Editor's Column

Lethal unprotected propellers

  Early this year a teenage boy suffered horrific facial injuries from the propeller of an 8hp outboard at Refuge Bay, Cowan Creek, Sydney.
  Had the propeller been fitted with a cage guard, the boy’s injuries would have been minor. In less than a second, a propeller on a boat moving at only 8kmph travels two metres – the length of a human body. A typical three blade propeller running at 3,200rpm can inflict 9,600 impacts a minute … that’s 160 slices in one second.
  In the last five years, 36 boating incidents in NSW have been attributable to propeller contact, resulting in four fatalities, 26 serious injuries and six minor injuries. If you have an incident with a propeller, you have more than 80% probability of dying or being seriously injured. Ski and wake boats are the cause of many injuries, particularly when coming around to pick up.
  Propellers on small boats are as lethal to boaters as an unguarded saw blade is to workers in a factory, or even householders facing an unguarded fan. We tolerate neither.
  It’s strange – we go to the beach and expect IRBs used by surf life savers to have cage guards around propellers. But not at our local sailing or rowing club who rescue capsized kids.
  Call it care, risk management, self-regulation or just common sense, many responsible clubs and schools have already shown leadership on learning of the Refuge Bay accident, and fitted cage guards or at least ring guards to coach and rescue craft, despite outboard manufacturers claiming the warranty may be voided – they know that saving a life is more important than saving a warranty.
  The Refuge Bay incident apparently occurred when starting the motor from the boat in conventional manner and may not have happened if the gear mechanism, common to most outboards of this type, were of improved design preventing a jolt moving the gear from neutral to forward.
  But what of rowing coaches who reverse up close to rowers, or sailing coaches backing up to sailors. Can they be certain the tilt is locked down, or operating correctly? What happens if an unseen wash jolts the lock or throttle?
  Saving lives and preventing accidents from propellers requires action at all levels of the boating community. State boating authorities might consult with clubs and operators holding aquatic licences for races. However, plenty of notice is needed if next year’s licence is conditional upon guards being fitted to rescue, coach and patrol craft operating close to people.
  The National Marine Safety Committee could revise boating standards for propeller guards and gear shifts. Peak yachting and rowing associations might join with State boating authorities in an awareness campaign for users of outboards. Industry can help in working with outboard manufacturers and suppliers of prop guards to make them standard fit on relevant models.
  There is a role for all of us if we want to be protected from this marinised mincer. If in doubt, skippers of small boats should fit a cage guard … it even protects your propeller from damage!

 Robin Copeland