Sub-menu Navigation

So you think you know about kill cords...

Always, always, always use a kill cord and ensure that it is attached to the driver of the boat

Small open power boats will normally be fitted with a kill cord which, if used correctly, will stop the engine if the driver becomes dislodged from the helm position. The RYA has a long-standing commitment to education about safety afloat. As such, it has championed the use of kill cords on small open powerboats for many, many years. The kill cord message though remains as important as ever.


How does it work?

The kill cord is a red lanyard which has a quick-release fitting at one end and a clip at the other end.  When in use, the quick-release fitting is attached to the console and the end with the clip attaches to the driver. The kill cord is normally attached around the driver’s leg and clipped back onto itself.

A kill cord is coiled in its design to allow the driver the natural movement required when helming a boat. Should the driver move away from, or be thrown from, the helm position the kill cord will detach from the kill switch and the engine will stop. Detaching the kill cord also allows a crew or passenger to stop the engine if the driver were to become incapacitated whist at the helm – e.g. they fainted.

Most power boat ignition systems are designed so that the boat will not start without the kill cord in place, therefore a second kill cord should be kept on board to allow the engine to be re-started if the driver and kill cord have gone overboard. The kill cord should be worn by the driver whenever the engine is running.

It might be tempting to use a kill cord that is longer than the item provided by the manufacturer of the engine, to allow you a little more movement. However this could result in the kill cord not doing its job when you really need it to. If you need to leave the command position, or you are changing driver, you should turn the engine off. The engine should only be re-started when the kill cord has been secured to the new driver. 

Am I legally required to have one?

There is no legal requirement for a kill cord to be fitted to any kind of boat. That said, section 7.1.7 of the Inland Waters Small Passenger Boat Code states that: “All inflatable boats, boats fitted with buoyant collar, and open boats that achieve planing speed, when fitted with remote throttle controls, should be fitted with a kill cord, to be used at all times during navigation.”

There is currently no legal obligation for leisure boat owners to wear a kill cord even if it is fitted to the boat they are driving. However, there may well be a clause in your insurance policy which requires you to operate the boat in a safe manner and which could potentially void your policy in any insurance claim proceedings.

RYA position

How to use a kill cord is a key part of RYA Powerboat training courses. The syllabi advise:

  • That you attach the kill cord around your leg, rather than your wrist (to avoid it becoming tangled in the steering or throttle mechanisms and to reduce the likelihood of it slipping from the drivers wrist)
  • That you should not clip it to any clothing or lifejacket, which could rip or become detached from the driver instead of from the kill switch
  • That you should not attempt to extend the length of the kill cord to give greater freedom of movement around the boat
  • That it should not be left exposed to the elements as extremes of temperature and UV light may harm the lanyard in the long term


Check your kill cord works

The RYA recommends that you always check that your kill cord works at the start of each day or session by starting the engine and pulling the kill cord to makes sure it stops the engine.

Kill cords should also be protected from the elements. Over time extremes of temperature and UV light will damage the lanyard. Kill cords may become stretched or brittle if stored open to the elements. Monitor the kill cord for signs of wear, rust and reduced elasticity (the kill cord coils should be springy) and replace it in good time.


Stretched cord with no residual elasticity

When replacing kill cords, always try to purchase a manufacturer’s own kill cord. t.  

Kill cord switch failure

Throughout the summer of 2015, the RYA undertook a survey to investigate the causes of kill cord and kill switch failure. Some 1016 respondents from 23 countries, from as far afield as the Falkland Islands to the USA, the Philippines and Australia, as well as many respondents from within Europe (90% from the UK) took part in the survey.  

“It was great to receive such a wide spread of responses from people of all boating backgrounds with the three biggest sectors being, RYA dinghy/windsurfing or powerboating instructors, recreational powerboaters and RYA recognised training centre principals or chief instructors”, commented Rachel Andrews, RYA Chief Instructor, Motor Cruising and Power.  

The over-whelming majority of respondents stated that they had never experienced a kill cord or kill switch failure. However,  one third described experiencing a failure of either the kill cord, kill switch or both, with problems occurring across the board in terms of engine size (sub-4hp to 150+hp) and with 73% of problems reportedly occurring in engines aged 2-10 years.  

“The aim of the survey was to analyse the failures identified and see if there was any commonality of cause”, explained Rachel.  

Key findings

The survey revealed over 65% of respondents kept the kill cord ashore or in a locker on the boat, however, almost 30% of respondents indicated leaving the kill cord attached to the kill switch when not in use.  This could potentially lead to a number of issues, such as UV and salt degradation or potentially fatiguing the kill switch spring mechanism possibly reducing its effectiveness.

Over half of respondents got their engines serviced by the local service dealer for the engine, while just under 75% of engine users were undertaking periodic maintenance checks, similar to those that you’d do prior to a long car journey. However, there were a handful of Powerboat Instructors, safety boat crew and recreational powerboaters who were either undertaking no checks, or were unsure whether any were being done.  

The reasons given for kill cord failure point to the need for closer inspections being carried out before use to identify damage of this vital piece of equipment. 

There were also problems with non OEM (Original equipment manufacturer), aka after-market kill cords which are often easily available and cheaper than OEM kill cords. Problems associated with these were that the attachment jammed in the switch as it was too tight fitting, or that they were too loose in the switch mechanism and therefore did not reliably pull the mechanism apart enough to activate it.  

Corrosion on crimp

A further area where failures occurred were through operator error:

  • Kill cord was not properly attached
  • Kill cord slipped off the wrist or continually pulled out of the kill switch when worn around the wrist and pull-starting
  • Expecting the kill cord to disconnect by walking around the side of the console (this could cause a lot of friction and the kill cord may not disconnect).  

“The results of the survey show that the good practice of testing a kill cord before setting off is fairly widespread and it is important that this habit continues to be emphasised on courses.  However, it also showed that there are areas for improvement in maintaining equipment, such as checking kill cords for signs of fatigue, discolouration, stiffening, loss of elasticity and any metal or plastic clips; and checking the actual kill switch.  

“The data we have captured can now be used to inform the general public and guide the RYA when reviewing training syllabi in the future and may also be used to help shape future research”, Rachel concluded.

This simple, yet vital device has been proven to save lives time after time. However, it will only be effective it is both in good condition and is used.  

Summary of RYA advice

  • The RYA recommends that the kill cord be attached around your leg. It should not foul the steering or gear controls.
  • The RYA does not recommend extending the length of the kill cord provided by the manufacturer of the engine.
  • Always check your kill cord works at the start of each day or session and check it regularly for signs of wear.
  • When replacing kill cords, purchase the engine manufacturer’s own kill cord.
  • Do not leave kill cords out in the elements. Extremes of temperature and UV light will harm the lanyard in the long term.
  • If your kill cord has lost its spiral tension, replace it.

 ‘Think: Wear Your Kill Cord’ stickers are available from the RYA, contact  


Find books for your course at the RYA Shop

eBooks in the cloud
Our handy guide shows the books & DVDs that go with your course!
Please select...