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From the Boathouse: Planning can help you avoid propeller strikes


Unfortunately, propeller strikes are a common risk in recreational boating. They can occur when someone falls overboard or an inattentive skipper runs over someone in the water.


I believe that these accidents are about 99% avoidable.

In my column on Feb. 28, 2003, I wrote about an incident in 1995 that resulted in a lawsuit based on a fatal propeller strike: “A few summers ago in Tennessee, Rex and Jeanne Sprietsma, husband and wife, were enjoying a day’s outing aboard a boat when things went from good to tragic. Jeanne fell overboard and received fatal wounds after being struck by the outboard motor’s propeller. Their boat on that July 1995 day was being powered by a mid-size 115-horsepower Mercury Marine outboard motor.


“Rex Sprietsma sued Mercury Marine for not preventing the injuries from the propeller that helped cause his wife’s death. Sprietsma claimed the Mercury Marine’s outboard motor did not have a propeller guard, and thus the motor was unreasonably dangerous.”

Lawsuits from propeller-caused injuries and concerned boaters have prompted various designs of propeller guards and devices through the years. However, I do not know of any industry-accepted designs that are common on recreational boats today, and especially not on commercial vessels.

Problems can arise from the protective screens becoming blocked with debris or sea life growing on them. Both situations will prevent the essential flow and alter the direction of the water past the propeller.

To help with the testing of propeller guards, the Coast Guard’s Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety has made available to designers the diagnostic equipment for evaluating test procedures in a recently released propeller guard procedure report. These procedures will now allow a consistent method for anyone designing and testing propeller guards for boats.


Those who are interested in designing or testing propeller guards can borrow the diagnostic test equipment on loan at the Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety. You can contact Eric Johnson at (202) 372-1101 or by email at The results from the third-party testing will be reviewed in three years or less, and I know that many engineers in Southern California may want to test their innovative design.

Tip of the week is a perfect docking. Many boaters believe that any docking that allows them to walk away is a perfect docking. Yet just think: How many times have you watched a weekend boater, usually at a high rate of speed, approach a dock and when close enough, and as the boat bangs the dock, have a few passengers jump out to try to stop the boat and hold it from floating away while the skipper has the engines in reverse at full throttle?

Once the boat was stopped, someone would hang out the fenders and tie the dock lines to the boat’s cleats and finally to the dock cleats. Along with all the commotion, you would hear a lot of words that cannot be printed in this family-rated column.

So what is wrong with the picture? Preparation and planning are missing. Yes, some very skilled captains can dock under preferable conditions and then rig the vessel, as I have done many times, but not your typical recreational boater.


First, let’s start with a nautical nomenclature lesson. The dock lines are lines and not ropes. Fender, not bumper, is the correct term for the hanging cushion (flat cushion, ball or blowup tube) that is used for protection between the boat and dock.

Now, docking depends on the vessel’s maneuverability while taking into account the wind and current. I just want to address the preparation and not the actual ways to dock, which fill volumes in nautical books.

First, look at how the elements will affect you, such as how the wind might blow you into or away from the dock. Then organize your passengers to help with the vessel’s stability and, if needed, assistance docking.

Before you start the approach, it is vital to have the dock lines already secured to the vessel’s cleats and the lines untangled. Additionally, the fenders need to be deployed over the side that will make contact with the dock.

You need to approach as slowly as you can while maintaining steerage, since a slow bump will not cause the same damage as a hard hit. You can have any inexperienced guest simply step out of the boat to hold a line or wrap it around the dock cleat until the skipper can properly tie or secure the line.

Planning with your guests and preparing the vessel will help make your dockings look like a professional’s.

Please be boat smart and boat safe. Lastly, please boat responsibly and look behind you before you turn the wheel at the helm.

Tune in to the No. 1 boating radio talk show in the nation, “Boathouse Radio Show,” broadcasting live coast-to-coast on the CRN Digital Talk Radio syndicated network. See times at, and

Safe voyages!

MIKE WHITEHEAD is a boating columnist for the Daily Pilot. Send marine-related thoughts and story suggestions to or go to