YOU may be completely unaware of this, dear reader, but US marine websites are currently in literal meltdown over a US court judgement that may very well (a) impact the way our industry will have to design, manufacture, promote, demonstrate and sell powered craft, (b) radically alter pricing of OBMs and sterndrives, (c) drastically affect speed, acceleration, manoeuvrability and cornering and (d) possibly persuade low-volume, specialist and high-performance manufacturers that they’d just be better completely walking away from the whole game.
I can just hear the cries of “How full of it is this Skipper guy?” or “Is he the ultimate crank, or what?” But let me assure you that the Skipper (by his own reckoning, admittedly) is neither. The hyperbole-filled, doom-laden first paragraph was a stunned, visceral reaction to the fact that a federal jury in Austin, Texas (where else but America?) has just awarded damages of US$3.8 million to a teenager who had a leg chopped off by a boat’s propeller. It was a Sea Ray boat, manufactured by Brunswick but, really, the make and manufacturer of boat and motor are irrelevant. The teenager had jumped into the water to retrieve a tow rope but the driver didn’t realise this and went astern – right over the top of the teenager’s leg, shredding it.
Appalling injuries to the poor unfortunate in the water notwithstanding, this is where it becomes irrational and dangerously ridiculous – not to mention ominously foreboding for how things may go in future. Some doyen of the American Bar Association – a sleaze among sleazes, the shyster of all shysters, lower than crustacean s@#t – persuaded this kid (whether or not it was beside his hospital bed in the ICU, I have no idea) that he had the basis of a case. So the case goes to court, gets knocked back twice but, lo and behold, on the third attempt, the jury finds for the injured party to tune of US$3.8m with a liability split of 66% to be paid by Brunswick, 17 per cent to be paid by the boat driver and 17% to be paid by the amputee. And the crux of the argument? That the boat and motor did not have safety devices, like guards or covers, to prevent such injury.
Consequently, boat propellers – probably not the most ideal overall means of propulsion, but the very best, most hydro-dynamically effective and most efficiently fit-for-purpose yet designed – will now be under the bureaucratic, legislative microscope. This is a device that has been around as long as the automotive wheel (for which there is also no viable alternative) and which is as mechanically indispensable – and also about as dangerous as - a helicopter’s rotors or a construction excavator’s track gear.
No intelligent, right-thinking individual goes within the orbit of such propulsion devices, and the operators of such equipment go to great lengths to ensure that wayward beings are nowhere in the proximity. Furthermore, such equipment is always emblazoned – overly festooned, actually – with stickers proclaiming not “Attention” or “Caution”, but “WARNING” (the most pronounced, severe advisory on the tiered scale) – meaning that limbs or life can be lost. How many boats now incorporate these notices as a matter of routine? They have been de rigueur for years, particularly in the litigation-choked US, where there will be at least two such warning stickers - one right beside the steering wheel and one on the transom over the swim platform – proclaiming the possibility of injury or death if entering the water whilst the motor is running. Exposed flywheels are dangerous; belt-driven alternators and steering pumps are finger-jamming dangerous; rotating lawnmower blades and spinning chainsaw bars are limb-threateningly dangerous. Boat propellers are right up there with all these things – so responsible, intelligent people exercise care when around them.
Going after Brunswick in a case like this is akin to suing a tyre manufacturer because some drunk went into a skid and mounted the kerb, wiping out a bus queue, or suing a domestic appliance manufacturer because somebody got electrocuted after stupidly sticking a knife in the toaster to scoop out a shrivelled loaf end. Then there are the famous ones like the multi-million dollar payout over the woman scalded by McDonald’s coffee, or the RV manufacturer sued almost out of existence by the customer who set the cruise control on the freeway, ambled back to the kitchenette to make a coffee, and wondered why the vehicle careered over the central divider and plunged down a ravine (100 per cent true!).
I jest not: the conventional propeller may well go the way of triple-compound steam engines or the trolley bus unless Brunswick tenaciously and resolutely appeals this insane judgement with every single resource available - they will be doing it for all of us. Ripples from that small lake in Texas may well reverberate around the oceans of the world, and there will be many twitching sphincters at marine engine/transmission manufacturers globally. If anyone thinks anything like the same levels of waterborne pleasure, excitement and exhilaration will be delivered by neutered, shrouded, shielded and re-configured propellers, they obviously have no understanding of the basic essence of power boating.