How to pick up a man overboard under sail

It’s usual to recover a man overboard by using the engine. 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, sometimes we don’t have the use of an engine, in which case we are going to need to sail.

We’ve talked through the first actions to be taken when we have a man overboard, so we’ll assume that the casualty is untethered and we’ve undertaken all the necessary first actions and we are hove-to and stopped. What next?

The first thing to consider is how far away is your casualty and are they upwind or downwind of you. If you are hove-to, this should be quite easy to establish. You then need to get back to the casualty and when you reach them you should be able to dump the sails, spill all the wind and stop. To do this reliably, you need to be able to accelerate and decelerate on the approach, which means you should be approaching on a fine reach, trimming the sails accordingly.

In an ideal world, if there’s enough wind and the sea state is not too big, the mainsail should be sufficient to power you back to the casualty’s location. In which case, you can arrange for the headsail to be furled or dropped on the deck and secured before the final approach. This removes the need to trim that sail and removes the flogging headsail sheets from the lower shrouds once you’ve arrived ‘on-scene’.

To recover a casualty under sail, starting from hove-to, ease the mainsail and sail away on a beam reach. 

If the casualty is as high on the wind as you;

  1. Sail away on a beam reach for about 6 x boat lengths, making sure not to lose sight of them
  2. Tack the vessel and then bear away to a broad reach for about 2 x boat lengths
  3. Point the bow at the casualty and ease the mainsail. If you are able to entirely depower the mainsail, you are ready to approach. If you cannot depower the mainsail, bear away for a boat length and turn up again. Once you can depower the mainsail with the bow pointing at the casualty, sheet in the mainsail and sail towards the casualty.
  4. Regulate speed on approach by easing the mainsail and re-trimming
  5. Make sure that the casualty is lined-up with the shrouds on the low side (leeward side) of the vessel.
  6. Bring the vessel’s leeward beam (at the shrouds) to the casualty and stop the vessel by depowering the mainsail through dumping the mainsail and the vang/kicker.

If the casualty is further upwind than you;

  1. Sail away on a beam reach for about 6 x boat lengths, making sure not to lose sight of them
  2. Tack the vessel and point the bow at the casualty and ease the mainsail. If you are able to entirely depower the mainsail, you are ready to approach. If you cannot depower the mainsail, bear away for a short distance and turn up again. Once you can depower the mainsail with the bow pointing at the casualty, sheet in the mainsail and sail towards the casualty.
  3. Regulate speed on approach by easing the mainsail and re-trimming
  4. Make sure that the casualty is lined-up with the shrouds on the low side (leeward side) of the vessel.
  5. Bring the vessel’s leeward beam (at the shrouds) to the casualty and stop the vessel by depowering the mainsail through dumping the mainsail and the vang/kicker.

If the casualty is lower on the wind than you;

  1. Sail away on a beam reach for about 6 x boat lengths, making sure not to lose sight of them
  2. Tack the vessel and then bear away to a broad reach for about 3 x boat lengths
  3. Point the bow at the casualty and ease the mainsail. If you are able to entirely depower the mainsail, you are ready to approach. If you cannot depower the mainsail, bear away for a boat length and turn up again. Once you can depower the mainsail with the bow pointing at the casualty, sheet in the mainsail and sail towards the casualty.
  4. Regulate speed on approach by easing the mainsail and re-trimming
  5. Make sure that the casualty is lined-up with the shrouds on the low side (leeward side) of the vessel.
  6. Bring the vessel’s leeward beam (at the shrouds) to the casualty and stop the vessel by depowering the mainsail through dumping the mainsail and the vang/kicker.

 

Make sure to approach on a fine reach and maintain boat speed by trimming the mainsail. If you approach too close to a beam reach, you won’t be able to depower the boat and stop on arrival at the casualty. If you are too far downwind of the casualty. You won’t be able to maintain speed as you sail into the ‘dead no-sail zone’. Always recover a man overboard from the lower, leeward side.

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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