The Cruising Club of America (CCA) is a collection of 1,400 ocean sailors with extensive offshore seamanship, command experience, and a shared passion for making adventurous use of the seas. Their experiences and expertise make them, collectively, one of the most reliable sources of information on offshore sailing. In partnership with SAIL, the CCA is sharing some of this hard-won know-how in
This story was shared with CCA member Brian Guck by a friend in Pulpit Harbor, Maine. The author, an experienced sailor and mountaineer, had just returned from a successful trip to the summit of Mt. Everest. He wished to remain anonymous but still pass along what he learned from this incident.
I hopped into our motor dinghy and headed out to the boat to do some routine chores. Once completed, I got back in the dinghy and headed back to the dock.
It was low tide. I needed to navigate shallow water to get to my usual tie up spot. I did what I frequently do in this situation, turning around to lift the idling motor into the shallow water setting. The new motor we bought this year doesn’t raise and lower quite as easily as our old one did, so I had to jiggle the motor to get it to lock into position. As I did this, the motor tiller brushed the side of the dinghy and jerked into full throttle. The dinghy surged forward, then swerved violently to starboard. I was thrown from the dinghy into the shallow water.
Outboard motors are sold with emergency cutoff switches, commonly called kill switches. These are stretchy rubber lanyards intended to be worn around the operator’s wrist, with the other end connected to a switch on the motor. If the operator is inadvertently thrown into the water, the lanyard pulls the switch and immediately shuts off the motor.
These kill switches are designed to avoid one of the most dangerous situations in motor boating. If an operator is thrown overboard with the motor running, the motor jerks immediately to one side and causes the boat to start spiraling in circles. It is almost impossible for a person in the water to get out of the path of an oncoming motorboat, and the rapidly rotating propeller can easily shred human bodies. This situation is widely known as “the circle of death.” However, some boaters just don’t bother attaching the kill switch; the lanyards are mildly cumbersome, the risk of an accident is low, or they don’t think it’s needed. Unfortunately, I was not wearing a lanyard.
I now faced the circle of death. I stood up in waist-deep water, turned, and saw the dinghy coming straight at me, full throttle. In the seconds available, I had two clear thoughts: “This may be it,” and “I must get as low as I can.” The water was shallow and the dinghy was almost on top of me. I submerged as much as possible, my back on the ocean floor. The dinghy passed over me, motor screaming, circling hard to the right as it did.
I resurfaced, trying to assess how badly I was hurt, and realized I had to get out of the way of the dinghy’s next pass. I grabbed onto another boat tied to the dock and held it to me as a shield. Eventually, the circling dinghy ran itself onto the rocky beach. My legs were bleeding profusely in multiple places.
It feels like a miracle that I escaped serious injury or death. The propellor blades passed over my right thigh, making five parallel cuts. But the propeller was just high enough, and I was just deep enough, that the cuts were shallow. One blade cut more deeply on my left knee, but the cut was clean. As the doctor who stitched me up said, “You are incredibly lucky you aren’t in surgery right now, with us trying to save severed muscles or limbs, or worse.” If the dinghy hadn’t turned exactly when it did, the blades would have hit me in the face.
My cuts will heal in a couple of weeks. For now, the bigger problem is contusions in my legs, caused by the propeller shaft and metal boat bottom slamming into them. Walking is a real challenge. This too shall heal soon. I am beyond fortunate.
This really spooked me. It was an incredibly close call. Nothing I have encountered in the mountains compares.
I pride myself in carefully managing risk, in the mountains and on the water. I have spent a lifetime doing so. But I lapsed and almost paid a severe price. It is a fine line we all tread, often not realizing it.
Friends, wear those lanyards, or seatbelts, or whatever. And let us be grateful for every moment we get to inhabit this good earth.