From the Boathouse: Planning can help you avoid propeller strikes

February 21, 2014|By Mike Whitehead


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.

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