A mariner’s three greatest fears are fire, sinking, and the frightening event that I’ll talk about this month. It’s traditionally known as "man overboard," but more accurately called "crew overboard." Thanks to the recent efforts of many sailors and researchers, today we have far more reliable equipment and techniques for crew overboard (COB) rescues than what was available a generation ago. The prospect of effecting a quick rescue may be so daunting that many people can’t imagine pulling it off. But as with most big problems, this one becomes manageable when broken down into a few small steps—in this case, five of them.
1. Quickly turn back.
2. Get buoyancy to the COB.
3. Stop the boat.
4. Make physical contact with the COB.
5. Get the COB back on board.
Anybody who can command sailors through a simple tack or jibe should be able to lead a rescue of a crew member who has gone overboard using the above steps which I’ll discuss in a moment. First, let’s reflect on the context and some particular questions. Although we tend to think of crew overboard in terms of big boats (like the one off which the world’s most famous ocean racer, Eric Tabarly, fell to his death two years ago), the fact is that anybody can fall off any boat at any time. The smaller the boat, the more likely the tumble. The only boats I’ve fallen off were less than 26 feet, and I once picked up a guy whose rubber dinghy had flipped.
Whatever the boat’s size, self-rescue is almost impossible unless the boat’s freeboard measures in inches (as on a dinghy or sailboard). From the point of view of a drenched person treading water, a small daysailer’s deck two feet above the water is no less an Everest than the towering rail of a 40-foot cruiser.
If you do fall in, immediately make sure people know it (this is why I carry a whistle in my foul-weather jacket). Then concentrate on conserving your energy. Swimming after the boat almost certainly will be counterproductive. In a test at the US Naval Academy, midshipmen in foul-weather suits and boots tried to swim the length of a pool. None of these extremely fit young women and men could swim even 50 feet, and some couldn’t get as far as 10 feet. You might be able to kick off your seaboots, but if you think you can pull off your foul-weather jacket and pants, please remember how hard that task is when you’re out of the water.
Obviously, then, the rescue is in the hands of the crew on deck. They must act expeditiously. The rougher and colder the water, the quicker the rescuers must act before drowning occurs or hypothermia sets in.
One question always asked at safety-at-sea seminars is whether a recovery should be made under power or under sail. There are absolutists on both sides of this question. While I prefer sail, I take the middle position that it depends on the boat, the situation, and the crew’s experience. Surely a turning propeller may snag lines or injure the COB, and a number of attempted rescues under power have had tragic results. But in very light or very strong winds, or with a sluggish boat, powering may be the only way to get to the COB quickly and accurately. If you do return under power, you must be extremely
careful to keep the propeller well away from the swimmer — and remember to take the engine out of gear when near the COB or when lines are in the water. (One tactic to consider is to stop the boat about 20 feet upwind of the COB, take the engine out of gear, and throw a line or Lifesling downwind.)
Now let’s turn to the five steps I mentioned earlier:
1. Quickly turn back to keep the COB in sight and nearby. The chances of a recovery plummet if the person in the water can’t be seen. That will happen within less than 100 yards because a head in the water is about the size, shape, and color of a half-submerged coconut. At a speed of only three knots, a boat will cover those 100 yards in just a minute. So it’s crucial to stop the boat’s forward progress by at least luffing into the wind or, better, by tacking back. Don’t jibe. Why? A jibe can be dangerous, it eats up lots of distance, and it may leave you with a beat back to the COB.
Assign a crew member to stand in the cockpit in a place visible to the driver and point at the COB. At night, throw buoyant flashlights or strobe lights into the water to create a trail back to the swimmer. Meanwhile, shout encouragement to the COB. People who have survived falling overboard report that there is no despair quite like the one of watching helplessly as the boat sails away with no sign that anybody knows the crew is one sailor short.
Two good methods for turning back and making rescues under sail or power are the quick-stop and the reach-and-reach (also called the figure 8), shown in these drawings from the new edition of The Annapolis Book of Seamanship.
The quick-stop works under sail or power and it’s the method I prefer. What you do is tack the boat immediately and begin sailing tight circles around the swimmer with the sails trimmed flat. It’s important not to ease the sheets or tack the jib—this is a crucial part of the maneuver. A backed jib quickens the turn and slows the boat, and a tight mainsheet keeps the boom from banging around and injuring crew members. You don’t want to be distracted by sheets or the boom while concentrating on the rescue. Because the boat should make tight turns, the quick-stop may not work well in light winds or with heavy boats. But a boat can do a quick-stop maneuver even with its spinnaker flying. What you do in this case is head into the wind right away and then ease the spinnaker pole forward to the headstay and drop the chute rapidly. Most likely the kite will be wet, but it will also be doused.
The reach-and-reach (or figure 8)
may work better than the quick-stop in light or strong winds, and with boats that don’t tack quickly. (Practice and experience will tell you which tactic works best for your boat.) After the person has gone over, turn the boat onto a beam reach briefly (less than 20 seconds), and then tack and reach back for the same amount of time, always aiming downwind of the COB. When the boat gets exactly downwind of the target, head up into the wind. This avoids a jibe, which (again) consumes time and distance and is dangerous in a fresh wind.
- Get buoyancy to the COB as soon as possible, before and while turning back. Immediately throw cockpit and seat cushions and life rings—anything and everything—to the COB.
- Stop the boat. Under sail or power, come to a halt or a near-halt within 20 feet of the COB. One way is to sail alongside on a close-hauled course with the sails luffing, almost like picking up a mooring. Or the boat can be made to lie stationary upwind of the COB with the sails luffing, doused, or rolled up.
- Make physical contact with the COB either with a heaving line or by stopping the boat alongside the person. A valuable skill here is to be able to accurately heave a sheet or other line 20 feet or farther. Some dedicated heaving lines can be thrown very accurately; good boats store them near the helm. If the boat is stopped upwind, a Lifesling can be let down to the COB.
- Get the COB back on board. This is often the most difficult step. It can be extremely difficult to haul an exhausted person who is weighed down by soaking clothes up and over the topsides. Many rescues have reached this stage only to fail. If the COB is strong and agile, he or she can climb up a swimming ladder or a step improvised by dropping over a line with a bowline tied in its end. Or try the elevator recovery. Tie the bitter end of a long line near the bow (say at the bow cleat), drape the line along the topsides, and, near the stern, lead it through a block to a winch. The COB, hanging onto the rail or lifelines, steps on the line with both feet. The crew on deck pulls on the line, which lifts the COB. For this method, however, the COB must be strong and agile.
Of course, not every COB will be able to help his or her rescuers. A helpless COB could be grabbed by several people and manhandled onto the deck. But what does a typical small crew do? For this we are blessed to have the Lifesling, an essential safety device that was invented by the Sailing Foundation in Seattle, WA, specifically for the "mom-and-pop" situation where a small, solitary person must recover a larger COB.
The method is simple enough to be described on the Lifesling’s yellow or white pouch. Here’s a summary: (1) a buoyant yoke is trailed from the boat at the end of a line as the boat circles the COB; (2) after the COB grabs the yoke and gets into it, the crew lowers the sails; (3) with the boat dead in the water, the crew pulls the COB to the boat’s side and (4) attaches a halyard to the yoke and pulls the COB onto the deck. If you have a Lifesling, be sure to deploy and tow it astern to work the kinks out of the line. And, of course, practice using it. Some sailing organizations sponsor COB recovery clinics with small boats standing by.
The most dangerous situation is when the COB is unconscious or otherwise helpless. Here you’ll have to put another person into the water. It’s imperative that the rescuer wear a life jacket, be attached to the boat with a line, and carry flotation and a second line or a Lifesling to the COB. Each of these lines must be handled by a crew member on deck. Once the rescuer swims to the COB, the life jacket and second line are attached and the COB is pulled to the boat, where you attempt to use passive recovery methods.
All these COB rescue techniques should be practiced regularly—by heaving over and picking up cushions, for example—with everybody taking turns at different positions. Where is it written that the skipper won’t be the one in the drink? Whoever is at the helm should learn how to issue orders clearly and calmly in order to keep the crew organized, focused, and free of the confusion and panic that can turn an emergency into a tragedy.