Man Overboard Recovery Procedure

Written by Peter Isler, with additional contributions by Chuck Hawley and Michael Jacobs

“Man Overboard” is probably the third most famous nautical hail, after “Land Ho” and “Thar She Blows,” but it is by far the most serious and potentially life threatening of the three.

Man Overboard Rescue Procedure

Although we should keep in mind that every situation is different, man overboard procedures are often broken down into the following areas:

  1. Initial Reaction on Board
  2. Safety Turning the Boat Around and Returning to the ‘Person in the Water’ (PIW) (though I prefer the term “swimmer”)
  3. Approaching and Rescuing the PIW

1. Initial Reaction on Board

The first priority is to provide the victim with additional flotation to increase his or her odds of surviving until the boat returns. Be sure to also “litter the water” with any other floating paraphernalia that will increase visibility of the location, making it easier to find the PIW. From the simple speed, time, and distance equation, we know that time is critical when it comes to deploying any sort of safety or flotation gear if we want to be within dog paddling distance. This requires proper preparation and training so that the right equipment is easily available and deployable by any/every member of the crew.

Concurrently, the entire crew must be notified with that bone-chilling hail so the wheels of recovery can begin turning. Meanwhile, the person who first sees the PIW in the water must maintain a laser-like focus on his or her location in the water and continually point out that position to the helmsperson. It’s the luck of the draw when it comes to the roles being played on board. Although your crew should have default “emergency” positions, a man overboard will alter this because at least one crew is gone from the boat, while another is doing his or her best Superman impersonation to see through the waves and keep the PIW in sight. Short-handed crews have an even bigger challenge in a man overboard situation with perhaps half the crew missing.

Other high priority steps include:

  • Save a GPS location to facilitate returning to the scene. If your victim is wearing and has activated an AIS-based personal locator beacon, he or she will be easier to find. Before a man overboard emergency occurs, make sure every member of the crew knows how to operate the hardware (GPS/computer) to navigate back to the AIS beacon and the GPS’ man overboard waypoint. Ideally, one of the items your crew “litters” into the water will be a floating AIS locator with a sea anchor.
  • Call for help. Any man overboard situation is life threatening, so there is cause for issuing a “Mayday,” or at the very least, “Pan Pan” on the VHF to get nearby boats to your team. The importance of this step must be weighed with the actual situation (e.g., it’s blowing 3 knots and you are at anchor in the Virgin Island with the swim ladder set over the side) and how much it will impact/slow down the crew’s ability to turn the boat around as soon as possible.
  • Position the crew to turn the boat around. Ideally, this will follow the procedures that you have determined are ideal for your boat in the current conditions and that you have practiced with your crew.
  • Immediately turn the boat into the wind, if appropriate for your boat and conditions, then tack, and stop/slow the boat. This is the first stage of the “Quick Stop” method that revolutionized sailing’s “science” of man overboard a few decades ago. The logic was indisputable: the closer you keep the boat to the victim, the better the odds of a swift and successful recovery. Today, the Quick Stop remains a valuable rescue option for most boats, but like so many of the possible return and recovery techniques, it has its time and place. It may be exactly the right approach for our 40-foot displacement sloop on the way to the South Pacific, but may not work on a boat with different handling characteristics. For example, a 60-foot racing sloop blasting downwind under spinnaker, a rapid round up could cause significant damage that inhibits the boat’s capability to return to the victim. It also risks throwing more crew overboard in the process. Once again, as in any safety-related emergency, its is important to be flexible. Well before any possible MOB, accurately assess the best way to rescue a PIW overboard as swiftly and safely as possible. Seamanship, experience, sound judgement, and thorough training all increase your odds of success.

Every step of the recovery benefits from practice, but this first “reaction” stage is perhaps the most crucial. A real emergency is not the time to figure out where the “launch” button is on the man overboard gear, or how to best organize the remaining crew to safely turn the boat around. Practice safety drills as a team before you need to act.

2. Safely Turning the Boat Around and Returning to the PIW

The Quick Stop method highlights the ultimate goal of man overboard recovery: stay as near to the swimmer as possible. But you have to do this maneuver safely so that you can successfully complete the rescue. Every situation is different depending on the boat, which sails are set, the crew size and experience, and the conditions.

Recently, I attended a US Sailing Safety at Sea Course at the US Naval Academy and watched the midshipsmen demonstrate some of the overboard recovery variations aboard the Academy’s 44-foot sloops. Conditions were ideal: the water was smooth, the winds were light, and the victim was a Navy diver in full wet suit. But it was still impressive watching the crews perform their rescue swift fashion. Clearly, they had practiced and their demonstration went according to plan. Even as I mentally critiqued the well-rehearsed and simplified presentation, I had to admit, these sailors were pretty darn good – especially the 110-pound female midshipsman who singlehandedly steered her 44-foot sloop back to the diver, secured the sails, stopped the boat, and hauled him back on deck with the aid of a block and tackle system and a Lifesling harness. I’d want her aboard my boat if I fell over. Sure, the degree of difficulty increases exponentially when you throw in heaving ocean swells, strong winds, and the element of surprise, but I’d rather go overboard on a boat where the crew had done a ton of recovery training – even if it was only in smooth water and light air.

The bottom line of turning the boat around is that it must be done as swiftly as practical (time is the enemy of the PIW) and must be done safely so that the crew can efficiently shift into rescue mode. There will be some trade-offs involved, e.g., making an out of control Quick Stop vs. a controlled dousing of the big sails – and the driver/skipper must make these critical decisions. What sails (if any) should be left flying? Should the engine be employed? And if so, are all the lines clear and out of the water so they don’t foul the prop? When can we safely tack the boat? Are the conditions safe for us to jibe the boat? A strong and well-honed chain of command can help in these critical decisions, but remember the “x-factor” of a man overboard situation: the skipper could be the swimmer!

3. Approaching and Recovering the PIW

The priorities in this stage of the procedure are:

  • Find the PIW. This can be extremely difficult and time consuming – and time is not the friend of the victim. If it is daylight and the conditions are mild; if the victim is healthy, wearing a life jacket, blowing a whistle, wearing or floating near an AIS-transmitting locator, flashing a light, and has made contact with the boat’s man overboard gear; and if the boat has a good man overboard position to navigate back to – then the odds are pretty good that you will find him or her, even if it takes a few minutes to get the boat safely turned around. But that’s a lot of “ifs” and this highlights why having the boat and crew prepared for a man overboard incident is so important. Locating the PIW can be extremely difficult. So, that call you made on the VHF to rally immediate support from nearby boats can be a life-saving step in certain situations.
  • Approach carefully and at a controllable speed. The close reach is by far and away the safest point of sail to make the approach because of the ease at which speed can be increased or decreased without making course changes. Try picking up a mooring on any other point of sail and you will soon agree.
  • Make contact with the PIW. This doesn’t mean smashing the victim with your hull or chopping him or her up with your propeller. It means making a connection, most likely by rope and possibly by a Lifesling or other lifting/flotation device.
  • Retrieve the PIW and get him or her safely on board. There are a number of potential methods that vary in their efficacy depending on the boat, conditions, crew size and strength, condition of the PIW, and equipment available.
  • Apply appropriate care for possible near drowning, hypothermia, or any other injuries.

At this point in your study of man overboard procedure, I highly recommend a mental reality check. I’ve written and edited a number of books and articles describing the various “classic” recovery patterns and methods, including the aforementioned. Quick Stop and the venerable “figure eight” pattern. It all seems so doable on paper.

But let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a full crew on one of the US Naval Academy’s 44-foot sloops, sailing in 35-knot winds and hail during a thunderstorm. You must quickly revert to good seamanship, simple and basic sailing tactics – no jibes in 35 knots! And you will have your hands full even getting close to the victim as the keel loses grip and the boat blows sideways to low speed. There’s no way you can heave a line any distance upwind, but it’s so rough that you don’t want to approach within a quarter of a boat length to windward of the PIW for fear of smashing him or her to bits as the bow bucks in the waves. Again, this is where practice, good seamanship, and sailing experience are essential to stand any chance of recovering the PIW.

In extreme conditions or when shorthanded, the “waterski tow rope” method of making contact with the victim is invaluable. A few decades ago, the Sailing Foundation of Seattle developed the Lifesling device and its unique method of PIW recovery. Although the hardware has been refined over the years, it remains an icon in man overboard training with a long history of success, especially assisting small people in rescuing large people on boats of all sizes and types. The Lifesling employs the same method the driver of a water ski boat uses to return the tow rope to a fallen skier for another try. It involves circling safely and slowly around the PIW until they grab the floating tow rope and work their way to the floating harness that can double as a lifting sling – pretty nifty.

But if the PIW is injured or if it’s too windy to jibe (a sailboat can’t circle without doing a jibe), you will have to adjust your tactics. You may even break another “rule” of man overboard and send a second crew member into the water (firmly tethered to the boat) to help the victim. (Editor’s note: Not recommended unless the victim has serious injuries or is a child.)

Do I sound like a broken record yet? It’s all too easy to discuss man overboard theory and practice in a vacuum, extolling the virtues of a certain piece of equipment and/or sailing technique. But every situation is unique. In all likelihood, the crew will not be able to follow a perfect, cookie cutter method. They will be forced to adapt and make important decisions very quickly under pressure. This is where training, practice, good seamanship, and boat sense all play a crucial role.

In summary, read books and take courses. Go to the chandlery and look at the latest equipment. Get your crew together and practice, practice, practice. Then cross your fingers you’ll never have to learn whether you have the right stuff to save a life because everybody on the crew remembers that lesson their mother taught them: always stay with the boat!

This resource is provided by the US Sailing Safety at Sea Committee. Read the entire chapter on Weather Forecasting and Waves.

Learn more about US Sailing Safety at Sea Seminars in your area.