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Home > Crew Matters > Nathan Skinner – Kill Cords

Nathan Skinner – Kill Cords

Hello crew!

The weather is brightening up and ‘The Med’ season is just around the corner. Many new crew will be securing the essential courses for their CV (STCW, RYA PB2 etc.) and will be hitting the docks looking for that first job. I believe that the first weeks and months onboard are when habits and practices will be set that crew will carry throughout their time in yachting.

My last job, before moving to Mallorca, was managing the training scheme at The Club Abu Dhabi. I held this position for 2 years and within a few months secured RYA accreditation for both dinghy sailing and powerboat training. The Club has a number of powerboats used by both members and staff. My time there was very rewarding and I’m proud of the achievements that were made. Among other things, the safety standards were greatly improved: it is now a requirement for boat drivers to hold a licence, killcords are mandatory (as are buoyancy aids) and vessels have better engines and equipment onboard. I was delighted to hear that 4 of the members have since become RYA Powerboat Instructors which helps to keep standards high.

During a RYA Powerboat Level 2 course, instructors put huge emphasis on the need to wear a kill cord. This is particularly important on open craft such as RIBs where there is a real risk of being ejected from the boat. Unfortunately, over time this message seems to fade as many yacht crew do not wear killcords.


What is a kill cord and how does it work?

A kill cord is a red lanyard with a quick release fitting at one end which attaches to the boat at the engine control. The other end has a clip that should be put around the knee and be clipped back onto itself. If the driver was to move away from the controls, either intentionally or otherwise, the kill cord will detach from the engine control and stop the engine. Many engines simply cannot start without the kill cord fitted. If the kill cord is required to be in place to start the engine then the next step, surely, is to clip it around the leg of the driver?

You can find further information about kill cords on the RYA website.


What happens if you fail to attach the kill cord then fall overboard?

In some cases the boat may keep going in a straight line. It’s possible it could head out to sea until it runs out of fuel but this is unlikely. Often it might hit other water users/swimmers which could cause serious injury or death. In most cases the runaway boat will make a sharp turn and circle the driver and crew in the water until the propeller(s) makes contact with them. This can result in life changing injuries or death.


Do accidents like this happen often?

Thankfully it’s not a daily occurrence but when these accidents do happen they are horrific. I found examples of propeller injuries and fatalities dating back as far as the late 1800’s. Reading through the reports was stomach turning. The earliest incident I could find that specifically mentioned a vessel circling was reported in the New York Times in 1935, when two young men were ejected from the vessel. For some time they were repeatedly diving below the surface to avoid the circling boat, but eventually they were struck by the propeller, one in the head which caused him to drown and one in the shoulder resulting in serious injury.

Unfortunately there is a long list of incidents like this. One of the more recent, and arguably one of saddest, was on the south-west coast of the UK in 2013. A UK family were ejected from their RIB resulting in the death of the father and one of the children. Another other child suffered a serious injury and the mother lost a leg. The family were experienced boaters. Perhaps one of the saddest photographs of that year was that of the powerboat itself, tied to the dock, with the kill cord attached to the engine control.

I hope that we can all agree, by now [like seatbelts in cars] the use of killcords should be second nature.


When were killcords introduced?

Killcords (or similar devices) first made an appearance in the 1950’s and after more avoidable deaths, became fairly common during the 1970’s. Yamaha outboards for example have always had kill switches fitted to the remote controls since their launch in the late 1950’s. Yamaha’s pull-start tiller-steer engines followed later. The story is much the same with all manufactures. Nowadays there is a kill cord fitted to virtually all engines on open boats.

I strongly encourage new crew to build good habits of safe working practices. For them to do this they need good role models. Junior crew certainly look up to those onboard with more experience and will imitate what they see. Unfortunately people can become complacent when they have been through a few seasons. I ask that captains watch closely how their tenders (and jet skis) are being operated and ensure that killcords are being used correctly.

I’ve become involved with a new project which aims to raise awareness about wellbeing and safe working practices onboard yachts, while offering support and advice to crew. I invite you to view our page to find out more information about this – facebook.com/YachtCrewThatsNotOkay


By Nathan Skinner