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6 strategies for getting back on board

6 strategies for getting back on board

Someone once described the difference between strategy and tactics with this example: If you want to deprive someone of milk, knocking over the milk pail every time it’s filled would be a tactic; killing the cow would be a strategic action.

Crude as the example may be, I believe the primary strategic effort for getting back aboard should be, “Don’t fall overboard.”

A not uncommon finding among men who have drowned is the so-called “open fly syndrome.” The victims slipped overboard while trying to increase the volume of the body of water in which they were boating. And this can happen in very quiet conditions.

Most sailboats come equipped with lifelines, wire lines supported by stanchions and surrounding the deck. Don’t rely on them. Stanchions typically found on sailboats are, as far as I’m concerned, of a height to catch you at the knee. I’ve seen them bend when someone was thrown against them, and I’ve even seen them tear out of the deck.

If you own a sailboat, an excellent strategy for keeping everyone in the boat is to rig jacklines. Jacklines are made of very strong webbing (about 6,000-pound breaking strength) and run down the deck on both sides of the mast, secured to cleats at the bow and strong, backed pad eyes in the cockpit. Anyone moving on deck is attached to the jackline by a 6-foot tether of strong webbing with a carabiner to the jackline and a carabiner or strong snap shackle (or loop) secured to the D-rings of a harness. Harnesses can be integral to a life jacket or worn as a separate item. A bit of advice: Don’t use any kind of rope for a jackline because it can roll underfoot when stepped on.

1. If someone falls overboard you should know the drill. Shout, “Man overboard,” then continuously watch and point to the victim. Don’t take your eyes off him or her even for an instant. Someone’s head in the water is about the size of a cabbage, and the boat is moving away at about 100 feet per minute per knot of speed. Stop the boat as quickly as possible and stay as close to the victim as safety permits.

2. An excellent means of bringing someone aboard is the Lifesling system, which works well for power- or sailboats. It’s a horseshoe-shaped flotation collar that doubles as a lifting harness secured to the boat by 150 feet of floating line. Toss the collar into the water, then circle the boat to bring the float within the victim’s reach. When the victim is in the flotation collar he or she can be pulled to the boat. The tricky part is bringing the victim back on board. You cannot lift a 100-plus-pound person aboard without assistance. Lifeslings need lifting tackle: 3-to-1 for sailboats, which usually have winches, and 5-to-1 for powerboats because the usually don’t have winches to provide mechanical advantage.

3. We had a cruising sailboat with an outboard-hung rudder, and secured handholds (steps) to the rudder to permit us to climb into the boat. They extended below the waterline, so it was easy to step onto a handhold and climb aboard. The technique worked when we were at anchor or drifting with little or no wind.

4. We experimented with a knotted, floating grab line towed about 100 feet behind the boat for use when under self-steering or autopilot. At all but the slowest speeds drag was too great to allow people to haul themselves to the boat. If the boat is hand-steered, letting go of the helm usually will allow a sailboat to round up and stop. With any kind of wind she may still drift faster than the person can swim.

5. Swim ladders off the stern can become dangerous if the boat is pitching. Hung off the stern or side of the boat, swim ladders should have steps extending well under water to make climbing easier.

6. Swim platforms make getting back on board under your own steam possible, but they can be problematic with a pitching boat or if the person in the water is incapacitated in any way.