Florida bill would require boaters to wear a kill switch to stop deadly runaway boats

Ed Killer
Treasure Coast Newspapers

"That boat coming at you is pretty scary."

As I was writing this column about a bill that would require boaters to wear kill switches, my oldest son, Conrad, reflected on a close call he had four years ago when he was 18.

While coaching the now-defunct Intrepid Rowing Club, he was in a 14-foot, flat-bottomed aluminum launch, powered by a Mercury 15-horsepower tiller-steered outboard motor.

The motor comes equipped with a 6-foot-long lanyard; one end clips into the ignition switch, the other end is supposed to be clipped somewhere on the operator's person, commonly on their wrist or a belt loop.

Conrad, though an experienced boater who got his Florida Boater's Identification card by passing the St. Lucie River Power Squadron's safe boating course when he was 10, had carelessly neglected to attach the switch to his body.

Use the kill switch by attaching it to one's person.

As he was giving instructions to nine middle schoolers in another boat, he inadvertently bumped the throttle on the motor. It tossed him backward out of his boat and into the murky waters of Palm City Bay in the St. Lucie River's South Fork.

The boat swung into a circle and headed right for his head. Watching in horror from the rowing shell was his younger brother, Pierce, who was 14 at the time.

Conrad was able to duck low enough as the metal prop whirred inches from his head. After about three passes, the boat finally straightened out and plowed into some red mangroves on the shoreline.     

When I was called and told the story, I felt my stomach turn. As a parent, I realized it was one of those times when my kids narrowly escaped death or serious injury. That incident could have killed not only Conrad, but Pierce and the other kids whose parents had dropped them off for what they believed was to be a rewarding rowing practice.

Only common sense, due diligence or dumb luck could have saved them that day.

Kill switch

Kill switch

A bill in the March-to-May legislative session could help prevent such disasters by requiring the proper use of an emergency cut-off switch on powerboats under 26 feet on state waters.

The law, which would take effect July 1 if passed, would not apply to a boat using an electric trolling motor or a boat with a main helm installed within an enclosed cabin.

The penalties for a violation would be a:

  • $50 noncriminal infraction requiring a court appearance
  • Second-degree misdemeanor if an incident causes property damage or minor injuries 
  • First-degree misdemeanor if an incident causes serious injuries
  • Vessel homicide if an incident causes someone to die.

The law can't clip the kill switch onto the boat operator, but could be a valuable step in the right direction to saving the lives of boaters, like me and my sons.

In Florida each year, there are an average 20 boating incidents involving falls aboard or overboard in which an emergency cut-off switch may have helped prevent injury, according to statistics provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Boating and Waterways Section. From 2015-20, there were:

  • 105: Total incidents
  • 32: Fatalities
  • 55: Injuries

Other St. Lucie River incidents

Among those 105 incidents was one that occurred near Hell's Gate in the St. Lucie River in October, when three men were tossed from a 24-foot boat that kept running.

As the boat circled toward them repeatedly, they had to duck underwater several times to narrowly avoid being struck by the stainless steel propeller blades.

The boat finally straightened out, but ran at nearly full speed a quarter-mile until smashing into a low-profile concrete dock and launching into the air and up onto the shoreline behind a waterfront home.

The ending was captured on video by the Martin County Sheriff's Office helicopter. 

The men swam to a nearby sailboat. One was slightly injured, but all three considered themselves lucky to have survived.

An unmanned  boat went airborne in Martin County on Friday October 9, 2020 in the St. Lucie River.

Chris Hill was not as fortunate. The 39-year-old Vero Beach resident was killed by a boat strike on the St. Lucie River about two miles north of Hell's Gate in April 2011.  

Hill and friend Amy Reede were returning from a day of offshore fishing when they decided to fish a little more by the Evans Crary Bridge, Reede told TCPalm at the time.

Hill accidentally bumped the throttle on the small outboard-powered Boston Whaler, which lurched and tossed them overboard. The boat spun in a tight circle, but Hill couldn't duck fast enough. The propeller hit him in the head.

"It was a regular day, and I had a hold of his arm and I had a hold of the center console and he went to slow down to get under the bridge," Reede said. "The next thing I remember was trying to find the top of the water." 

FILE PHOTO A runaway boat (top center) with no occupants spins in circles in this April 12, 2011 photo as a Martin County Sheriff's Office marine unit and Sea Tow's Capt. Ryan Pratt attempt to get it under control. The boat ejected its operator and passenger in the St. Lucie River near the Evans Crary Bridge as they returned from an offshore fishing trip. The driver, Chris Hill of Vero Beach, was struck by the boat and drowned.

Ethan's Law

Sarasota Rep. Fiona McFarland named House Bill 1099 for Ethan Isaacs, a 10-year-old killed in a runaway boat strike after he capsized during sailing practice in November.

Sarasota Youth Sailing Coach Riley Baugh, 18, came to his rescue in a 20-foot Caribe Nautica inflatable powerboat. Baugh was bailing water from Isaacs' sailboat when he accidentally hit the throttle, causing the boat to lurch forward and toss him out.

The propeller struck Isaacs, fatally wounding him and injuring two other youth sailors.

Isaacs parents worked with McFarland to create the bill.

Ethan Isaacs was killed in a boat strike.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to make a positive change to boating safety in the state of Florida in honor of our son,” Malinda and Greg Isaacs said in a prepared statement. “Ethan was an extremely gifted and kind boy with a full life ahead of him. His tragic death, which has caused our entire family a great deal of suffering, could have been prevented. It is our hope that Ethan’s Law will prevent future tragedies, save lives and make the Florida waterways safer for everyone.”

McFarland said she has not received any negative feedback on her bill.

“The more we peel the onion, there is not only good sense behind this bill but a ton of support,” she told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “Even from the group we are worried about — fishermen — it just makes sense to them. If you fall off your boat, not only does your boat drive away from you and you have to swim to it, it becomes a hazard. We are talking about property damage and injuries, and as we saw in Ethan’s case, there are incidents of death.”

Ed Killer is TCPalm's outdoors writer. To interact with Ed, friend him on Facebook at Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or email him at ed.killer@tcpalm.com.