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Crew Overboard Gear

This article was originally published on SailNet in May, 2001.

When a crew goes overboard, everything changes. If you haven't considered the moment, it's high time you did so you'll know how to prepare yourself and your fellow crewmembers.
No onboard emergency is more immediately threatening than a crew overboard. Groundings, fires, and flooding may cause the loss of the boat, but the crew can generally escape these with their lives—and the boat and her contents can almost always be replaced. A crew, however, cannot be restored once lost.

Some sailors feel that the best place to spend money for crew-overboard gear is on prevention, and this is a difficult argument to refute. Harnesses, tethers, jacklines, and strong attachment points keep the crew on the boat where they belong in the first place. Like seat belts in cars, though, these safety items are only good when they are in use—and who wants to lug all that stuff around on a beautiful, sunny day?

A number of years ago, we were sailing a short hop from St. Vincent to Union Island in the Grenadines. The mid-summer weather was ideal, giving us a beam reach in 12 to 15 knots, a two-foot chop, and brilliant, sunlit waters. I was on watch, lolling near the stern rail as the windvane steered the boat, and Kathy was reclined on the weather cockpit seat reading a book. A rogue wave, probably about eight feet high, hit us abeam without warning. I was well braced in the stern rail to leeward, but Kathy took a headfirst dive the full width of the cockpit, her head missing a large winch by inches, finally coming to rest with the leeward lifelines around her waist. She missed being knocked out and going in the water by inches.

A typical boat travels at 10 feet per second, leaving a stranded sailor behind quickly.

The answer to finding yourself in a crew-verboard situation is still to do everything in your power to prevent it from happening. But once a crew is in the brine, you don’t have time to examine what you should have done. It is not my intent here to discuss COB drills and how best to accomplish them, rather to look at the gear on the marketplace that makes recovery of a COB more efficient.

There are four major tasks that immediately become imperatives when a crew goes into the water:

  • Locate the person in the water
  • Support and aid the COB
  • Maneuver the boat to the crew
  • Bring the person back on board

Of these, locating a crew in the water poses the greatest challenges and you certainly can’t take all the latter steps until you have found the person. The fact is that a boat moving at six knots travels 10 feet every second. With even a two-foot swell and a wave period of eight seconds, a head in the water will be out of sight in less than ten seconds—in broad daylight. At night, forget it. Try setting a cantaloupe in some tall grass at dusk and walking two city blocks away—locating it again by eye is about the same as if the boat had traveled only one minute from where the crew went over.

"Marking the spot where the crew goes over is a good step...stopping the boat immediately is even better."
Marking the location with the MOB button on the GPS is a good step—stopping the boat immediately and not loosing visual contact with the crew overboard is even better. Setting up a reference station in the featureless expanse of water as near to the point of the crew’s departure is also a major help.

What is wanted here is a complete signaling package, because even though the crew on the boat can’t see a head bobbing in the vast sea around them, the crew in the water can likely see the boat. It would be ideal if the crew in the water carried the flotation and signaling gear with them, but I have yet to see sailors equipped with a backpack carrying waterproof flares, mirrors, and a crew overboard pole. At the very least, however, a good life jacket set-up should have a personal strobe light, a small, waterproof flashlight, and a loud whistle attached to it. In addition, small inflatable vests with harnesses built in and belt-pack inflatable flotation aids can be useful for sailors not willing to strap on a complete kit. And the skipper must insist that the systems chosen be worn—again, this gear doesn’t do any good in the bottom of a locker.

The traditional crew overboard gear begins with a pole bearing the distinctive international code signal flag "O." These poles must have a flotation collar and be counterweighted at the bottom to keep the 10-to-15 foot length standing up in a stiff breeze. Because of their length and the bulk of the flotation, they are a pain to stow on the average cruising boat—and racers detest the extra windage. There have been some special poles built to be housed in a stern tube inside the boat’s hull or to fit around the backstay, but care is needed in the installation to ensure that the pole is instantly deployable. Special rail, deck, and backstay clips are available.

Crew-overboard poles, like the one attached to the backstay above, help to give you a visual reference on the victim's location. After doing that, and making contact with the victim, you can then use the Lifesling attached to the transom above to get them back on board.

The object of the pole is to give the people on the boat a visual reference in a vast watery wasteland. Even if it is put into the water hundreds of feet from the COB, it allows the navigator a starting point from which to backtrack. But these poles can move at a pretty fair clip when the wind is blowing hard, so a small drogue, or sea anchor, should be attached to the pole and arranged to go into the water when the pole is dumped. This helps keep the reference as stationary as possible.

Now the bright orange and yellow flag is a wonderful thing during the day, but at night it is invisible to both the crew on the boat and in the water. So add to this system a light, preferably a very bright and long-lasting strobe. Some COB poles come with a light on top, and this is a fine idea, but the lights are generally small and rather feeble. A brilliant COB strobe that activates automatically when thrown in the water can be seen over two miles and will cut through light rain or fog. This strobe must be attached to the COB pole so they don’t drift apart.

Most sailors also tie their one and only Type IV (throwable) life ring or horseshoe buoy onto the pole but I am of two minds on this subject. On one hand, if the crew in the water is conscious and in good shape, he or she may be able to locate the COB pole and strobe light, swim to it, and use the flotation ring for support until the boat arrives. On the other hand, if the COB is found a long way from the pole, no flotation will now be available to offer. The simple answer is to have a second flotation device available.

"If the COB drifts away from the pole, the simple answer is to have a second flotation device available."

I hear the wheels turning in your head—where will I find room for a 12-foot pole, sea anchor, strobe, and two horseshoe buoys on the stern of my 30 footer? MOM to the rescue. Survival Technologies foresaw this problem nearly two decades ago and developed the Man Overboard Module (MOM). Several varieties now consist of everything a COB could want including inflatable pylon and flotation. They are housed in a compact hard container that fits nicely on a stern rail and deploys with the yank of a cord. MOMs are not cheap, and they require periodic service, but compared to the value of your mate, the price is immaterial.

Once the COB has been located, support and retrieval operations can commence. If the crew in the water is injured, a complete first aid kit and the lifesaving skills to use it properly are imperative. Beyond that, assuming the crew did not reach the flotation attached to the COB pole, the first necessity is to provide him or her with additional buoyancy. This is especially true if the sea is rough or the crew is wearing heavy clothing, foul-weather gear, or sea boots.

The square pillows with handles that the US Coast Guard approves as Type IV throwables are fine for inland lakes, but at sea, a good horseshoe buoy or ring is much preferred. We carry a few cushions on board Sojourner—they are inexpensive, make good cockpit backrests and swimming floats, and can be used as a Type VI in an emergency. And they are legal.

Having a buoy or a life ring ready to deploy, like the one above, is a good idea, even if you're not sailing far from shore.
Buoys and rings have become less popular over the years, and for good reason. When the Lifesling came along, it made so much sense that sailors flocked to it. The original Lifesling did little more than combine flotation with a retrieval system, but this alone was worth its weight in gold. However, be careful when selecting a Lifesling as not all models are USCG approved Type VI devices and you may have to carry a second approved throwable to be legal. Lifeslings are now available in an inflatable model that saves some space and windage. Perhaps the best of all worlds would be to have the traditional ring or horseshoe attached to the COB pole, and a Lifesling to offer the crew when he or she is located to assist in retrieval.

While locating the crew and maneuvering to them is primarily a mental game for those on the boat, the act of getting him or her back on the deck is almost purely physical. Many rescue operations have failed with the crew right alongside the boat. Very few of us have the strength to simply reach into the water and haul another human being five feet straight up by the collar of their jacket. If the crew is weak or injured, which is highly likely, or if the COB is larger than the crew on board, always possible with husband-and-wife teams, then mechanical advantage and a practiced plan is necessary. Don’t count on a COB to simply climb the stern ladder in a five-foot seaway—he or she may be suffering from shock, hypothermia, or exhaustion.

Again, the Lifesling excels at this type of recovery, but only if the lifting tackle is on board and readily available. Deck leads must be thought out in advance and the use of booms or spinnaker poles practiced until everyone knows their station and function. If you’re one of the many sailors who find it convenient to put off practicing this important procedure, think about yourself in the water, banging against the side of the boat while an inept and untrained crew tries to figure the system out. That should be sufficient motivation to ensure that you and your crew know the drill.

Suggested Reading:

Maintaining Safety Gear by Tom Wood

Man Overboard (Intentionally) by John Kretschmer

Thoughts About COB Retrieval by John Rousmaniere

SailNet Store Section: Rescue Equipment

Tom Wood is offline  
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