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Thoughts on COB Retrieval

Sometime ago you published an by article John Rousmaniere about crew overboard recovery techniques [Modern Crew Overboard Rescues]. I have immense respect for Mr. Rousmaniere and own several of his books. I hope that you will pass along these comments for his consideration.

I belong to the Cal Sailing Club, which has operated in the Berkeley Marina in Berkeley, CA, for 60 years. Our famously strong afternoon breezes frequently reach 25 knots or more. Because of these unforgiving conditions, our club places an extremely strong emphasis on safety procedures, especially crew overboard recovery. Skippers have to stop exactly at the COB. "Within 20 feet" isnít considered anywhere near a passing grade. Our "senior skipper" candidates are expected to demonstrate a rudderless recovery in at least 15 knots of wind. (You can find information about our teaching programs at:

We teach the figure-8 method, but not as shown by Mr. Rousmaniere. We teach students to change course immediately to a broad reach (not beam reach) for a couple of boatlengths, which makes the return to the COB the reciprocal close reach (rather than beam reach) course. This provides much better control in returning the COB by allowing us to slow sail (sheeting in and out on the main to control boat speed) right up to the person, then completely dump the main and/or head up to stop the boat.

I think that the beam-to-beam figure 8 suggested by Mr. Rousmaniere doesnít leave much room for error. On the return it is too hard to control boat speed, and the skipper has to judge precisely the right moment to stuff the boat into the windótoo early and you wonít make it to the COB, too late and youíll still have too much speed and sail right by the COB. I have practiced all sorts of other methods including the quick-stop, jibe return, and heave-to techniques on various boats from 14 to 32 feet, but I still think the broad reach-close reach figure 8 works best. Iíve been able to teach all sorts of people to execute this maneuver with the precision that our club demands. I hope youíll give it a try and consider endorsing it.
                                                                   Marceline Therrien

John Rousmaniere responds:
Congratulations on working so hard and productively to develop and teach effective crew overboard rescue techniques. This is the sort of thing that people used to talk about in theory a lot more than they practiced on the water, and much of the credit for the change goes to sailing schools.

Many schools teach the straightforward system that I laid out in the column and in The Annapolis Book of Seamanship, but with small variations that reflect prevailing local conditions and the type of boat used in instruction. I know full well how challenging it can be to sail in the fresh breezes and short chop on San Francisco Bay. All this was brought home to me a few years ago when I participated in a three-day on-the-water rescue seminar off Sausalito. We tested every method in typical cruising boats, night and day, right under the Golden Gate Bridge. Some gear was a dud, some worked.  Some techniques were hard to remember or implement by novice sailors, others worked just fine because they were simple, logical, and straightforward. The lessons I learned are reflected in my column.

In the column, which of course was directed toward a broad audience that sails all types of boats in all sorts of conditions, I tried to keep the system simple enough so that thoughtful people could make use of it without the extensive practice that everybody agrees is necessary but that few people actually put in. I think three points are crucial:

First, keep the boat near the victim, and that means turning back quickly, knowing where you are and where the victim is, and avoiding a full-speed jibe that may sweep you far to leeward.

Second, no one crew-overboard rescue technique fits all boats, all sailors, and all areas.

Third, to find out which system works best for your boat and crew in your area, go out and practice, practice, practice.

I am convinced that to get people to observe those three points is 90 percent of the battle. If I can get that far in an article, Iíve done my job. On-the-water experience will help people develop their own techniques within the contexts of their skill levels and their boatsí characteristics.

John Rousmanier's article on the COB figure-8 rescue method had two shortcomings. It states that you should sail for about 20 seconds on a beam reach. It is preferable to state this in terms of boatlengths, not time, since boats have different sailing speeds.

More suspect, however, is the statement that the boat should turn upwind for the victim when it is dead downwind of him. This is simply wrong! If you are 180 degrees downwind from the victim, you can only reach him by tacking, because he obviously is dead upwind from you. Rather, you should turn upwind when you can pick him up on a close reach on the leeward side. This will avoid a tack and allow you to control your boat speed and maneuverability as you make your approach.

As for the use of a motor, US SAILING now favors turning on the motor and leaving it in neutral, to have as a backup if needed. I believe this is a sensible compromise. Incidentally, I am a US SAILING certified instructor and teach this maneuver every week on San Francisco Bay.
                                                                          Dean Dietrich

Again, John Rousmaniere responds:
Seconds can be easily counted exactly; boatlengths can only be estimated. If youíre on a beam reach, an equal number of seconds on both tacks is an equal distance on both tacks, whatever the boat. At night or in rough water, precision and simplicity are crucial.

Heading up or tacking stops the boatís forward progress, which is how the boat stays near the COB without a time and distance consuming (and possibly dangerous) jibe. Of course, if you can stop the boat and pick up the COB without tacking, do so. But I donít want to encourage anyone to jibe immediately.

As I wrote, the motor question is much disputed. There are purists on both sides. Iím not a purist: if it speeds up the recovery, use itósafely.

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