MOB drowning experience
Last summer, while sailing in the mediterranean, I had the tragic experience of seeing a man drown in front of me without me being able to save his life. I wanted to share the story and the lessons it taught me (albeit at a very high price - that poor man's life).
At that point, I had little sailing experience, so I chartered a 45-foot sailboat with 6 friends and a skipper. We were sailing on a 2-3 foot chop close to the coast, when my skipper pointed out (way out in the horizon) an inflatable that launched itself high up after hitting a wave. The skipper didn't consider this alarming in itself, and I couldn't really see anything. 5-30 minutes later we got near the same position as the inflatable was (time is approximate because the shock blurred my memory a bit). My skipper saw the inflatable adrift, and a person in the water. From the distance, he thought he was a harpoon fisherman (very common in those waters). As we got closer, we saw a man screaming at us - maybe 200 yards from us. We immediately started the engine, headed up so I could drop the sails, and motored closer to the man. By the time I looked again, I was frightened to see the man lying face down in the water. The time in between must have been 1-5 minutes.
Me and 2 women from my party jumped into the water with the buoy in hand and swam towards the victim - about 10-20 yards from the boat. We had no PFDs on, but were all pretty good swimmers, and the waters were warm. We managed to place the man's head over the buoy; I still remember the terror of seeing his head fall back into the water. By that point the man's face was red. We somehow carried him over to the transom, most of the time with his head above water.
Once at the transom, the skipper tied a loop on a line and we helped put it around the victim's body under his armpits. There were 3 of us in the water and 4 people trying to lift him from the deck. I put my knee under his crotch and my foot on one of the rungs of the swim ladder, trying to get some foothold to push him upwards. It was still a miracle that we were able to hoist him to the deck.
By that point I was in mild shock - I went to the head to vomit, and when I came back to the cockpit, I saw my friend holding the victim (face still red) sideways to help him get some of the water out of his lungs. My wife and I had taken CPR lessons in the NYC Red Cross, but they never mention to you what to do if the person's lungs are full of water. I later found out (doublecheck this) that mouth-to-mouth works even in these cases - but at the point I specifically told my wife not to do it, erroneously thinking that it would push the water further into the lungs.
From the point we picked him up in the water, the man was occasionally making some light wheezing sounds. I wasn't sure if these were attempts to speak or just the sounds of air coming out of his lungs. It sounded like the former though, and I took that as a sign that we had rescued the guy, albeit barely.
The man did one thing right - he probably had the engine kill switch (or whatever it's called) attached to him. But he should have been wearing a PFD and not using his dinghy like a waverunner.
The next day we went to the coast guard to testify. Essentially, his report concluded that the man must have fallen into the water and hit his head, which made him dizzy. The chief said that if he had been unconscious, he'd be floating facing up & breathing close to normal. It sounds hard to believe but the CG guy does these things for a living, so we can lend some credence to that. I was particularly sad that this man was only 48 or so and had 2 kids. Sorry - all this does not add to the seamanship dimension, but I couldn't help mentioning it.
a) If a MOB is conscious alive now, he may not be so one minute afterwards. This sounds laughably obvious, but I spent 2 months of my life every year swimming and playing around the sea, and I was conditioned to seeing people in the water frolicking and having fun - not drowning. My natural reaction to seeing the MOB was "OK good - we spotted the guy - now he can wait for a minute for us to go get him". I still remember the shivers I got when my skipper yelled "we lost him".
b) Always have the halyard flaked so it's easy to drop if needed. Fortunately this wasn't a problem in this case.
c) We did not use a lifesling (the boat had a horseshoe buoy though). The greatest advantage in cold waters is being able to retrieve a person without having someone else jump in. In our case, as the person was unconscious, it would have helped with the hoisting. The victim was obese (probably over 250 lbs) and was impossible to drag up the transom (see above)
d) Lifesling MOB retrieval without the engine is taught with religious fervor over here (for good reason), but I think that, in this case, using the engine is practical if the skipper is watching carefully, the seas are reasonably calm, and getting to within 10 yards of the victim is sufficient. Obviously, the propeller can pose a danger, but your brain may not be functional enough at that point to do the quick-stop maneuver or whatever while you see a body face down in the water. Platitude alert: practice your LifeSling!
e) In retrospect, we should have had PFDs handy and should have jumped with the PFDs on. Perhaps the man would gain conscience and start pushing us down into the water in his panic - you never know.
f) I'm a rational person with military experience and everything, but I still almost lost the ability to help with the rescue once I got back on the boat. It was partly the shock and partly the extreme physical effort I exerted while trying to push the victim up the transom. Not sure if this translates to a lesson, but keep this in mind.
I hope this very unpleasant experience may be at least be educational to others.
(keywords to make this searchable: MOB man overboard lifesling victim rescue drown drowned drowning victim)
Ranger 29 - western Long Island Sound