Overboard Recovery and Reality Checks

Overboard Checks

Remind your crew of the techniques that give them the best chance of remaining aboard: crouch when moving fore and aft , crawl when conditions warrant, grab and hold, then move . . .

It’s nearing midnight on a blustery evening and you’re at the end of your watch.

You set the autopilot and go below to wake the crewmember taking the next watch.

When he gets to the cockpit, you agree to reef the mainsail to better balance the boat.

He moves forward to the mast to adjust the luff reef cringle, and you start getting the clew cringle ready.

Within seconds, a gust from nowhere heels the boat to
starboard, burying the rail in white water.

You hear a shriek and twist around, only to see your friend somersault backward over the starboard lifelines.

The loose-footed mainsail, partially reefed, blows wildly out of control
to leeward, blocking your vision of the lost crewmember.

Now you’re alone on deck, with one other crewmember still aboard, below and sound asleep.

Read on for tips on how to handle crew overboard situations.

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Always assume the following three conditions for any person who falls into the water—even if you suspect otherwise:


The victim might have sustained an injury when he fell over the side.
Contact with lifelines, stanchions, toerails, or the hull result in lacerations, broken bones, or a concussion. This leads to, or adds to, the seriousness of the next two factors.


Unless you hear the victim’s shouts, you won’t know his state of consciousness. Without a life jacket, an unconscious victim will drown.
Automatic, inflatable life jackets must fully inflate to roll a person from a face-down to a face-up position.


Hypothermia, the cooling of the body below its normal temperature of 98.6°F (37°C), causes loss of motor skills. Even in Key West, Florida, water temperatures during late fall and winter average around 70°F (21°C) to 75°F (24°C). Within 5 minutes, a victim may lose the ability to grasp any floatation
device thrown to him or her.


No approach method works every time for every vessel. Choose your approach based on crew number and ability, wind and wave conditions, and vessel handling characteristics.

Power Vessel Approach

1. Turn the wheel toward the victim (to kick the stern away).

2. Throw floatation (life jacket, life ring, cushion, fender); assign crew to maintain continuous visual contact with the man overboard.

3. Slow the boat to a crawl (bare steerageway) when you are halfway through the turn and spot the person abeam; use just enough power for control.

4. Stop near the victim. Tie a large bowline in one end of a line and heave that to the person. Pull him or her alongside and tie off the line. If the person is unconscious, you must make an approach to bring him or her right next to the boat. Stopped in a seaway, a boat lies beam to the seas, and this causes it to roll from side to side. To prevent injury, place fenders or cushions on the recovery side of the hull before you bring the person alongside. Loop a line around the person and under his/her arms. Cleat off the line until you work out a way to
get the person onto the boat (see the section on recovery methods).

In a powerboat, approach an overboard crewmember by turning the wheel toward him.

On a sailboat, one way to approach the overboard crew is by sailing onto a broad reach, tacking, broad reaching, and making the fi nal approach on a close reach. Luff the mainsail to slow the boat to a stop.

Sailing Vessel Approaches



1. Throw floatation (life jacket, life ring, cushion, fender); assign crew to maintain continuous visual contact.

2. Fall off to a broad reach.

3. Wait until you sail about five boat lengths from the person; then perform a quick tack. Fall off to a broad reach and luff the headsail completely. You need to be downwind of the person before turning up toward them.

4. Head up onto a close reach as soon as possible. When within one or two boat lengths, luff both sails to stop the boat and bring the person alongside.


1. Throw floatation; maintain continuous visual contact.

2. Tack immediately and fall off to a run. Do not release the headsail sheet. Sheet the mainsail to the centerline to flatten and depower the main.

3. Jibe; release the headsail sheet.

4. Head into the wind alongside
the man overboard, or continue
circling the victim with a trailing
line (see the Lifesling Method

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Not all vessels perform the quick-stop method eff ectively. For in experienced or shorthanded crews, try heaving-to (see below). Then perform these four steps:

 1. Throw floatation.

 2. Get a bearing on the victim
before you lose contact.

 3. If more crew are below, get
their attention by shouting or using a whistle or horn.

 4. If you are alone, use the

Lifesling recovery method
discussed below.



The Lifesling—a horseshoe-shaped,
throwable device with a polypropylene trail line attached—off ers an easy way for inexperienced crews to bring a
person alongside for recovery. If you do not have a Lifesling aboard, you can still use this method for recovery.

1. Powerboats should turn the wheel toward the person, slow to idle speed, and continue to turn. Make a circle around the person in the water. Sailboats should use the quick-stop maneuver described above, but continue to sail around the person in a circle.

2. Throw the buoyancy device on the trail line (or a floatation device attached to a line) inside the circle, toward the person. Continue around the circle until the person in the water grabs the device.

3. Stop the boat immediately. Powerboats should place both engines into neutral. Sailboats should luff up and drop sails. After the person dons the Life sling device, pull the person alongside. Tie off your end of the line to a cleat.

4. Drop lifelines in the recovery
area. Sailing vessels may be able
to recover the person by attaching
the main halyard to the top of the Lifesling and winching the person aboard. In any kind of seaway, however, the person may swing out and slam back into the hull. Decide on the best recovery method to prevent injury.


Most crews practice overboard recovery in controlled conditions, such as:

• Daylight

• Smooth water and light to moderate winds

• With a lightweight “victim,” such as a fender

• With crew on deck and anticipating the exercise

• Recovery using a boathook
Imagine lying on your belly and holding onto the boat with one hand.

Now, reach down and pull 150 to 200 pounds up 2 to 3 feet of freeboard and onto the boat.

Throw in a gale-force wind and heavy seas. This might be the reality of what you face in a live overboard recovery.

How about swim grids or ladders? On powerboats, swim platforms can become sledgehammers as the boat rises and falls in heavy seas.

Sailing vessels with reverse transoms could present the same problem. All vessels should exercise caution when recovering from the stern with a swim ladder.

In all but the calmest seas, move the swim ladder to a location between the beam and stern quarter to prevent crushing-type injury.


The difficulties and hazards of recovery demonstrate the need to practice preventive measures in all types of weather. These tips will help keep you and your crew
on board:

1. Keep one hand for the boat and one for yourself.

2. Grasp a solid, through-bolted object at all times.

3. When moving, crouch to lower your center of gravity and keep your knee creases below the upper lifeline levels (most upper lifelines on production boats, however, are too low).

4. During night watches or when the weather worsens, don a safety harness, clip it to jacklines whenever you’re outside the cockpit and to padeyes whenever you’re in the cockpit and crouch even lower to the deck. In extreme conditions, crawl to and from the foredeck.