Crew Safety Briefing—Part Two - SailNet Community

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Old 10-30-2000
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Liza Copeland is on a distinguished road
Crew Safety Briefing—Part Two

A seasoned circumnavigator offers her views on man-overboard recovery, watch routines, and onboard alarms.


Flying spinnakers can be fun, challenging, and rewarding. But how many of us have practiced a crew-overboard recovery with the chute up?
Throwing a cushion overboard at random and trying to retrieve it can be an enlightening and extremely useful exercise for the inexperienced, especially when under full sail. Speed of recovery is paramount and leadership on-the-water practice (particularly in rough ocean conditions), having familiarity with the behavior of the boat, and having good systems in place make a huge difference in being able to return to the victim, make contact and retrieve him or her back on board. We have procedures documented in the front of the log so they can be frequently read by the crew.

Experience offshore has taught us that it is essential to remain as close to the COB as possible. Even 100 feet away it is easy to loose sight of a person in ocean swells. Many of the maneuvers that are taught in calm, inshore conditions (such as sailing to and fro on reciprocal headings or around the victim) are impractical for cruising boats in rough conditions offshore.

Our immediate emergency action procedures for a crew overboard include:

1. Crash stopping the boat and yelling "Man Overboard" to arouse other crew

2. Pressing the MOB button on the GPS and starting the engine

3. Throwing floatable items overboard to help mark the spot

4. Allocating someone to watch the person in the water while others secure the sails

Buoyant cushions in the cockpit are ideal for tossing over the side, besides providing additional comfort on watch.  Floating strobe lights for use at night makes no sense. Ring and horseshoe buoys, and crew overboard poles are also useful but will take more time to deploy. Stop the boat immediately by turning by into wind, regardless of damage to the sails, and then start the engine for additional control. It is important to emphasize this procedure to new crew members so that they are not injured by the ensuing flogging sails and lines. Furl the sails quickly and remeber that the first priority is always to stay close to and watch the person in the water. At night our powerful searchlight is always at hand.

A rail-mounted Lifesling, with its 150 feet of floating line and a flotation collar, is invaluable for retrieving a person to the boat. The use of this, however, needs practice, since it is easy to waste time circling the person with the line just beyond their grasp. After deploying the Lifesling near the victim, passing close to the COB then turning back 180 degrees to pass close again is a much more efficient retrieval procedure. If the COB is unconscious, a crew member should be prepared to enter the water attached by a floating safety line to help the COB with both the Lifesling and with hooking up to the hoisting tackle.


Crew-overboard pole, life ring, swim ladder, and ample handholds are visible on the author's boat.
We have known and heard of many who have tragically got back to the boat after going overboard, but were eventually lost because there were no procedures in place for getting them back on board. Having a practiced system is essential for any boat, but it is particularly important for couples, seeing that many women do not have the strength to haul their partners on deck without the right equipment.

Boats without stern access into the cockpit must have a powerful tackle that is easily rigged to hoist an incapacitated person on board. Not only must the tackle have at least a 4:1 purchase, there must also be a strong attachment point that allows a person to be hauled high enough to be landed on the deck. One must always be prepared for a person to be hurt or unconscious. On Bagheera we have two seven-foot posts on the stern (one for the wind generator and the other for the radar scanner) that are ideal in height, and we use a 6:1 tackle that leads to a primary winch. Some use the end of the boom but this is less stable and it may still be hard to get an incapacitated victim aboard. One must also have a robust topping lift or solid boomvang, since a person that is being violently flung around will impose a strain many times their weight.

Watch Routines    People frequently mention to us that they could never contemplate a long passage because of the watch regime. Often they have done one overnight trip, were completely exhausted, and couldn’t conceive being able to survive for a longer period. In reality the first night is always the worst. Having gone to bed at 10:30 p.m. my body really resents being woken at 1:20 a.m. However, after two or three days it's amazing how well the body has adjusted to both the motion and the schedule. In fact we try to avoid a one-night trip by going to bed early, for example 8:00 p.m. then getting up at 2:00 a.m. to depart. As one person goes right back to sleep, and the other person gets additional sleep after his or her first watch, we find we complete the miles but arrive refreshed.


After circling the globe, Liza and Andy Copeland find that after two to three days at sea, the body adjusts.
Actual watch routines that are followed by cruisers are as varied as their personalities and generally depend on their tolerance regarding weather, concentration, and time of day. Two issues should be kept in mind when planning a watch schedule.

1. The oceans of the world are crowded in this day and age and in our opinion you cannot afford not to keep watch. In addition, because everyone is using GPS, boats are taking similar routes and collisions are more likely to happen.

2. Schedules and boat-handling techniques must allow everyone on board to get as much sleep as possible, since poor decisions are inevitably made when sailors are overtired.

In the past Andy and I have always followed the common "three hours on, three hours off" routine and it has worked well for us. Two hours did not allow enough sleeping for the body and mind to recover, while four hours on watch during the night seemed endless. We also developed the routine of starting on the half hour, because psychologically, the three hours seemed to go faster! As we write in the log on the hour, this gave time to complete the write-up and plot our position on the chart before handing over watch.

The three-hour system worked particularly well when we had our children on board since they took the afternoon watch from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. between them and took pride in this responsibility. When they were younger either Andy or I would generally be up but could relax unless needed. It also meant we changed schedules each day, which was convenient for alternating the evening cooking duties during the 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. watch. On our recent trip around North and Central America most passages were completed with just two of us on board and we decided to work a different routine during the day to allow a longer period for sleep. On this schedule a person stayed on watch from 7:30 a.m. to 12:00 noon, so we could have lunch together, and the afternoon watch lasted until 4:30 p.m. so that we still took turns being dinner chef. We then reverted to the three-hour schedule. Again this worked well.

"Newcomers to offshore sailing often need to break into watch keeping gradually, building up their tolerance to short sleep periods, night-watches, and different conditions."

Newcomers to offshore sailing often need to break into watch keeping gradually, building up their tolerance to short sleep periods, night-watches, and different conditions. Without doubt, black, moonless nights can be scary. I will never forget being alone in the cockpit in the Marquesas when there was a loud sigh in my ear and a rush of air down my neck. When I leapt up, my heart thumping loudly, I caught a glimpse of a dolphin gliding away! Rough weather is another issue. We constantly analyze weather reports and generally know what to expect which allows us to plan the watches ahead accordingly. If bad weather is coming we reef in advance at the change of watch, and if we have extra crew, like we did on our trip from Victoria to San Francisco, we will double up if a new crew member is concerned.

For couples new to blue-water cruising we highly advise taking courses, sailing with experienced cruisers, and chartering in open ocean locations. As much time as possible should be spent on one’s own boat, particularly testing crew skills and operations in inclement weather. It is wise to take proficient extra crew on the first offshore passages. Willing candidates can generally be found through cruising associations and magazines—this will not only make the trip more relaxed, but will also offer an enormous learning potential. Too often disastrous situations happen to new cruisers that could easily have been avoided, as recounted in my article on our passage from Cape Flattery, WA, to Northern California.


It's wise to take proficient extra crew on the first offshore passage. Out here you're on your own.
Although we have two GPSs on board, we write in the log every hour during a passage so we have a recent record of our course and position in case of electronic failure. Information includes: compass course, log (distance in nautical miles), wind direction and strength, barograph reading (for weather), latitude and longitude, sail configuration, speed and water temperature. There is also a column for comments—these are varied in content and give a good flavor of the trip and wildlife sighted. We always plot our position on the chart before handing over to the next watch keeper. Like so many others cruisers we are using more electronic charts these days; however, because electronics and salt water are not compatible, we always carry good backup paper charts. Chart books for the popular cruising areas have made this considerably less expensive.

Sometimes watches are so busy they demand constant attention; at these times radar is very useful. In contrast, when in the middle of the ocean in calm conditions watches are generally relaxed, only requiring a good 360 degrees scan of the horizon every five minutes. This leaves time to read, write, and listen to music so it’s a good idea to have several resources on board. It’s the time when I research the next country we are visiting for instance . Because night watches can seem to drag on forever we have rigged a long cord and earphones from the singlesideband radio so that we can listen to BBC World Service, Voice of America, Radio Australia, etc. This not only keeps us entertained, it also keeps us up to date about the political situation of the countries we are visiting. In fact we are often far more informed about world news after an ocean passage than when we are at home!

6) Alarms    Most boats now have an amazing number of alarms with a variety of electronic sounds that need to be identified. In some situations the crew will be able to deal with the problem and reset the alarm; in others it is important that the captain be awoken.

On Bagheera, for example, we have several engine alarms—for overheating, low oil pressure, alternator failure, and low battery. We also have alarms for water in the bilge, on the depth sounder, the autopilot (off course), and a selectable radar guard zone. In addition we have a regular alarm clock to wake us for weather bulletins and early departures.

One of the most important alarms is the propane sniffer, given that explosive propane is heavier than air. But be aware that these can be very sensitive. When cruising with friends in the Mediterranean we were mystified why their propane alarm went off every morning around 9:00 a.m. until we learned that the captain was very regular in his bathroom habits!


Suggested Reading:

  1. Man Overboard ( Intentionally) by John Kretschmer
  2. Modern Crew Overboard Rescues by John Rousmaniere
  3. Watchkeeping Survey by Beth Leonard
  4. The Art & Science of Standing Watch by John Rousmaniere

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