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I’ve only experienced one real man-overboard event. Thankfully it was in fair weather in daylight. A guest on the bow stood up and lifted his binoculars to his eyes. He stumbled and fell backwards over the rail where the lifelines sloped down to the bowsprit. We instantly tossed him a couple of throw cushions. As the boat slid by him, he yelled up “I’m OK.” Oddly, he continued to hold the binoculars over his head, so we knew he wasn’t hurt or panicked.

We calmly executed our practiced man-overboard procedure, while keeping him in sight and bringing the boat head-to-wind. We started the engine, dropped sails, and motored back while putting the boarding ladder out. In minutes we were within yards of him, putting the engine in neutral. Someone tossed our horseshoe life ring and polypropylene tether, but he climbed the ladder back aboard, unharmed. It was an excellent learning opportunity for everybody.

Losing someone overboard is one of the most dangerous and life-threatening emergencies you might experience, which is why you should have an MOB plan and practice it regularly. A good swimmer falling off the boat on a sunny, calm day in flat water is one thing, but if it happens at night, in stormy conditions, or involves an injury, it could be fatal.

Years ago, as a ship’s officer, we heard a Mayday from a nearby yacht, a fast multihull sailboat crewed by a husband and wife. She disappeared while on watch alone, so he couldn’t even say when she went overboard. Using his navigation track, and modeling the wind and current, the Coast Guard constructed a strategic search pattern and gave us instructions. We mustered the whole crew, 24 sets of eyes, to look for a person in the water. The afternoon wore on as we searched slowly back and forth in our grid. Suddenly a sailor on the bow yelled, “I think I see her!” He pointed straight into the glare and held his arm steady toward her, just as we had practiced in drills. Soon we all spotted the same thing, elated to see an arm waving back and forth. But as we closed our distance, the waving arm turned out to be a branch on a floating log, rolling from side to side. I gained an appreciation for many eyes in a targeted visual search, but I will never forget that emotional let-down. She was never found.

Whether on a day trip in calm seas or in bad weather, you need a man-overboard plan. Below are just some of the many things to do and consider.

If a person falls from your boat in plain sight, everybody on the vessel should be alerted and brought on deck by yelling, “Man overboard.” Immediately, at least one person on the boat should become the designated spotter, with no other responsibilities other than continuously pointing at the person in the water.

In a man-overboard situation, a crewmember should continually point to the person in the water so the driver can maintain a fix on the victim’s location.

In a man-overboard situation, a crewmember should continually point to the person in the water so the driver can maintain a fix on the victim’s location.

At the same time, you should “litter the water” with anything that floats. The victim should be provided with flotation for survival until the boat returns. This also increases the visibility of the person’s location, and it will show set and drift. Maintaining a visual on a small head in the water is challenging, to say the least.

A man-overboard kit will mark the victim’s location in the water, which is especially important if you are the only person left onboard. It is infinitely easier to see a tall spar with a flag and a high-intensity strobe light than a person, especially at night. This is why a man-overboard kit is essential for offshore passages when the seas are likely to be bigger and visibility can be limited.

After designating a spotter and throwing flotation, the captain should delegate responsibilities to return to the victim as swiftly as possible. Returning to the location of an uninjured swimmer is doable in mild conditions, particularly if the person is wearing a PFD with a light and whistle. Finding the victim is much more difficult in harsher conditions. If he or she is wearing an AIS-transmitting locator or a Personal Location Beacon (PLB) the chances of being found will be much better.

One person should be assigned to navigate the vessel back to the overboard spot and to handle emergency communications. The GPS MOB button should be activated after a spotter has been designated and flotation has made it into the water. A person in the water qualifies as a “grave and imminent danger,” so a Mayday call is appropriate to alert nearby vessels and rescue services if support is deemed necessary.

Make sure you and your crew know how to provide an accurate position and how to use the equipment. An emergency communications information placard unique to your boat will provide the proper steps and procedures and help maintain calm. A real emergency is not the time to read the manual.

Depending on the gravity of the situation, make a Digital Selective Calling (DSC) alert. A DSC alert allows mariners to instantly send an automatically formatted distress alert to the Coast Guard or other rescue authority anywhere in the world.

To get back to the victim, there are many methods: round turn, quick-stop, figure-eight, Williamson turn, and others. Some are better suited for certain boats and sea conditions than others, but there is no one-size-fits-all. Each strategy has strengths and weaknesses, but the objective is the same; return quickly to the person in the water and stop.

Turning back and simply putting the boat’s bow into the wind is all well and good in fair weather, but in heaving seas or with a lot of wind, even getting close to the person in the water is challenging. How you choose to reach out to your victim will be the hardest part of a recovery. Holding your position for retrieval can be difficult, even with twin engines and a bow thruster.

Be aware of the danger your boat may pose to the victim. There are pros and cons associated with stopping the boat to windward or leeward of the victim, depending on your boat’s abilities and the conditions.

Consider the choices under different conditions with both a healthy swimmer and an incapacitated victim. If you stop your boat with the victim on your lee bow, your hull can shelter the victim from the seas, making the actual
recovery easier. A strong swimmer to leeward may be able to fend off your boat if you drift down on him, but maybe not if the boat is heaving. An incapacitated victim will have no self-defense from your hull if it’s rough. Conversely, if you stop your boat with the victim on your windward bow, there is the risk of drifting apart, which could be a fatal mistake. The boat could quickly drift away faster than a person can swim. Plus, there’s no way you can toss a line to a victim any distance upwind. A Lifesling device is designed to avoid this dilemma. Rather than stopping at the victim, the boat can deliver a floating line and rescue belt, the same way a circling waterski boat returns a towline to a waiting skier.

I once participated in a realistic two-person Lifesling drill, which convinced me of its value. The boat owner, while motoring close to the beach so he could swim there if he had to—placed me on the helm, then jumped overboard. I deployed the rail-mounted gear and drove the boat around him in a slow circle— rather like setting a purse seine—until he grabbed the line. I stopped the boat and shut the engine down. He rigged the buoyant sling under his arms, and I hauled him in, hand-over-hand. His boat had molded transom steps, and the real-life rescue he wanted to test was for me to haul him up the steps—solo—using one of the genoa winches. Winching a large man playing injured was not easy, but it worked beautifully.

Experienced boaters adopt new technologies and then practice. If you are a newer boater, it helps to customize tried-and-true methods to your own boat and needs. Organize your thoughts by considering answers to questions. Here are some examples: Can the person swim? Is he or she conscious and uninjured? Is the victim able to stay afloat? Do you have a designated kit to deploy? If you slip over the side, does your crew know how to retrieve you?

To help you, there are numerous online videos. Study them all and read different perspectives on the topic. Analyzing your vessel’s maneuvering strengths and limitations, safety features, emergency equipment list and freeboard challenges will help you develop best strategies.

Think seriously about how you will get someone back onboard your own boat. Will your topsides prevent climbing back into the boat? What recovery gear will you use? Can you use your swim platform? How will you protect a person from your prop(s)? What if you are in the water and you need to self-rescue? Is the person able to climb? What if the victim is hypothermic or unresponsive? Do you know how to call for a rescue boat with a safety parbuckling net? Can you launch your dinghy, and if so, who will be left to safely drive the boat?

Give these factors thoughtful consideration, keep your gear in good condition, develop plan(s) that work best for your own vessel and practice. Then practice some more.

Practice can be spontaneous if you call “man overboard” when a hat or fender goes overboard but should be in addition to structured drilling, especially with new crew. Both exercises are meant to be humbling, to demonstrate how difficult it is to keep a human being in sight.

By retrieving an object in drills, you practice maneuvering. Plus, it challenges you to respond to set and drift. Learn what works and what doesn’t. If you sail as a couple, practice the drills solo to simulate the loss of you or your partner. Practice stopping the boat, judging distance and holding position close to—but not on top of—the victim.

My training paid off at anchor once. I was alone on deck when I had to get a panic-struck swimmer out of the water. He was unable to climb the ladder of a big sailboat with a lot of freeboard. I lowered our bosun’s chair to the water’s edge, other swimmers placed him in the chair, and I hauled him (another big man) on deck using the main halyard and a self-tailing winch.

Every man-overboard situation is unique. Seamanship, experience, sound judgement, and thorough training all increase your odds of success. Practice often and pray you never have to use it in real life. 

This article was originally published in the June 2022 issue.

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