It was every sailor’s worst nightmare when 22-year-old Sam Goodchild fell overboard during Leg 2 of this year’s Global Ocean Race. Luckily, both Goodchild and his co-skipper, Conrad Colman, are sailing instructors, so they knew what to do.
When a 10-knot wind turned to 30, Goodchild went up to the foredeck to drop the jib. Both he and Colman, who was at the helm, saw the monstrous wave just before it broke over the bow of their Class40 Cessna Citation. Colman tried to bear away, but it was too late. Goodchild, in his haste, hadn’t clipped on or donned a life jacket, and was swept over the lifelines.
As soon as Goodchild went overboard, Colman tried to toss him a line, but Goodchild was unable to reach it and could only watch helplessly as the boat sailed away. Because Goodchild had been mid-sail change when the wave hit, it took Colman 10 minutes to tack the boat and several more to retrieve him.
During this time, Goodchild forced himself to calm down and then stripped off any unnecessary layers of clothing that were pulling him down. Luckily, he had a knife in his pocket, which he used to cut off his bright yellow hood, and when Colman came back, he waved it as a flag. Ultimately, due to Colman’s good sense to hit the MOB button on his GPS after Goodchild fell in, creating a waypoint, and his careful return to the scene where Goodchild had remained calm, the two young men were able to reunite in rough, low-visibility conditions before Goodchild was too cold or tired to hang on.
What would you do in this situation? No one thinks it’s going to happen to them, but knowing how to prevent an MOB situation is the best way to be prepared. Learning from Goodchild’s mistakes, the first essentials in heavy weather are to clip on when on the foredeck, and to wear a lifejacket. Never forget that a lifejacket alone may keep you afloat, but won’t keep you out of the water, so use that harness. (A combo harness-jacket is ideal.) In addition, while they won’t help in the case of a giant wave, skid resistant shoes will give you a foothold in slippery spray.
Crews are often comprised of one sailing enthusiast and their less-experienced friends and family members. Remember that the man overboard could be the captain, so the rest of the crew needs to know how to maneuver the boat in case of emergency. Do some practice man-overboard drills so the crew won’t be left trying to figure things out for the first time in an actual emergency. Perhaps even jump off the transom on a warm, calm day (with your lifejacket on) and leave it up to your crew to let you sink or swim, so to speak. For more tips, see 10 Best Ways to Prevent Man Overboard.
In an ideal world, your boat would be tidy and everyone would be safely in the cockpit. But when racing, preventable measures for a MOB are not always possible.
When Accidents Happen
The first thing to remember in the case of a man overboard situation is to stay calm. It’s also important to shout “Man Overboard!” as soon as you see someone in the water, keep sight of them and physically point to where they are. Ideally, a member of the crew should be given the job of doing this and this alone while the rest of the crew maneuvers the boat and prepares heaving lines and any other retrieval equipment you may have onboard.
Try to stay within 5-10 boatlengths of the MOB and, like Colman, throw a line that’s attached to the boat with some kind of flotation on the end to the MOB as quickly as possible. A light or anything bright is a plus for helping to relocate the victim. If you have a GPS with an MOB button, pushing it as soon as possible will help you to re-locate the victim if you float away or if the visibility is low. Most GPS devices will record your latitude and longitude and plot your return course.
For quick maneuverability, turn into the wind immediately before dropping the sails, then drop the sails and turn on the engine to get back to the victim. Don’t forget to put the engine into neutral as you get close. No need for a double-calamity. Calling for help is an option, but not the fastest one. If you need additional help, look for nearby boats and turn your VHS to channel 16 for a mayday.
A great piece of affordable gear to have on hand is the Man Overboard VHS, which floats and flashes a red LED when it hits water. A solo sailor might keep this on him or her, or a crew member can toss it to the MOB to call for help while the crew swings back around.
Hard to Find/Retrieve MOB
In the case that you do not know where your man overboard is located, you’ll need to start a search pattern. This is where boat handling will be imperative. For common search pattern diagrams and instructions, see our guide.
Getting your MOB out of the water can be another pickle. Check out our handy tips for retrieving a man-overboard without any special equipment.
In the end, SAIL contributor Kimball Livingston suggests that the most important thing is to know your boat and your crew, and have a plan.