Immediate actions to take in a man overboard situation

Probably the greatest fear of any skipper is to experience a ‘man overboard’. In warm waters in good conditions, it is still surprisingly easy to lose sight of a casualty once in the water, especially if they are not wearing a lifejacket. 

At night, or in bad weather and/or visibility, losing someone overboard that is not tethered to the vessel becomes extremely serious, with the chances of losing sight of them being very high. This is why tethering is always required at night, in poor visibility or poor weather, as a minimum. Of course, going overboard when tethered still has it’s own share of dangers. Coldwater shock can induce a heart attack or drowning and being dragged through the water by your tether can quickly cause either.

So what to do first in the event of a man overboard situation? Some things can be done all at once. The main things to consider are as follows;

  • Raise the alarm
  • Stop the boat
  • Point at the casualty

Raising the alarm serves several purposes. It alerts the crew who can then ready themselves to do other tasks. If on deck they can make sure they are safe. It’s likely the vessel will be changing direction (see below) and so getting clear of deck furniture, sheets and blocks is important. 

They should make sure they are clipped-on and at least one of them should be pointing at the casualty with an outstretched arm. Those below deck can be readying themselves to assist by going to the VHF set, chart plotter, logbook and other SAR kit that might be deployed. Any surplus crew might be required on deck or needed below to ready a casualty berth, the first aid kit or hot water.

Stopping the boat when a casualty is untethered is critical!  The longer you sail on, the further away from the casualty you are travelling. To stop the boat the best method is to push the bow of the yacht through the wind, as if you were tacking, but leave all sheets trimmed in as though sailing on a beat. This is called ‘heaving-to’. The vessel should stop sailing and if you do it quickly enough, you might find you are just a few metres from the casualty. The other reason to heave-to is to stop the boat in the event that your casualty is tethered and being dragged through the water. However, if you are in rough weather and your casualty has gone over the windward side, is tethered and his head is well above the water, you need to consider that, were you to heave-to, the casualty will now be on the new low side, dipped in the sea. This is why we should practice different scenarios!

We point at the casualty so that we do not lose them, especially where the casualty might be regularly disappearing over waves. Pointing helps you to avoid becoming disorientated, especially if the boat is changing direction. 

After you’ve raised the alarm, stopped the boat and have sight of the casualty you can consider what other methods you have for marking the casualties position. Obviously, if tethered, there is no need to mark the casualty’s position as you are still connected to them.

Deploying a danbouy with horseshoe buoy and light would be sensible at this stage. If you have GPS and/or chart plotter, mark the position of the MOB and write down the position and the time in the ship’s log. At this stage, the skipper might order that a distress message be sent in which case a designated or undesignated DSC Distress Message might be issued, with or without a voice mayday. Again make a note of when the message is sent and what responses are received. In an ideal world, a crew member will remain below maintaining a communications log and assisting in navigation.

In the case of a tethered MOB, recover the casualty from the sea, making sure that they remain clipped, as do all other crew. If necessary, consider deploying a spare halyard to recover them. On larger vessels, a special tender or a ‘swimmer’ might be deployed to recover the casualty. In either case, the risk to the tender or swimmer should be assessed. 

Most swimmers are deployed on a halyard and will be wearing a helmet, a lifejacket (without auto inflate) and some sort of recovery strop attached to another halyard. Remember, when on a halyard, the sea state can induce roll which can quickly create a pendulum effect on anyone attached to a halyard, swiftly turning them into a human conker! Make sure any halyard are properly secured to avoid a pendulum effect.

Now you have raised the alarm, stopped the vessel, marked the casualty’s position and sent a mayday, it’s time to recover the casualty. Preferably, this would usually be done under engine however, if necessary, perhaps due to engine failure or prop wrap, recovery can be made under sail.

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