Skip to main content

At The Helm: Man Overboard!

  • Author:
  • Updated:
Not the best time to go forward! 

Not the best time to go forward! 

Imagine this simple scenario: the boat’s powered up, sailing close-hauled in a building breeze under full sail. I come on deck as the skipper during the watch change to make sure the new crew is comfortable and the boat is properly set up for both the current conditions and those expected over the next four to eight hours. The helm feels a little heavy, and it’s going to be dark soon, so we decide to roll up part of the genoa, bringing it in to the first reef mark. In doing so, we’ve also got to move the car forward in order to keep the sheet lead correct—we want it pulling “down” on the leech of the sail as well as aft along the foot to maintain proper shape.

By now our Swan 59, Icebear, is dipping the leeward rail from time to time, and the low side has become the “dangerous” side for the crew who need to work their way forward in order to re-position the car. This maneuver is routine and can happen several times over the course of a four-hour watch when conditions are variable. It’s also risky, making it a great test case for Icebear’s man-overboard safety practices.

As a skipper, if the words “man overboard” don’t send icy chills down your spine, you’re probably not doing enough to prevent it from happening. You go overboard, you’re dead. Simple as that. If we get you back—well, you’ve been very, very lucky.

Safety briefings on our boats begin and end with an emphasis on staying aboard. Conventional wisdom says it’s your life jacket and tether that keeps you safe. That’s wrong. It’s you. You keep yourself on the boat. Your thought processes and decision-making skills keep you on the boat. Your physical ability and your balance keep you on the boat. Your awareness of handholds, footholds and tethering points keeps you on the boat, as does the explicit understanding that the edge of the deck is no different than that of a 2,000ft cliff. Go overboard, and the consequences are the same. At sea, it just takes a while longer. That’s what keeps you on the boat.

John Kretschmer in his must-read Sailing a Serious Ocean calls this “thinking like a sailor.” To me, it simply means awareness. It’ may be cliché, but it means always keeping one hand for the ship—even when you’re in the head! It means working up the high side of the boat as you move forward, so that if you stumble, you fall into the boat, not over the side. It means not standing in way of the boom should you accidentally jibe, and not using loaded winches or sheets as handholds in case they should fail. It means putting knives down in the sink and not on the counter and avoiding cooking meals that require boiling water in heavy weather.

Life jackets, tethers, jacklines—these are all crucial safety items. However, they’re also secondary and only to be relied upon should your awareness fail. If you’ve ever needed to rely on a tether to save your butt, it should still give you chills.

Back to our scenario. Since we’re not racing, there is no penalty for altering course in order to make this kind of sail adjustment that much safer and easier. I’ll bear away from the wind until the boat is on a beam or even a broad reach. By doing so, we’ll lower the apparent wind speed and flatten the boat, thereby making rolling in the genoa and going forward that much safer and easier. Once the jib lead has been adjusted, the crew returns to the cockpit, we trim sail, and I gradually bring the boat back up, hard on the wind.

Of course, we have life jackets on and tethers attached throughout. But again, they are only there to serve as our secondary mode of safety.

It’s worth noting I also end each and every one of our man-overboard briefings with a simple rule—if both primary and secondary modes fail and somebody were to go over the side, STOP THE BOAT! We don’t any waste time or mental energy thinking about Williamson turns or reciprocal bearings. We just slam the helm down hard to windward, shout so the world can hear, wrestle the sails down and attempt a recovery under power.

While on passage, I also quiz the crew several times each watch on which way is windward. (Hint: it’s always away from the boom, even if you’re wing-and-wing).

This “quick-stop” method, in my view, risks the least amount of damage to the boat’s rig and sails, and simultaneously puts the least amount of distance between the boat and the person in the water. The odds of getting the person back alive are still pretty slim—even if you can find them, how, for example, do you avoid having the hull slam down on their head or haul them back aboard over 6ft of freeboard? But at least you’ve given them a fighting chance. Bottom line: stay on the boat. 

Andy Schell is a veteran delivery captain and co-owner, with his wife, Mia Karlsson, of the adventure-charter company 59 North, which specializes in providing sail-training and offshore passagemaking opportunities. Visit for more information.

April 2021



The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Thomas Thor Tangvald

The first boat Thomas Tangvald ever owned was just 22 feet long. She was an odd craft, a narrow plywood scow with a flat bottom, leeboards on either side, and square ends—little more than a daysailer with a rotting deck and tiny cabinhouse tacked on. Thomas paid just $200 for more


USVI Charter Yacht Show Showcases a Flourishing Industry

As the U.S. Virgin Islands continues to attract sailors seeking to charter and explore the pristine territory on their own, the immense growth and expanded options for a crewed yacht or term charters have exploded here over the past five years. Last week, the USVI Charter more


Personal Locator Beacon Wins Top Design Award

The Ocean Signal RescueME PLB3 AIS Personal Locator took top honors at the 2022 DAME Design Awards, while Aceleron Essential, a cobalt-free lithium-iron phosphate battery with replaceable and upgradeable parts, won the first DAME Environmental Design Award. Announced each year more


EPIRB in the Golden Globe Race

Tapio Lehtinen’s boat sank early this morning southeast of South Africa while racing the Golden Globe Race, a faithfully low-tech reproduction of the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe. The boat went down quickly and stern-first according to the skipper’s emergency transmissions. more


Victory, Tragedy in the Route du Rhum

The 2022 Route du Rhum was a highly anticipated event in the ocean racing calendar, but few could have predicted exactly how challenging, dramatic, and tragic it would ultimately prove. French yachtsman Charles Caudrelier took home gold aboard the Ultim maxi trimaran Maxi Edmond more


Boat Review: Lyman-Morse LM46

Lyman-Morse has been building fine yachts in Thomaston, Maine, ever since Cabot Lyman first joined forces with Roger Morse back in 1978. With experience creating and modifying boats built of various materials, backed by its own in-house fabrication facility, the firm has more


Know-how: All-new Battery Tech

Until very recently, the batteries in sailboats used some form of lead-acid chemistry to store energy. Different manufacturers used different techniques and materials, but in the end, the chemistry and the process by which the batteries charge and discharge electricity remained more


At the Helm: When Things Go Sideways

I don’t like sea stories. My number one goal on every passage is to get the crew back in one piece. My number two goal is to get the boat back in one piece as well. If I can’t do both, I’ll take the former. Do this long enough, though, and things are going to happen, no matter more