Spring water hazards can result in a catastrophic event

Think about running down the lake to a great springtime fishing location when all of a sudden all hell breaks loose! Your big outboard engine is now on your back deck and running wildly. Your fishing buddy has already taken a hit from the lower unit and you have been slammed into the steering wheel and console.

Sound impossible? Think again. This catastrophic situation actually happened on Wheeler Lake in North Alabama.

With the slightly warmer temperatures, of both the air and water surface, fishermen and fish get moving. A great time of the year for boating a big bass. The photos on the Southern Fishing News Facebook page certainly supports the big bass theory.

Debris drydocked around a body of water are ticking time bombs waiting for the water level to rise. Southern Fishing News photos

Normally, heavy rains and flooding notwithstanding, most lakes are still drawn down to winter pool levels leaving all the trash, driftwood, logs (both small and huge), timbers, trees and who knows what else resting safely on the banks. And all this wood will remain grounded around the periphery of a lake until either an emergency requires lake levels to be raised dramatically or until lake levels start to rise to normal full pool levels.

This time of emergency or normal lake level rising is when boaters are most vulnerable to collisions with all the debris that was once secured on dry ground around the lake.

Granted, there is the everyday risk of hitting an unseen rock or stump in the water that might be a threat to life or limb every time we launch our boat, However, the time during and immediately following lake water levels rising presents boaters with a much higher danger of hitting floating debris.

We have all probably ran over small sticks, etc. while running around a lake or river. Those “collisions” are usually minor and result in no damage to the boat, motor or passengers. However, ramming a giant floating log, like one of those pictured here, would most likely be a catastrophic event. High floating “wood” is usually easy to spot and avoid if running around 30 to 35 MPH. As speed increases and/or light decreases the ability to avoid massive floating obstructions is drastically reduced.

Chamber’s chest and forearm bent the steering wheel as the motor slammed into his back. Rex Chamber photo

The results of a high-speed collision with a visible object usually end bad-a bent prop on the low end of damage. Logs and timbers submerged just under the surface are probably the most dangerous obstruction a boater can encounter while running around on the water. These “low floating” water mines are pretty much invisible in both sunny and low light conditions.

Rex Chambers and Danny Pettus, both of Madison AL, experienced a near-fatal accident on Wheeler Lake in 2014 caused by one of these low floating logs.

“There are few things that happen in a person’s lifetime that can be labeled “life altering.” Maybe it’s the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one or even a brush with death which can sometimes cause a person a take a step back and re-evaluate things in their life. Well, that dreaded “brush with death” landed in my lap on Wheeler Lake on Saturday, May 3, 2014,” said Chambers. “Making our way from the old Lucy’s Branch Marina area, we were headed to Mallard Creek. A light wind had gotten up just enough to put a small ripple on the water and we were cruising toward the main channel running in the 50’s when it happened. A log! A low floating mostly submerged log is where we both almost met our demise. The log sat behind a small wake and there was no veering to miss it in the amount of time that we both actually saw it. The center of my motor punched it. What happened next only took less than one or two seconds.”

Pettus recieved a deep gash from the skeg of the motor spinning around. Photo provided.

Chambers recalled that a split second after the impact he felt a huge jolt between his shoulder blades and the loud screaming of the rpms of a boat motor landing on him, crushing him between the steering wheel and the boat’s driver’s console.

What had happened? The big motor had broken from its motor mounts and flew into the boat over the stern with the entire motor spinning clockwise on the back deck. The outboard was still running with the prop still turning and 600 plus pounds of metal and blades plowing into everything and everyone in its path “like a mini metal tornado.” The main motor section hit Chambers in the back while at the same time the lower unit section landed on his partner Danny Pettus. The skeg of the motor broke as it impacted Pettus’ head leaving a huge gash.

Luckily both Chambers and Pettus survived with serious wounds but the incident could have easily proven fatal to both.

An obstruction in the water can result in the motor entering the boat. The Leash website photo

On March 4, 2013, A boat came out of Ingalls Harbor in Decatur, AL on Wheeler Lake and made a right turn upstream. The driver had a student angler in the boat with him. They ran about 50 yards when the motor, a Mercury 250 hp. engine, separated from the boat.

Chamber’s left arm was lacerated by the motor’s spinning prop. Photo provided.

The motor flipped upside down and spun the boat in two 360 degree circles before drowning itself out. All this happened so fast the driver did not even have time to pull the kill switch. The driver reportedly said he was holding on for dear life and was telling the young kid with him to lay low and hold on tight. There was an exposed prop spinning from an uncontrolled motor pulling the boat violently in circles.

This was not the end of the problems. During the tow back into the harbor the trailing, the now submerged engine got caught on a stump. The motor was finally piled on to the back deck with the help of several volunteers at the ramp and strapped down.

Best guess is the lower unit of the motor struck a shallow stump or rock.

These two stories demonstrate the extreme danger inherent in boats and motors hitting obstructions in the water. As noted above, the danger of such accidents is much higher when all the debris piled on the banks become waterborne with rising water levels.

The Leash is like a seatbelt for outboard motors. Image from The Leash website

A product that mitigates the danger of “airborne” outboard motors is “The Leash.” The product website (https://theleash.net/) says, “The LEASH is a patented marine product designed and engineered to reduce the risk of an outboard motor flipping into the cockpit in the event of an underwater strike with a submerged object.”

Bass pro Randy Howell is a proponent of the product. Howell said he had The Leash installed on his motor after hearing about an angler in Florida losing an arm because of a rampaging outboard engine. Pros Jason Christie, Keith Poche, and Bradley Roy also run with The Leash.

This safety device employs a restraining strap around the mid-section of a

motor. According to the manufacturer, the LEASH is to an outboard motor what a seat belt is to a car.  It’s 5x stronger than steel, installs in just minutes, and is compatible with all outboard motor manufacturers. This product sounds like both a great idea and a good solution to the problem of a detached outboard motor flying into a boat.

So wear a life jacket, use the kill switch lanyard, slow down a little this time of year, and you and your partner keep a sharp eye out for “unnatural” floating objects. Caution and maybe The Leash could well keep your outboard in the water and off your back deck.

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One Comment

  1. Don Gowen says:

    Excellent article and one that every boater should read and keep in mind when on the water.

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