Lessons from a dinghy crisis averted

25 Sep


“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.


  1. Herman Enciso

    My thought is that you can’t imagine the good you have made by sharing your experience; I would say hundreds, if not thousands,will, from now on, have this safety issue in mind before they or their crew operate dinghys, God bless you

  2. Bruce Atyeo

    I know the wrist or ankle seems easy but it is not recommended. Our son had the kill switch cord slip off a wet wrist without killing the engine In Lake Ontario. By the time he was rescued by a fast acting friend hypothermia was starting to slow him down. Now the cord must be attached to a solid piece of clothing or the required life jacket.

  3. Don Spencer

    I use a number of memory aids in my courses and have found off colour ones are better remembered. When I read the account and remembered my inattention to the kill cord, my first thought was “Whole leash hit!!” Maybe more or us could remember to use the leash to the outboard motor.


  4. Linda HP

    Hi Behan and Jamie. Another good reminder. Yes we were in La Paz when that horrible accident happened and John lost his foot eventually, after many surgeries and rehab. Heard he is doing well now, was taking a job as a safety officer on board a cruise ship. Bill drives the dinghy but I still have to remind him about the kill switch. He has flipped it just like Niall did in Puerto Escondido. Drowned the engine but he was ok. Always good to remind others when a mistake is made, accidents happen and what could have been prevented. Sounds like Niall is growing up fast! Hugs to you all and so glad he is OK. Linda
    PS My calendar came in today – wahoo. Can you fly over and autograph it for me????

  5. Phil Gray

    Hi Behan
    Thanks for writing about this. We always, always wear life jackets when using our dinghy, unlike most other people we know. But we are guilty of not using the kill cord. Not anymore. We will be definitely be attaching it to one of us from now on.
    Phil – Bernicia

  6. Tina

    Thank you so much for the eye opening reminder. My heart dropped as I read your story. As you are aware our family left BC, Canada last October and travelled down the coast to Panama and through the canal. We have an 8 year old boy and 6 year old girl and just arrived back in Panama after a 2month visit home. I am always the mom that doesn’t let my kids leave the cockpit without their life jackets …just in case… but, I must admit the kill switch certainly has taken a backseat..till now. So glad your situation ended well.
    Thanks again
    Tina on seahorse v

  7. Tim Clauson

    That’s a very scary situation! So glad that the only loss was a “replaceable” loss and that Niall is a sharp thinker with good reactions to cut the engine.
    We had a truck roll over in front of our house on our rural road the other day. We used this also as a good teaching tool for the kids as we were helping with the crash.


    Tim and Family

  8. Jamie

    Hi Josh – It’s a good reminder to Behan and I (everyone really) who are not perfect about attaching the kill switch lanyard (even though it’s a must for the kids!). It also prompted more discussion with the kids, especially the girls who have less dinghy driving time, about dinghy safety. We talk about safety issues often, but deconstructing a real situation is very educational.

  9. Cynthia

    Thank you for sharing even the things that go wrong. Reading this story was an excellent heads-up for the rest of us. On the other hand, I’d like to challenge you to read through the story yourself and list of all the things you’ve done right; because all those routines and teaching and experience are the reasons this was an incident and not a catastrophe. Your son handled the situation just right, and that’s the result of lots of practice, good muscle memory, and a level head, and…. a good dose of luck of course, but without all the rest luck cannot come into play. My hats off to him! And his parents. I’m sure you are very proud. Whew! (Be still my mother’s heart.) Serious bummer about the computer.

  10. Josh

    Yikes… that was terrifying to read… can’t imagine living it. We don’t have the opportunity to dinghy much, but I can only think of one time when I’ve actually attached the kill lanyard to myself. A friend let us (me and my 8yr old) borrow their dignhy to return to shore early from a race committee boat on the Columbia River. The wind was up and against a relatively strong current, so we had some fairly steep waves to contend with in a small dinghy. The conditions made me nervous enough to affix the lanyard to my wrist, but that’s the only time I’ve ever used one and that’s pretty lame of me.

    Thanks for admitting your own slips so that the rest of us might take note. I’m curious to know, has that experienced changed Totem’s dinghy behavior?


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