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MOB Recovery

He cast off the painter, a quick flick of the wrist, and he was off. The sailing dinghy slowly gathered way as he smiled to himself about not losing his touch after all these years. It still stirred his heart, making a small boat respond to wind and waves. His current sailing ship was only eight feet long and responded well to his experienced use of tiller and sheet. Seems a lifetime ago that he first learned how to sail, and this recent anniversary present of a trawler charter in the islands now brought such early memories back home. Life is grand.

Tacking quietly in the predawn light, the heavy mug of coffee resting squarely on the bench seat beside him, the world was indeed his oyster. No need to get his butt wet by squatting down in the bilges on this mini-voyage, just a comfortable slow sail around the anchorage. A delightful way to greet the new day.

A small tug from a fresh breeze brought his attention back to the business at hand, as the dinghy continued making nice progress only a hundred yards off the mothership, his home for the next week. A nice life this trawler thing.

Reacting to a subtle shift in the morning breeze, the gent prepared to come about. Pulling the mainsheet in and the tiller hard over, the small dinghy responded immediately. As he ducked his head, the dinghy completed the gibe, heeling over on the opposite side, in response to the changed angle of attack.

As he waited for an instant before pulling back on the tiller, the soon-to-be-former executive realized too late that he'd misjudged the move. The dinghy continued to heel, and, in the blink of an eye, the small boat capsized right then and there. His weight on the seat had not been low enough to provide ballast in the slight breeze. As the man and his coffee cup slid into the cool waters of the tropical anchorage, hardly a sound or ripple marked his mistake.

No big deal, he thought to himself, not acknowledging the physical laws he'd forgotten- center of gravity and such. At least he remembered to grab the coffee mug as it slid away, he realized smugly, knowing that a missing coffee cup would show up on the check-in when they returned the charter.

As he floated there, holding on to the upturned dinghy, the man felt a little foolish, but found cause to laugh as well. The coolness of the water felt bracing this morning. He remained calm, never thinking or feeling alarmed at his sudden misfortune.

No person on any boat around him had seen or heard a thing. And, as he began to realize after a few minutes of helpless drift, no one was stirring either. For the first time, he saw an element of risk, however distant, despite his seeming closeness to others in the harbor.

He began paddling back to the trawler, holding on with one arm to the small dinghy. Still a long way from any thoughts of panic, the man slowly realized, after minutes of going nowhere fast, that the boats around him were close, but not that close.

His wife, asleep in the master cabin two hundred yards away, knew nothing of his predicament.

Nor, apparently, did anyone else.

MOB Is Being In The Water

The traditional view of a man overboard (MOB) situation is someone falling, or being knocked by some dastardly device, off the deck of a boat. Be it a boom, a rogue wave, or simply taking a macho leak off the side of the stern.

A dinghy gets swamped, a swimmer suffers cramps while snorkeling-there are also endless ways for someone already in the water to become incapacitated.

These are but a few of the countless possibilities to initiate a MOB situation, and I bring them up only to counter any argument that a trawler is too safe a platform to cause concern. It is especially worrisome when I hear folks tell me that, on their boat, it is impossible to have someone go overboard.

Without exception, every trawler captain should develop a specific plan to get a person in the water on board his or her vessel.

Walk The Talk

Last year, we introduced a trawler MOB demonstration at the Safety at Sea Seminar held at the U.S. Naval Academy. I volunteered to be the man in the cold March waters off the Academy seawall. It was, shall we say, bracing.

From a Grand Banks 42 Europa, we showed one way to rescue a person using that specific boat and its equipment. I was successfully rescued, and the MOB demonstration went without a hitch.

This year we used a different vessel, a very capable Fleming 55, supplied by the nice folks at Burr Yachts, in Edgewater, Maryland. Ray Currey expertly skippered the cruising motorboat (Tony Fleming insists it is not a trawler), and a MOB was again successfully plucked from harm's way.

Even though the Fleming 55 has a marvelous electric (or hydraulic) lifting crane on the boat deck for launching/retrieving a heavy RIB tender, we followed Ray's suggestion to use a different technique that comes from his years of outfitting Fleming yachts.

I hope a description of this procedure will generate discussion among your crew, and help you develop your own version of a workable rescue capability. Waiting for an actual emergency situation to work things out is, at best, a bad joke. So listen up.

The Rescue

The Fleming, along with many other cruising vessels, is equipped with a wide swim platform with transom door, and two hinged side gates for access from a pier.

Our victim this year was Kieran Conaty, PMM's own fulfillment fellow. Young buck that he is, Kieran jumped at the chance to go overboard. Little did he know the Navy had supplied us with a survival suit sporting a thumb-sized hole in one foot of the neoprene body bag.

Poor Kieran. The suit filled with water as soon as he stepped off the Fleming's swim platform in front of several hundred spectators, and he began shivering in the Severn River as we motored away to begin our rescue approach. (The perfect irony: Even a demonstration in controlled circumstances has its unplanned Murphyisms. How long would Kieran survive in an actual MOB situation?)

I shouted "Man Overboard!" to those aboard the Fleming, as I found and threw a life ring to the bobbing orange head in the water. Good shot! We now knew Kieran would not sink or drift away, at least until he drifted into unconsciousness from hypothermia. Unknown to us on the boat, Kieran, in a totally-useless immersion suit, really only had but minutes to assist in his own rescue. Even a young stud in great shape can't last long in cold water.

After that, it would be up to us.

Skipper Currey expertly turned the Fleming around, to approach the MOB while remaining far enough away to maintain complete visibility from the pilothouse helm. The last thing we wanted was to run over someone in the water. Sadly, people are killed every year when rescuing vessels approach too quickly and overrun them, not realizing the momentum generated by a displacement hull.

Ray kept Kieran in sight off the starboard bow, so the crowd could watch our every move.

As we came up within 25/30 feet of the MOB, Ray got the boat stopped, and we ended up all but motionless near Kieran-close enough to enable a rescue, but far enough away so that all could keep him in sight. (Distances vary on boats, so owners should determine just how close that is on their boat.)

During the maneuvering to come back for Kieran, Anita Simmons, PMM's Managing Editor, unshipped the Lifesling from its secured bag on the back deck, and readied the sling and its line as we closed on Kieran.

Now Anita threw the sling out to the orangeheaded blob in the water. It took a second try to get the sling on top of the MOB, but as a result, we had a line connecting Kieran to the boat. Now we could pull him in.

Here I must reinforce an important point in discussing the MOB subject. Rather than pulling Kieran into the boat and back toward the stern (near the swim platform), we only brought him in amidships.

Please, please, please, think about this, and make sure you understand this next point. Bringing Kieran to the stern, even in flat water (where the swim platform is not slapping the water's surface like some giant flyswatter), is a very bad and dangerous idea. The proximity of the MOB to the running gear, in this case two large propellers a short distance from the stern, is just too close to even consider a stern rescue in anything but ideal conditions. Since the tendency is to keep the engines running, it is imperative that the crew be aware of the significant dangerous zone around the stern quarters and transom.

Even though the Fleming 55 has a nice big lifting crane for launching and retrieving a heavy RIB, we chose not to use the hoist because not all trawlers have such equipment, and those that do, often have them installed in locations that operate in the dangerous stern area. Instead, we chose to follow Ray's suggestion that we rig one of the docklines at the midship gate to act as a step for the MOB to reach up and climb the side of the boat-using the rope step (or two steps, depending on freeboard), the Fleming's wide rubrail, and in through the side gate.

While I held Kieran (with Lifesling around his shoulders) close to the boat, Anita fashioned the step quickly and easily, using existing cleats to form a length of dockline into a step long enough to hang down into the water.

Now, opening the side gate, she tossed the step into the river. I maneuvered Kieran closer to the gate, and he helped us as we lifted him up toward the opening. I passed the Lifesling line through a stainless steel overhead handhold for additional purchase against Kieran's body weight.

The poor fellow was quite chilled by now. Once onboard, we hustled him into the saloon, where he stripped off the immersion suit and went below to take a warm shower.

The safety program continued, with next a demonstration of a liferaft rescue accomplished by a USCG helicopter from nearby Coast Guard Station-Atlantic City. Our job was done, and we continued under way for a time before departing for home.


Once again, the demonstration reminded me that each of our trawlers, and how it is equipped, is different. So the equipment and technique for a successful MOB rescue must be developed to suit the abilities of the crew, and the layout and gear on that particular boat.

This Fleming 55, Cachelot, was well equipped, so we worked out a solution without additional support. Had this been an actual emergency, Anita and I would have been able to get that person aboard, even if the victim became disabled.

One day I hope to develop techniques that address all of our different boats, and allow even the most timid of us to conduct a successful rescue. I doubt such a need will come as a result of a trawler crew member falling overboard, but no matter how it came about, someone's life may be saved.

As for that man in the sailing dinghy? Whatever happened to him? Did he get rescued, or did he slowly lose his control over the situation, and become another statistic of untimely demise?

I'm fine, thank you.

Anita's Perspective:

In a recent first-aid class I learned a few things that could be translated to this experience. The steps that you go through when you come upon an apparently-injured person:

1. Check to make sure that it is safe for you to approach the person. Is he or she close to a rocky shoreline? Caught in a swift current? Are there lines in the water, as would be if a sailboat had capsized and the lines and rigging were in the water?

If it is okay to go to the person...

2. Call for help. Have someone notify the Coast Guard immediately on VHF Channel 16. State your position, what is happening, what your boat looks like and its name. Other boats in the area will be alerted to your situation and should stand by to assist. If something should happen to you while involved in rescuing the MOB, someone is at least aware that the emergency is getting worse. Also remember, if you are on a seven-knot boat, you are not going to be able get an injured victim to professional medical help quickly.

3. Check to see if he or she is conscious. Can you talk to him? Can he feel his arms and legs? Is he injured anywhere? Do you see blood? This could affect how he is lifted on board.

Other thoughts about the procedure after the Annapolis demonstration:

When MOB is shouted by the crew, throw something into the water to mark the position. If you have a MOB button on your GPS, press it to mark your exact position.

When throwing the Lifesling (or a ring with line attached), aim for a spot past the person in the water, so you can pull the sling to him, without having to make another attempt. Practice throwing; this is one thing you can do without getting wet or starting up the boat.

Nothing can prepare you for being face-to-face with someone in danger in the water. When I saw the look on Kieran's face, I could see that he was very cold, but I did not ask him if he was. Instead I found myself acting as fast as I could to get him out of the water, not thinking at all. Stay calm! You should assess the situation and adjust your rescue effort to accommodate any injuries the person may have sustained.

I thought the idea on the Fleming, setting up a dockline to allow the person to get on board, was effective and could be used on many different types of trawler layouts. On our boat, a 42-foot traditional trawler design, I think something like this would work by tying off a line to our rail or stanchion. Maybe using a fender rigged up to step on? I'll have to give this a try.