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Ocean sailor Feature

Man Overboard

By Mawgan Grace

Cover Photo by anouar olh

Every skipper worth his salt should have a clear and rehearsed MOB plan for recovering an crew member from overboard, writes Mawgan Grace. 

This plan should be relayed and discussed with the crew so that they understand it as well. With new and unfamiliar crew, it is sound practice to carry out an actual MOB using a fender or lifebelt. 

The RYA Sea Survival course, valid for five years, now incorporates new techniques, including use of the Lifesling, which is used to pull a MOB back aboard. An 80kg+ person can be lifted vertically up and onto the deck with this great piece of kit. This can be more challenging that may be apparent, especially in heavy weather but with the use of a “truckers hitch”

or bowline about three meters from the survival sling, the MOB can be pulled to the side of the boat where a halyard is attached to the harness allowing them to be hauled or winched aboard, you may need to get a guy line on close to the sling so you can guide the sling over the rail and stop it swinging if there’s any seaway running.


Phase 1:  Immediate Action

I have listed the next steps numerically below but the steps and actions and the order you can carry them out will depend on the number and experience of your crew and the sea and weather conditions you face. However, the skipper should endeavour to carry out point one first, if at all possible and knowing the resources he has at hand. He must then delegate the tasks and actions below to their crew ensuring they clearly understand the tasks they are given. The skipper must create an air of calm and order, because panic will, without doubt, hugely reduce the effectiveness of the rescue. 

If you consider a crew member is near, or in panic, ask them to repeat the task you’ve appointed them, just to make sure they’ve understood. The skipper must quickly identify any crew that are not able to respond coherently to their orders and if necessary eliminate them from tasks in the rescue until they have settled down.

  1. Press the MOB button or your GPS plotter and check you have a track running
  2. The person spotting the MOB shouts “Man Overboard” and then continues to point in the direction of the MOB until recovered
  3. Most senior person takes charge of the yacht
  4. Deploy the lifebelts and jon/dan buoy into the sea to mark the MOB position
  5. At night use floating lanterns and light-sticks to mark their location in the water 
  6. Under engine, helm puts the engine in neutral 
  7. Under sail:

a) If your sailing upwind hove-to

b) Under cruising chute or spinnaker in light winds, execute a controlled drop or a furl if top-down furler. 

c) If you’re under spinnaker in strong winds, release all 3 corners and steer away from the sail, ensuring that before you do release the sail, you have changed course from dead downwind so that you do not run over the spinnaker in the water. 

8. Check for lines over the side and start the engine 

9. Transmit a DSC distress call and then send a voice MAYDAY on CH16


Phase 2:  The Return

  1. If under sail, furl the foresail and centre the mainsail
  2. Get a rescue swimmer ready for a water entry and get the Lifesling, a climbing harness, a manual inflation lifejacket and a face mask and fins ready and to hand.
  3. Motor downwind of the casualty
  4. Turn and motor upwind
  5. If sufficient crew, drop the mainsail into the lazy bag
  6. Once the MOB is on the bow, put the engine in neutral
  7. Turn slightly to put MOB on the leeward side (preferably starboard, engine control side)

Phase 3:  The Recovery

  1. Able-bodied MOB:

a) Throw the Lifesling to MOB (see below) 

b) MOB puts on the Lifesling

2. Disabled MOB: 

a) Rescue swimmer clips onto a spare line and enters the water 

b) Rescue swimmer puts Lifesling on to the casualty 

c) If time, put lifeline under casualty knees to give a near-horizontal lift

3. Pull in Lifesling rope to the loop and clip the Lifesling onto a spare halyard

4. Open the lifeline side-gate or consider cutting the lifelines (if safe) to ease bringing the casualty onto the deck

5. Winch the casualty onto the vessel

6. Bring the rescue swimmer back onboard using his halyard

7. Keep casualty horizontal and move to a protected position

8. If required, apply first aid and call MRCC for medical advice

As you can imagine a reverse sheer transom will make recovering a MOB significantly easier especially if  the MOB is unconscious


Things to consider

It’s worth considering at this point what the main causes of man overboard from a sailing yacht are: 

  1. Slippery decks and inappropriate footwear – Spray, dew, rain, water from swimmers climbing on and off the vessel, dust and even bugs can make a deck more hazardous. Bare feet or even worse flip flops/thongs can be lethal
  2. Unexpected wakes – Passing vessels can cause wakes that can take crew by surprise
  3. Distractions – Shouts whilst moving along decks, clothing getting caught on hardware, or incidents/objects of interest can take attention away from the task in hand
  4. Sudden changes in direction – The skipper may change direction sharply due to mechanical difficulties, fishing net or deadhead avoidance, wake cutting or maybe emergency manoeuvres
  5. Low gunwales/safety lines – Reaching, leaning or leveraging against a lifeline or low cabin side when fishing, or maybe trying to reach a leach line, causing loss of balance
  6. Excessive alcohol consumption – Causing balance and judgment being lost
  7. Not using secure handholds – Moving about decks without holding on to the boat. Remember the age-old adage ‘one hand for the ship one hand for the man’
  8. Tacking with crew on the foredeck – Beware of going on the foredeck when the yacht may tack, especially if the rig includes self-tacking foresails
  9. Improper use of harness – Not clipping on, or not using one at all!
  10. OFS (Open Fly Syndrome) – Tell the crew to use the heads at sea, not the side rail or the transom. You won’t find this one in many manuals!

Do not be put off by the complexities of the above. The chances are that if you are unfortunate enough to suffer a MOB you will deal with the retrieval from your own impulses and experience, considering the conditions at hand. Do not try and make a textbook recovery if you have to stop and read the pages! Use your own initiative at the time.

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