How a “kill switch” could save your life

A young Aucklander who suffered life-changing injuries during a fishing trip says safety lanyards or “engine kill switches”, are vital in preventing further, potentially fatal, accidents.

Now, George Booth wants all boaties to know about the importance of kill switches.

George, 21, received horrific injuries to his right leg when the skipper of the boat he was a passenger in hit a wave at speed and lost control near Mangawhai Heads on January 17, 2021.

Tossed over the side of the boat and into the water, George was struck by the propeller of the inflatable motor boat – but in a stroke of good luck that probably saved his life, his hoodie became stuck in the propeller, preventing further injuries.

“I remember yelling at my mate, ‘turn the motor off, turn the motor off’, just screaming at him and he eventually turned the key...I was able to rip my arm out of my jumper, untangle myself and swim to the side of the boat. One of my mates jumped in the water and my other mate pulled me into the boat.

“I was in so much shock I didn’t even realise I’d injured my leg, until I glanced down.” After noticing a deep laceration down the side of his calf, George then lifted his leg and discovered around half his hamstring and the side of his quad were missing.

Fortunately one of George’s two friends on the boat was a medical student. “Without hesitation my mate applied pressure to my wounds.”

The two friends also wrapped a makeshift tourniquet around the top of his leg. However, George was still bleeding heavily and the 20-minute wait for help felt more like hours.

“I remember looking around and seeing nothing but deep blue ocean, with land barely in sight. Time was moving incredibly slow. The motor was jammed and the radio on the boat was broken. The three of us were stuck in the middle of the ocean, drifting helplessly.

“Trying to stay relaxed, I closed my eyes and continued to breathe, and the pain started to go away. Next thing I knew, both of my mates were yelling at me, ‘you gotta stay awake, bro’. I couldn’t work out what was going on. It wasn’t till my mate slapped me on the face and yelled ‘you've got to stay with me’ for me to realise this. It started to click: if I fall asleep again, there's a chance I'll never wake up.”

Luckily the boys had cell phone reception (the distress beacon on the boat had a flat battery and the VHF radio was damaged during the accident) and were able to call for help. A nearby boat responding to the mayday call was first on the scene, shortly followed by a Mangawhai Surf Life Saving team and the Northland Rescue Helicopter. After being winched on board the chopper, George was flown to Whangarei Hospital, where he had a blood transfusion. Subsequently he was transferred to Middlemore Hospital where he underwent lengthy surgeries to repair the back of his leg and fuse his sciatic nerve back together.

“Only the combination of sheer luck that the prop nicked my femur not my artery, the perseverance  of my mates, the dedication of my rescuers, and skill of my doctors and nurses mean I’m here today. I was told I was within minutes of dying and incredibly lucky to be alive ... they also said there was a chance I might lose my leg, which was devastating news. But at the same time, I was just so happy I'd made it through alive.”

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Image credit: Photo supplied
George’s first glance of his calf after undressing in hospital

After several operations and months of rehab, George – who was determined to prove the doctors wrong – has regained much of the use of his leg and recently has been able to wiggle his toes for the first time in eight months. However, he still struggles to participate fully in many of the things he loves, like rugby, basketball and water sports. He’s also put his studies – a degree in industrial design at Wellington’s Massey University – on hold to focus on his rehab.

George is optimistic about making a full recovery but says there’s no denying the impact the accident has had on his life, and on his family.

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Image credit: Photo supplied
George, the day after his accident, waking to his parents

“I'd be lying if I said that day to day life is necessarily easy. I still wake up and go to sleep with nerve pain that feels like constant pins and needles and I‘ve lost a lot of feeling and function from my knee down. But I've also managed to exceed all their [the doctor’s] expectations so far. So I don't see why I can't keep doing that.”

George hopes that sharing his story will help other boaties understand just how important a kill switch is.

“A lot of people underestimate the responsibility you have when you operate a boat and it's not until something like this happens that you realise that like a car, a boat can be deadly.”

George believes that if the skipper had been wearing an engine kill switch – a lanyard system that clips to the driver, ensuring if they leave/are thrown from the helm the engine will automatically shut off – his injuries could have been prevented.

“If he’d been wearing it, I would have just walked away with a bruise and a couple of scratches, so it really shows how important the kill switch is in case something does go wrong.

“Warning people about the dangers is the least I can do – I feel lucky to have survived, so I guess this is one way I can give back.”