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Putting rescue equipment and maneuvers to the test

The Crew Overboard Recovery Symposium

put rescue equipment and maneuvers to the test

"Man overboard!” It’s one of the most dreaded emergencies that can befall boaters.

The Coast Guard’s 2004 recreational boating accident statistics tracked 488 crew-overboard incidents, which resulted in 199 deaths. That works out to a 40-percent fatality rate. Combined with capsizing, falling overboard produces 60 percent of all boating fatalities. How can these figures be improved?

After a nine-year hiatus the Crew Overboard Recovery Symposium, held Aug. 9 to 12 in Sausalito, Calif., tried to answer this question by testing popular man-overboard rescue procedures and gear. Unlike past symposiums, this event got scientific help to interpret the collected data.

“Our objective was to find techniques and equipment that are suited for recreational boaters, those who never practice man-overboard rescues,” says author and safety expert John Rousmaniere, one of the event’s co-organizers.

Supported by West Marine, Modern Sailing Academy, Bonnell Cove Foundation, BoatU.S. Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water, North Sails, and Sailing Foundation of Seattle, the symposium drew participants from five countries (United States, Canada, France, Japan, and Iceland). Over the four days about 110 volunteer boaters of various skill levels manned 15 vessels, ranging from RIBs and lightweight multihulls to large, full-keeled cruising boats and a 40,000-pound trawler.

Close to 400 crew-overboard drills were performed both with dummies and people. They also used more than 40 rescue devices, including signaling, contact/buoyancy and recovery gear. At the end of each day the crews gathered to report their findings and impressions. Crew-overboard research never was more scientific.

The plan

There are many variables in a crew-overboard recovery: boat type, conditions, crew competence, gear. These required statistical analysis so testers could find various correlations and connections, explains John Connolly, president of the Modern Sailing Academy, a Sausalito-based sailing school. “I was curious if there are ways to scientifically test the effectiveness of existing maneuvers and gear,” he says. “If so, can we establish standards that are beneficial for the future?”

Others expressed hope that numbers might trump politics, and that statistically backed findings might improve recovery procedures and equipment design.

Connolly pitched his idea to West Marine and asked one of his students — Chris Marshall, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. — to handle the quantitative analysis of the gathered data. This will be the basis for a final report.

The format and “choreography” were developed by an expert panel consisting of Connolly, Rousmaniere, Chuck Hawley (West Marine), Karen Prioleau (instructor) and Ruth Wood, (BoatU.S.).

Each drill was scripted, but the order was called out randomly. A recorder on board each vessel kept tabs on the time it took to make contact with the person in the water, the time it took to get the victim back on board, and the GPS track of the boat during the maneuver. The variations included type of maneuver, whether the test used a person in the water or a dummy, and the equipment used.

The maneuvers

Maneuvers at the symposium were divided into turning and point-of-sail methods [see illustrations]. While the former (the quick-stop and fast-return) keep the boat closer to the victim, they require a high degree of boat-handling skill. This means they’re more difficult for an untrained crew.

Point-of-sail maneuvers, like the figure eight and deep-beam reach, are easier to perform and are being taught in sailing classes. However, because they don’t stop the boat right away, they put more distance between the victim and the rescuers.

“The most common challenge was timing and the ability to control boat speed,” says Hawley. Marshall, the statistician, found that skippers tended to improvise if an unfamiliar maneuver was called. “If they were outside their comfort zone, they defaulted to whatever they knew well,” he says. Quickly, it became obvious that not all maneuvers worked equally well for all boats. Trimarans, although multihulls, tacked without qualm, while catamarans were much easier to jibe. And, logically, the shape and size of the appendages on keelboats influenced a vessel’s turning ability.

The gear

One of the most intriguing aspects of the symposium was the opportunity to test different devices, often back-to-back, including the droll “Noodlevator” — a tube of foam on a loop of line with knots on the pendant — ladders, throw ropes, nets, man-overboard-modules, strobe lights, laser beams and Lifeslings in different incarnations.

“Different gear worked for different people,” says Dennis Harms of Reno, Nev., who once went over the side as a bowman. “I like the idea of a lifting tackle, but I think it would be even better with a cleat and stiffer line.”

A lingering concern was getting incapacitated victims on board reliably in difficult circumstances, especially when shorthanded. Most equipment performed satisfactorily, with its effectiveness often depending on an operator’s familiarity with the device.

“I believe the event demonstrated that there’s a number of items available that work if the crew knows how to handle boat and gear,“ says Samuel Wehr from the Cost Guard’s Lifesaving & Fire Safety Standards Division. “[But] some standardization may help to improve user friendliness.”

Victim’s perspective

An important contribution to the success of this symposium came from the people who squeezed into a wetsuit and PFD, and hurled themselves into the chilly waters of San Francisco Bay. They did this a dozen times or more a day to simulate being a live victim. One such “victim” was Karsten Voermann, a software executive and San Francisco Bay sailor.

“As a victim you’re suddenly alone in a hostile environment and at the mercy of your mates, who are disappearing fast,” he recalls. “But you have to remember: The boat has to sail away before it can come and get you, so don’t panic. And make yourself visible as much as possible.”

He cautioned against swimming, which wastes energy and makes it harder for the returning crew to keep a bearing on the victim. Voermann prefers the deep beam reach maneuver because it involves fewer turns, and made it easier for him to get into position for pickup. But what if the boat hasn’t stopped when the heaving line is thrown?

“If it’s still moving when you grab the line, you’ll get towed,” Voermann says. “Turn onto your back and let the line run over your shoulder.”

Powerboats are different

For all its thoughtful preparation, the symposium couldn’t shed its sailing roots. “The format was set up for sailboats,” says Gerry Ramsey, who brought his Grand Banks 42 Europa. “I soon departed from [prescribed procedures] and did what made sense on my boat.”

Ramsey conducted the drills from the trawler’s flybridge and inside the pilothouse. “I slowed down, got a visual of the victim, turned to starboard to get back to the person in the water, stopped upwind, cut one engine, and drifted down,” he says. “Retrieval on the leeward side worked well for us because the hull creates a patch of smooth water.”

BoatU.S.’s Wood, who spent time on Ramsey’s boat, thinks operators often underestimate a man-overboard situation, lulled into complacency by a swim platform on the stern. “As long as swells were small, the platform worked well,” she says. “But once we simulated rolling in beam seas, it became a dangerous place for the swimmer.”

To avoid injury, Ramsey hauled the victim on board through the gap inthe starboard rail. He also hoisted victims with the electric dinghy davit.

Organizers discussed holding a separate crew-overboard event to test powerboat recoveries, and thus do science justice.

No matter the conclusions of this year’s Crew Overboard Recovery Symposium, there’s a lot the average boater can do in the meantime. The first step toward improvement is a critical assessment of your own skills. The rest is easy: Just practice.

Soundings will cover the findings of the symposium report when it is completed.