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Overboard Recovery: Avoiding Running Over the Victim

After several fatal short-handed crew overboard incidents involving members of the Sailing Foundation in Seattle, three of the members (Fred Hayes, Dick Marshall, Doug Fryer) began to search for a solution to short-handed overboard accidents. Their research into accidents, both successfully and unsuccessfully executed, found that a consistent theme for recreational boaters was that the skipper or the more experienced sailor was likely to be the one who went overboard. Thus, the technique for rescuing the PIW (person in water) needed to be consistent with the capabilities of crewmembers with limited sailing abilities; the second-in-command.

They concluded that one could not depend that the rescuer could maneuver a boat consistently to within swimming distance of a person in the water. Experienced sailors know that this takes a lot of judgment, especially with different boats, different wind conditions, and different sail configurations. Imagine that your life depending on a sailing companion sailing close enough that you could swim to the boat, consistently, in all conditions. The need to accommodate less than precise approaches led to the idea of towing a buoyant collar behind the boat, as if bringing a towrope handle back to a fallen water-skier.

As the rescuing vessel circled the PIW (Person In Water), even in large imprecise circles, the tendency of the Lifesling to “cut the corner” and seek out the swimmer in the center made it possible to reliably deliver the Lifesling and its life-saving flotation. And, presuming the first attempt to circle the victim doesn’t get the job done, it’s a simple matter to make a second pass, or a third pass, without losing the gear. This effective skill simultaneously provides flotation and connects the PIW to the vessel; a “two-fer” that can be lifesaving.

We know of several instances where extremely competent sailors who, in a heroic attempt to recover a PIW, have accidently struck the sailor, possibly exacerbating an already grim circumstance. Sailors frequently fall overboard when conditions are not conducive to precise boat maneuvering, and the tendency for racing sailboats to have the maximum amount of sail bent on makes a bad situation worse. Modern maxi boat crews have realized this and now customarily have a “swimmer of the watch” identified at all times, and s/he utilizes specialized clothing and gear so that he can affect a rescue nearly instantly. These boats don’t use a Lifesling per se, but they do avoid close-by maneuvering by approaching the PIW a boatlength or more away, and using the rescue swimmer to bring a small spectra line to the PIW. As soon as the rescue swimmer has the PIW in his grasp, a halyard it snapped onto the retrieval line, and it is hoisted, bringing both the rescue swimmer and PIW alongside the maxi. This eliminates the need to maneuver a 70 or 100’ sailboat near someone in the water, and the subsequent risk of striking them or running them over.

If you don’t have a swimmer of the watch or a Lifesling, a simple and inexpensive throw rope bag is effective for connecting the swimmer to the vessel. These are able to be thrown 50-70 feet, and are even able to be thrown upwind if necessary. The line floats which makes it easier for the PIW to locate on the surface of the water. While it takes a while to repack a throw rope bag, having a second one, perhaps on the other side of the cockpit, gives you a second try when seconds count.

Whether sailors use the Lifesling technique, the Swimmer of the Watch technique, or simply practice their skill at using a throw rope bag, they need to have a way to consistently make contact with a PIW, without actually making contact with them. It’s a skill that demands practice, communication, and the right gear.