People often ask, “Is it hard to rescue someone who falls off a boat?” Yes, because it requires extensive training. The second scariest moment on a boat is to hear the dreaded words, “Man Overboard!” Fortunately, trained sailors can execute maneuvers to turn the boat and go back for the rescue. It can take as little as 90 seconds. Don’t panic. Think.
One precaution is to make sure everyone is wearing a life preserver. That way, they stand a much better chance of bobbing about in the water and avoid drowning. We can’t find you if we can’t see you. That’s why PFDs are bright orange.
The quickest way to stop a boat under sail is to Hove-To. Tack into the wind like normal but don’t release the jib sheets. The boat will quickly stop, giving everyone a moment to collect their thoughts and form a plan of action.
The American Sailing Association teaches the Figure 8 maneuver (see video). Immediately go from close reach to beam reach and then broad reach. Tack and proceed to an imaginary spot three boat lengths downwind of the MOB. At the appropriate moment, turn upwind and coast gently to the victim. It’s important to approach at dead slow speed so as not to bonk him on the head. It doesn’t matter which side you approach.
Then the big trick is pulling the victim aboard. It’s great if you have a swing arm such as a dinghy davit to deploy, but most sailboats don’t have that. Or do they? On Let’s Go Sail, the boom blocks are detachable to swing out over the water and pull someone in. A detachable mainsheet serves the same purpose but lacks and three-to-one purchase, requiring a lot of heaving by the crew. The secret is to use the winch since the mainsheet is right there anyway.
God forbid a young child falls overboard, because Mom will instinctively jump in the water to rescue him. Be prepared to grab Mom around the waist before she can react. We don’t need but one MOB to challenge the crew.
Wait. If Man Overboard is the second scariest moment on a boat, what’s first? Sinking.
Consider Your First Steps Before The Worst Happens, from Boat US Magazine
If you have an MOB, the following basic procedure needs to happen immediately. To prevent confusion from impeding swift action, practice. But remember, your exact actions must depend on many variables.
1. The instant someone falls overboard, yell “Man overboard!” to alert crew to the emergency, and establish an unceasing visual on the victim. If you have enough crew, assign this job to one person and let nothing interfere with that person keeping the victim in sight and pointing at the victim from that first moment on.
2. If you’re unsure of where the person is or if there is a chance the props could endanger him, stop the boat and ensure that the props don’t injure the victim now or later.
3. Activate your GPS MOB button if you have one.
4. Throw MOB gear, life jackets, flotation cushions anything that will help the victim float and help you keep track of him, but not so much as to confuse a search.
5. Return to and attempt to retrieve the victim. Several alternative methods are illustrated on these pages and discussed in the next section.
6. If the situation is life-threatening, call mayday three times on VHF 16. Then say, “Man overboard,” and give your location, boat description, and the description of the victim. Do this three times in succession. Don’t hesitate to issue a mayday you can always cancel it if you get the person back aboard safely.
Sea and wind state: When you get closer to the victim, determine how much and how fast the wind and sea are pushing your boat, which is having the most effect, and how fast you’re drifting. If the sea is rough, it may be dangerous to come alongside the victim, especially if he’s exhausted or injured. Go slowly. If he does not have flotation, try to toss him a flotation and/or retrieval device as you approach.
Water temperature: Sudden cold-water immersion can cause involuntary gasp reflex or cardiac arrest. Often a surprised MOB victim will instinctively gasp and suck in a large volume of water, which could lead to drowning. Also, a victim’s loss of body heat may weaken and disorient him, limiting his ability to swim or help in his rescue. The victim should try to maintain core body heat for as long as possible by keeping his arms down and crossed, and knees bent up to his chest, if possible. Wearing a life jacket helps the victim’s odds significantly.
Physical condition of victim: Excess weight, poor swimming ability, panic, lack of arm strength, injury, hypothermia, and other factors make retrieval extremely challenging. The person in the boat may need special equipment or assistance to get the victim aboard.
Skill, size, and ability of person(s) aboard: One person aboard a high-freeboard boat may find it almost impossible to get a victim aboard, particularly if either person isn’t in good physical condition, or if the larger and/or more skilled person is in the water. Think about an alternative, such as a Lifesling, or another system that could work on your particular boat. Visibility:
Take a look around. If visibility is poor, slow down and make sure you know where the victim is. If an approaching fog bank or squall could reduce visibility soon, get back to the victim before you lose sight of him.
Other boats: If you’re in a rough inlet with many boats racing past, position your boat to protect the victim and begin visual warning signaling. In some cases, it may be prudent to wait for help before you begin retrieval. One example would be if you were alone on board and another boat nearby with strong experienced swimmers and retrieval gear responded to your distress call and was on their way to the scene.
Let’s Go Sail to Execute Man Overboard
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man overboard man overboard man overboard man overboard
Fortunately, trained sailors can execute maneuvers to turn the boat and go back for the rescue. It can take as little as 90 seconds. Don't panic. Think.
Capt. Bill O'Donovan
Williamsburg Charter Sails