How do you get a man-overboard out of the water and back on the boat without special equipment?
By John Conolly
If your boat doesn’t have dedicated equipment for getting a person in the water back on board with a minimum of effort—this includes a boarding ladder or a sugar-scoop transom—you’ll have to improvise. In the course of many MOB location and retrieval exercises with the Modern Sailing Academy, on San Francisco Bay, we’ve tried many ways of getting people out of the water. There are two distinct approaches, depending on whether the MOB is active or injured/unconscious.
For this exercise we tried various methods of getting an active person—one who can help himself—back on board without resorting to specialized equipment. Several methods worked well; in all cases a dedicated throwing line was used to get the MOB alongside the boat. Note that anywhere outside of the tropics, speed is of the essence when you’re dealing with an MOB situation, as it doesn’t take long for strength-sapping hypothermia to set in.
The following suggestions assume that the boat in question is a small cruising boat (though a man-overboard situation can of course occur on any boat of any size); that there are only two people on board (additional crew makes a rescue much easier, of course); and that the boat carries extra line. Make sure the engine is in neutral and, as always, use common sense and good judgment.
Tie a line to a convenient cleat, drop it in the water at the feet of the MOB, and then lead the other end to a cockpit winch, making a loop. Tell the MOB to position him- or herself in the middle of that line. Then slowly crank the winch while the MOB stands on top of the line. The MOB will be lifted up to the point at which he can get a leg on the toerail and you can provide further help. Most of the active “victims” in our tests really liked this method, but some found that it took a lot of strength. The key to the elevator method is, however, balance, not strength.
This option was slower than the elevator method, but was quite reliable. Almost every one of our “victims” could use it effectively, and it is simple and intuitive for both rescuer and MOB. Tie one end of a line to a cleat and lower it into the water until it forms a bight about 4 feet below the surface. Then lead the other end of the line around a fixed point on the deck and back to the cleat. Cleat it off to secure it, and drop a second bight about 3 feet deep into the water. Continue to form bights until a rough rope ladder has been formed and the MOB can climb back aboard.
Double over a line and tie a big double bowline. Pass this to the MOB, who then sits in one of the loops and puts the other loop around his upper body. Then tie another bowline farther up the line, fix a halyard to it, and lead the halyard to a winch. At this point you can winch the MOB on board. A two-speed winch makes this a relatively easy job; with a one-speed winch, lifting a heavy person out of the water would be very difficult, if not impossible.
Interlocking life jackets
During our tests we carried on board a number of Type 1 PFDs, USCG-approved for offshore use. We simply interlocked three or four of these bulky jackets, placed the topmost one over a winch, and dangled the others over the side. The MOB put a foot in the lower life jacket, pulling it under water, and then continued to climb up the remaining jackets to get aboard. What the Coast Guard calls Type 2 jackets did not work at all; they just came apart when the victim put weight on them.
Getting an unconscious person out of the water is a daunting task, especially for one rescuer. We tried several methods that required the rescuer to go into the water to help the “victim” and found them to be time-consuming and dangerous. One had the rescuer put the victim into a bosun’s chair. Another involved putting a safety harness on the victim. In both cases, a halyard would then be used to raise the victim aboard. Both procedures took 20 to 30 minutes and were generally deemed to be unsatisfactory. There was only one approach we thought would work in real-world conditions, as follows. Note that unless it is absolutely vital that the rescuer goes into the water, I strongly advise against it. If you must go into the water, make sure you are connected to the boat with a rope long enough to give you plenty of slack, and that the engine and helm are secured.
If the rescuer absolutely has to go into the water to help an unconscious or injured victim, this is the only rescue method I would recommend. It requires skillful boathandling and quick thinking. Ideally, you need to have an inflatable dinghy either already in the water or on deck and ready to be deployed; in both instances you’ll also need as long a line as you can get your hands on quickly. Position the boat to windward of the MOB, get yourself into the dinghy, and allow the boat to drift down on the person in the water. We found that a rescuer could pull a smaller victim into the inflatable. When the victim was the same size as the rescuer, we partially deflated the dinghy on one side; it was still difficult to roll the person aboard, but it was possible. (If the victim is much larger the rescuer, it may prove impossible.) Deflating the dinghy even more makes it easier to get the MOB into it, while still providing vital flotation. It also gives the rescuer a bit of time to organize a way to get the victim from the inflatable onto the boat; for this I recommend the double-bowline method.
If the MOB is or appears to be injured, take a moment to try to identify the nature of the injury. A broken rib, for example, could factor into your actions.
Should you call for help? This is a tough decision; it takes time to put out a mayday. Are other boats nearby? Is there a VHF in the cockpit? It is crucial to keep the MOB in sight at all times. If you can get the victim into the dinghy, he or she will be reasonably safe and can wait there for help to arrive. Use your judgment.
How To Throw A Rope
The ocean-training boats we use at the Modern Sailing Academy are equipped with a throw bag, a ladder, and a Lifesling, all of which I recommend carrying on any boat. However, you should be prepared to make contact with an MOB without special equipment; this means being able to throw a line as effectively as possible. Quickly form four or five small loops in your throwing hand. Then make four or five larger loops in your other hand; arrange the loops in the order in which they will leave your hand when the line is thrown. Throw the small bundle of loops first. They will pull the second group of loops from your stationary hand. A sideways throw can work well and improve accuracy.
John Connolly is head instructor at the Modern Sailing Academy, Sausalito, California.