Back On Board: Testing the Latest Man-Overboard Gear
Much has changed since the staff at SAIL last conducted live-action MOB tests a decade ago. Gear for both locating and recovering persons lost overboard has been refined and improved, as was dramatically demonstrated last summer in the Fastnet Race, when the entire crew of the racing maxi Rambler 100 ended up in the water after the boat lost its keel and capsized. In the end it was MOB gear—specifically, two Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)—carried by the crew that led to their rescue.
One thing certainly has not changed. The danger of losing crew overboard is as primal as it ever was, and the ability to respond quickly and effectively will always be vitally important. Buying the latest gear is all well and good, but you must also practice using it in order to be properly prepared.
Locating Victims: Kannad Marine SafeLink R10 Survivor Rescue System
The biggest advance in MOB gear since we last threw staff members overboard is the advent of AIS-based personal rescue beacons. Ten years ago the only way for crew on a vessel to electronically locate other crew in the water was with radio direction finders that we found to be unreliable and hard to use. PLBs now make it possible for distant SAR authorities to locate MOB victims via 406-MHz satellite signals, but these are of no use to potential rescuers in the victim’s immediate vicinity. The latest generation of personal locators, which transmit VHF signals on Automatic Identification System frequencies over a short range, promise to fill this gap, and one of the first examples, Kannad Marine’s SafeLink R10 SRS unit, has only recently received FCC approval.
The R10 is light and compact and can easily be clipped on to a lifejacket or harness. When activated it becomes an AIS target and should appear as such to any active AIS receiver within about 4 miles. The Coast Guard in Portland, Maine, where we conducted our trials, asked that we not cast the beacon adrift, so we instead clipped it to a small MOB dummy, which we tethered to a mooring.
We monitored the R10’s signal on a Vesper Marine AIS Watchmate receiver aboard our test vessel, a 39-foot cutter, and checked its accuracy against a separate GPS chartplotter. Even as we maneuvered away from the test dummy, motored behind a nearby island and changed course several times, our AIS receiver constantly displayed a perfectly accurate bearing and range back to our “victim.” Checking with the Coast Guard, we found they too had seen the target on their AIS display almost exactly four miles away.
The only problem was the somewhat ambiguous nature of the signal. When the R10 was first ignited, our Vesper receiver announced it had received a message, “MOB Active,” that also referenced what purported to be an MMSI number, together with the date and time of activation. Once we acknowledged the message, it was archived and the display from then on referenced the target’s MMSI number, its range, bearing, status, etc., with no obvious indication the target was in distress. The Coast Guard, meanwhile, advised us they saw nothing on their display that suggested to them the R10’s transmission was anything out of the ordinary.
This is not the fault of the R10 transmitter, but a function of AIS receivers and those interpreting them. What our receiver interpreted as an MMSI number was, in fact, a non-unique transmit ID number, the prefix of which, 972, identified it as an MOB distress signal. Likewise, the signal’s status number, 14, indicated the transmission related to an emergency message. Unless a given user knows to look for these details, he or she will not easily recognize a transmission as a distress signal.
In the future, as AIS MOB beacons become more common, manufacturers no doubt will configure receivers to make a proper fuss when receiving signals from them. Until then, we can strongly recommend the R10 and similar units as a very effective way to find overboard crew, with the proviso that you must understand how your specific AIS receiver will interpret the unit’s transmission. If you like, you can install an accessory alarm, like the Digital Yacht AIS LifeGuard, whose sole purpose is to alert users to the receipt of AIS distress calls.
Also, because you cannot expect others in the area to recognize an AIS MOB signal, it would be wise to reference your rescue beacon’s ID number when making an MOB Mayday transmission.
The first retrieval unit we tested, the Sea Scoopa (seascoopa.com), from Australia, is the only gear we’ve ever used that truly does make it possible to recover an unconscious or absolutely disabled MOB victim from the water without getting in yourself. Essentially it is a small trawl net with a carbon-fiber outrigger. You maneuver alongside the victim, capture him or her in the Scoopa’s net, and then parbuckle them aboard by hoisting the outboard end of the net aloft on a halyard led to a winch.
MOB Retrieval Test #1: The Sea Scoopa
The Scoopa is well designed and worked flawlessly during our trials. The leading edge of the net is weighted with chain to keep it submerged when deployed; the back edge is dressed with bights of polypropylene line to help keep it afloat and to provide handholds if necessary; and the outrigger pole breaks down into three parts that are joined by a strong internal elastic shock cord. The unit is housed in a special turtle bag that folds into thirds when stowed away.
Though very effective, the Scoopa is bulky, heavy and somewhat complex. This is not a piece of buy-it-and-forget-it equipment you can leave in a locker until needed. It took us nearly an hour to rig our borrowed Scoopa for the first time, as we had to install various strops and shackles along the toerail to get it properly positioned and tensioned. Once these adjustments are made, the unit can be deployed much more rapidly. Still, to be most effective the Scoopa should be stored on deck, all ready to go, which may not be practical on many small to midsize yachts.
It is also absolutely necessary to practice using the Scoopa. To maneuver alongside a victim safely, the helmsman must be able control the rudder and throttle while keeping the MOB in sight at all times. I had little trouble scooping up Senior Editor Adam Cort in calm conditions, but in a seaway it would have been much harder to gauge the approach speed and angle while making sure the engine was in neutral during the pickup. I’d now feel comfortable trying this, but only because I’ve already done it in a controlled situation.
The other horizontal lift we tried, the MobMat, is much more facile. Designed by Liz Rolfs, a British ARC rally cruiser who wanted to be sure she could retrieve her husband if he ever fell off their Discovery 55, this is simply a long sling with large hoisting straps. It is much easier to deploy than the Sea Scoopa, and in some circumstances you may be able to slip it around an unconscious victim in the water, although I wouldn’t count on it. During our trials, Adam felt it necessary to clamber into the sling in order to get himself rescued, but once he was in we had no trouble getting him on deck.
MOB Retrieval Test #2: MobMat
As with the Scoopa, it is necessary to maneuver alongside a victim to pick them up with a MobMat, although you can, if you like, drift down on them, which is less nerve-wracking. It also takes more effort to hoist a victim with the MobMat, as you lose the inherent 2:1 advantage enjoyed by the Scoopa through parbuckling. The upside is the MobMat is much lighter, easier to handle and stow, and doesn’t require any special gear or arrangements on deck to deploy.
Using both horizontal systems, we found it necessary to control two lines during retrieval—a halyard for lifting, and a foreguy (on the Sea Scoopa) or a simple lanyard (on the MobMat) for keeping the sling or net from being swept aft and away from the boat during deployment. With the Scoopa, we found it worked best to lead the foreguy through a block back to a cleat on the mast, so both lines could be controlled simultaneously.
To practice vertical retrievals, we picked up Adam using both a Lifesling and a MOM8-A. The MOM, or Man Overboard Module, is designed to replace a conventional horseshoe ring and MOB pole, and consists of an inflatable horseshoe and pylon that are stowed in a small canister mounted on an aft pulpit. You pull one pin, and with a gratifying whoosh the ring and pylon drop into the water and automatically inflate via CO2 cartridges. Everything is tethered together, including a small drogue that keeps the gear from blowing away too quickly. There is also a light atop the pylon to help you find a victim in the dark.
MOB Retrieval Test #3: MOM8-A
While the MOM is both a primary response and retrieval system, the Lifesling is used solely for retrieval. It is simply a cushioned horseshoe ring attached to the end of a very long polypropylene line, all of which are stored in a soft plastic valise mounted on a boat’s aft pulpit. In both cases, victims are brought aboard by clipping a line to the ends of the horseshoe ring and hoisting them up with the ring under their arms. This requires the active participation of the victim, since he or she must swim into the ring and usually has to make fast the shackle on the hoisting line—unless freeboard on the recovery vessel is low enough that someone aboard can lean over the side and do it for them.
MOB Retrieval Test #4: Lifesling
The great advantage of the Lifesling, compared with every other system we tried, is that you need not maneuver alongside a victim. Instead, you can either throw them the sling, or drop it in the water and circle the victim until it is dragged near them at the end of its line. You can then pull them into the boat in a controlled manner.
Working with the MOM, we found it easiest to aim the boat for the inflated pylon, as this is easy to grab from the deck. This saved us from having to put the boat directly alongside the victim, although still we had to get pretty close.
Once we had a line on our victim, whether he was in a Lifesling or the MOM’s horseshoe, we found a vertical hoist was fairly straightforward. The disadvantage, compared to a horizontal hoist, is that it works much better with a more active victim. The advantage is the gear is much more discrete and can be stowed permanently on deck, so that it is always instantly ready to use.
A crew should be prepared to recover MOB victims both vertically and horizontally, depending on the circumstances. Generally, the more disabled a victim, the more you should favor a horizontal lift. You needn’t buy special horizontal lifting gear like we used, as you can always use a small sail to parbuckle someone aboard, but you should at least have what you need for a vertical lift.
During both horizontal and vertical lifts, we found it best to work near the middle of the boat, near the shrouds. These provide the strongest handholds, both for crew on deck and crew trying to clamber aboard; this is also where it is easiest to use a halyard to lift someone out of the water.
In many cases, you’ll need to drop one or both lifelines in order to get a victim safely aboard. Your lifelines should be rigged so this can be done quickly, with quick-release fasteners or lashings that can be cut with a knife.
Most important, practice is everything. It is the only way for crew to gain experience and confidence and is essential for making sure equipment works when needed. We came away from our tests with big smiles on our faces, not only because we learned a lot, but because we had a lot of fun, too. We certainly don’t plan to wait another 10 years before doing it again.
Victim For A Day
I’ve long wondered what it would be like to fall overboard and was happy to play “victim” for our MOB recovery tests. Despite the carefully controlled conditions, I was struck, once I was in the water, by how badly I wanted the gear to work. Even on a calm sunny day, you want to get back on the boat—bad! The idea of going overboard without an effective recovery system sends shivers down my spine.
After we tested the recovery gear, I went over the side in full foul-weather gear while wearing an Offshore Automatic Inflatable Life Vest from West Marine. It took a couple of seconds for the inflating mechanism to trigger—long seconds, indeed, as again I was instinctively anxious. My only complaint was that the bladder was so full and so buoyant I had difficulty swimming anywhere. That said, when at rest the bladder kept my head well clear of the water.
One surprise was how my foulies lessened the shock of the initial plunge. I expected the 50F water to hit hard, but it took a few seconds for it to work its way in through my jacket and bibs, making for a less startling transition.
Afterward, I switched to the old foam-filled Type III lifevest I use when racing inshore. I didn’t have very high expectations and was pleased at how well it did. Though the my gear was already soaking wet, I barely dipped below the surface; in terms of performance it was indistinguishable from the inflatable vest. Also, it’s streamlined shape and the more evenly distributed flotation material made it easier to swim in.
In both cases—perhaps because of nerves—I had the vest straps cinched down tight, which presumably was one of the reasons they worked so well. No more loose straps for yours truly, especially when it starts blowing! — ADAM CORT