Kill Cords


The Kill Cord is a short lanyard that is connected to the driver of an open powerboat or personal watercraft (PWC / jetski). Its purpose is simply to kill the engine if the driver falls from the helm position. Wearing a kill cords saves lives! Modern kill cord devices are designed that if they fail they “fail-safe.” i.e. the engine will not start rather than be able to start with a failed kill cord device.

Le grand Bleu tender
Super-Yacht “deckie” fell from the tender he was driving and was not wearing a Kill Cord.


Kill cords are also known as “safety lanyards”, “emergency engine stop cords”, “dead man’s lanyards,” and by various other names. At Chieftain Training, we prefer the name “Kill Cord” as it kills the engine and stops people from being killed! However what is far more important to us than the name is that powerboat helms and PWC riders always wear them.

The kill cord is covered at the start of the RYA Powerboat level 1 and the Powerboat Level 2 courses, the RYA PWC Proficiency course, the BSAC Boat Handling Course and all higher level Powerboat and PWC courses. It is also covered on some Motor Cruising courses where the design of the specific craft makes it appropriate (i.e. it is an open motor boat).  This means if you have been formally trained and there is an accident that could have been avoided by your wearing a kill cord, you will be negligent. The kill cord can of course only save lives when it is worn.

Kill Cord
An all too common site, a kill cord not being worn


There is often discussion on how to wear the kill cord. The three popular options are round the leg, round the wrist or attached to an item of clothing such as a buoyancy aid. Despite all three being popular I only consider one of the three methods safe and therefore correct!

There are two problems with wearing a kill cord looped around your wrist. The first is that it can become entangled around the wheel and if you were to then fall, it might not kill the engine. The second and bigger problem is it can slip off and this has been known to happen. For these reason I do not advocate power boaters to wear it like this and neither do the RYA (UK governing body for Powerboating and the largest global powerboat training scheme).

This kill cord could slip off his wrist, it should be worn round his leg
This kill cord could slip off the driver’s wrist, it should be worn round his leg instead.

PWC riders however, often like to wear the kill cord around their wrist as it gives them a quick and simple way of voluntarily killing the engine (i.e. let go of the handle bar and yank). In this instance the rider requires a kill cord that is fitted with a specially designed wrist strap (often made from neoprene) and for the strap to be pulled tight. If this is the sort of kill cord provided by the manufacturer of your ski,  I advocate you wearing it around the same wrist that is controlling the throttle. This mean one hand/wrist is doing two jobs and the other hand is free to carry out work (such as recovering a MOB). On many PWC where the kill chord post is on the port side and the throttle on the starboard side this will mean the kill cord passes from port handle bar to starboard wrist. This has the added benefit of shortening the effective length of the kill cord. If using a wrist strap on a PWC, it is essential the strap is pulled tight.

PWC Riders may use a wrist strap for their kill cord
PWC Riders may use a wrist strap for their Kill Cord

If your PWC kill cord is not fitted with a wrist strap then it should be attached to a strong point on the impact vest. I often see powerboat drivers attach the kill cord to their Buoyancy Aid or Life Jacket. While this is acceptable (and normal) on a PWC, I prefer to avoid this as on a powerboat as it can cause the kill cord to end up wrapped around the throttle or wheel, at which point it may fail to do its job. The difference is the layout of controls from a powerboat to a PWC.

Wrong kill cord attachment
Wrong Kill Cord Attachment, (it would be better round his right leg).

Correct Kill Cord Attachment, (pulled tight and around the leg)


There is a myth that the kill cord’s job is solely to kill the engine if the driver falls overboard, while this is one of its benefits, it will also kill the engine if the driver falls from his/her seat and lands within the boat or is hanging half out of the boat. For this reason alternatives to the kill cord that rely on the driver landing in water or becoming a certain distance from the helm’s position should be avoided. The traditional lanyard type is effective, but only if good quality, regularly tested and of course worn by the helm.

The video below is of two South African professional lifeguards- you would assume they were reasonably experienced powerboat drivers!!!!!


If you are worried that you might forget to wear the kill cord, there are a number of things you can do to try and remind yourself to wear the kill cord.

Firstly your crew should be equally aware as you to the importance of this device so that if you as helm/skipper forget to wear it they can remind you. Secondly you can make life easier for your self by wrapping it around the wheel or handle bars when you take it off, so that when you re start the engine it can not be forgotten.  Wearing a kill cord is not dissimilar to wearing a seat belt, for the most part you will never need it but if the things go wrong, its benefits far outweigh the few second lost in putting it on.

Those who have a good habit of always wearing a kill cord feel naked without it and simply do not forget, likewise RYA Powerboat Instructors find that as they continually reinforce beginners to wear the kill cord that they always look to the kill cord when ever they see an open powerboat making way.  The short video below was the result of a powerboat helm off Calshot, in the Solent, UK who was ejected from his boat (by a small wave) and had not been wearing his kill cord. Fortunately for the driver he was rescued by another boat before he could be run over by his own RIB.


Most kill cord designs are prone to UV damage if left in the sun. For this reason I keep mine with the RIB keys ashore rather than leaving it connected and on board the RIB when the boat is out of use.

This kill cord needs replacing as it will no longer tighter and grip around the wearers leg
This kill cord needs replacing as it will not tighten and grip around the wearer’s leg.

A good quality kill cord will have a string on the inside and an outer plastic coating. Cheap kill cords sometimes do not have the inner string and can therefore snap quite easily. You can tell which you have by looking at the end. If you cant see the white string in the middle of the plastic it is probably is not there.

chap kill cord
The left kill cord contains a white inner string, the right cheap one should be replaced.

If you discover you have the cheap, “plastic only” sort I recommend disposing of it and buying one with the inner string.

I have seen a kill cord where the metal clip on the end was tightened around the plastic so tight that it had severed through three quarters of the plastic, this was new out the box and not a design/brand I have returned to. Likewise I have bought kill cords before and later discovered the split ring corroding. It goes without saying that if there is a split ring it should be stainless steel.

Many brands do not even need the split ring as the kill cord is designed for only one engine type. It is kill cords that are designed to fit multiple engine types that often have a split ring to mange all of the different heads. Your kill cord should be inspected regularly for signs of wear and tear. I budget for a new kill cord every season although I will replace more frequently if required.

This kill cord has multiple heads without requiring a split ring
This Kill Cord has multiple heads without requiring a split ring.


If the driver falls over-board the remainder of the crew will need a second kill cord to connect up so they can re start the engine and pick up the MOB. For this reason you should carry a second kill cord on board, it should be accessible and the crew should know where it is (obviously not in the helm’s pocket).


I have at times seen a driver (perhaps a safety boat driver who feels he needs to work around the craft) extend the kill cord. This is not a habit that I like to encourage, for two reasons. Firstly if it is too long you can effectively wrap it around a seat or similar and it may snap and fail when you fall over rather than kill the engine, Secondly if you are wearing too long a kill cord you can fall over within the boat, so you are no longer in control or worse still you could fall in the water and be hit by the propeller but the kill cord will not have stopped the engine.

If you need to leave the helm’s position, put the boat in neutral, disconnect the kill cord, do what you have to do, return to the helm’s position and re connect. If your throttle/gear lever does not have an interlock then it is usually safer to turn the engine off.


A kill cord should be inspected and tested at the start of each outing. Having inspected a kill cord for signs of wear or damage I next try to start the engine without the Kill Cord attached. It should not start. I then attach the kill cord and start the engine normally before pulling the kill cord. The engine should stop immediately. If the kill cord/boat fails any of these three test then I do not go to sea until the problem has been fixed.


When instructing under 12s we actually connect both the Instructor and the driver to the craft with two separate kill cords, this should not be done by clipping the two kill cords together. The image below show how two kill cords can be dual connected. Either person could independently pull the kill cord without worry that they are attached to the other person.

Dual Kill Cord
Dual Mariner / Mercury Kill Cord for teaching under twelves.


I advocate on open power boats wearing the kill cord around your leg. On a PWC if your kill cord is fitted with a proper wrist strap then wear it on the same wrist as is the throttle hand. If your PWC kill cord does not have a dedicated wrist strap then it should be attached firmly to a strong point on your impact vest, this option is not appropriate for  wheel steered vessel. On neither sort of craft should the kill cord be passed around your wrist and clipped to itself.

I also advocate checking the kill cord is working every time you get on a PWC or in a power boat and of inspecting it regularly for signs of wear. Remember, just like a Life Jacket or a sea belt in your car the kill cord is only of use if worn. Our policy at Chieftain Training is a kill cord must always worn by the driver when an open powerboat or PWC is under way with the engine on.


The author, Doug Innes (Chieftain Training Principal) is an RYA Advanced Powerboat Trainer and a RYA PWC Trainer. He has been driving powerboats since the late 1980s and has owned 16 different powerboats in the intervening years.

And if you made it through all that text here is a RYA video further highlighting the point.

%d bloggers like this: