Boating safety should go beyond law

Posted: Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The tragic manner in which a Washington man died on the banks of the Kasilof River last week doesn't shock the experts. But it does remind them of the dangers that are often overlooked in the world of fishing -- even at the policy level.

David J. Tyrrell, 49, died on June 8 when a boat rope snapped and hit him in the torso. Tyrrell died of blunt force trauma, Alaska State Troopers confirmed following the autopsy results.

Robert Parsons, a lab supervisor in the University of Alaska Fairbanks's physics department, explained how a stretched rope could gain lethal force.

"It's just like stretching a rubber band, and the end will have the maximum velocity," Parsons said. "The potential energy put into stretching is converted into kinetic energy, and it's mostly stored at the end of the rubber band."

Parsons said it would be difficult to calculate how much force would have been at the end of the rope that killed Tyrrell. But, he said, a rope can obviously cause "serious danger."

"It's simply the stretch factor," Parsons said. "The more you stretch it, the more energy you have stored in it. Even a small rope could easily blind you. There are plenty of fishermen out there with missing fingers as a result of this kind of injury."

Though that might be true, there aren't written regulations on boat ropes in the state.

"Alaska law conforms with U.S. Coast Guard standards," said Jeff Johnson, a state boating law administrator. "Certain equipment is expected to be carried, but that's as far as it goes."

Anyone under 13 years of age is required to wear a USCG approved life jacket, according to state law. Other safety tips are available at the sport fish section of the state's website.

Johnson said boaters should take the list seriously.

"You want to make sure that everything's in good condition. And hopefully you can prevent some of those things from happening," Johnson said.

"You always have to be thinking about the strength of the rope," he added.

When it comes to rope safety, Parsons offered some other tips.

For example, if a rope breaks it will travel straight toward where it's being pulled.

"The best thing to do is to stand to the side," Parsons said. He said any small fray in a rope or crack in a chain is a good indication of where a break might occur.

Putting something over the rope, like sheets or other heavy cloth, that will dampen the blow, is also a good idea, Parsons advised.

Andrew Waite can be reached at

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