How to pick up a man overboard under power

It’s usual to recover a man overboard by using the engine, rather than to approach under sail. This is because most people will find manoeuvring under engine easier and if you aren’t precise in your return to the casualty an engine can help you stop or even go astern as necessary, thus saving time. However, there are some important things to consider in order to avoid problems later.

We’ve covered the first actions to be taken immediately upon losing a man overboard, untethered in this blog, so we’ll assume you’ve read that and we’re stopped and hove-to.

  1. Check for lines in the water. You should always do this before starting the engine but in an emergency, clearly, it’s even more important.
  2. Once the engine has started, lower the headsail to the deck, whilst hove-to. If the headsail is on a furling mechanism furl it away making sure to properly control the sheets and furling line.
  3. Make sure that the mainsail is centred and under control. If you are shorthanded you might choose to furl away the mainsail at the same time, although in many instances it is probably better to keep the mainsail and just control it. This way, if the engine fails, you can still continue the man overboard recovery under sail. If you are likely to gybe, be careful to undertake controlled gybes and make sure all crew are aware of the upcoming manoeuvre.
  4. Manoeuvre the vessel so that you can make your final approach to the casualty, head into the wind, ideally with the casualty about 1\2 x boat length to one side so that you are not approaching the casualty with the bow (which in a seaway makes for a formidable danger as the bow and anchor rise and fall towards the casualty!).
  5. As the casualty comes level with the shrouds, stop the vessel. If you need to turn slightly towards the casualty so as to present the beam and drop downwind onto the casualty, make sure to ease the mainsheet and dump the vang so as to depower the mainsail.

In (4) above we talk about approaching head-to-wind. Another option is to approach as under sail, on a fine reach. Whilst this might take a little longer to set up and mean you need to approach from further away from the casualty, it does mean that if the engine stops, you can continue your approach under mainsail. 

As long as you do not lose sight of the casualty, the time it takes to get back to them either under sail or engine is probably shorter than the time it will then take you to get the casualty back into the boat, so make sure to practice both the MOB drill and have a plan for actual recovery of the person in the water.

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