Part of basic boating safety is using your boat’s engine cut-off switch, known as an “ECOS,” and this device has taken on a new importance since the U.S. Coast Guard mandated its use beginning in April 2021.
ECOS devices have been required equipment on boats since 2018, but most outboard-powered boats, personal watercraft (PWC), and many stern drive boats have been outfitted with them for decades. They’re particularly important on small boats which don’t have enclosed cabins, where there’s a possibility that the captain could be thrown away from the helm.
What is a Boat Engine Cut-Off Switch, or ECOS?
A standard engine cut-off switch is a small C-shaped clip attached to a spring-loaded button at the helm station, usually located in very close proximity to the ignition switch.
- The clip is attached to a lanyard, and the lanyard has a hook-clip on its far end.
- The captain of the boat uses this locking hook to secure the lanyard to his or herself.
- It can be clipped onto a stout ring on a life jacket or foul weather gear, a belt loop, or another secure article of clothing.
If for some reason the person operating the boat leaves the helm, the lanyard pulls the C-clip out from under the spring-loaded button, which then triggers the cut-off switch and immediately shuts the engine down. That way, if the captain falls or moves away from the helm station for any reason, pulling the lanyard until it jerks out the C-clip, the boat immediately stops all by itself.
There are also digital ECOS switches, which can be worn as a bracelet or on a lanyard. These communicate with a unit wired in at the helm and are triggered by proximity. Some people prefer these since they don’t restrict your movement around the boat the same way a physical lanyard does. One should note, however, that they’re more expensive than standard ECOS switches and usually require custom installation done by a pro.
Why it's Important to Use a Boat Cut-Off Switch
While boating is an inherently safe activity with a remarkably low incidence of accidents, in small boats and particularly at high speeds, there’s always the chance that a large wave or impact could eject the captain from his or her seat or even off the boat. If this happens and the boat continues running, obviously, the situation can become very dangerous.
Having an ECOS in place and using it properly means that the boat will shut down immediately following any such incident, reducing the potential for any additional danger.
While using an ECOS has always been the smart move, in April of 2021 it became the law. If your boat has a ECOS installed, it’s incumbent upon you to use it.
Do I Have to Wear My Boat's Engine Cut-off Switch Lanyard?
Mandatory use of an ECOS doesn’t apply to all boats. Here are the critical elements determining whether you must use one:
- Your boats was built with an ECOS system.
- Your boat is under 26 feet in length.
- The helm is not enclosed by a cabin.
- The power system provides 115 pounds of thrust (about three horsepower) or more.
- The boat is operating at or above planning speed.
If your boat checks all of these boxes, any time you advance the throttle enough to get on plane you need to be using the ECOS system (if you’re not sure if your boat planes see our Boat Hull Types, Shapes, and Design page, which includes an explanation of planning versus displacement hulls).
Remember that while this new regulation is a federal law, many states already have ECOS laws of their own on the books and it’s always your responsibility as the captain of your craft to understand the local laws and regulations. You can find your state’s specific regulations by visiting the interactive map on our State Boating Laws, Rules, and Requirements page. You can also learn more about ECOS regulations by visiting the U.S. Coast Guard website.
Pro Tip: If you move away from the helm and inadvertently trigger the ECOS on your boat, remember that the engine can’t be restarted until you physically replace the clip (with a standard system) or move back into range (with a digital system).
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