Features November 1, 2005 Issue

COB Recovery — Making Contact

In the first of two installments, writer, sailor, and safety authority John Rousmaniere reports on a landmark test of gear and methods used to assist in crew overboard recovery.

Once someone goes into the water, making and maintaining contact with that person become the principal priorities. Here, crewmembers aboard a 39-foot sloop have deployed the Inflatable Lifesling, which is tossed like a throw bag and has a yoke that inflates automatically when it hits the water. It serves as both a buoyancy device and a hoisting sling.

Can any two words chill a sailor's heart like "man overboard"? Given the inherently narrow margin between life and death, attempting to rescue a person who has gone overboard is the most agonizing, demanding challenge that any sailor will ever face. No wonder, then, that new recovery equipment and techniques are in constant development, and old ones are regularly reviewed. But rarely are they tested side-by-side by normal sailors in normal boats in true-to-life tests in the conditions that most often prevail when people fall over the side.

In the 2005 Crew Overboard Retrieval Symposium on San Francisco Bay, held over four days and two nights in mid-August, 115 volunteers took part in some 400 tests. Forty items of safety gear and many maneuvers were tested in conditions ranging from 36 knots and a three-foot, choppy sea, down to a moderate wind and smooth water. Almost 200 hours of trials were held on a wide range of 15 boats from 21 to 53 feet, including seven cruising keelboats, a racing keelboat, a catamaran, three trimarans, and three powerboats. This was the first crew overboard rescue trial involving a fleet so big and so representative of American boats.

Among the many truths we discovered or rediscovered was this: most rescues are long, physically taxing (if not plain difficult), and require good equipment, fortitude, and (most important) good boat handling. And among the many questions that we asked and had answered were these:

- What's the best recovery maneuver for a small amateur crew in a catamaran? A keelboat? Or a trimaran?

- Is a swim platform reliable to assist in a recovery?

- What gear and methods work best on all boats?

- What's the most visible light to show at night?

- Are electronic COB alarms a good investment?

Most drills that were conducted realistically assumed a two-person crew (hence one rescuer) or a four-person crew (three rescuers) with a live "victim," which was our term for the volunteer divers who generously went into the water in wet, dry, or survival suits with safety boats close at hand and, with hardly a complaint, allowed themselves to be dragged around the bay and up the sides of boats. One diver, Tim Sell, went into the water 20 times on the windiest day, while another, Page Reed, made a meticulous report of the lessons learned from a test while hanging six feet above the water in a Lifesling.

The 2005 Crew Overboard Recovery Trials were sponsored by West Marine and Modern Sailing Academy, a Sausalito sailing school and charter outfit that provided several boats. Previous rescue trials put on by West Marine's Chuck Hawley and MSA's John Connolly produced several valuable discoveries. In 1996—the last trials before this year's—we learned about the elevator method for recovering victims without special gear, and about which lights work best for effecting rescues at night (the answer is to use strobes at a distance and incandescent lights up close so rescuers and victims aren't blinded). I participated in the 1996 event and incorporated its lessons into the 1999 edition of The Annapolis Book of Seamanship.

When Connolly and Hawley asked me to join the bicoastal organizing committee for the 2005 symposium, I, of course, said yes. Ruth Wood (president of the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water) and Karen Prioleau (an instructor for US Sailing and Orange Coast College) also signed on as organizers.

Our aim was to put together the most objective, factual test possible of rescue-related gear and techniques that average sailors in a wide range of boats should know about. "Factual" was the governing word. This topic is too important to be guided by rumors of accidents. Advised by a team of scientists, we developed a research design founded on repeated tests, careful record-keeping by on-board data recorders, serious debriefings, and a record of maneuvers on GPS tracks (this last idea was suggested by safety guru John Bonds). In due course we will issue printed and video reports that will be put in the public domain so anyone—sailing schools, regulators, sailors—will have free and unlimited access to our findings. Decisive statements must wait until that report is released. But after daily debriefings, many conversations, and four days of watching closely from a safety boat, I can present you with a preliminary report and some informed conclusions. The topics in this article are making contact between the boat and victim by lines, buoyancy devices, lights, and alarms. In a future issue I will relate what we learned about actual recoveries and maneuvers.

That we could put on such an extravaganza at no cost to the participants, is due to the support we received from the two sponsors and from several supporters: the Bonnell Cove Foundation of the Cruising Club of America, the BoatUS Foundation, the Sailing Foundation of Seattle, Garmin International, and North Sails. Gear came from manufacturers and suppliers, among them Landfall Navigation, whose Captain Henry Marx was a valuable player on and off the water.

Physical Contact
When we talk about making physical contact with the victim, we mean connecting by means of a line or buoyant object thrown or dropped from the boat. The simplest contact device is a length of rope. If you can get a half-inch docking line to the attendant at the gas dock, you should also be able to get one 15 feet across the wind or downwind to a swimmer in the water. The value of this tool in a recovery is obvious. If the victim only has to be 10 or 15 feet away instead of directly alongside, the helmsman's job is a lot easier, and the victim is a lot more visible from the deck and much less likely to be run over.

A big step up from the docking line is the throw bag, an object so common that the term is generic. It means any small bag into which a buoyant 50- to 70-foot line or tape is flaked. With the bitter end attached to the boat, the bag is thrown and its weight pulls the line to the target. If it doesn't work the first time, repack the bag (or fill it with water) and try again. Throw bags require practice. One crew reported that on the windy day, after a couple of weak tosses they got the knack and accurately threw bags 10 yards upwind and 20 yards downwind. (Quick, neat repacking also takes practice.) The several types we tried—some basic and some with special gear—worked equally well. If you have just $70 to spend on non-required safety gear that may save a life, buy a basic throw bag.

For more money you can get a throw bag with a helpful attachment. The Markus Rescue-line has a loop at the end that victims can pull over their chests. Survival Technologies' Tech-Float and West Marine's Inflatable Lifesling feature water-activated inflatable buoyancy. The Inflatable Lifesling can be used as a hoist to get the victim back on board.

These last two are examples of ways to get buoyancy into the hands of the swimmer. A regular Lifesling can be used this way, although without the range and accuracy of the throw bags. I also watched one of our many female volunteers tie a line to a cockpit cushion and toss the package into the arms of a victim more than 10 feet downwind.

More sophisticated is Switlik/Survival Technologies' Man Overboard Module, or MOM. We twice tested two versions. The MOM 8 has an inflatable pylon and an inflatable life ring. The MOM 9 has the pylon and a small inflatable life raft that can serve as a recovery device. (We'll discuss the MOM 9 in more detail in the next article.) The MOM is a high-tech version of the traditional tall manoverboard pole with a life ring and a buoyant strobe light attached by tethers. As the MOM is dropped from a white box on the after pulpit, the bright orange life ring and pylon are inflated by CO² canisters and the MOM floats astern, unconnected to the boat. One of our two divers found the life ring hard to enter.

When it works right, the MOM provides buoyancy and also visibility. The fully inflated pylon's height of six feet gives it a 2.8-mile range of visibility, which is 2.8 miles more than a head half-submerged in the water. There's a water-activated incandescent light at the pylon's peak with a battery life of eight hours. If I were in the water next to a pylon as night fell, I'd feel a bit better looking up at a flashing strobe, although, as we later learned, that wouldn't likely offer visibility beyond two miles.

Several crews tested the MOM units for drift and concluded that it was about equal to those of victims and mannequins. But there were problems with the inflation of the MOM 8. When it was first tested, an observer noted that "a few minutes" passed before the pylon got its kink out and stood erect. In observance of the manufacturer's instructions, both MOMs were then sent off to an authorized repacking service in nearby Alameda. Perhaps the repacking was too hasty. In the MOM 8's second test, the wire to the light was fouled, the pylon inflated only partially, and the light would not work.

Visual Contact
One clear night, a test team displayed 15 different lights from a small boat as a boat full of observers looked on from a range of two miles over choppy water. The lights were shown first in front of a brightly lit city background, then with a dark island as the backdrop. Most of the lights were strobes or incandescents from ACR and other well-known manufacturers (see sidebar for list). We also tried out a few flashlights, plus some lights that work by focusing through a relatively narrow angle. This was in effect a pass-fail test with two nautical miles as the dividing line between thumbs-up and thumbs-down. A surprising finding was that, at this range, the strobes were much less visible than the focused lights, even when lit against the dark island. (And the incandescent lights might as well have had dead batteries, their visibility was so limited.) Many people might consider the strobes' relative dimness a reasonable tradeoff for their omnidirectional visibility. Anyone who's in trouble and doesn't know where a potential rescuer is lying (or flying) will want to show an all-round light that can be seen from all directions, including overhead by aircraft.

Superior performance came from three focused lights. The best one of the three for sailors is the VIP Safety Light from Adventure Lights in Canada, which has a bright orange LED beam that can be adjusted to send out a constant light, a flashing light, or an S-O-S signal. It's waterproof, compact (2" x 3"), with a battery life of 200 hours (in flashing mode), and is designed to clip onto a jacket, PFD, or safety harness. This light is also versatile enough for an active sailor's use in the cockpit, on deck, or (God forbid) in the water. (PS found it available online for $50 at www.waterstrider.com; it's also sold through Plastimo.)

The light that drew the most praise from testers was the Greatland Rescue Laser Flare, a compact flashlight-style device that emits a bar-shaped red light which is very visible when swept from side to side. (PS detailed the capabilities of this product in the Feb. 15, '04 issue.) It lists for $100 and reportedly lasts 72 hours on two 1.5 V alkaline batteries.

Also impressive, but more limited for a sailor's use, was the SureFire E2E Executive Elite Flashlight. It's so bright that people the SureFire catalog refers to as "prepared individuals" (read "commandos") are said to carry it to flash in the eyes of suspects to blind them. Though it's waterproof, this 4-1/2" pen-shaped light has no lanyard or ring and just 75 minutes of battery life, making it none too practical on deck or in the water. It lists for $95.

COB Alarms
Flares and EPIRBs were not evaluated in this test, but the participants did dedicate a portion of one night to testing four COB alarm devices, one-by-one, using a human-size mannequin in the water. Sometimes called crew-monitoring devices, these products set off an audible alarm when a crew member wearing a transmitter or beacon goes over the side, and then (at minimum) they provide information to the helmsman to steer back toward the person in the water. These devices, which are finding increasing appeal among offshore sailors, are not simple or cheap. With the basic components and desirable add-ons (and there are many options), prices run well over $1,000.

The alarms tested were of two types—direction finder (D/F) and GPS. D/F devices operate by homing-in on a transmitter worn by the person in the water. GPS-based alarm devices guide the vessel using the GPS coordinates not to the victim but to the splash point. Obviously, the GPS type has the potential of an error due to tidal or wind-driven current that drags the victim away from the splash point, but if the boat turns around quickly enough, the error should be small.

We tested two of each type of device with the boat making 5 knots and turning back at a range of approximately 0.3 mile. The performance of all four instruments was deemed satisfactory. The most accurate return was by the two D/F-type devices, the Sea Marshall Maritime Survivor Locating Device and Emerald Marine Products' Alert 2. Each is triggered by a water-activated radio transmitter worn by crew (the Alert 2's transmitter needed a deeper dunking than the Sea Marshall's). The onboard instrument then homes-in on the transmitter. With the Sea Marshall, the boat almost hit the mannequin. The Alert 2 was about 12 feet off. One tester found the Sea Marshall’s 360-degree dial especially easy to use, like finding the null on an RDF.

Of the two GPS-type devices, the NKE Gyropilot is water-activated and the MOBi-lert Crewsafe works according to proximity: when the personal transmitter strays outside a predetermined area, the alarm is triggered. With each device, the position of, and range and bearing to, the splash point are stored and displayed on a GPS. If the instrument is connected to the boat's wind instruments or autopilot, the boat may be directed to automatically turn head to wind or tack or go back (there has even been a proposal that the device could cause a hydraulic ladder to deploy). The testers noted that the proximity alarm triggered slightly slower than water-activated alarms.

Despite assiduous planning and preparation on the part of the organizers, it's important to emphasize that our testing took place not in a research laboratory, but in real-world conditions on boats. A sailboat is not a controlled environment. There just are too many variables involved. The wind shifts and lulls, the tide ebbs and floods, and the boat, gear, sailing area, and sailing skills required may be unfamiliar to a crew that may already be distracted simply sorting out their onboard relationships.

To be frank, the organizers were at first a little dismayed to find that some of our volunteers (including a few sailing instructors) on board the nine or 10 boats that went out daily had some trouble with standard sailing skills. But on further reflection, we realized that what we had were pretty typical cruising crews—in other words, the target audience for a safety symposium like this. If you want to see how some average sailors do in an emergency, throw them together on an average boat.

It's important also to emphasize a point that's often neglected when this unpleasant but necessary topic arises. The sailor's natural state of euphoria must be tempered by pessimism and the attitude that the navy calls "forehandedness." That's the sort of caution that will tell a sailor to buy and wear a good safety harness in order to keep the whole crewoverboard problem at a safe distance. Blessed as we are by wind and sea and boats, many of us tend to view all three through rose-colored glasses. With fingers firmly crossed, we tell ourselves that should an emergency arise, "We'll figure it out when we have to."

Contrast that willful optimism with a comment made by one of our skippers, Ross Stein, who has seen two sailors fall overboard in his 12-boat Corsair F-24 trimaran fleet. "This is not an imagined risk, and we need to gain experience," he told me, adding, "You have given us this chance."

In the next article, I'll review what we learned about the complicated and much disputed subjects of recovery devices and the maneuvers that get the boat back to the victim. Here's a quick summary of my recommendations about the gear that's mentioned here—plus two more at the end:

• Buy a throw bag, practice throwing and repacking it with your crew, and hang it off the binnacle so you can get to it quickly. Who knows? It might even solve your docking problems.

• If you sail at night, purchase small emergency lights to give to your crew to carry in their pockets or clip to a slicker jacket, safety harness, or PFD. Strobes may be good for short ranges, but to be visible over a long distance buy a focused light like the VIP Safety Light or Laser Flare.

• If you're thinking of buying a device that depends entirely on inflation (like a MOM) or electronics (like an alarm/crew monitoring device), understand that there's a tradeoff between the enhanced visibility or more accurate locating of the COB that these devices purport to offer, and their inherent complexity.

• Improve your sailing skills. When you're on the water, spend some time practicing tacks, jibes, heaving-to, and stopping the boat. Know how long it takes to bring your boat to a halt within heaving-line distance (10 to 20 feet) of an object in the water.

• Finally, buy good safety harnesses and develop and enforce rules for their use. For instance: hook on when you have a two-handed job, like coming up and down the companionway or changing sails.


Also With This Article
"2005 COB Retrieval Symposium"
"Contact Devices"

• ACR Electronics, Inc., 954/981-3333, www.acrelectronics.com
• Adventure Lights, 514/694-8477, www.adventurelights.com
• Emerald Marine Products Corp., 800/426-4201, www.alert2.com
• Greatland Laser, LLC, 866/889-3425, www.greatlandlaser.com
• Landfall Navigation, 800/941-2219, www.landfallnavigation.com
• Markus LifeNet (Master-Pull Marine), 877/797-0202, www.markuslifenet.com
• MOBI-lert, 61 08 9315 3511, www.mobilert.com
• NKE (Euromarine Trading), 800/222-7712, www.euromarinetrading.com
• PrincetonTec, 609/298-9601, www.princetontec.com
• Sea Marshall, 44-1-482-382-0090, www.seamarshall.com
• Sure Fire Flashlights, 800/828-8809, www.surefire.com
• Switlik/Survival Technologies, 609/587-3300, www.switlik.com/stg
• West Marine, 800/262-8464, www.westmarine.com

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