A new propeller guard test developed by the Coast Guard and the American Boat and Yacht Council seeks to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of various guards.
“There really wasn’t anything out there that portrayed the performance or maneuverability of a boat, with and without a guard,” ABYC president John Adey told Trade Only Today. “This test serves as a baseline that all device manufacturers will use to evaluate their products. We’re hoping it will help consumers. Everyone just automatically thinks that a prop guard will save your life in all situations.”
The purpose was to test the viability of propeller guards across several scenarios, Adey said. “It’s a non-accident-specific test and first of its kind. The idea is that the guard manufacturers would test their guards before putting them to market. Everyone gets evaluated the same way, which is a breakthrough.”
Engine and boat manufacturers have defended themselves against lawsuits in instances of people being injured or killed by boat propellers. In a high-profile case from 2010 a federal jury ordered Brunswick Corp. to pay $3.8 million to Jacob Brochtrup after he lost part of his leg while wakeboarding.
Because propeller guards can compromise the safety of a boat, the National Marine Manufacturers Association initially opposed the test, director of environmental and safety compliance John McKnight told Trade Only.
“If you go over 15 mph on the boat, propeller guards create a very dangerous situation and it says that very clearly in the report,” McKnight said.
The guards, typically large pieces of metal added around the engine, can create buoyancy and steering issues, as well as compromising a boat’s ability to get up on plane and maintain plane, McKnight said.
“A good analogy would be putting a guard on a propeller plane,” McKnight said. “People have been hit with them. It would be all right to drive the plane around the runway, but don’t try to take off or you’ll die. This could be a tool if someone does design a propeller guard that actually works under all conditions of a vessel.”
In the past, there had been several “snake oil salesmen designing guards in their garage,” McKnight said. “In litigation, the question would be asked, ‘Why wasn’t one of these put on?’ Though we don’t endorse the document, we can live with it.”
Keith Jackson, a partner at Maritech Industries in Redding, Calif, also was involved in the testing process. His propeller guards are used by San Francisco police divers on boats that travel at slow speeds, among others. He agrees that his company’s propeller guards aren’t safe for all applications.
“Everybody will make claims about what their product will or won’t do,” Jackson told Trade Only. “Now they know how to test it out in the real world before they take it to market. If you’re a developer of guards and you don’t know how to test it appropriately, you might cause more harm than good. What you don’t want to do is try to give somebody a device for safety and cause another hazard. Sometimes we have to say, ‘Sorry, our guard is not designed for continuous high-end use.’ Every product has limitations, but that’s OK as long as you educate the customer.”
The test has been several years in the making, Adey said, and it involved physical testing with ballistics gel samples, which mimic the density and viscosity of human muscle tissue. “We ran over objects, and we did it guarded and unguarded,” Adey said. “Some of it was real ‘MythBusters’ stuff. We were mixing up ballistics gels and even had MIT involved at one point. It was a good project.”
— Reagan Haynes