Tips and Tricks to Prevent Falling Overboard
Those are the two words no one on any boat ever wants to hear. It is no surprise then that MOB recovery is a subject high on the list of any sail training activity. Kids in Optis and 420’s learn about it. Sailing schools teach it, offshore races have seminars on it, and there are detailed reports and debriefings on it. Many offshore races require entrants to practice MOB recoveries before the start. Manufacturers invent and sell specialized equipment with a view to recovering the unfortunate victim from the water. In all this, however, very little is mentioned about how to not go overboard in the first place. Here are some of the things I think about when staying onboard.
Motion: Sailing is the only activity I can think of where we are subject to continuous three-axis motion with pitch, roll and yaw. This motion is by and large generated by the sea state and wind. To some degree we account for odd changes in motion automatically with our internal gyro, but it is the unexpected motions that cause problems. We often remark to the crew, “Look out for the power boat wash…” How many times have we heard a mate say they were caught off balance by a (fill in the blanks) and hurt their (blank)?
Focus on the NOW: Think about sea conditions in a proactive way. Be attuned to the size and direction of the ground swell, the superimposed wind waves on top of the swell and the waves that are larger than normal. Get used to thinking about the way the boat is moving. It behooves the crew to be aware at all times of the potential for waves that are out of sync with the established pattern.
Apparent wind angle: Off the wind, be mindful of how the boat’s motion is affected by the wind angle, the size of the waves and the speed of the boat. Downwind, a boat without a cruising spinnaker will roll in sudden and unpredictable ways. With a spinnaker set, a boat is more powered up, so it will not only be faster, but more stable, too. Less rolling is also good for those inclined toward seasickness.
Self–steering: It’s a great tool, but an autopilot cannot yell out “Hang on, here’s a biggie!” The first thing you’ll notice is the boat making some sudden move, perhaps right when you are between handholds. For the folks out there sailing multihulls, beware of the false sense of security that can result because the boat is not heeling. Multihulls have a much faster and jerkier motion than monohulls. This motion can unbalance you just as easily as the slower roll of a monohull.
Reefing: Reducing sail lets the boat sail more upright, there is often less noise from a flogging mainsail (a stressor in my experience), it eases the pressure on the helm, reduces the tendency for a boat to launch off waves and reduces the general feeling of being overpowered or out of control.
Balance: I recently noticed that with age I can get a little off-balance if I make a sudden three-axis move—like when I stand up from my chair, move forward and then start a turn at the same time. Fortunately, my physician tells me this is not only normal but can be minimized with exercises. To improve your balance, ride a bike (a real one not a stationary one) or stand on a Bosu ball, the balls that are popular in gyms—flat on top with a partially inflated hemisphere on the bottom. Or you can also just stand on one leg for as long as you can—it is surprising how that helps. It also helps to spend time sailing small dinghies.
Overall fitness: If you’re more flexible you will not get banged up as easily. If you are not sore you spend less time feeling tired and can be more attuned to what is going on aboard the boat. We have all made mistakes when tired.
Experience: Time offshore is also a factor, particularly in bigger seas and higher winds. Few of us particularly enjoy sailing in unpleasant conditions, but if you sail long enough, you will get to do so. Better to be prepared for it than not. So on those days when you might otherwise think it is blowing too hard, go out anyway. Who knows, you might even end up enjoying yourself!
Practice: Sail up the bay and practice walking around the boat. Get out of the cockpit, put a reef in, take it out, use the small sails, (make sure you have small sails!) and take turns steering in the wind and waves. Above all, spend time watching the waves and how the boat reacts to them. Practice removes fear, and without a bunch of fear taking up space in your mental RAM, life becomes much easier.
Handrails: I much prefer to hold onto handrails than lifelines. They don’t wiggle around so much, they are well inboard, and they are much more secure.
Lifeline height: Lifelines are commonly 24 inches high, although aboard boats 30 feet and under they are often only 18 inches. Very few boats, usually only ones over about 45-50 feet, have 30-inch life lines. For someone over six foot, like me, 30 inches is right behind my knees, a perfect pivot point for flipping me overboard. I therefore generally try and move about in a crouched position, so that if I get pushed against the lifelines, I will hit them with my hip.
The lifeline “circuit”: Lifelines, their connections, the stanchions, the stanchion bases and the bow and stern pulpits all need to be inspected regularly and kept as rigid as possible. Think about the strain on the lifeline system after swimming or when boarding from a dock, dinghy or launch; we usually grab the lifelines and heave ourselves up. This stresses not only the lines, but also the stanchion bases. For the same reason, try to get into the habit of pushing the boat off the dock by the gunwale, as opposed to using the lifelines and stanchions the way most people do.
Lifelines and the forward pulpit: Some modern boats have the wire passing through the pulpit tube, so that there’s one continuous length of wire around the entire hull. Be aware that it is difficult to inspect the wire in this situation and that if any part fails, you now have no lifeline on either side of the boat.
Plastic-coated lifelines: This looks great, but hides the corrosion that occurs under the plastic. I once had the unpleasant experience of grabbing onto the lifelines to swing myself up onto a boat, only to have the wire fail and promptly land me stern first on the dock.
Turnbuckle security: I have been on boats where the lifeline turnbuckles have lock nuts that are loose, which can allow the threaded stud to unwind.
Upgrading lifelines: Use uncoated wire and put the turnbuckle at the cockpit end, where you spend the bulk of your time and can keep track of what is going on with them. I would avoid using composite cordage lifelines, because they give no notice before they are going to fail. With wire, you can see the strands breaking and have time to replace it. Not so with cordage.
Is there a preventer rigged? If there’s one thing worse than an MOB it is an MOB who has been knocked unconscious by the boom. There are many ways to rig a preventer. At the basic level, secure a length of line to the boom and lead it to the gunwale as far outboard and forward as possible. Ideally, it will then be led aft to the cockpit where it can be easily adjusted by the crew or helmsman. Of course, there are also any number of ways to make this arrangement more permanent. Also be careful when working on the foredeck with a spinnaker or whisker pole. It need not be the main boom that beans you.
Where are you going and why? Are you being proactive or reactive and with what degree of urgency? There is a big difference between moving around the boat with a considered proactive purpose while staying aware of and paying attention to the sea state and responding to something with minimal contemplation. Consider, for instance, going to the bow to check that the anchor lashings are secure. This is a deliberate act planned out in advance with the route thought through. Compare this to how you normally react when there’s a sudden glitch up forward. You don’t want to immediately leap out of the cockpit and rush forward while focusing solely on the perceived problem.
Safety harness: We are often admonished to wear our lifejackets. That is fine in a dinghy, but as a practical matter we often don’t wear lifejackets on bigger boats all the time. And a lifejacket does not keep you on the boat.
I carry with me and frequently use a harness. It is pushing 20 years old, is washed after every outing, is kept out of the sun as much as possible, and is simple to put on, wear and attach to a tether. I have a regular 6-foot tether and a smaller 4-foot one. The long one is good for walking around, the smaller one I clip onto a hard point when I get to where I am going. I clip onto something attached to the boat so if I am washed off my feet or knees I travel only 4 feet. A harness combined with an inflatable lifejacket is a useful piece of equipment for offshore sailors.
I find it interesting looking at pictures of French solo sailors. Any time I see them wearing safety gear, it’s a harness, not a lifejacket. This is not because they are careless or foolhardy. Rather, they have a well-developed sense of what the sea and boat are doing both around them and under them. And I bet they practice that old saw my father taught me: one hand for yourself and one for the ship.
Joe Cooper is a veteran ocean racer and shorthanded sailor. He lives in Newport, RI.