained while starting the motor, pulling crab traps or tying up at the dock.
    Now I consider the leash as important as wearing a lifejacket while in the inflatable. Thanks for shining a light on the subject.

  12. Behan,
    Glad to hear everyone is safe! It’s been far too long since I’ve dropped you a line, but we’re alive and well. Sold Fezywig a couple months ago, and am mentally already shopping for our next boat for down the line. Love you guys!

  13. Good point. At age 81, I’ve been boating nearly my entire life and started before outboards had kill switches and shamefully admit I have never attached one to me. I really know better. Several years ago I was running up Rufus Wood Reservoir (behind Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River) in my new 12 foot aluminum boat. I had, for several years previously, fished from an inflatable. For those with experience in both types of boats you will understand what happened when my hat blew overboard at full throttle. In an inflatable, a full throttle 180 degree turn caused the boat to slide around and head back the way you came from.
    However, that summer I had switched to an aluminum boat and the tiller to full right turn at full speed, caused the bow to dig in and I flipped out of the boat backward into the water.
    Error number 2. I virtually never put on a life jacket unless I am faced with some very rough seas.
    Error number 3. I had the twist throttle set so it would hold at the position where I set it (all ahead, full).
    Now I’m a fair swimmer and an excellent floater. My first reaction was to head toward the boat that was circling at full throttle with a 9.9 hp. outboard. Fortunately, I realized it was very unlikely that I would be able to grab the gunnel as the boat went by me but it is very possible that I would encounter a prop roaring like a buzz saw.
    Now I grabbed my fishing rod which was heading toward the bottom in some 200 feet of water and began treading water. Since I was in the middle of the lake, perhaps a half mile from either shore, with a boat carrying almost 3 gallons of gas, roaring full throttle in a circle, I was trying to decide if I could swim with my favorite rod and reel in one hand to shore or if I should give up on the tackle and go for land.
    As I tread water and watched the boat and thought about how I might retrieve it before it burned all that fuel, it suddenly stopped running. I swam to the boat, still holding the rod and reel out of the water and climbed into the half swamped boat.
    The water in the boat and the activity in circling had caused the fuel tank to flip over and and starved the engine of fuel. I righted the tank, baled the boat with the gallon plastic bottle that I had cut the bottom away to make a baler from it. Two or three yanks on the starter and I ran back to the dock at the park.
    The lost cap? Next morning I found someone had picked it up and left it on the dock!
    Did I learn anything from all this? Well, maybe. I still don’t clip to a stop cable (the motors I use now are so old they hadn’t invented them yet) but I don’t spin myself out of my boat and I do give more consideration to wearing my float coat.

    1. Wow Jerry- what a story! I’m glad you’re OK. I can only imagine what your heart rate was like when it was all over. And then the hat, on the dock!

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