Death of an Airboat I have been told for years, that you should never bring an airboat to a sudden stop. The most important reason of course, is because airboats do not have enough freeboard to stop your wake from sloshing over the stern when it catches up to the boat. What happens when the wake does catch up to your boat makes for a very unsafe and embarrassing situation.
The ill-fated day started out like any other; cold, dark and very early. Walking around in the dark is commonplace for the people I work with, as well as myself. My work partner and I were having some difficulty getting motivated the morning of the incident. It isn't easy to make your brain work properly at six in the morning, especially if you don't drink coffee. Fortunately, Mountain Dew is just as loaded with caffeine as coffee.
After getting my brain and heart out of first gear, I began preparations for the trip.
I went through the standardized pre-operational checks before heading out to the boat ramp; including verifying the operation of both the truck and the trailer lights and brakes. Since we were using an airboat that day, we also did a run-up of the boat's engine. I should have realized it was going to be a bad day and just gone home right then. While I was doing the run-up, my partner was doing a safety walk-around. Before I could shut down the engine, my partners' expensive Ray-Ban sunglasses had fallen out of his pocket, and were eaten by the propeller. I shut the engine down as quickly and as safely as possible, hoping we might find part, or all, of the sunglasses intact. Unfortunately, the sunglasses looked as if they had been chewed up and spit out by a 10-foot alligator, and my partner was upset with the world to say the least.
Once we got out of the parking lot we then had to navigate our way through a sea of early morning traffic as we headed to the boat ramp. Driving a three and one half-ton work truck with a 15-foot airboat in tow on a local surface street is similar to navigating a busy channel with a sailboat. Every small gust of wind threatens to shift the truck and trailer into another driver's lane. I could feel that the truck wanted to slide off the road a few times, but fortunately I was able to keep it from doing so. When we reached the boat ramp and started our pre-launch checklist I noticed just how cold it really was that morning as I could see the steam from my breath was hanging in the air. After I verified that my partner was wearing hearing protection, and some type of eye protection, I started the boats engine, radios, and strobe light. Making sure not to run into any other boats around the boat ramp, I maneuvered our boat away from the dock and into the canal.
No matter how many times I have traveled into the Everglades, I am constantly amazed at the sheer beauty of the swamp. During our ride to the work site, I enjoyed watching hawks dive into cypress humps chasing a meal. Alligators patrolled the banks of the waterway while Ibis and Blue Herons hunted for a meal, and at the same time avoided becoming someone's breakfast. After getting the boat up to speed, I started feeling a strange vibration. Normally, with the propeller running at a steady pitch, an airboat has a steady hum when it's running. This morning, though, the vibration I was feeling was unlike any other. The sound of the propeller pitch had also started to change, which should have alerted me to the upcoming problem.
Without further warning, the propeller started to self-destruct. Pieces of wood began to fly through the air in all directions. One of the larger pieces was thrown downwards through the hull of the boat, which started an in-rush of water that threatened to sink our boat. Not knowing what else to do, I shut off the engine and aimed the boat at the bank hoping we could make our escape if it blew up. Unfortunately, running into the bank at this speed allowed our wake to catch up to us. The water poured in over the stern, sinking the boat in three feet of water.
The fact that neither my partner nor myself were badly hurt that day is still amazing to me, but one thing is for sure. Make sure that the airboat you are operating has already had its fill of sunglasses, and that the leading edge of the propeller didn't become cracked while eating its morning meal.