Man overboard – practical steps to ensure survival

By John Martin, Island Cruising Association

You’d think the most likely time someone would fall overboard at sea was in bad weather with rough seas and a pitching, heaving vessel… you’d be wrong!

There’s no question that men are more likely to go over the side than women. Now this is not, as you may have first thought, a sexist comment, but rather the nature of the male beast. There are more MOBs recovered with their fly undone than in any other state – the reason obvious. Unfortunately this action also accounts for many going over the side without a harness or anyone else on deck at the time. We’ll call that the Darwin effect.

For the rest of the unfortunate MOBs, much is down to your watch rules and the person most likely to be on deck doing the work. On our boat that’s me, the bloke – I’m definitely stronger than Lyn and therefore better suited to the manual type of work required, in most instances, at the mast or on the foredeck. But again going forward to do foredeck or mast work is less likely to cause an accidental MOB than say something as benign as standing at the bow going through a reef pass or well out to sea going forward to watch Dolphins frolic in your bow wave. At least if you go over in that instance you’d have company, less likely is you’ve gone forward wearing your safety gear.

 And herein lies the problem. Your chances of survival will drop dramatically without the right gear! Not being tethered you will definitely NOT stay with the boat – whether that’s a good thing or bad we’ll discuss later. If you’re not wearing a life vest or harness, two things; you’ll get red quickly and you’ll be much harder to see. So what does that mean; going red quickly will mean you have less energy at the time you will most need it, at recovery, when you’ll need to help your partner by assisting with the climb out of the water. Visually a deployed life vest is very much easier to see from a distance than a bobbing head. Try it – pitch a coconut over the side, don’t look at it for ten seconds and then try and find it. On the converse, throw over something a bit bigger that’s bright orange to see the difference.

Put some watch rules in place, if you’re going forward at all, have someone in the cockpit at all times. It’s up to the skipper to decide when it’s mandatory to wear harnesses, tethers and all the gear, unfortunately for them, they’re the most likely to go overboard in the first place. On Wind Flower, Lyn is always in the cockpit when I go on deck and its mandatory to wear all the gear, every time when we’re at sea.

 So someone’s gone overboard – the choices they have made first up will determine their survival, as will the choices you make from here. Is the MOB tethered? Has he/she a tether cutter? Do they have an AIS MOB device, self-activating on deployment of their vest? From your perspective, if you’re left alone aboard (short-handed, two-up crew make up 80% to 90% of cruising boat crews), can you slow the boat down quickly enough if your MOB is still attached to the boat? A recent survey by PBO magazine indicated that the helmsman has less than two minutes to get the boat stationary if a tethered MOB was to have any chance of survival (hence the use of a tether cutter – a number of safety manufactures make a specific tool for this). Even if you can stop, can you then dump the sails and do you have some way of getting your victim back aboard?

If your MOB has cut his tether or wasn’t tethered in the first place then you’re now in a different scenario.

Case 1 – your MOB has no safety gear. This is your worst-case scenario. Forget the sails, forget slowing the boat down, you’re first priority is to:

a. Mark the location by deploying a Danbuoy.
b. Get the boat back to the victim in the shortest possible time, while you can still see them.

There are many strategies for completing this maneuver. Much depends on the point of sailing you’re on and the sea conditions. While many of these exercises vary, practice makes perfect. It’s been my experience that to expedite recovery it’s best to lay the vessel to windward and allow it to drift down on the MOB. Several reasons – the MOB is now in the lee; the position of the boat can be controlled with a bit of throttle in either forward or reverse; and the boat will likely be healing toward the MOB, making recovery easier. That is of course presuming you were able to keep an eye on your MOB as you did all this and arrived back at his or her position at the first attempt. If not then a whole new set of choices comes into play and you may at this point need to regroup, re-plan and involve others.

Case 2 – Your MOB has all the safety gear and your AIS is screaming at you. It may be prudent to do a bit of prep work first. Dumping the sails will make placing the boat in a position to begin recovery and the actual recovery of your MOB much easier. You may wish to do your emergency return maneuver first, to place you close to the MOB, but be wary of colliding with the person at any speed. You will also find the information given by the AIS easier to assimilate if the vessel is moving in one direction, giving steady GPS course and speed. If so your AIS will give you clear direction and distance information to your closest point of approach.

If you’ve chosen to travel in a group, whether this is an organised event or rally, or in loose consort with a couple of friends in their own boats, you now have a significant advantage. Vessels equipped with AIS that are close to you and have picked up the MOB distress signal, know you have a problem, will likely be close enough to assist quickly and more important have more crew available to help recover the MOB. Put some scenarios in place before you head to sea. If you’re in a group, for example, the last thing the remaining crew aboard the MOB’s vessel needs to do is get bogged down with calls on the VHF – a quick call to the boat to say you’re on the way and don’t bother to respond unless you need to – will raise their morale and you can then start coordinating with any other vessels also in a position to help. With AIS you should be able to see the event unfolding in real time.

Your sails are down, you’re in position and your MOB is alongside, now what? Again you’ve got choices and these are going to be influenced by the health of the MOB. First up though, BE CAREFUL, regardless if it’s a loved one you’re desperate to get back aboard, stop and think – the last thing you want is two of you in the water. By practicing in advance you should already have a clear idea of what works on your boat and be able to put this in place quickly.

A few things to avoid in the recovery of an MOB

Never go overboard yourself to assist the MOB – essentially you’ll then have two MOBs in the water instead of one. Even in a situation where you have more than one additional crew-member to assist, please resist the urge to put a swimmer in the water. If you still need to get to someone and you can’t get the boat close and you’ve got spare crew; deploy your life raft, tether that to the boat and let that drift down on the MOB.

Some books and articles recommend bringing the MOB to the back of the boat for recovery. I disagree for two reasons. I believe this to be the most dangerous place on the boat, particularly when you’re in a seaway and laying a-hull. If the person gets sucked under the stern and the next wave drops the boat on them it’s lights out. You’ll also find it hard to rig a lifting strop at the stern as a halyard will want to pull forwards, again exacerbating the under-the-stern problem. This is particularly problematic on many modern cats where the topsides are high and recovery alongside is difficult.

Bringing an MOB over the side allows easier hoisting set up and better protection for the MOB. Think about these points before heading to sea.

  • How are you going to attach your hoist to the MOB’s harness?
  • Will you need to deploy a secondary MOB device to assist recovery?
  • Can a section of lifelines be dropped to aid recovery?
  • Is your hoist line able to be handled by the weakest person aboard?
  • Is your MOB able to assist in the recovery?
  • If your MOB is able to assist then either a life sling or even the harness he’s wearing will do – make sure he’s wearing a crutch strap as you pass him the clip though and be prepared for the worst wedgie ever!

Possibly a better alternative would be a recovery device, for example a Jonbuoy Recovery Module, your MOB can climb into. Many come with a tall inflated structure that has the lifting straps well above water level making attaching your hoist clip more accessible, these devices also keep the person, mainly, out of the water making hypothermia less of a problem.

In the case of an MOB that’s not able to assist there are other devices that can be used, my pick of these would be the Marcusnet devise that also doubles as a scramble net or the Sea Scoopa but from experience there are few cruisers that go that far. Worst case your storm jib can be rigged to do the same job.

Your Safety Professional Safety at Sea has the product knowledge and experience to best advise you on setting up your safety regimes and gear.

Think of an MOB recovery as being like a military engagement, you’ll hear Generals say, plan, plan and plan again but they all know after the first contact these plans go to hell, so, obey my first rule of MOB – DON’T GO OVER THE SIDE!!

About the Island Cruising Association

Their motto is “We make Cruising more Fun” but there’s a serious side too. ICA offers an ever-growing knowledge base of cruising resources and information specific to Extended Coastal (New Zealand and a developing section on Australia) and Offshore, with an emphasis on the South West Pacific. They offer a wide range of fun events, cruising rallies, training, practical demonstrations, on the water preparation and backup to assist cruisers to “get out there”. Upcoming events include the CPS (Cruising Prep Seminar) in Brisbane and Cairns in June/July 2016; Multihull Solutions Sail2Indonesia Rally and Doyle South Pacific Rally in June 2016; and the Doyle Pacific Circuit Rally on again in 2017.

Membership in the Island Cruising Association is NZ$65.00 per year and membership gives you access to the entire knowledge base.

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