Runaway boat risks lives

Lookout! Issue 29, August 2013

A skipper who was thrown into the water was extremely lucky not to have been run over and seriously injured by his out-of-control vessel. The 4.3 metre boat, spinning in circles on a lake, also posed a danger to other vessels and people on shore.
Rescue helicopter
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
A sailing club member with course marks in the patrol boat that had the accident.

The incident occurred at the end of a sailing club’s race day, when a club member took one of the patrol boats out onto the lake on his own to retrieve the course marks.

The patrol vessel, used for race management and as a rescue boat, was a fibreglass open ‘whaler’ style boat, powered by a 25hp four-stroke engine. There was good visibility, with calm water and no wind.

The boat’s skipper was manoeuvring close to a mark when one of his feet slipped. As he fell forward, he let go of the steering wheel and pushed the throttle lever forward. The boat accelerated and turned sharply, throwing the man into the lake.

The boat kept going, turning rapidly in tight circles. Fortunately, it slowly moved away from the man in the water.

A course mark anchor rope became entangled around the boat’s fuel tank and flipped the tank upside down, drawing air down the fuel line and causing the engine to cut out. Without this occurring, it would have been almost impossible for anybody to board the runaway vessel and stop the engine. Further lives could have been put at risk and property damaged.

The incident was seen from the clubhouse and the alarm raised. Members quickly launched the club’s other patrol vessel to rescue the person in the water, who was wearing a lifejacket and uninjured. There was no damage to the runaway boat.


  • The lake is a popular spot for boating. As well as the skipper being at serious risk of being hit by the runaway boat, it could have collided with other vessels in the lake and on shore.
  • Had there been two people in the boat, as the club rules required, the incident would have been unlikely to occur. A second person would have been able to take control of the boat and prevent it accelerating and turning abruptly when the skipper fell. If events had occurred too quickly to prevent the man being thrown from the boat, a second person could have quickly brought it to a stop.
  • While the sailing club had a good safety record over the previous 12 years, the incident highlights the potential for people to become complacent about club rules. The club admitted that it did not always follow its rule to have two people in the patrol boat when conditions were considered calm and they were just picking up marks at the end of the day. The incident illustrates the importance of following safety precautions, which should be industry best practice and strictly enforced.
  • The incident is also a clear example of the value of people on motor boats wearing a kill or cut-out cord, which stops the engine when the operator falls overboard or away from the motor. A lanyard (short piece of cord) extends from the engine shut-off switch on the tiller to a clip designed to be attached to the operator’s body. When the operator falls overboard or away from the motor, the lanyard tightens and pulls out the ignition shut-off switch, cutting the motor off and causing the vessel to stop.
  • A fault was also identified that may have contributed to the seriousness of the incident. Other club members who had used the patrol boat had noticed that it had a tendency to turn when the wheel wasn’t held. An examination of the steering correction trim tab found that it was angled in the wrong direction. The club was unable to determine why or how the tab had been moved.
  • In this incident, a lifejacket was being worn and proved to be invaluable. Had the man not been wearing a lifejacket and been knocked unconscious when he slipped in the boat or was thrown into the water, he could have drowned.
    • Wearing a lifejacket also reduces people’s tendency to panic when they unexpectedly end up in the water, and they are less likely to inhale water in the first few seconds, something which often causes drowning. If he had not been seen by people on shore, he could have spent a long time in the water, risking hypothermia.

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