The Two Ways to Handle a MOB

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If the Coast Guard is doing this to find a person in the water, they probably aren’t going to find them alive.

If the Coast Guard is doing this to find a person in the water, they probably aren’t going to find them alive.

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 at sea. How dangerous? If the Coast Guard gets called to look for you, 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? What I know for sure is if someone falls off your boat and the first thing you do is hit the MOB button on your GPS or get your hands anywhere near your VHF radio, then you are doing it wrong and just made things worse.

Most mariners — professional and otherwise — fail to acknowledge that there are two types of MOB situations: when the person overboard is in sight, and when they aren’t. Each of these situations needs to be handled differently, so your boat’s MOB procedures should account for both. If you don’t have a written MOB procedure for your boat, get started. If you do have a written MOB procedure, get ready to add another.

In-sight MOB

When someone — anyone — has eyes on the victim in the water, the only thing that matters is keeping them in sight. MOB buttons, VHF calls or simply hitting the DSC button only serve to distract and confuse the vessel operator and crew. Make a VHF call, and someone will want to talk to you. You don’t have time for that.

If the victim is in sight, keep them in sight and move toward them. That’s it. Marking a position is useless and unnecessary, and talking to the Coast Guard can wait. So your MOB procedure for a person in sight goes something like this:

1. Throw flotation devices overboard
Throw the life ring — even if they’re wearing a life jacket and even if they are an Olympic swimmer. If there are two crewmembers left aboard, the non-driving person maintains sight of the person in the water and calls out and points toward their position until the operator sees the victim — that’s all. They do not look for a line to throw, nor do they grab a boat hook. They keep their eyes on the person overboard and nothing else.

2. Approach the victim
Approach the victim at a slow speed and maintain visual contact. Talk to them and assess their condition. When you are close enough to talk, you can move on to step three.

3. Get recovery gear ready
Determine the type of recovery gear to be used and get it ready — but do it slowly. Rushing makes things worse. If you’ve set up your boat properly, you’ll already have a throw line near the rail. Secure the propellers if necessary and deploy your reach device (rope, pole, arm, etc.). This step is completed when the person in the water is holding a line or pole, or a crewmember has their hands on them.

4. 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 they are back aboard, don’t be in too big a hurry to get underway. You’ve still got two steps to get through.

5. Assess the MOB’s medical condition
If they are well enough to laugh at their misfortune — and the look on your faces — they are probably fine. If the water is cold, get them dry and inside, if possible. Before deciding everything is OK, 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.

6. Decide whether to head in
Do you need to head in? Is it freezing out and the recovered crewmember has no dry clothes? Did they sustain injuries? Now is the time to head back or call for help if you need it.

A Sector Search.

A Sector Search.

If you lose sight of the MOB

Maybe it’s nighttime and the MOB is out of sight within seconds, or perhaps you had them in sight but lost them. This is an entirely different MOB situation, and your checklist should change, accordingly.

1. Throw lighted flotation devices overboard

If you saw the person go over at night but can’t see them, throw flotation devices overboard, but also throw lighted flotation devices. Once that’s done, and if you still can’t see them, this is when you grab the VHF radio.

2. Call For Help

Activate the MOB button, activate your DSC VHF radio, call in a mayday. This is not a pan-pan; this is a true emergency. This situation is the most dangerous in boating and a true distress situation. If there is more than one of you left aboard, the non-operator calls in a mayday and works the VHF as the operator moves to on to the next step.

3. Start looking

Slowly maneuver the vessel to the most likely location of the victim and come to a stop while calling out for and listening for a response. Search all quadrants while calling out in all directions and listening for a response. If you hear or see nothing, move on to the next step.

4. Figure out your drift

Determine your vessel’s drift (direction and rate). If you threw that lighted flotation, this is 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.

5. Maneuver, call out and listen

Maneuver slowly in the direction of the drift while keeping sharp lookout. You may want to start a sector search (see diagram above). Move slowly and remember to listen. And think — what would you do if you went over and you knew the boat lost you? Would you have tried to make it back to that last buoy or daymarker? Maybe they would have, as well.

6. Search and wait

Continue to search and wait for instructions from the Coast Guard. By this time, they will have assets on the way to join the search.

Make no mistake, losing sight of a crewmember over the side can quickly make the list of the worst days of your life, and that’s if you're lucky enough to get them back. Unfortunately, most don’t make it back to the boat. Train to recognize the difference between the two types of MOB situations and how to treat each of them. Make these procedures your own by adjusting them for your vessel and boating activities, and practice them during your drills.



Why Go It Alone?

Self-reliance is one thing many boat owners embrace, but that ethos could get you into trouble, writes Mario Vittone. p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; line-height: 11.0px; font: 39.5px 'Meta Serif Pro'} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; line-height: 11.0px; font: 9.0px 'Meta Serif Pro'} p.p3 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: justify; text-indent: 8.0px; line-height: 11.0px; font: 9.0px 'Meta Serif Pro'} span.s1 {letter-spacing: 0.6px} span.s2 {letter-spacing: 0.1px} T here was a time when leaving sight of land came with a good chance of never seeing it again. Before the invention of the marine chronometer to determine longitude, going over the horizon was a risky move. Even with accurate charts and a watch, the sea remained deadly; so deadly that the raised platforms known as widow’s walks on New England homes got their name from the sea captains’ wives, who would pace their rooftops, looking seaward for ships that never returned. Without VHF radios or radar, anyone who sailed offshore was truly on his own. Self-reliance wasn’t a romantic, Emersonian notion; it was a condition. Sailors had only themselves. I’ve met countless sailors who do their best to hold on to the traditional notion of being on their own out there. They speak of self-reliance as part of the appeal of being far offshore, alone in the world with only their skill and wits to protect them. They speak of it as a decision they made to be independent. When I was working in search and rescue, these sailors were the ones who always called at the last possible minute; but they always called. These are the guys who often say silly things like, “Never step off until you have to step up.” They were the first ones to send hate mail when I suggested that being alone in a life raft without having made a distress call meant a sailor had screwed up (“The Truth About Survival Training,” August 2019). “What about a lighting strike that causes a fire?” one man complained. “I guess you’ve never heard of anyone hitting a deadhead in the middle of the night,” another offered. Those who fancy themselves to be like the sailors of yore said I was wrong. Self-reliance, they wanted; blame, not so much. Now, I’m no sailor. While I do love boats and have spent a few years working on them, the bulk of my exposure to modern boating has been through search and rescue. For a long time, I was only on boats that were in distress following a call for help. Perhaps that skews me to one side of this argument, but given that experience, I believe this: The idea that you are self-reliant out there can get you killed, while the idea that everything is your fault is vital to your safety. We are connected in ways our great-great-grandfathers could never have imagined. Our radios can talk to each other. Our boats have alarms and pumps connected to apps on phones. We do not watch from rooftops for sails on the horizon; we log on to websites for real-time information. We are not alone out there anymore. But, make mistakes at sea, and you will, one way or another, invite people ashore to join you in your “self-reliant” adventure. We must never lose the sense of absolute personal responsibility for our own safety. There are rare situations where lightning strikes and submerged containers cause unforeseeable situations, but they are no reason to abandon modern tools and procedures. We don’t take off our seat belts just because there is only a slim chance that oncoming traffic may swerve into our lane. The answer to the rare disaster we can’t predict in boating is a float plan and communication prior to the mishap. I think the last great gains to be made in boating safety are in how we think about being on the water. If you still believe in self-reliance, then Godspeed, but keep your VHF radio on, if only so that your loved ones aren’t walking the rooftops, hoping for your return.


The Most Common At-Sea Emergency

Read the U.S. Coast Guard’s annual boating statistics and you would think it never happens; the most common reason a boater calls Mayday, the topic of so many news stories involving rescue, the thing that many maritime rescuers respond to most of the time barely gets a mention.