Skip to main content

Seamanship & safety - Survival of the most prepared

“Hold fast.” These are perhaps the two most important words a boater needs to know.

Old salts on square-riggers had them tattooed on their knuckles so they wouldn’t forget when they scrambled up the ratlines to tie in a reef in a howling gale. But even though the secret has been out for a few centuries that falling in the drink can be dangerous to your health, it hasn’t stopped people from going over the side.

The Coast Guard’s 2006 Boating Statistics showed that capsizes and falling overboard accounted for 59 percent of all boating fatalities. And falling in is not just a sailor’s problem; the Coast Guard has determined that in 52 percent of the incidents, people fell off outboard, inboard and sterndrive boats ( How can you beat these odds? Preparation and prevention is half the victory — wearing a life jacket, for instance, to keep you afloat should you fall in or a clipped-on safety harness/inflatable PFD to keep you from falling over in the first place.

For more Seamanship & Safety stories stories see:

Simple rules make a sound seaman    MOB   Download “Seamanship & Safety” in its entirety

But what if the unspeakable really happens? Can you and your crew find and retrieve a man overboard calmly, quickly and competently? If you’re on a sailboat, can you stop and turn the vessel without fouling up or losing track of the person? Can you get back to the victim in a timely manner and position the boat to throw a line or flotation device to the victim? If you’re a powerboater, can you maneuver your vessel back safely for a speedy retrieval? Do you set up to windward or leeward? How do you get a frightened and exhausted 225-pound victim over the rail? If you’ve ever tried it, you know it’s not easy, even in the best of circumstances.

The 2005 Crew Overboard Rescue Symposium highlighted the challenges of the man-overboard scenario and possible solutions, but it failed to provide patent answers, simply because there are none. (For the final report written by John Rousmaniere, one of the symposium’s organizers, go to It also is available at, where you need to select “Safety at Sea Training” from the drop-down menu under “Education.”) Different approaches and pieces of rescue gear work for different crews on different boats.

“The general challenges remain the same for power- and sailboats,” says Chuck Hawley, vice president of product development at West Marine, a safety expert and a COB symposium organizer. “What has changed is the design of boats and the gear the crew must know how to handle.”

Sporty sailboats, Hawley points out, now carry larger sails but smaller crews, so everybody on board has a bigger role. Some simple math highlights the speed issue: Modern sailboats under asymmetrical spinnaker or trawlers at cruising speed can do 12 knots, covering one nautical mile in five minutes, or around 400 yards per minute. Given these numbers, spotting the victim and returning quickly, especially in poor visibility or rough seas, can be tough. One more thing: Not only is the modern sailboat faster, but it typically has such a quick motion that even experienced sailors sometimes have trouble staying on their feet.

And powerboat speeds also have gone up significantly in the last decade, which only increases the chances of being thrown into the water or “bounced out” as a boat traveling at high speed flies off a wake or wave, or turns sharply. Remember: One hand for the boat and one for yourself, regardless of sail or power.

Hypothermia is a factor, too. It takes but a few minutes to affect a victim in 55-degree water. And while it may take several hours for even relatively “warm” water to take a toll, hypothermia will set in eventually. “It saps energy and reduces a person’s ability to stay afloat or signal to other boaters,” says Petty Officer Robert Downs, a surfman on a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat at Coast Guard Station Golden Gate in Sausalito, Calif., where chilly water is present year-round. “But worst of all, it diminishes the victim’s will to live and the ability to aid the rescue.”

The five-step program

Although there is no silver bullet solution for crew-overboard recovery, a few guidelines have general validity.

1. Alerting: Whoever sees a mate go over the side must alert the skipper and crew by shouting “Man overboard!” Crews using rotating watch schedules on longer passages increasingly use electronic alarms with transmitters on the boat and receptors or tags worn by each crewmember. These devices are very accurate, though costly and not practical for all boats.

2. Spotting: Immediately assign a lookout and have that person point in the direction of the victim and call out the distance, which is particularly critical (and more difficult) in bad weather, poor visibility or on vessels traveling at high speeds. Push the MOB button on your GPS or plotter if the vessel has one. This is where an electronic MOB alert has an edge, because as soon as it is tripped it stores the coordinates of the accident location. Armed with this information and the boat’s position, a networked GPS plots the returning course. Toss a life ring or other floatable device (preferably with a strobe attached) in the water to assist the victim and mark his or her position.

3. Returning: Powerboats have an advantage over sailboats because they can turn around quickly without time-consuming maneuvers. On the downside, they cover more distance if traveling at high speeds, and the person could be injured by falling into the water at speed. The key is to avoid panic and reduce speed for a controlled turn to avoid others from getting thrown around or even over the side. For fast sailboats a “quick stop” or “fast return” makes sense because both maneuvers keep the boat closer to the victim. However, boat handling skills and crew work are critical for these approaches. Slower, less-maneuverable boats might do better with a “deep beam reach” or a “figure eight,” which are easier to perform and allow the helmsman to bear off or head up as needed to control boat speed while approaching the person in the water. Using the engine is an option too, because it can speed up the return and save valuable time, especially when the victim is straight upwind. But take care of flogging sheets and sails or dragging lines before you put the iron horse in gear, and be careful when you approach the victim to avoid propeller injury. Obviously, different boat types require different handling and maneuvering strategies. And those change as wind and sea conditions change, too. For a discussion and graphics of various maneuvers, refer to the final COB symposium report at the BoatU.S. site previously mentioned. And it is crucial to practice crew overboard retrievals before an actual incident.

4. Stopping: “The primary challenge for students is processing the boat’s feedback during the final approach on the return,” explains Richard Jepsen, CEO of Olympic Circle Sailing Club in Berkeley, Calif., which teaches hundreds of sailing newcomers. Where to stop relative to the person in the water depends on boat design and prevailing conditions. A beach catamaran is a different beast than a trawler, and a strong tide can cancel the drift forced by wind.

To make the right decision, skippers must be cognizant of their boats’ behavior, as well as wind and current. Setting up to windward makes it easier to accurately toss a line, and the downwind drift can quickly close the distance to the victim. However, boats drift faster than a person in foulies can swim, so the challenge is drifting close to, but not over, the person in the water. On powerboats the skipper should approach the victim on the side of the helm station. Stay alert and proceed with caution: Cut the engine too soon and the boat might drift away; cut it too late and the prop might hurt the victim. The throttles should always be in neutral if the victim is near the stern. And the helmsman should never assume the location of the person in the water, especially when engaging the engine.

5. Retrieving: Swim platforms on powerboats and most modern sailboats are a boon for recovering someone from the water. But a word of caution: In rough water they can inflict serious injury to the victim as the boat rolls and pitches, so care must be taken. A sturdy, solid swim ladder (as opposed to a soft, fabric ladder) hung over the gunwales amidships also works well because it provides a solid footing below the waterline and hand-holds below the gunwale. Make sure the ladder has enough rungs and hangs deep enough in the water to make boarding as easy as possible for an exhausted, weakened swimmer.

In a pinch, a sailboat crew can rig an elevator line between a clamp and a winch, giving the victim a foothold that can be cranked up far enough for the person to clamber into the cockpit. Retrieval of a severely incapacitated victim could require rigging a hoist on a spare halyard, so make sure you have lines, blocks and shackles at hand. If the victim has to be lifted over the lifelines, make sure there is enough clearance.

On powerboats be cautious if the swim platform must be used. Depending on conditions, Jepsen suggests putting an able-bodied crewmember in the water (wearing a PFD and a tether) to assist with the recovery.

As a general rule, don’t take any piece of safety equipment for granted unless you’ve first tried it. And, typically, the simpler the device the better; you want something you can deploy again quickly if you aren’t successful the first time. A throw line, for example, is simple, effective and reduces the chance of a prop strike by allowing a powerboat to stand off at a safe distance from the person in the water. Throw lines are relatively inexpensive, easy to stow in the cockpit and, with a little practice, can be tossed a fair distance, even into the wind.

The victim’s role

As if going over the side wasn’t enough distress for a victim, watching the boat disappear over the horizon is nothing short of devastating. “Don’t panic, but make yourself as visible as possible and remember that the boat has to sail away before it can come and get you,” says Karsten Voermann, one of the volunteers who played victim at the COB symposium. He cautions against swimming, which wastes energy and makes it harder for the returning crew to keep a bearing on the victim.

“Assume the fetal position to preserve body heat,” says Downs, the Coast Guard surfman, who also considers survival a mind game. “Think about your loved ones and all the good things you’d be giving up by giving in, and trust that someone will come to get you.”

Even if it looks like the situation is under control, Downs advises rescuers to radio the Coast Guard on VHF channel 16 and provide precise coordinates. “A recovered victim might be seriously injured or hypothermic and require immediate professional medical attention,” he says. “In many cases we can get [to the scene] in 15 minutes or less with our trained EMTs and all the necessary medical equipment. It could be the difference between life and death.” Once the person is retrieved, remember to notify the Coast Guard.