PSA: Ghost Boats

One of the most harrowing experiences I’ve had as a boater was to encounter a 19-foot, center console outboard boat running in circles, full-tilt, with only a dog aboard. The operator was helpless in the water, having been ejected from the boat.

Unlike a car, a powerboat throttle stays where it’s put (race boats are an exception).

Out-of-control driverless boats are sometimes referred to as “Ghost Boats,” for obvious reasons. Anyone and anything in the Ghost Boat's unpredictable path is in danger – fuel docks, other boats, swimmers – on and on –. And they can be difficult if not impossible to catch. First Responders will sometimes attempt to come alongside the Ghost Boat, attempt to lasso it, attempt to foul the Ghost Boat’s propeller using rope or a net, and even attempt to shoot the motor. These attempts are often futile and put First Responders in peril.

Operator Cutoff Switches

Only since April 1, 2021, have the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and the Marine Manufacturers Association mandated the installation of an operator cutoff switch at the helm of every new powerboat. It’s simple. A switch is installed in the ignition circuit(s) to which a lanyard is loosely connected. The lanyard is clipped to the operator. The lanyard allows for reasonable movement of the operator about the helm. But if the operator is ejected, the cutoff switch is thrown and the boat stops. Many boats in service today and in the years to come predate this requirement. Anyone who operates a powerboat, or a sailboat under power, is well-advised to outfit the boat with an operator cutoff switch, and to use it.

When a single engine boat at speed is left to its own devices, it will go “hard over,” typically to starboard and will run in clockwise circles, subjected to wind, currents, and other variables. The out-of-control boat will inscribe cycloidal circles—like a spirograph—until it runs out of fuel or hits something. This could take minutes, hours, or even days.

When a multi-engine boat at speed is left to its own devices, it may go “hard over,” but it is more likely to move forward in an erratic course line until it runs out of fuel or hits something. Depending on where the event occurs, a catastrophic collision/allision could occur within minutes.


Example of an out-of-control vessel

What Happened to the Puppy?

The puppy was fine. Fortunately for the operator, they were ejected outside the circles being inscribed by their boat. I was able to maneuver our 31-foot battlewagon at a tangent to the out-of-control boat, shielding the operator long enough to be picked up by another Good Samaritan vessel. Had the operator been ejected inside the circles being inscribed by the boat, the outcome could have been far worse. 

A flotilla surrounded the out-of-control boat, repeatedly sounding the danger signal while communicating with the USCG. A 60-foot luxury yacht came by and “took one for the team” by purposefully getting speared by the boat, allowing a brave but foolhardy crewmember to leap into the center console some eight feet below. The crew member took control of the boat and the frightened little pup.

If it were you in the water wondering if and when you’d be hit by your own boat, I doubt you’d derive much comfort in thinking, “Well, technically, the switch wasn’t required.” And if the cut-off switch was available and you neglected to attach the lanyard, it could be the regret of a lifetime.

Bart Eckhardt, P.E.
CEO, Robson Forensic, Inc.

About Robson Forensic

Our mission is to provide excellent and comprehensive engineering, architectural, scientific and technical services for the long term benefit of the company’s clients, the public and our employees. We investigate and analyze thousands of incidents each year including several hundred involving boats or ships. We offer this PSA series to bring our experience as Experts to bear to heighten public awareness of hazards that surround us.

Robson Forensic welcomes the press and public safety agencies to contact us directly to discuss how we can apply our expertise toward the long term benefit of the public.

Featured Expert

Bartley J. Eckhardt, Marine & Mechanical Engineer

Bartley J. Eckhardt

Marine & Mechanical Engineer
Bart is a Marine & Mechanical Engineer, and Merchant Mariner, who is versed in ship design and operation, co-authored the U.S. Navy Towing Manual, and has been a recreational boater since childhood.