In this feature, we look at kill cord alternatives and other ways of stopping your boat should you fall into the water

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Are kill cords fit for purpose?

There is no doubt that kill cords, when used correctly, are an effective, simple, affordable and largely reliable solution to accidents that result in the helmsperson falling overboard.

However, it is equally clear that far too many people are not using them either out of ignorance, forgetfulness or choice. The bigger question is what can be done to ensure that all three of these reasons are minimised or eliminated.

Are there any existing kill cord alternatives?

We know of at least two wireless kill-cord systems already on the market – the Autotether system designed in the US and sold through Fastnet Marine in the UK, and the Coast Key system from Norway (pictured below) sold in the UK through Coast Key UK.

Both devices rely on small battery-powered radio transmitters, which you wear around your neck or clip to you securely. These send a continuous signal to a control box mounted on the helm. As soon as they lose contact with the remote fob, they cut the engine just like a kill cord.

Coast Key wireless kill cord

Coast Key relies on a battery-powered radio transmitter to kill the ignition – Picture: Lester McCarthy

Are they any good?

Yes, we have tested both the Autotether system and the Coast Key system ourselves. Both devices do what they say on the tin and so far seem to be reliable.

Some overseas boatyards such as Goldfish, Fjord and Arctic Blue RIBs even fit the Coast Key system as standard or optional equipment.

So why isn’t everybody using them?

Because the market is driven by the outboard engine and sportsboat manufacturers in the US. The additional cost, complexity and fear of litigation mean that none of them are yet prepared to replace the existing form of manual kill cord.

Are there any alternative solutions?

We put this question to the mby.com forum and on our Facebook and Twitter accounts and were overwhelmed with possible suggestions.

We have distilled the responses into the six common themes described below along with their main pros and cons. Many thanks to all who responded.

Readers’ suggestions

  • Wireless kill cords

The potential for this has already been proven by the Autotether and Coast Key devices but both of these rely on active radio transmitters that require batteries in the remote device in order to function.

Passive Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags on the other hand need no power source to operate, can be encased in plastic or silicone to make them 100% waterproof and cost pennies to manufacture.

It’s this technology that is used in everything from wireless credit card payments to keyless cars, festival wristbands and even pet passport implants.

All it needs is a small black box and an antennae in the helm which sends out a high-frequency pulse. This energises the battery-less tag enabling it to send a unique ID code back to the receiver.

This form of passive RFID only works over a distance of a few feet so as soon as the person wearing the tag falls overboard or moves out of range, the engine cuts or in the case of a fly-by-wire throttle could slowly be brought back to neutral.

Pros: No batteries in the remote fob, waterproof, no cord to tangle around the wheel or throttle, much more convenient and user friendly than a physical tether.

Cons: Without a battery the range is limited to a few feet at most so limited freedom to move around the boat unless secondary antennas are fitted around the cockpit.

Still relies on the operator to use/carry/wear the fob and not leave it attached to the key ring. More expensive than a manual kill cord and arguably more prone to failure. Some form of manual override would still be required in the event of system failure or to recover the MOB.

Skipper's hand on steering wheel

Placing sensors in the steering wheel could work as a kill cord alternative – Picture: Lester McCarthy

  • Helm sensors

Some form of physical or electronic device that senses whether the helm position is occupied or not. This could be a pressure pad in the helm seat and/or floor with a three-second delay to take account of momentary weightlessness when jumping over waves or an optical or thermal sensor similar to a burglar alarm.

Alternatively the wheel, throttle or even a combination of the two could be fitted with an electrical sensor that would trigger the cut-out switch if neither one was touched for more than a few seconds.

Pros: Much harder to avoid or forget than a manual or wireless kill cord.

Cons: It may be possible to trick or confuse the system by taping over the pressure switch or light sensor and any heat sensor would need to take account of wet weather clothing and extremes of temperatures. We all know how unreliable those infrared taps and hand dryers can be!

  • Spring-loaded foot or hand throttles

This simple solution relies on a physical spring returning the throttle to idle if pressure is not continually applied to it. Every car and most race boats use a sprung-foot throttle while PWCs and RNLI boats use a sprung-hand throttle so why not leisure boats?

Pros: Simple, effective and hard to get round. Already used on most small tiller-steered outboards.

Cons: Fine for a PWC when your hand is always securely positioned in one place (i.e. wrapped around a handle bar) but much less practical if you are bouncing over waves trying to keep the throttle steady in a boat.

There are also valid reasons for wanting to cruise at a constant pace for long periods of time without having to keep one hand permanently on the throttle.

  • Legislation

The kill cord works fine if people use them, so you should make it a legal requirement for the helmsperson to wear it.

This is similar to the early days of car seatbelts when drivers were aware of their safety benefits but still chose not to wear them. Now that it is a legal requirement people wear seatbelts as a matter of course.

Pros: No costly or fallible changes in technology just a legal ruling that kill cords must be worn backed up by a few £60 fines to drum it into people.

Cons: Almost impossible to enforce – how could police see and prove that people weren’t wearing a kill cord? The remote threat of a £60 fine is unlikely to provide much deterrent.

Any attempt to legislate could be a slippery slope to boat licensing and creates yet another barrier to boat ownership.

Could additional legislation help reduce the number of kill cord accidents? Picture: Lester McCarthy

Could additional legislation help reduce the number of kill cord accidents? Picture: Lester McCarthy

  • Better training and awareness

If the government is serious about improving boat safety it should focus its efforts on awareness with widespread media campaigns backed up by RYA and RNLI advice encouraging people to use their kill cords.

The ‘Clunk, click every trip’ television adverts and drink driving campaigns did more to change attitudes than any legislation.

Pros: If it becomes socially unacceptable not to wear a kill cord, people will quickly change their habits.

Cons: The majority of boat owners already know how to use a kill cord and the risks of not doing so but some still forget or choose not to.

  • No change

The most popular response on our forum on the basis that horrendous as these accidents are, they are few and far between.

Supporters of this approach also argue that the tragic accident in Padstow has done more to ensure people use kill cords than any amount of legislation or technological improvements.

Pros: The easiest option of all.

Cons: There was an equally high-profile accident in which one person was killed during a customer sea trial of a RIB at the Southampton Boat Show in 2000 but that didn’t change behaviour enough to prevent the recent Padstow accident. How long before the memory of this fades, too?

What does MBY think?

Our opinion is that technology moves on and yet the design of the kill cord has not changed for many years. There may be valid reasons for this but that should not stop us having the debate and looking into better, more user-friendly alternatives.

Any new solution needs to be at least as reliable as the current kill cord (although it’s a myth that they are foolproof as the MAIB records show one fatality and at least one other accident caused by faulty kill cords) and not prohibitively expensive.

Ideally it should also work for small tiller-steered outboard engines as well as larger, faster boats even if it takes time to filter down the range.

We are convinced that if the major boat and engine manufacturers have the will and the desire to design a better solution, they could deliver a much slicker device that boat owners would use, appreciate and be prepared to pay a premium for.

For an introduction to this subject, read our definitive guide to kill cords.

  • Skidude

    Why change something that works well?

  • Not sure if a kill cord app would be 100% fool-proof – what if you run out of battery?

  • Colin P

    In the yacht Rib with a 4 HP engine on my own I always wear the kill cord . I want the engine to stop if I fall in so I have a chance to get back to the Rib . In the Rib with others I don’t wear the kill cord I want them to come back to me ! And yes in the club rescue or mark laying ribs with 20 to 60 HP engines ONE hand on the wheel and ONE hand on the throttle and ALWAYS a kill cord . It’s a pain when you have to go to launch or recover a mark but it’s no big deal to restart the engine .
    Kill cords are simple and fool proof though I guess the next thing will be a mobile phone app!! and blue-tooth Maybe that’s not such a bad idea…..

  • Very interesting points you raise there, Nick. Thanks for commenting. In RYA powerboat training they teach you never to take your hand off the throttle, so having it spring-loaded to some degree could be feasible, I agree…

  • Nick Hallam

    I trained years ago as RIB rescue boat coxswain. The throttle levers were spring loaded and we were trained NEVER to take our hand off the lever. If we did, the instructor would lean across and slam the throttle wide open. This was VERY instructive and absolutely terrifying – training for the real world, not the ‘risk-assessment’ version of today. On a ‘nice’ day (Force 6-8, low visibility, nasty North Sea chop – the instructors wouldn’t go out unless it was thus: real training again….), we would be out for 4-6 hours, learning search patterns, man-overboard recovery, cliff and cove approaches, etc., and I don’t remember it being a problem to keep a hand on the throttle. I’m sure Mr. And Mrs. recreational RIB user can get used to that, too, and be a lot more in control of that 120HP Yamercury behind them. It should be possible and economical to produce a single-lever control which gently returns to neutral if left free. Part of the whole problem is the low quality of most recreational single-lever controls, compared to the beautiful gear produced by e.g. Kobelt (no connection). If we are spending north of £50k on a toy, perhaps the controls ought to be treated as the safety-critical kit they in fact are, and given a pretty stringent ISO standard to conform to. Perhaps they already do, in which case: wake up, ISO.