Features August 1, 2005 Issue

Equipping for Crew Overboard Safety

In anticipation of a landmark test of COB retrieval gear scheduled for later this summer, seamanship authority John Rousmaniere assesses the gear we currently rely on.

In crew-overboard situations, you first have to find the victim, make contact, and then recover him or her. There are a number of products marketed for use in those efforts. The two crew above, attempting to retrieve a COB, could make good use of a retrieval device like the Lifesling or a Quick Launch Safety Ladder. Note the great distance frow the water's surface to the deck. In a situation like this, the rescuers should be tethered to the boat as well.

Warren Brown was reminiscing: "That was the only time I've been frightened at sea. I’ve been worried. I've been nervous. I've been in hurricanes. But that was the only time I've ever been truly frightened."

The great Bermudian voyager was referring to the time one of his crewmembers was swept overboard from his 62-foot Sparkman & Stephens sloop War Baby (ex-Tenacious, ex-Dora IV). Before selling War Baby this year, Brown and his boat had voyaged to Spitzbergen, Antarctica, the Galapagos, Eastern Europe, and many points in between. Looking back recently, Brown reveled in his memories—except the one of a black night during one of War Baby's milk runs, a Newport-Bermuda Race.

It was 1990, and on the fourth night War Baby was under three reefs and a small jib in a 35-knot blow and slicing into a rough sea at 8 knots. Jim Leonard went forward to secure a bit of loose rigging on the leeward deck near the mast. After snapping his safety harness tether into an eye on a stanchion base, he was focusing on the task when a wave swept the foredeck, picked him up, and somersaulted him over the lifelines. That was when Leonard discovered that the tether hook had become unclipped. Helpless in War Baby's wake, he shouted and swam with little success toward a light that the helmsman had thrown overboard in a MOM rescue system. (The MOM had only partially inflated, and a Lifesling rescue device that had been deployed had tangled on its line.) War Baby promptly jibed, the crew doused sails, and the vessel came back under power with her searchlight sweeping the water. The lookout soon spied a bit of reflective tape in the water. Three shipmates grabbed Leonard's arms and hauled him on deck. (The incident is described on US SAILING's website www.ussailing.org/safety/rescues/.)

Other skippers might have handled this rescue differently, yet Jim Leonard's life was saved not because of any single tactic, but because War Baby had three things going for her. First, the crew was well-prepared and decisively led. "We had practiced crewoverboard rescues," Brown explained, "and we knew how to talk it through." Second, they turned back quickly and under control. And third, they were lucky to be in warm water. Whenever War Baby headed out into the cold, Brown told me, he always made the following speech to his crew: "If you go over—let's say, if you're not hooked on when you come up the companionway—I want you do one thing. I want you to wave goodbye. And we'll wave goodbye to you, too."

Falls overboard are rare, preventable, and carry tremendous risk. The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that the chances of a fatality when someone is separated from the boat are about one in three. With this in mind, I and a few friends from the West and East Coasts are organizing a trial of recovery skills and equipment on San Francisco Bay on August 9-12. Sponsored by West Marine and the Modern Sailing Academy (a sailing school in Sausalito), these trials will cover the range of what's available today, from cockpit cushions to high-tech lights and locating beacons. We will use a range of vessels, including typical cruising keelboats and powerboats, sport boats, and multihulls. (For more about this and previous trials, go to www.cobevent.com.) I'll write a detailed report for PS readers. In the interim, I offer the following thoughts about COB equipment. This immense, profound topic breaks down into four problems: find the victim, make contact, recover the victim, and prevent falls overboard in the first place.

Finding the Victim
My friend Pat Clark, an ocean sailor of vast experience, points out that in the water, a human head is about the size, shape, and color of a half-submerged coconut. So a COB victim is hard to find even in perfect weather, and even when someone on board is delegated to point. Spotters need help. A GPS instrument with a button that locks the present position in memory is a fine thing. So are the three attention-getting devices I carry in my foul-weather jacket or on my safety harness.

One is the loudest whistle I know, the NRS Storm Safety Whistle (noisy even when blown underwater). The other is a palm-size, water-resistant, disposable Garrity flashlight, available at any hardware store. I'm tired of fumbling around in a slicker jacket for a skinny flashlight that my cold fingers will probably drop anyway. Besides being handy, Garritys are bright and they're buoyant; if someone goes in the water, toss him a Garrity light. The third attention-getter I wear is an ACR Doublefly Rescue Combo light secured to the inside of my SOSpenders combination inflatable safety harness/PFD. When the PFD's inflated, the light is on the outside near my shoulder, well above the water. The Doublefly has two lights, one a strobe, the other incandescent. When one is on, the other is off. A lesson learned at the 1996 COB trials on San Francisco Bay was that while there's nothing better than a strobe light for attracting attention at a distance, pinpointing a strobe from close up is as frustrating as catching a winged firefly in your hand. Rescuers were blinded, and so were our volunteer wet-suited victims in the water during that test. Once the strobe was turned off and an incandescent light was turned on, the victim was easy to find. The problem with the Doublefly is that it's manually operated. I would prefer an automatic, water-activated switch (like the auto inflation on my PFD).

Another seagoing friend swears by a pouch of three tiny Sky Blazer rocket flares that he secures to his harness. Other people, aware that the victim can see the search boat better than the searchers can see the victim, may carry a waterproof VHF radio (in a waterproof bag) so they can direct the rescue boat. Then there are expensive rescue beacons: the Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) that exploits 406 MHz EPIRB technology, sending alerts through satellites; and the Marine Survivor Locator Device (MSLD) that sends a signal over 121.5 MHz on which the boat can home-in. We'll be testing one MSLD, the Sea Marshall, at San Francisco, and perhaps other beacons, too.

Making Contact
Once the victim is spotted, the rescuers need to make contact by providing buoyancy, if it's needed, then by connecting the boat to the victim. If the victim does not have a PFD, toss a cockpit cushion, a life ring, or Lifesling, or deploy a MOM (Man Overboard Module). Pull a handle on the container on the stern pulpit, and out falls a life ring and pylon with a light at its top, attached to each other and a sea anchor with light lines. The ring and pylon should inflate. In terms of range of visibility, a six-foot pylon has a 2.8-mile range—a victim's head has none. (Those are the elements of the MOM 8. In the MOM 9, the life ring is replaced by a small one-person life raft with lifting straps so it can be hoisted with a halyard.)

The MOM is a wonderful thing if it's dropped right near the victim (you can't count on swimming more than a few yards when fully dressed); if it inflates completely; and if the elements aren't tangled. There are stories of MOMs working well and not so well, perhaps because owners ignored manufacturer's instructions to have them professionally packed and inspected.

As for making physical contact, coming directly alongside the victim may not be safe in a rough sea or when the engine's in gear. This is a time to pull the victim to the boat with lines like the ingenious 50- to 70-foot heaving-lines-in-a-bag that West Marine calls the Throw Rope and Landfall Navigation (another leading supplier of safety gear) calls the Throw Bag. Stuffed with the line, the bag serves as the rope's monkey's fist. If you miss, though, you’re left with all that polypropylene to stuff back into the bag; not a job that is best done in a state of anxiety. Or you can fill the bag with water.

I like the Lifesling. It's part heaving line, part PFD, part hoisting system. Its track record is impressive, yet the device may seem so simple that people regard it as a magical silver bullet requiring no work at their end. It's important to overhaul the line regularly, and drag it astern to get the kinks out so it doesn't tangle. Also, make sure the line is tied to the boat. Because some elements of a Lifesling rescue run contrary to normal sailing, practice it, talk it though, and then practice it again.

Recovering the Victim
Two feet of freeboard might as well be a mile. Singlehanders have developed special rope ladders that can be pulled open from the water (one of my sailing friends, Dan Strohmeier, calls his a "me overboard device"). Plastimo makes a Quick Launch Safety Ladder featuring a handle up high and an additional step that extends the ladder well below the water. Without a ladder, try improvising a step by draping a line over the side; if it's led through a block to a winch, a victim can stand on the bight while the line is pulled up. The elevator recovery method (as this is called) demands agility and strength on the part of the victim.

There's an ancient hauling device called the parbuckle. It's a triangular sheet of cloth, one of whose edges is connected to the ship's rail, with the outer corner hooked to a halyard. Lower the halyard, put an object in the bunt, hoist the halyard, and roll the object to the ship's rail. The parbuckles at the 1996 COB trials were disappointing. Because the boats were high-sided, the cloth would not submerge and we were obliged to drag our victims on with boathooks. Then we had a tough time hoisting the victims over lifelines. Our victims, meanwhile, felt claustrophobic and on the verge of drowning because the water did not drain out. I'm looking forward to trying a parbuckle on small powerboats, with their low freeboard and no lifelines. If we can figure out how to roll it up without a halyard, we may solve the problem of COB recovery on a boat without a Lifesling hoist.

Preventing the COB Incident
Before buying a rescue beacon, an owner first must be certain that the boat has the best equipment that will prevent it from ever needing to be deployed. The price of one PLB, roughly $650, is not much less than the cost of two safety harnesses/inflatable PFDs with dual tethers. Shell out another $60, and you have a jackline. When thinking about harnesses, think first of the basic problems. You want to be hooked on at all times, you want your falls to be short and on deck (not into the water), and you want to be able to hook onto the windward side and work on the leeward side. That to me means two tethers for each harness, one short and the other long.

A harness should meet the standards of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard 12401, "Deck Safety Harness and Safety Line for Use on Recreational Craft." (The standard, which is almost identical to a European standard EN 1095, can be purchased for about $65 over the Internet from the ISO or the American National Standards Institute.) There is nothing new about most of it. Aware of the considerable load of a falling body, most manufacturers have long used heavy webbing, extensive stitching, two heavy D-rings, and a stainless steel caribiner hook. What is new is the recognition of the weakness in those hooks, and this leads us back to the accident aboard War Baby. Some hooks could come undone when twisted just so on a padeye, others when a foot or stanchion pressed against the hasp. The ISO requires that "there be no tendency for the hook to open by any action," a rule now satisfied by positive-action Wichard hooks and by hooks made by Gibb.

Still, the main problem with safety harnesses is that people don’t wear them enough. All the emphasis on PFD use may well distract sailors from the core issue, which is that if you don't go in the water, you won’t need a PFD. Safe harness practice demands good sense and strong leadership. Race safety rulemakers do not always help their cause when they set artificial standards, like the one that requires wearing harnesses when the wind is blowing 25 knots. Most sailors know that the roughest waters often are those left in a calm after the wind dies. If rules have to be made (and that seems to be a given these days, even if enforcement is problematical), at least make them relevant. Here are some better rules of thumb for harness use:

• Wear and clip on safety harnesses in rough weather, when alone on deck, and at night, when it's easy to trip over fittings and lines.

• Clip on when you have a two-handed job, like using the companionway, and when reefing, changing sails, and steering.

• When you're having trouble getting around the boat without hanging on, wear and clip on a harness.

• When the least steady person on board is uncomfortable, everybody—the skipper, too—wears and clips on a harness.

I would like to voice the concern that in a day of rebellion against statistical probabilities of risk, when anybody who comes up with a new idea for a device that might save one life is a hero, I find myself asking: "So, do I really need it?" I think of all the safety gear I'm already lugging around. What with my flashlight, my whistle, my Leatherman, the short lengths of light line and rolls of tape in my pockets for making quick fixes, my safety harness/PFD, my foul weather pants and jacket, and my sea boots—I feel as immobile as the Michelin man. Coming off watch, when I undress I sometimes am so appalled that my mental movie screen shifts to the scene from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, where Mel Gibson's character surrenders his mounting pile of side arms at the security gate at Bartertown. I know this stuff is essential, and I feel pretty safe. How much more do I need? Is there perfect safety? After all, folks, this is sailing.


Also With This Article
"Hooking On"

• ACR Electronics, Inc., 954/981-3333, www.acrelectronics.com
• Landfall Navigation, 800/941-2219, www.landfallnavigation.com
• NRS, 800/635-5202, www.nrsweb.com
• Plastimo USA, 866/383.1888, www.plastimousa.com
• West Marine, 800/262-8464, www.westmarine.com
• Wichard, 800/852-7084, www.wichard.com

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