SailNet originally published this article in January, 2000.
I have been swimming in the Puerto Rican Trench for years. My commute as a delivery skipper commonly covers the well-worn route between the Caribbean Islands and the US East Coast, which passes directly over the only 30,000 foot depths in the Atlantic. It is both thrilling and chilling to plunge into the purplish depths knowing that the hard stuff is more than five and a half miles below. However, these brief dips are restricted to fair weather and conducted with considerable caution: the sails are completely furled to eliminate forward motion, a stout boarding ladder is deployed, a line and float are trailed astern, all but the strongest swimmers wear PFDs, and one crew member is always aboard. Going overboard in an emergency, when the ocean is dark and angry and the boat is bucking about like a spastic blue whale, is another matter entirely.
Whenever I set off on a voyage with new crew, I cast aside my joking, panglossian nature, and with all the seriousness I can muster I talk about the single most important aspect of offshore sailing—staying aboard the boat. Sure, I have a plan for manoverboard retrieval and everyone on board knows how to hit the MOB button on the GPS, but the stark reality is that it's incredibly dangerous to fall off a boat at sea. The odds of rescue are not good. Most yachts sail with minimal crew and often times the watch keeper is alone on deck. In many cases, by the time a retrieval mission is launched, the person in the water is already out of sight.
New crew always give me their complete attention when I relate my one experience with a MOB. We were sailing a Hans Christian 43 north from the Virgin Islands in fair but breezy conditions. The cook, a salty, experienced hand, hated the head and she was using the boomkin astern to relieve herself. Naturally, those of us in the cockpit were looking the other way when we heard a faint cry for help. In a flash she was overboard and we were charging away from her at six knots. The mate dashed forward to drop the headsails (we didn't have roller furling) as I frantically freed the preventer, hauled in the mainsheet, and brought the boat through the wind. I then fired up the engine and we started back to retrieve our soggy shipmate.
Where was she? We had committed the cardinal blunder; during the confusion of coming about we had lost sight of her. The whitecapped seas were no more than four to six feet and yet we couldn't spot her. I could feel the panic spawning in my stomach when the mate yelled out, "There she is!" We motored back to her, came in upwind to create a lee and hauled her aboard. She was much less shaken than we were, but those terrible 10 minutes convinced me that staying on the boat was pretty damned important.
So, you ask, why am I writing an article about how to go overboard at sea? There are two answers. First, sometimes it is simply unavoidable and your life may depend on it. And secondly, I have never seen anything written on the subject.
A few years ago I was delivering a 44-foot motorsailor across the Atlantic. The leg from Miami to Bermuda was glorious, but leg two out to the Azores was the opposite. We endured day after day of an unlikely easterly gale. To make any headway in the right direction, we needed the assist of both small diesels. Just before dark the starboard engine abruptly shut down. A lazy sheet had been sloppily coiled, washed overboard, and wrapped around the prop. This was not an emergency, although there was considerable strain on the shaft. All the usual tricks—rotating the shaft from below, trying to start the engine in reverse and pulling on the sheet like mad—failed to free it. I was uneasy about leaving the wrap through the night and decided to heave-to and go overboard.
From previous experience I knew that I could not wear a PFD, which prevents you from diving below the surface, so I launched a float line astern and rigged up the boarding ladder. I admit, I was reluctant to take the plunge. The seas suddenly seemed huge. But it was getting darker by the moment and I finally leaped overboard armed with a waterproof flashlight and a sharp knife. It is critical to keep away from the hull when you are in the water. My preliminary dive revealed that the entire length of exposed shaft, maybe three feet, was tightly wrapped. I dove again, searching for the end of the sheet, only to find that it was completely over-wrapped just as I was running out of air. The plunging stern nearly smacked my head as I struggled to the surface.
I was exhausted and floated back to the buoyed line trailing astern to ponder my next move. Although heaving-to helps create a lee, the boat was still pitching considerably and it was very difficult to tread water in the gale-force conditions. I knew that I only had a few more dives in me. I took a deep breath and dove for where I thought the end of the line was. Clutching the shaft, I slashed frantically with my serrated knife blade before darting up for air. The crew pulled from the deck and the sheet finally ran free.
My last task was to get back aboard. I cursed the excessive freeboard as I eased toward the boat amidships, where the ladder was mounted. Timing the wave action just right, I grabbed the ladder as the boat heeled and hauled myself up. The crew was surprised at how thoroughly whipped I was as I had only been in the water a few minutes. Swimming in large seas requires significantly more energy than splashing about in calm waters.
Another transatlantic passage I made also required quick emergency overboard action. I was delivering a modern schooner to France and we were easing along under full sail in light conditions. I had just started the engine to charge the batteries. Delivery skippers hate to waste fuel so naturally I put the engine in gear. A horrible noise followed and I immediately dashed below. The stern tube, the structural part of the boat that supports the stuffing box sometimes called the shaft log, had cracked in half. Water was suddenly pouring into the boat through a three-inch hole!
I tried to stuff towels and rags into the hole, the swiftly flowing seawater immediately forced them out. I mixed up a batch of underwater epoxy but there was no way to keep the epoxy in place around the shaft. The truth was, we were sinking. Our only option was to work from the outside. Unfortunately, we were not prepared for going overboard at all. The masks were well tucked away, as was the boarding ladder. The electric bilge pumps couldn't get even close to keeping up with the leak and by the time we dove overboard, the water was over the floorboards.
The mate and I made repeated dives, packing rags around the shaft and using bungy cords to wrap plastic bags around the makeshift patch. For the next three days we made two or three dives each, to check and adjust the patch. By the time Bermuda loomed ahead we were specialists on going overboard in a variety of conditions. We had learned to float life jackets astern, so that when we needed rest, we could slip into a PFD while clutching the trailing line that was buoyed with a fender. We rigged up the boarding ladder astern which made climbing back aboard much easier. Finally, we learned to tie an easy opening bag around our waists to carry our supplies, thus keeping our hands free. It would have been great to have dive gear aboard also, so that we could have spent more time working underwater. But we also knew that in all but the calmest conditions, or unless your stern has a boarding platform, it is very difficult to hoist tanks and gear back aboard.
In the final analysis, you should only go overboard when there are no other options. When that moment of emergency arises, like everything else in life, it's better to be prepared.
Tips for Going Overboard
Just as you must assume that one day you'll encounter heavy weather, you should also assume that one day you will have to go overboard. And, just like the necessity of an abandon ship bag, every vessel should have an emergency repair bag as well. In that you should include a mask, snorkel, sharp serrated knife, a tube of quick setting underwater epoxy, rags, bungy cords, and a few basic tools (like a screwdriver). If you scuba dive, a small pony bottle, and regulator would be a useful addition.
While you're still on board, try to determine how far you will need to dive below the waterline. If the leak or problem is not low on the hull, the first thing you should do is put on a PFD. Unfortunately, if the leak is low on the hull, a PFD will prevent you from diving deep.
Launch a buoyed float astern, preferably with floating line. A large fender works well as a buoy and polyester line floats. Also, launch a PFD, or horseshoe style float on a separate line aft. If your boat does not have an aft boarding platform or stern step, try to rig the boarding ladder as far aft as possible, preferably on the transom.
If there is any sea running, heave-to before going overboard. Once the boat is hove-to, it will create a slick to weather and a lee downwind, making it easier to work and climb back aboard. Although the boat may have a bit of forward motion, it will be much steadier in the water than a boat lying ahull.
Once you're in the water, keep your distance from the hull, especially if there are large seas running. Begin your dives well outboard of the hull and be sure to push off and swim as far away from the hull as possible before coming up for air.
For your tools and repair materials, rig an easy-to-open bag that you can tie around your waist. If you need to work with tools underwater, rig short lanyards and tie them to your wrists.
While working, don't waste energy. Work efficiently in the water and take time to rest. Don't underestimate how exhausting it is to tread water in even moderate seas. And save some strength for getting back aboard. Of course you should always have someone aboard keeping a close watch on the person in the water.
As a last resort, or if the project is going to take a lot of time, launch the inflatable dinghy as a platform from which to work.
Modern Crew Overboard Rescues by John Rousmaniere
Crew Overboard Gear by Tom Wood
Crew Safety Briefing by Liza Copeland
Buying Guide: Personal Flotation Devices