Properly Handling A Man Overboard Emergency

Man Overboard! Those are two of the most panic inducing words you can ever hear on a boat. But, fear not (really, don't panic)! Here are some essentials for dealing with a MOB emergency and making sure everyone makes it back to the docks in one piece.
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Man Overboard! Those are two of the most panic inducing words you can ever hear on a boat. But, fear not (really, don't panic)! Here are some essentials for dealing with a MOB emergency and making sure everyone makes it back to the docks in one piece.

Some years ago, my wife and I lived in a stilt house on the Gulf Coast of Florida and, after a time, I became the commander of the local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary flotilla. This experience turned out to be both enjoyable and instructive and, in the end, entailed only one major emergency. It took place one afternoon in January, on a broad bay near the mouth of the Ochlocknee River. Two duck hunters had overturned their overloaded boat and were bobbing off toward the Gulf of Mexico in boots, duck-hunting clothing, and not a single PFD between them. One guy was elderly and did not appear to be especially fit when I arrived on the scene in my 23-foot Steiger Craft, so I immediately tossed him a lifering with a lifeline attached and tossed a boat cushion to the other guy.

The situation was decidedly not textbook. Due to logistical and other concerns, I was all by myself onboard the Steiger. Moreover, thanks to the suddenness of events, I’d come with no Lifesling or any other kind of lifting apparatus, other than several 20-foot three-strand nylon mooring lines. And once I’d eased in close enough to really eyeball the two guys, I saw that both were serious heavyweights.

Foregoing the Auxiliary’s preferred approach, I maneuvered the Steiger upcurrent of my two victims and let the boat drift down toward them with the engine switched off. My plan was simple. Get the transom near the pair. Then direct the younger fellow to use my outboard’s cavitation plate as a step so he’d be easier to haul into the cockpit. Once onboard, I’d have him help me lift the old man, by grabbing him under the armpits, and pulling up with a will. I figured there was little chance the old boy would be able to help himself via the plate, and I was right.

The plan changed once I’d got the 40-year-old into the cockpit. He and I soon discovered we simply could not lift his companion via the armpit method—the slipperiness of the old fellow’s weight was just too much. So instead, we ran a bight of one of my mooring lines across his chest, under each arm and up his back, and hauled straight for the sky with all the strength that adrenaline provides.

The oldster came over the Steiger’s gunwale with a squishy groan and, since we’d ultimately effected the rescue by sliding his well-padded backside against the boat’s hull, he wasn’t scraped up too badly when we got him into the cockpit. Both he and his partner were lucky. Instead of losing their lives, they’d simply lost their expensive shotguns.

Of course, there are no hard-and-fast rules for dealing with man overboard (MOB) emergencies like the one I’ve just described—each is a little different—but there are some generalized guidelines. Below are a half-dozen of these, all of them loosely based on what I learned during my stint with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary:


Fast action counts in all MOB situations.

The first individual to see a person go over the side should 1) yell, “Man overboard! Man overboard!” and hit the MOB button on the plotter if said individual happens to be the skipper, 2) throw anything that floats (lifering, Lifesling, cushion, or whatever) toward but not at the victim, and 3) begin pointing at said victim while maintaining visual contact. This last point is extremely important—if you lose your visual on a person in the water, chances of actually rescuing him are going to be pretty poor, even during daylight hours in relatively calm water. Spotting a person’s head amid even a mild sea is about as easy as spotting a floating coconut, especially when significant distances and the sun’s glare are involved. You can’t rescue someone if you can’t see them.

There is much made in various books and videos about all sorts of maneuvers that should be part of MOB procedure. Certainly, the Williamson Turn (see below) makes sense if a person has gone over the side at some indeterminate time in the past and you need to precisely backtrack a reciprocal course. However, the best bet for retrieving a person who has just recently fallen into the drink is the Racetrack Turn, where you simply put the helm hardover, one way or the other, and try to get back to the victim as soon as possible. Many experts also suggest turning toward the side of the boat the person fell from (in order to prevent a propeller-related injury) but, while this may be a good idea for ships and very large yachts, it is seldom necessary with a small or midrange recreational vessel. Indeed, the stern of such a watercraft will pass a person in the water well before any maneuvering needs to take place.

The Williamson Turn, by the way, is fairly basic.

You initiate it by first making a mental or physical note of the course you are running when you discover someone’s fallen overboard. Then you calculate a second course that is either 60 degrees more or less than your original and start turning your vessel in that direction. Once your compass card shows the second course (i.e., the course you’ve just calculated), you apply opposite rudder and, while sweeping into this new turn, you calculate the reciprocal of the course you were originally steering by adding or subtracting 180 degrees—if possible have someone else do the numbers on paper if you’re challenged on the mental math front. When you ultimately reach said reciprocal course according to your compass, it’s time to look for bubbles or the remains of your wake to confirm that you are now backtracking precisely. And remember—to get as close to precision as possible, maintain the same speed throughout the entire turn.

There are two fundamental ways to get close to a person who’s bobbing around in the water. First up is the leeward approach (against current and/or wind), which is preferred in most cases because it gives a skipper more control of his boat. Second is the windward approach (with the current and/or wind), which dictates that the boat drift down to the victim. The latter method, incidentally, can make sense on an outboard-powered vessel (as described earlier) but otherwise seems to work best if the skipper simply lays alongside the victim without, of course, hitting or overrunning him or her.

While there are several methods for extracting someone from the water, the best way (in the absence of a swim ladder or swim platform) seems to entail two rescuers, one on either side of the victim after he’s been turned to face away from the boat’s hullside. The rescuers reach down over the gunwale and grab him under the armpits and pull straight up, perhaps depositing him in some likely resting spot for a moment, before moving him to the cockpit. If you have to effect a rescue single-handed, grab both of the victim’s outstretched hands (some experts suggest crossing your hands when you do this so the victim spins to face outboard once he’s positioned on your swim platform, gunwale, or covering board) and pull in a similar way, remembering to keep your back straight and knees bent. If there’s too much freeboard to be able to do this, pass a stout bight of line (as described earlier) under both of the victim’s armpits after crossing his chest and then pull both ends of the line up behind his head as you lift. For both comfort and safety’s sake, go with the thickest line you have onboard.


And finally, if the victim is hurt or unconscious,

a rescue swimmer, equipped with a harness (or stout PFD) and a floating poly lifeline, may have to go into the water. When the swimmer reaches the victim, another crewmember should pull the pair back to the boat via the lifeline. Dealing appropriately with an injured victim once he’s alongside requires great care—be especially attentive if you suspect a back or neck issue. Special circumstances may call for special handling.