Watch Hill Fire Department
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Sep 26, 2020

WHFD Rescues Unconscious Boater From Runaway Boat
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By Chief Robert Peacock
August 16, 2020

At 5:53 PM on Friday the Watch Hill Fire Department was dispatched along with Westerly Ambulance And Westerly Police to a report of a small boat out of control and running in circles with an unconscious operator in the boat. Watch Hill firefighters responded in Marine 100, an 17 foot Boston Whaler, and Marine 101, a 25 foot Defender Safe Boat. Westerly Ambulance and Westerly Police responded and staged at the Watch Hill Fire District dock.

The small inflatable boat was quickly located just outside Watch Hill Harbor in Little Narragansett Bay in the anchorage area off Napatree Point. The male operator was slumped against the side of the boat and the boat was running at a moderate speed in a tight circle. A good Samaritan in another boat was unsuccessfully attempting to match the speed and course of the circling boat in an effort to stop the boat. Due to the apparent serious condition of the unconscious operator and the need to quickly secure the runaway boat, Marine 100 was used to impede the forward motion of the boat as firefighters disabled the engine and secured the boat. The operator was then transferred to the Fire Department boat and transported to Watch Hill docks where he was evaluated and treated by two Westerly Ambulance crews for a serious medical issue before being transported to Westerly Hospital.

During the rescue, the operator, a male in his sixties, regained consciousness but was confused and disoriented with no memory of the incident or the events leading up to it. The firefighters then returned to Little Narragansett Bay to locate the wife of the operator who was on a large boat anchored off Napatree Point and to assist two good Samaritans that were working to return and secure the smaller boat to the owners larger boat.

It is important to note that this is a relatively common and dangerous occurrence in boating. Fortunately, in this case the operator sitting low in the boat and was not thrown from the boat when he released his grip on the steering and the boat began turning in circles. It used to be called the “Circling Phenomenon” or referred to as a “Runaway Boat” while the boating industry prefers to call it as “Ongoing Operations”. Current boating instructors often use the term “Circle of Death” as a more descriptive term that better conveys the serious danger of this hazard. Many boaters have been thrown from their boats and then run over by their own boat as the vessel turns back in a tight circle and repeatedly strikes the person in the water.

The circle of death occurs if the boat operator releases their grip on the steering mechanism while the boat is still powered and the propeller is still turning. The force of the rotating propeller blades creates a force known as steering torque which causes the outboard motor to turn suddenly and sharply to the left into the direction of the spinning propeller blades. This causes the boat to cut sharply to the right in the opposite direction which can throw the operator overboard. The boat then begins spinning in tight clockwise circles around the ejected operator and often strikes them by the boat or the spinning propeller several times. Every year, serious injuries and deaths occur when operators let go of the steering wheel or the outboard steering handle while the boat is moving.

The best way to avoid this type of accident is to never let go of the steering wheel or handle until the boat has stopped, to always use the safety lanyard attached to the automatic engine cutoff switch, and to always wear a personal flotation device.

Units: Marine 100, Marine 101, Squad 100
Mutual Aid: Westerly Police and Westerly Ambulance

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