From time to time, it is important to consider the possibility of a man overboard incident in your boat. How would you or your crew respond? With purpose or panic? If the skipper went overboard, would the crew be able to take over and maneuver the boat safely to the victim? Would they be able to hold the boat in position under dirty sea conditions? Would they be able to assist the victim to re-board the boat safely? Would they be able to call for help if necessary? Anticipation and training are the keys to a safe outcome. Some of the factors helping crew to act with purpose are reviewed in this article.
Equip for safety. Naturally, anticipation of an incident is the best prevention. Take steps now to reduce the possibility of a man overboard incident on your boat. Make any necessary modifications to your boat to ensure solid footing (apply non-skid surfaces). Know how to stow docking and anchor lines and boat hooks neatly. Make sure railings and lifelines are in good condition. Keep decks uncluttered.
On boats over 16′ in length, make sure you have several Type IV throwable safety devices aboard, ideally in close reach to the helm. Make sure you have an operable kill switch and that you use it—it could be you, the skipper, who goes overboard! If at all possible install a swim platform at the stern. Just because you have bought an emergency boarding ladder doesn’t mean it will work on your boat. Often ladders prove to be too long, causing the boarder’s legs to swing under the boat with no possibility of throwing one leg over the gunwale. Test any re-boarding aids you have purchased to make sure they will work on your boat.
Command for safety. The skipper should always direct passengers to sit in safe places; never on the gunnels, bow or swim platform. Avoid allowing passengers to sit in fishing chairs above trolling speeds. Obviously, make sure that everyone is wearing PFDs.
Command for recovery. Announce the incident, “Man overboard!” Immediately assign a crew member as a spotter, “Don’t take your eyes off him!” Immediately shift the boat into neutral–every second that you move away from the person will make it harder for you to get back to them. Immediately throw multiple items of flotation to the person to help keep him in sight.
Maneuver for recovery. If you can see the person, maneuver slowly following your wake toward them, keeping them upwind. If you are not far from shore and the water is not too cold, consider allowing them to drift down on the boat, rig a line from one side, tie it securely to their life jacket and tow the person slowly to shallow water or a dock for re-entry.
If there is no effective boarding ladder or re-entry aid, use the outboard motor or stern drive for re-entry. The transom is normally the closest part of the boat to the water surface. With the motor off, trim the motor all the way down. Command the person to step on the anti-ventilation plate (just above the propeller) and to hug the cowling or drive tightly. Then trim the motor at least part way up, then command the person to pull upright, and step on or flop over the transom.
The person may need assistance if they are weak, fatigued, hurt, or heavily clothed. Beware of swamping, however, with the added weight of the boarder and a helper on the transom. If swamping is a possibility, tie a bowline in a docking line, slip it over the boarder’s shoulders and under his armpits, and pull from farther forward in the cockpit.
If the person is incapacitated and a crewmember must go in the water, be sure they are wearing a PFD and a lifeline tied to the boat.
Command for extra help. If you cannot see the person, activate the Man Overboard (MOB) function on your GPS. Write down the coordinates and immediately call for help via VHF radio. If you have a DSC equipped radio and it has been set up, when you push the button under the little red door, it will read the GPS and transmit your exact location. Set off flares for any nearby boats to see. Sound the emergency signal with your whistles or horn. Signal emergency with your mirror or flashlight.
Consider a cell phone only as a backup. Assign additional lookouts and initiate a search pattern, especially under bad conditions and if you cannot raise help by radio.
If your search and recovery is successful, but the recovered person is injured, apply first aid techniques: bleeding/breathing/heartbeat. If and when the crisis is past, use the VHF radio to cancel your request for help.
Pilot to safety. If there is any smell of fuel, open hatches and operate the blower. Check again for fumes. If they are still present, you will have to find the source of the fuel leak, repair it, and evacuate fumes once again. If you have anchored, recover the anchor. Remember the rudiments of the COLREGS (rules of the road). Keep to the right. Yield to a boat approaching from your right.
If darkness descends, turn on your navigation lights and have a spotlight or flashlight handy to see markers. Remember red-right-returning for navigational aids.
Practice Makes Perfect
Recovering from a man overboard incident requires you to remember a lot of things, as is apparent from this article, which is not exhaustive or comprehensive by any means. To help you prepare, USPS has a Partner In Command seminar, which is a digest of the earlier, more comprehensive, three-part Skipper Saver program. Partner In Command covers these things:
• Communications, including VHF marine radio
• Calling for help
• Signaling equipment
• Safety and safety equipment
• First aid
• Starting and running the engine
• Tool kits
The Partner in Command seminar includes an introduction to boating, understanding anchoring, docking, and navigation, preparing for bad weather, first aid and on-board emergencies, and more. Partner in Command is a squadron-run shore-side session with an on-the-water re-boarding practice. The shore-side part can be completed in 2-4 hours and comes with a student guide.