Man overboard is a situation in which a person has fallen from a boat or ship into the water and is in need of rescue. Whoever sees the person's fall should shout "man overboard" ("man" here meaning "person") to alert other crew members and attempt to maintain visual contact with the person in the water. Pointing continuously at the victim can aid the helmsman in approaching the victim.
A person may fall overboard for many reasons: they might have been struck by a part of the ship, they may lose their footing due to a slippery deck or an unexpected movement of the boat, or any number of other reasons. Falling overboard is one of the most dangerous and life-threatening things that can happen at sea. This is especially so from a large vessel that is slow to maneuver, or from a short-handed smaller boat. When single-handed and using self-steering gear it is usually fatal.
Therefore it is important to prevent such accidents from happening, and to be prepared for them if they do. On large vessels, passengers on deck should never climb or sit on the railings. They are usually high enough for people to keep their center of mass well below the top rail and in all but the fiercest weather; from this position it is difficult to be washed, blown or to trip overboard. On yachts and motorboats this is not always the case and so extra precautions are necessary. Every passenger and crew-member should have their own safety harness that has been adjusted to fit them before leaving port, and it should incorporate leg or crotch straps and built-in inflatable flotation if possible. On the deck and in the outdoor sitting areas there should be jackstays and strong points provided so that everyone may clip the tether of their harness safely to the boat.
Harnesses should be worn whenever the wearer feels it necessary. Typical guidance for when to clip on to the strong points might include:
- Whenever the sails are reefed due to the wind strength
- When approaching an area of tidal disturbance
- Whenever a person is alone on deck
- Always after dark
- Whenever else a person feels the need to
Apart from staying safe, most yachting schools also teach, and require students to practice, man overboard drills. This is recommended so that, should the worst occur, everybody on board knows what to do, as well as being a good opportunity to practice close-quarters maneuvering.
Recovery under sail
There have been various sailing maneuvers recommended and taught over the years. Three common ones follow. They all have various points in common. Whoever sees the accident should shout, "Man overboard!" loudly and clearly to alert the rest of the crew. At least one person should do nothing other than stand and point at the casualty maintaining continuous visual contact. Whatever marker and flotation equipment is to hand should be thrown as near the casualty as possible by other crewmembers. This may include a horseshoe buoy or lifebuoy, a danbuoy or man overboard pole, and perhaps a floating smoke signal. If the equipment exists, then man overboard alerts should be triggered on whatever electronic gear is available including GPS receivers and DSC radio transmitters.
Quick stop or crash stop
The most direct action is to stop the boat immediately, very near to the casualty. This can be done by immediately tacking the bow of the boat through the wind without handling the jib sheets, so that the boat is effectively hove to. In some circumstances, this may be enough, and the casualty can be recovered as the boat drifts back down onto them. In many cases, however, the maneuver will have left the boat too far away for that. In this case, the mainsail is sheeted in hard and the turn continued until the boat circles, the wind is jibed across the stern and the boat is sailed downwind, past the casualty again and finally brought to rest by turning upwind again. It is recommended not to adjust the sails for efficient downwind sailing, so that too much speed is not built up when approaching the casualty.
The more traditional maneuver is more time consuming and requires more sailing skill, but is more flexible and less likely to fail as it gives the helmsman more time to make adjustments and corrections to the course and the approach. It is more suitable for the open sea and rougher, windier conditions.
Immediately after the accident, the boat is put onto a beam reach away from the casualty, with a crewmember maintaining constant visual contact. Once there is room to maneuver, the boat is either tacked or jibed back towards the casualty. It is important that the casualty is approached on a close reach, so that wind can spilled from the sails in order to slow down and stop on station. Helmsmen are recommended to test this during the approach by spilling wind on the way, and losing ground to leeward to correct the course if necessary, to ensure that this is possible. If the casualty is to windward of a close reach during the approach, it may be necessary to gain ground to windward close hauled to ensure that the boat does not stall head-to-wind downwind of the casualty at the end.
In the end, the boat is luffed to windward close to the casualty, with a view to recovering them amidships. This may be upwind of them and close in light winds, so that it drifts down to them for recovery; upwind and a few meters away for a throwing line in moderate winds; or downwind within throwing distance if they are conscious in a heavy blow to prevent dropping heavily upon them.
The deep beam recovery
An alternative maneuver, somewhere between the two above in terms of complexity and flexibility, is to put the boat onto a deep beam reach immediately after the accident, and sail a few boatlengths away downwind and to one side. At this point, the boat is rounded up and tacked so that, as in the reach-turn-reach, the casualty is approached on a close reach maintaining the ability to steer, slow down and stop as required by the conditions.
Recovery under power
In a motorboat, or a sailing boat with a working engine, most people having to maneuver in an emergency will use the engine. This introduces the added hazard that the casualty may be further injured by the spinning propeller at close quarters. It is important that a double-check is made for ropes trailing in the water before the engine is engaged. These may have been dislodged by the casualty falling into the water, or may have been thrown later by people on deck trying to help, but once around the propeller, they can put the engine out of use, just when it could have been most useful. The yacht auxiliary could be used during final approaches of any of the sailing methods described above, and a motorboat's engine(s) will be used in any case. The engine(s) must be out of gear before the casualty is approached, and may be switched off entirely during the actual recovery to ease communication, reduce fumes and allow people to concentrate on the task in hand.
Most hulls have the lowest and clearest side decks mid-ships and this is where the casualty should be brought back aboard. If the guard rails are wire, there should be rope lashings at one end so that the lower, or both, wires can be freed to make recovery easier. All crew members involved in recovery should be harnessed on if the sea conditions that led to the first fall could lead to further people ending up in the water. The answer to a person overboard is never for more people either to jump over to 'help' them, or to fall in themselves by accident.
The recovery operation is different for a conscious compared an unconscious casualty, but in either case there are two rules to be aware of. First, after a very short time in cold water, even a fit conscious person will have lost considerable strength and agility and will need help to get aboard, especially in heavy wet clothing. Second, the condition of a person in the early stages of hypothermia can be made considerably worse by hoisting them vertically so that what circulation they have drains from their head into their feet. It is much better to recover the casualty as horizontally as possible. Various pieces of equipment are on the market to help short-handed or weakened crews deal with this problem, but really nothing beats the combined efforts of several strong hands gripping various items of clothing on the arms, body, and legs, and hauling in unison. In a rough sea, the waves that caused the fall can sometimes help by lifting the floating person up within easy reach of the sidedeck as the boat rolls. Care must be taken as to what to do as each wave subsides if the person is not yet aboard, as their weight can pull unsuspecting helpers in themselves. Loops of rope passed under the arms and behind the knees on one wave can be held during the trough and hauled again during the next rise, if this is possible.
A fitter casualty may climb a ladder more or less unaided, although the dangers of approaching the stern of the boat in a rough sea should be considered if that is where the only useful ladder is. A fitter casualty may be able to get a foot onto a simple loop of rope and lift themselves to the rail. A hypothermic, injured or unconscious victim may be quite incapable of helping themselves. In this case netting, slings, an inflatable dinghy or liferaft may be employed, with or without the additional assistance of a 4:1 or better tackle. Such a tackle may be fashioned from a mainsheet, a boom vang (kicking strap), or may be purpose-made for the job and stored in case needed. The yacht's winches may also be of assistance.
Technology can also be used to assist in the retrieval of people who fall overboard. Many GPS chart plotters designed for marine use have a Man Overboard button (MOB). This button is pushed as soon as a Man Overboard alarm is raised, causing the plotter to record the latest known position of the person overboard. This allows the boat to be easily returned to the fallen crew member even if visual contact is lost.
Several manufacturers make man overboard alarms which can automatically detect a man overboard incident. The hardware consists of individual units worn by each crew member, and a base unit. Some systems are water activated: when an individual unit comes in contact with water, it sends a signal to the base unit, which sounds the man overboard alarm. Other automatic detection systems rely on a constant radio signal being transmitted between an individual unit and the base unit; passing outside the transmission range of the individual unit and/or falling into the water cause the radio signal to degrade severely, which makes the base unit sound the man overboard alarm. Some manufacturers' hardware integrates with other systems on the boat; for example, it may activate a throttle kill switch or control the autopilot to return to the point of the downed member.
- Mulville, Frank (1981). "3". Single-handed Sailing. London: Seafarer Books. ISBN 0-85036-410-8.
- Cunliffe, Tom (1994). "30". The Complete Yachtmaster. London: Adlard Coles Nautical. ISBN 0-7136-3617-3.
- Colwell, Keith (1 February 2011). "Man overboard". Cruising. RYA. Retrieved 4 April 2011.
- Miller, Shel. "Crew Overboard". School of Sailing. Retrieved 4 April 2011.
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