Typical Propeller Accident Scenarios

Propeller strikes are often the second or third event of an evolving accident. The first event is often man overboard, collision, run aground, capsizing, sudden acceleration or deceleration, mechanical failure, hit rouge wave, hit high wake, etc.

People tend to encounter a rotating propeller in one of the following scenarios:

  • They were tubing, water skiing, or wakeboarding, fell, and ran over by their own boat when it came back to pick them up.
  • They were tubing, water skiing, or wakeboarding, fell, and ran over by another boat that did not see them in the water.
  • Someone was tubing, waterskiing, wakeboarding, fell, the boat operator make a sharp turn to go back and get them, someone else fell over the side and was struck by the propeller.
  • Children, youth, or adults are riding on the front of a pontoon boat dangling their feet in the water when the boat is underway. They fall in and are struck by the propeller.
  • One or more people ejected when boat hits a large wake/wave and they are struck by the propeller.

Circle of Death

  • The operator and or all on board are ejected in a hard turn, or after the boat hits a wake or submerged object or the operator looses his balance and falls in. The boat begins to circle and may strike them repeatedly before it runs out of gas. This circling behavior is often called the “Circle of Death” and can also occur when the boat is going in reverse (backwards circles like in the 6 June 2010 Wisconsin accident on Lake Holcomb). Sometimes one or more adults are left on the boat, but the boat begins to circle and strikes those in the water before the remaining adults can regain control of the boat. Sometimes very young children or pets may be left on the circling boat. Sometimes a young child remaining on board can be enticed to stop the boat.
  • The operator of a boat running in neutral jumps into the water (sometimes to rescue others), is ejected, or falls overboard. On the operator’s way out of the boat, their body knocks the controls into gear, and the boat begins to circle.
  • Sometimes people who fell from the boat try to reboard while it is still doing the Circle of Death and they are struck by the propeller.
  • Sometimes those trying to rescue others from the water near the tightly spinning boat are struck by its propeller.
  • Adults have often placed themselves in harms way to try to protect children from an oncoming boat in the Circle of Death and taken the brunt of the propeller strike themselves.
  • The boat steering system fails and goes hard to one side, ejecting one or more people. The boat circles endlessly and hits them.

People in the water at the stern

  • They are in the water at the rear of the boat as a result of swimming or skiing and the prop is started in a forward direction.
  • They are in the water at the rear of the boat as a result of swimming or skiing and the boat/prop is backed into them, such as when backing up to a skier or backing a houseboat off a beach.
  • They jump into the water just as the engine is started (sometimes to retrieve a ski rope, going down a houseboat water slide, jumping from a houseboat, etc.)
  • They are in the water at the back of the boat with the engine running and think the prop is in neutral, but it is turning and strikes them or pulls them in.
  • They are in the water behind the boat with the motor running and the drive “jumps” into gear on its own.
  • They are in the boat, the drive “jumps” into gear, they are ejected and struck by the propeller.
  • They fall out of a moving boat and are struck by the boat as it passes over them, they tend to fall over the side during a sharp turn or from the front of a bowrider or a pontoon boat, when the boat goes over a large wake, or fall over when the boat suddenly strikes an object.
  • A few people have been ejected in a sharp turn when their seat post broke, they go overboard, and are then struck by the propeller.
  • A few young children being held, have fallen overboard and been stuck.
  • Novice boaters renting a boat may not receive thorough safety instructions and are struck by the propeller.
  • Divers and snorkelers surface and are quickly struck by passing boats, sometimes just after the surface.
  • Swimmers sometimes just outside a swimming zone or in an unmarked swimming area are struck by passing boats.
  • Escort boats or Coaches boats with open water swimmers, with youth sailing, with canoe races, and similar activities striking those in the water with their propellers.
  • They are in a collision. One boat or PWC is typically broad sided by another boat that actually runs over it with the propeller striking one or more people in/on the first boat/PWC, or an occupant of a boat being knocked under its own propeller during a collision.
  • On a few occasions, people in the water wearing PFDs / life jackets have been ran over while they were unable to dive to avoid being struck due to vest floatation.
  • Larger, slower revolving propellers (like on houseboats) have a very large field of suction and are capable of pulling in swimmers from considerable distances, even from swim platforms or ladders or floating nearby on air mattresses. This seems to most often happen when the boat begins to get underway, and the operator was unaware there were people near the propeller.
  • Lines

    • People in the boat or in the water become entangled ski ropes, tow ropes, or other lines that become entangled in the rotating propeller and are pulled into the prop, or their extremities may be injured or severed by the rope.
    • Some people are drowned from entanglement with a propeller. Once they are in the water (fell in, dove in, swimming, etc) their clothing, a rope, fishing line, lobster trap line, decoy line, cable, life jacket/ PFD, or other fabric entangles them with the propeller, trapping them under water and they drown. This most commonly happens when the boat is at rest or underway very slowly. KARE11 of Minneapolis St. Paul captured an aerial view of a rescue of this type in a 12 Jun 2007 report on our 2007 accidents page.
    • On occasion, propellers become caught / entrapped in cables, fishing lines, crab pot lines, lobster trap lines, decoy lines, ropes, and other underwater hazards disabling the ability of the boat to move. While disabled the boat faces extra dangers from bad weather, nearby outcroppings of rocks, oncoming vessels, even pirates in some areas. A 27 footer sank in this condition on 12 April 2006 in Maryland. A small crayfishing boat was capsized in 3 to 5 meter seas in Australia 15 April 2006 when a crayfish pot became entangled in the prop. Sometimes passengers are ejected such as in the 8 July 2010 Charlotte Observer (North Carolina) Notebook news report of a late January decoy line becoming caught in a propeller, a wave hit them, and two hunters were ejected into very cold waters.
  • Some people have been injured cleaning weeds or debris from their propeller, such as the 27 May 2009 Waco TX injury where a man seemingly slipped and fell into the raised outboard he was cleaning weeds from.
  • Outboards or stern drives may strike submerged debris and fly up into the boat killing or injuring those onboard such as the 31 May 2010 Storm Lake Nebraska accident.
  • On rare occasions people on land (the shore), a pier or a floating dock/marina are stuck by a propeller when a boat actually runs over them.
  • About 2001, carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning was identified as a major risk to those who teak surf, the act of hanging onto swim platforms to body surf. Most reports calling attention to the carbon monoxide hazard of teak surfing also mention the hazard of being so close to the propeller. The 2 August 2001 U.S. Coast Guard Safety Alert advising boaters not to teak surf is an example. Although boaters are encouraged not to participate, some propeller guard devices might minimize propeller injury risk to those who do.
  • Commercial harvest divers report dive boat propellers sometimes lacerate them as well as cut their air hose (they dive on a hose). One commercial diver accident occurred when the propeller was turning, an air hose became entrapped in it and drug the diver into the propeller.
  • Propeller shafts have fallen out of inboards allowing the boat to take on water (see 26 Apr 2006 media accident report from Scotland). Similarly, portions of stern drives have been ripped from the transom after hitting underwater or floating obstructions, allowing water to enter the boat. A 2003 accident reported 27 May 2006 in the media accident section tells of a propeller striking a rock, then tearing a hole in the boat which quickly sank.

    Some people are injured by a non-rotating propeller on a boat or by loose propellers. People tend to encounter non-rotating propellers in the following scenarios.

    • They cut their feet on an installed propeller when it is not turning. They may have been swimming or skiing and climb on the drive to enter the boat.
    • They “walk into” the prop when the boat is on a trailer
    • Children may play with a prop when the boat is on the trailer
    • They are injured when handling a loose propeller, especially high performance or racing propellers with sharper, thinner blades.

    Some have drowned due to non-rotating propellers

    • They were trying to free the propeller of an entangled rope, anchor line, cable, line or sea grass and drowned
    • The prop was temporarily disabled due to entanglement (see above) and as a result the boat could not avoid being pulled over the dam, get out of the storm, reach land, etc.
    • The prop was disabled due to a spun prop (rubber insert failed so it just spins but the prop does not spin). Similar problems to entanglement.
    • Being ejected overboard or already in the water and get their clothing caught on the propeller.

    Illegal or Criminal Behavior

    • Boat operator knowingly runs through an area marked for swimming only.
    • Conduct of boat operator under influence of drugs or alcohol results in propeller strike – note some areas anticipate this behavior and actually cater to it for economic reasons.
    • Boat operator runs over someone in the water with the propeller in a purposeful effort to kill them.
    • Boat operator involved in illegal act purposefully runs into another boat such as during drug interdiction or illegal fishing.
    • Someone is purposefully pushed overboard, left in open water, and someone else runs over them.
    • “Party Cove” atmosphere results in someone being struck by propeller