Man Overboard! What’s Next?

The actions you take in the moments after someone goes over the side can be life-altering
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Keep the man overboard in sight; that’s the number one priority.

Keep the man overboard in sight; that’s the number one priority.

There is nothing more dangerous in boating than an unexpected trip over the side. Medical problems may be the most common at-sea emergency, and most flooding may be caused by poor maintenance of through-hull fittings, but going overboard is far and away the deadliest mishap. How dangerous? If the U.S. Coast Guard gets called to look for you, then there is a 40 percent chance you’ll never be seen again, alive or dead.

You can dramatically increase your chances of survival by having the right gear and wearing it, but what should those left aboard do when a crewmember ends up in the water? If someone falls off your boat and the first thing you do is hit the MOB button on your GPS or reach for the VHF radio, then you are doing it wrong.

Most mariners fail to acknowledge that there are two types of MOB situations: when the person overboard is in sight, and when he isn’t. Each of these situations needs to be handled differently. If you don’t have a written MOB procedure for your boat, get started. If you do have one, then get ready to add another step to the process. When someone—anyone—has eyes on the victim in the water, the only thing that matters is keeping him in sight. MOB buttons, VHF radio calls or simply hitting the DSC button only distract and confuse the vessel operator and crew. You don’t have time for that.

If the MOB is in Sight

If the victim is in sight, keep him in sight and move toward him. That’s it. Marking a position is useless and unnecessary, and talking to the U.S. Coast Guard can wait. Your MOB procedure for a person in sight should start with throwing flotation devices overboard. Throw the life ring—even if the MOB is wearing a life jacket and even if he is an Olympic swimmer. If there are two crewmembers left aboard, then the non-driving person maintains sight of the person in the water and calls out and points toward his position until the operator sees him. That’s all. The spotter does not look for a line to throw, nor does she grab a boathook. She keeps her eyes on the person overboard and nothing else.

Next, approach the victim at slow speed and maintain visual contact. Talk to him and assess his condition. When you are close enough to talk, you can move on to step three, which is getting the recovery gear ready—slowly. Rushing makes things worse. If you’ve set up your boat properly, then you’ll already have a throw line near the rail. Secure the propellers if necessary, and deploy your reach device (rope, pole, arm). This step is completed when the person in the water is holding a line or pole, or a crewmember has her hands on him.

Now, you can recover the MOB. Slowly bring the person back aboard. Again, rushing only makes things worse. Mind the exhaust if you’re bringing the person aboard near the stern. Once he is back aboard, don’t be in too big of a hurry to get underway. You still have two steps to get through.

You need to assess the MOB’s medical condition. If he is well enough to laugh at his misfortune, then he is probably fine. If the water is cold, get him dry and inside, if possible. Before deciding everything is okay, give the recovered crewmember a full-body check for injuries. The adrenaline rush of going over the side can mask the pain of an injury. Look for bleeding and broken anything before moving on to the next step, which is deciding whether to head in. Is it freezing out and the recovered crewmember has no dry clothes? Is he hurt? If that’s the case, then head back or call for help if you need it.

If You Lose Sight of the MOB

Now, the checklist changes. Maybe it’s nighttime and the MOB is out of sight within seconds, or perhaps you had him in sight but lost him. This situation requires a very different response.

In this case, the first thing to do is throw lighted flotation devices overboard. Once that’s done, and if you still can’t see him, you grab the VHF radio and call for help. Activate the MOB button, activate your DSC VHF radio, and call in a mayday. This is not a pan-pan; this is a true emergency. This situation is one of the most dangerous in boating.

If there is more than one of you left aboard, then the non-operator calls in a mayday and works the VHF radio as the operator moves on to the next step, which is to start looking. Slowly maneuver to the most likely location of the victim, and stop while calling out for and listening for a response. Search while calling out in all directions and listening for a response.

If you hear or see nothing, then figure out your drift. Determine your vessel’s direction and rate of movement. If you threw that lighted flotation, then it becomes your drift datum. How fast it moves in the water is about how fast a person in the water might move. Pass this information to the Coast Guard and keep calling out—and listening—until you determine the drift and rate.
The Coast Guard will also ask for sea state and winds on scene.

Maneuver slowly in the direction of the drift while keeping a sharp lookout. You may want to start a sector search. Move slowly and remember to listen. And think: What would you do if you went over and knew the boat had lost you? Would you have tried to make it back to that last buoy or daymarker? Maybe your MOB would have done so, as well. At this point, you continue to search and wait for instructions from the Coast Guard, which will be on the way to help.

Losing sight of a crewmember over the side can quickly become the worst day of your life, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to get him back. Train yourself to recognize the difference between the two types of MOB situations, and know how to treat each. Make these procedures your own by adjusting them for your vessel and practice them during your drills. 

This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue.