“Man Overboard!” is the expression given to indicate that a passenger or crew member of a vessel has fallen overboard and requires immediate rescue. Man overboard scenarios account for approximately 24% of all boating fatalities, 90% of which occur in calm water with swells less than one foot in height. Swift and thoughtful action must ensue to reinforce a victim’s safety.
There are six essential components of recovery:
- Keeping the Victim’s Location Known
- Getting Buoyancy Support to the Victim
- Alerting Rescue Services
- Maneuvering the Boat to Return and Approach the Victim
- Recovering the Victim
- First-Aid / Rescue Administration
For a quick reference, follow these steps in an emergency:
- Yell, “Man Overboard on Starboard/Portside!” and Sound the Horn Three Times – Immediately assign one of the crewmembers to maintain visual contact with the victim and point at them during the entire emergency. They should never take their eyes off of the man overboard for any reason. If you are unsure of the victim’s location, turn off all props on the boat to avoid potential danger until their position is known. The horn will alert any crew members unaware of the emergency.
- Activate the “MOB” GPS, and Throw “MOB” Rescue Gear to the Victim – The GPS will mark the MOB position for reference. Throw your boat’s rescue buoy as close to the victim as possible. You can also throw other inflatables to assist, but your best option is the rescue buoy.
- If Available, Throw an LED Light and Smoke Flare to Mark Their Position – Throw the flare as close to the buoy as possible. The flare will serve as a location reference while the captain maneuvers the boat for rescue.
- Begin to Maneuver the Vessel Back Toward the Victim and Prepare a Throwing Line – Approach the Victim Upwind. The throwing line will assist in pulling the victim to the boat.
- Issue a Mayday and DSC Call If:
- A failed execution of IMMEDIATE rescue occurs.
- There is no rescue equipment to assist with reboarding, such as a rope ladder or rescue strops.
- The swells or currents are anything other than negligible, and there is no rescue equipment available to assist with re-boarding.
- Someone goes overboard in the late afternoon or at night.
- There is nobody else on board to assist with the rescue.
- Pull the Victim to the Boat – Once you have successfully pulled the victim to the boat, use the correct procedures to get them back on board. Choppy seas can make using the ladder a very challenging and dangerous re-entry option, as you risk being drawn under and hit by the stern.
Various factors will contribute to the exact order and execution of these components, explained in the details of the sections below.
Keeping the Victim’s Location Known
In concurrence with getting buoyancy support to the victim, knowing their location at all times is critical. As soon as the victim is overboard, assign a spotter to keep visual contact with them. The spotter should point in their direction without interruption for any reason during the entire rescue. If the victim cannot reach the buoyancy support, the spotter could be the sole resource in directing the boat captain back to their location.
- “MOB” GPS Button: If you have a “MOB” button on your GPS, you should immediately activate it. Some GPS units will direct a return course to the victim after maneuvering the boat, while others will display the position graphically for reference.
- Light Buoy and Smoke Flare: This piece of equipment is useful because it supports two of the most critical rescue steps simultaneously. After deployment, an LED light flashes on the buoy while sending a colored smoke signal into the air. In poor weather conditions or large swells, both the victim and the boat captain can identify the buoy’s position.
Getting Buoyancy Support to the Victim
Along with knowing the victim’s location at all times, getting buoyancy support to them is the priority. Depending on several factors such as weather, swells, physical fitness, and swimming abilities of the persons overboard, keeping them afloat while carrying out the rescue could be the deciding factor in life or death. Large swells in the open sea can result in even the strongest of swimmers’ demise.
- “MOB” Buoy: Deploy a “MOB” buoy immediately and concurrently with the first step of locating the victim. Buoys may come equipped with LED lights and smoke flares, as stated above.
- Throwable Float / Retrieval Line: A “lifesling” is a retrievable floatation device attached to a rope and installed somewhere along the boat’s stern. In the event of a man overboard, the lifesling is deployed – stretching as far back as it can behind the boat. If a victim has only been overboard for a short time, the lifesling will give them the chance to stay buoyant while the crew pulls them back to the vessel.
Alerting Rescue Services
You should alert rescue services of a man overboard emergency with a “Mayday Call” using the boat’s VHF radio when you cant achieve immediate rescue. Time is the most significant survival factor if the çrew can’t rescue a victim on their own, and professional emergency services could be the only chance for survival. Click the link for step by step instructions for issuing a “Mayday Call.”
Alternative Ways to Signal Distress:
While your VHF should always be the first method for issuing an emergency call, you can use various alternative methods.
The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) is an internationally agreed-upon search and rescue system. Specific GMDSS safety procedures, equipment, and communication protocols make communicating and identifying your location easier in the sea’s more remote areas. Although not required on recreational vessels, the following GMDSS equipment is available for installation:
- Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB): Communicates with satellites to indicate rescue coordinates.
- Navtex: Issues navigational warnings, forecasts, and search and rescue notices.
- INMARSAT: Global satellite network.
- Digital Selective Calling (DSC): Ship to ship, ship to shore, and shore to ship radiotelephone.
Use Digital Selective Calling immediately if it’s available, as other nearby vessels might be able to offer rescue assistance faster than emergency crews.
While a cell phone likely won’t be of use, it’s a quick way to call for help when cell-service is available.
Additionally, you should keep low-technology resources on board to signal an emergency. These include flares, flags, horns, flashlights, and signal mirrors – to name a few.
Maneuvering the Boat to Return and Approach the Victim
How to best maneuver towards and approach a man overboard victim will depend entirely on how well you know your boat. There are differences for boats using an engine instead of sails, and extensive practice specific to a vessel is necessary for a boat captain to properly navigate a rescue scenario.
When using a motor to execute a MOB rescue, there are a few added safety steps:
- Be sure that there are no trailing ropes that could get caught in the propeller. If you threw a lifesling or another float behind the boat for immediate rescue, you must pull them back on board before attempting to move. If your boat engine is rendered useless, the victim’s life will be in further danger.
- The engine must be out of gear before approaching a victim. Better still, turn the engine off entirely during the re-boarding process to avoid further injury via the propeller. The noise and fume reduction will also help the crew to communicate and focus on the rescue.
During a rescue, remember to always bring the boat upwind of a victim. A quick stop is easier executed this way, and there is less risk to the man overboard.
Quick Turn – The Quick Turn is the traditional, simple response to a man overboard on a sailboat. If there are few hands on deck to assist with a rescue, this is the preferred reaction. The maneuver is executed as a figure eight and allows for the boat captain to keep the victim in sight during the entire process.
- Change your course to a beam reach, and hold for approximately 15 seconds.
- Heading into the wind, tack and leave your jib fluttering.
- Veer the vessel into a broad reach.
- Turn the vessel upwind until it is pointing at the victim. The vessel will be on a “close reach.”
- Come to a stop with the victim on the lee side.
Anderson Turn – The Anderson Turn is used to maneuver the boat full-circle to reach the same point that a victim went overboard. Use this method with both powerboats and sailboats, but only when the victim remains visible. If the victim is not visible, use one of the maneuvers below. The Anderson Turn is the quickest method of recovery.
- Stop the engines.
- Fully pull the rudder towards the victim.
- When you clear the victim’s vicinity, turn your engines to full power.
- After deviating from the course by 240 degrees, slow your engines down by about 70%.
- Stop the engines when the victim is about 15 degrees off of the bow.
Williamson Turn – Powerboats and sailboats alike utilize the Williamson Turn to bring the ship back to an exact point it has already passed. The most appropriate time to use this turn is at night or in low visibility conditions.
- Pull the rudder towards the victim entirely.
- Stop the vessel 60 degrees from its original course by pulling the rudder in the opposite direction.
- When you’re approximately 20 degrees short of the reciprocal, put the rudder mid-ship so that the vessel follows the reciprocal course.
- Bring the vessel upwind, with plenty of space between the victim and the propellers.
Scharnow Turn – This maneuver is used to bring a ship or sailboat back to a previously passed point – but it isn’t ideal for an immediate action scenario. Use this method when the victim is significantly further than the boat’s turning radius. If a quicker reaction is needed, use one of the previous maneuvers.
- Pull the rudder hard to the side of the man overboard.
- After deviating 240 degrees from the vessel’s original course, shift the rudder hard to the opposite side.
- About 20 degrees short of the reciprocal course, put the rudder mid-ship to follow the course.
Recovering the Victim
Once you have the victim in the vessel’s range, it’s time to get them to the boat. The most commonly used and simplest way to do this is with a retrievable line device such as a lifesling. Simply throw the device to the victim, and pull them in.
However, once near the boat, you may realize that getting them on board is not an easy task.
Using the boat ladder or bathing platform will prove dangerous if the swells are even minimal, and a victim will need to be sure they don’t get swept under the hull. If a man overboard has been in the water for even a short time, they may not have the energy to pull themselves up a ladder.
Having specialized recovery equipment on board is essential and can include the following:
- Emergency Rope-Webbing Ladders
- Various Recovery Slings and Strops
Emergency rope-webbing ladders reach down the side of the boat, allowing the victim to pull themselves up with little to no assistance. In many scenarios, though, a victim will not have the strength to do this – especially in cold water.
Recovery slings and strops are the best options for onboard recovery equipment. Although training is necessary, these devices allow you the leverage to pull conscious or unconscious victims from the water. They’re available in a variety of styles, although they all serve the same purpose.
First-Aid / Rescue Administration
Once you have a victim back on board, you’ll need to assess their condition.
Depending on the water temperature and how long the victim was exposed, hypothermia may have set in. During the recovery process, assign a crewmember to gather heat blankets and prepare a space inside to warm the victim.
If a victim is unconscious, begin performing CPR and prepare emergency oxygen if it’s available.
Tips for Survival If you Fall Overboard:
- Make Yourself Visible – Without exerting too much energy, splash around and make some noise. Doing this will help the crewmembers identify you in the water and hold your position.
- Don’t Swim After the Boat – Instead of swimming after the boat, save your energy to reach the rescue buoy. The boat will maneuver to you, so just try to get buoyant.
- Keep Clothing On – Instead of ditching your clothes, keep them on. Try to trap air inside of them to help create positive buoyancy.
- Remove Non-Buoyant Objects
- Use the “HELP” Position – In cold water, the “HELP” position will conserve body warmth and prolong the onset of hypothermia. Curl your knees into your chest, and wrap your arms around your legs. Lean back slightly, and try to float by breathing slowly without releasing all of the air from your lungs.
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