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Crew Overboard Insights

Last weekend [October 2015], I was asked to take part in US Sailing’s National Faculty during their annual meeting. My goal was to create a “unit” in US Sailing’s Safety at Sea Course on Crew Overboard, and this required that I come up with a plan on how to explain this challenging seamanship problem to sailors of all backgrounds.

I won’t go into too much detail in this document, as this is supposed to be a safety moment, not a safety eternity. But I have culled some of the most important points from this weekend to share with you.

Virtually all crew overboard incidents involve four stages: initial steps, maneuvering, contacting, and reboarding.

Initial steps are the same for all rescues:

  1. Shout “man overboard!” to alert the crew, including those off-watch.
  2. Throw flotation to mark the site, and possibly to provide flotation to the swimmer.
  3. Appoint a “spotter” to point to the person in water, or his/her last position.
  4. Store the GPS position. It’s a good idea to post the instructions at the nav station so anyone can do this.
  5. Consider broadcasting a Mayday if the conditions are not conducive to a fast rescue.
  6. Finally, the skipper should clearly communicate the maneuver to be used, and what to expect as the rescue proceeds.

Maneuvering depends on a several factors: point of sail and number of crew are the most critical. If the boat is sailing upwind, the key issue is to get downwind of the victim without losing sight of him or her; luckily, sail handling is simplified because the vessel has her sails selected for high apparent winds. However, if the vessel is sailing downwind, sail area must be struck, whether it’s in the form of poled-out genoas, or asymmetrical cruising kits, or modern downwind “genoas” or classic spinnakers. This has to happen before the vessel can return to the swimmer, which is why a good GPS waypoint is critical since you’ll likely sail out of sight of the swimmer.

What if you’re the only one left on board? In that case, you need to slow the boat and to carefully strike sails. Poled out headsails may create the greatest challenge due to the weight and size of the pole or poles and sails. One method is to let the sheets run out sufficient to allow the poles to touch the headstay, then to disconnect the poles and lower them on deck. Certainly easier said than done.

Regardless of the original point of sail, you must approach the person in the water from leeward

Regardless of the original point of sail, you must approach the person in the water from leeward, generally on a close reach so that you can control the speed of approach. Beam reaching past the person may give you a chance to shout “Hello!”, but you’ll never kill the vessel’s speed in time to stop.

Contacting actually means avoiding contact, at least solid contact, with the person in the water. Ideally, you would use a throw rope bag, a Lifesling, or possibly a ring or horseshoe that is connected to the vessel. This allows you the opportunity to stop your boat a safe distance away from the person in the water.

Hoisting or reboarding is frequently given short shrift because sailors have an optimistic idea of the difficulty of getting someone back on board. In a seaway, ladders are completely ineffective and can injure the victim. Ideally, she or he can be hoisted aboard using a Lifesling or other hoisting device connected to a halyard. The halyard, if used by itself, must be able to reach the waterline, and should be led to the largest self-tailing winch available.

MOB Beacon
A beacon such as this can make it easier to find the MOB

As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, faster boats may require more time, and therefore much greater distances, prior to returning to a person in the water. Sails have to be struck methodically, and frequently after summoning the off-watch on deck. The distance between the victim and vessel could extend to several miles on certain types of boats. The only answer in this case is to both have a starting position stored on the GPS, as well as have a transmitter on the crewmember. Modern crew overboard transmitters send out signals on both AIS frequencies as well as VHF DSC frequencies, allowing the rescuing vessel to have an updated position at up to one-mile range.

Ideally, none of this would be necessary: we’d use good techniques to stay on deck, be clipped in, and not put ourselves in harm’s way. But we can’t depend on those circumstances, so we practice picking up fenders and buckets, and we drill our crews on how to store MOB waypoints. We do this because we love to go to sea, and we want everyone to come home, as well.