Man Overboard: Practice Techniques
Although the odds of losing someone overboard are minimal, it’s vital to practice and master an MOB drill so you can get back to and retrieve your crewmate quickly and efficiently. It’s an important skill and one that your shipmates will certainly appreciate; it is also a great confidence booster, whether you are the captain, the first mate or a crewmember.
There are several ways of getting the boat back to a person in the water. However, never forget that getting back to the MOB is only part of the equation. It is no use getting back to the MOB only to find you cannot get the casualty back on board, so we have developed a retrieval technique that does not depend on raw physical strength.
Almost every boat has a Lifesling attached to the stern rail, and this is what we use. The Lifesling drill is well documented—you sail in circles around the MOB until the Lifesling makes contact with the MOB, who slips it on. However, there’s more to it than that. Specifically, you must learn to stop the boat quickly after getting the Lifesling to the MOB. Having been the MOB test subject in some drills, I can assure you that being towed in a Lifesling harness at any speed will guarantee you your minimum daily requirement of seawater and then some. (As a side note, letting your students or crew practice on you is an interesting learning experience in and of itself: as long as you have someone else—another skipper or an instructor—onboard who can get back to you if the students can’t.)
Getting the person in the water back on board, especially when the person on deck is quite a bit lighter than the person in the water, is often the most difficult part. I have heard stories of wives towing dead husbands into port when they were not able to get them on board in time.
How to do the Quickstop
The “quickstop” method combined with a Lifesling retrieval is probably the fastest method to get a person back on board. If the boat is properly set up, and the crew has had some basic training, it’s easy to do.
This is how we teach our students to respond to a MOB emergency:
- Tack immediately without touching the jib sheets.
- Let the jib back so you are hove-to. If you have a spinnaker up, let it wrap around the headstay. You can sort the mess out later.
- Shout “Man Overboard!” Delegate a crewmember to keep eyes on the MOB and press the MOB button on the GPS.
- Deploy the Lifesling immediately before you sail past the MOB.
- Ease the genoa or asym sheet if needed to maintain 2-3 knots.
- Gybe over so you end up half a boat length downwind of the MOB. Circle the MOB till they can grab the float.
- Roll up the jib first (ideally while off the wind).
- Head up and drop the main. Do not start the engine. Put the gear lever in reverse to stop the prop spinning.
- Pull in the Lifesling and MOB till they are as close as possible. Secure the Lifesling line near the front of the cockpit. Prepare to retrieve the MOB.
Remember to tack immediately. Keep close to the victim. It’s astonishing how easy it is to lose sight of the MOB in any kind of a seaway. By letting the jib backwind, you will slow the boat down, and things will be more controlled. Go too slow however, and you lose control. Of course, if you have a self-tacking headsail, you won’t have that problem.
Every boat will behave differently. Even the same boat will heave-to quite differently with a 110 percent jib versus a 150 percent genoa. Masthead rigs with large genoas will not heave-to very well, and may be hard to gybe from the hove-to position. Easing the jib out somewhat is the simple solution.
You must practice this on any boat you are unfamiliar with to see how the boat heaves-to, and figure out how to hoist the Lifesling up.
Here is how we get the person back on board the boat:
- Attach a block to a strong halyard—main or spinnaker.
- Run a hoist line, preferably with a snap shackle on its end, through the block on the halyard and clip the snap shackle to the D rings on the LifeSling harness.
- Pass the hoist line through a block on the deck that is positioned to give it a fair lead to a primary winch. Sometimes a genoa lead block is fine, but often such a block is too far forward. A block on the toerail a few feet aft of the lifeline gate is ideal, as the MOB can be brought through the gate.
- Raise the halyard till the block is about 8ft to 10ft above the deck. Open the lifeline gate.
- Using the primary winch, which is hopefully self-tailing, hoist the MOB back onboard. The 2:1 purchase, combined with the power of the primary winch, should be sufficient for a weaker crew member to hoist a fully clothed and dripping wet adult male on board.
MOB RETRIEVAL DEVICES
A vertical hoist, such as with the Lifesling, works best if the MOB is able to assist. Various commercially made products for MOB retrieval have been marketed over the years. SAIL has tested two such units that are designed for lifting unconscious or semi-conscious people out of the water.
Resembling a small trawl net with a carbon-fiber outrigger, the Sea Scoopa’s leading edge is weighted down so that it can be maneuvered under the MOB. Once captured in the net, the MOB is winched back aboard. “The Scoopa is well designed and worked well during our trials,” reported cruising editor Charles J. Doane, adding that it was “bulky, heavy and somewhat complex” and better suited to larger boats. The need to approach the MOB while using the engine is also a concern. seascoopa.com
Designed by a British cruiser who wanted to be sure she could retrieve her husband should he fall off their 55-footer, the MobMat is basically a long sling with large hoisting straps. Compared to the Sea Scoopa, the MobMat is “much lighter, easier to handle and stow, and doesn’t require any special gear or arrangements on deck,” according to Doane. As with the Scoopa, you will need to maneuver alongside the MOB to pick him up, or drift down on him. Getting the MOB into the sling and hoisting him aboard was easy work. mobmat.com
The simplest way to get an MOB back onboard is to get the casualty up a bathing ladder at the stern, but this is only safe in very calm conditions. Even in one foot waves, the stern will be pitching up and down in a way that makes boarding extremely difficult. If there is no Lifesling on board and the stern is crashing around, try to rig a ladder on the side. If that’s not possible, a knotted “manrope” to haul on and a couple of loops for the MOB’s feet may help, although the persons legs will be very unstable when standing on what is essentially a rope swing. Some clothes don’t drain and can hold loads of water, making it very hard to climb out. If this is the case, you might need to take one of the foot loops to a winch to haul the MOB out. Again, all boats should be outfitted with a LifeSling (and a Captain and crew that has practiced using it!) to avoid these issues.
Photo by Charles J. Doane; Illustration by dickeveritt.com