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Old 08-11-2002
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John Rousmaniere is on a distinguished road
Retrieving Unconscious COB


Even under the best circumstances, when the person in the water is unconscious, the chances of a successful recovery are rarely in your favor.
“What do I do if the person in the water is unconscious?” The questioner was my daughter-in-law Dana. The 51-foot ocean racer Toscana was hove-to near the Kitchen Shoals buoy, off Bermuda, about to start her four-day ocean passage to Newport, R.I. Well away from the distractions of shore, I was working my way through a detailed crew briefing. Watch schedules, food consumption, routines to follow in the head—all had been raised and discussed. Then came personal safety, with a demonstration of safety harnesses and inflatable personal flotation devices, ending with a long discussion of the business involved in crew-overboard rescue.

And then the self-sufficient, smart Dana asked her question, which presents the toughest safety issue of them all. I knew I couldn't get away with a wishy-washy answer. “Don't worry about it! It never happens!” These responses simply would not do because it can happen. Dana knew this full well because she had read the account of such a grim accident in my new book. So I was obliged to tell her the truth: even in calm conditions and bright sunlight, rescuing an unconscious person often is unsuccessful. The unconscious swimmer—who's been knocked on the head by a boom or the boat's side, or who may be suffering deep hypothermia—may not be saved. Sometimes a hopeful rescuer who dives in after that person is lost, too, leaving the boat at risk with a deeply depleted crew.

Unconscious swimmers are helpless swimmers. They have no ability to save themselves or even assist rescuers as they pull them to the boat and try to haul their dead weight up onto the deck. That dangerous situation is made far worse if the unconscious swimmer is not wearing buoyancy that keeps her or his face clear of the water. This eventuality is all but inevitable if the swimmer is wearing only the minimum 15.5 pounds of flotation, located well below the neck, that's provided by life vests and other Type III PFDs. An inflatable PFD, with 22 or more pounds of buoyancy up high should float people face-up.


Using a device like the Life Sling (shown above) can greatly enhance the recovery of a crew overboard victim, but you must first get the device to that person, and that almost always involves putting a person in the water.
So what should you do if someone is lying in the water, face-down and obviously helpless, and there's no small boat on hand? The answer is, not much.

Several years ago I was a member of a group testing crew overboard rescues. In two days of exercises on San Francisco Bay (sponsored by John Connolly's Modern Sailing Academy, in Sausalito, CA) we tried several solutions to the unconscious victim problem. To say that the results varied radically is an understatement.

When we attempted to sail and power alongside victims and grab them, we found that the boat's bow wave invariably pushed them away from the boat, and the boat hooks that we used to try to grab them (because they were way out of arm reach) only pushed them deeper into the bay.

We also tried a rescue system consisting of a triangular sheet of cloth, one edge of which was secured to the rail with the free corner attached to a halyard. The cloth was draped over the side, the victim was supposed to be positioned onto it, and the halyard was then to be pulled in order to wrap up the guy and haul him up on deck in the cloth. Or at least that was the theory. In tests using a 43-foot yawl, it took forever simply to get the person onto the cloth, and when we hauled on the halyard, our guinea pig sometimes fell out of the wrapper.

"The quickest, surest way to recover unconscious victims turns out to be the only one that involves risking a second lifeputting another person in the water."
The quickest, surest way to recover unconscious victims turned out to be the only one that involved risking a second life. This was to put someone else in the water and send him after the victim. The rescuer was wearing plenty of buoyancy and was tethered to the boat with a line. Even this process took tremendous exertion and many minutes, and it was just as slow when the rescuer took along a Life Sling (attached to the boat with its own tether) to put around the victim. The Life Sling was a great help because it provides a sure hoisting system when the sling is hauled up by a halyard. Without the sling, we found that even when several of us worked at lifting the helpless victim out of the water, his dead weight and floppy limbs made the task all but impossible.

To state the case simply, while several methods for recovering an unconscious, helpless swimmer from the boat may seem theoretically likely, the best one (lacking a small boat) is to send a rescuer into the water, and even that is dangerous to both the victim and the rescuer.

Obviously, then, the best solution to the unconscious victim problem is to avoid it in the first place and keep the crew on board. Sailors should not permit their concern about PFDs to blind them to the crucial role in personal safety that's taken by good footing, careful moving about the boat, and the use of safety harnesses.


The most successful approach to dealing with crew overboard victims who are unconscious, is to avoid these situations all together. A key part of doing that, says the author (shown here), is to do as he doesremain seated whenever possible and use a safety harness.

In my experience, the most vulnerable situation—the moment when we are most likely to lose our footing—is when we're standing and performing a job that demands both our hands. These jobs include:

  • Moving fore or aft on deck while carrying something
  • Moving up or down a companionway
  • Steering while standing up
  • Setting, reefing, or dousing sails while standing
  • Taking photographs
  • Moving over irregular surfaces like jibsheet tracks and mainsheet travelers
  • And—for men only—relieving oneself over the rail.  (As is well known, many drowned men have been found with their flies unzipped.)

    These chores can be made safer by sitting down, crawling, hooking on with a “third hand” (also known as a tether on a safety harness), or—in the last case—simply going below and using the boat's head (a practice I insist on).

    If you feel unsteady or if your hands are engaged with a job, put on a safety harness and clip its tether to a strong point on the uphill side of the boat, near the weather rail—a cleat, a padeye, or a jackline (a line running fore and aft on deck). Once I have my sea legs, when I'm moving around on deck in fairly smooth water, I often go unhooked so long as I'm on the uphill side and I'm in a low crouch and I have two free hands to grab a lifeline and a rail or other object. When one or both hands are occupied with a chore, I clip on.

    Like my daughter-in-law Dana, I don't like being helpless.

    Editors' Note: The Sailing Foundation has documented over 100 crew-overboard cases and offered summaries of these situation on a website. To have a look at these, log on to www.vicmaui.org/2000/resource_center_article_safety_lifesling_case_history.htm.



    Suggested Reading:

    Crew Overboard by Sue & Larry

    Crew Overboard Gear by Tom Wood

    Offshore Safety Reviewed by SailNet

    SailNet Store Section: Rescue Equipment

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