Features September 2019 Issue

Revisiting Recovery Techniques for MOB

Ocean sailing in a modern race boat or multihull with a high horsepower rig makes double-digit boat speed attainable and complicates a MOB rescue. Our research suggests that no single MOB tactic works for all occasions.

The higher speeds attainable by modern boats is one of the most compelling arguments for re-examening overboard practices. If a crew goes over the side at double-digit speed and is not tethered to the boat, it becomes a guaranteed “adios” encounter. How far you leave the PIW behind depends upon how long it takes to slow the boat, cope with a spinnaker douse and get things turned around.

To continue to sail away at the start of a rescue seems counterintuitive, however, abrupt maneuvering can result in spin outs, knockdowns and create a chance for boat damage and more people in the water—further lessening the chance of a good outcome.

At the cry of “man overboard!” rescue gear is immediately jettisoned, a lookout is assigned, buttons pushed, radio calls made, and all hands rally on deck with three things in mind: get the boat slowed down, reduce sail, and head back to the victim.

Spinnakers present special difficulties, and one approach worth trying is the controlled “letterbox” method of dropping a spinnaker. This involves hauling the chute through the slot between the mainsail foot and the boom (loose footed main only). This leads and flattens out the sail, sending it directly below through the main hatch. With the spinnaker down, the main centerlined, and all lines out of the water, the engine is started and the vessel is headed on a reciprocal course back toward the victim.

Even with a tethered victim, lifting them aboard presents several challenges. As pool practice sessions revealed, it is possible for the victim to slip out of a loose harness.

The crew uses every position-finding asset available to augment the search for the person in the water. These include AIS beacon, GPS MOB position, VHF voice/DSC, FLIR scope, the victim’s visual light, (7x50) binos, whistle, and mirror. When sighted, an approach plan is used that sets up the vessel so contact is made just as the boat loses way and is in a nearly head to wind position.

Bridging the gap, making contact,and securing the victim to the vessel is crucial. But tall-rigged, light-displacement vessels don’t like to slow down and holding them on station is difficult. This means that the window of opportunity to connect the victim to the vessel closes quickly.

Having multiple crew ready with throw lines can be a big plus, as is the deployment of a Lifesling, just in case the final approach is a little too fast. The big debate is whether or not to use a rescue swimmer.

On one hand putting more people in the water can elevate rather than mitigate risk. But if a trained lifesaver is aboard, especially if they have had actual ocean surf rescue experience, the risk may be justifiable.

None of the tested maneuvers are ideal for all circumstances. On a fully-crewed raceboat, the Quick Stop can be very effective, but for shorthanded cruisers, motoring back to the victim might well be the best choice. Some maneuvers will work better for certain boats, or certain circumstances. For more detailed descriptions of each recovery routine, see the text and illustrations on the adjacent page.

Often the person in the water is fatigued, hypothermic, and panicked enough to have trouble doing their share in the rescue. If a rescue swimmer is used, they should be tethered to the boat, meaning there’s another loose line in the water. But if that’s what it takes to get a victim securely attached to the boat and ready to be hoisted, it may be worth putting a rescue swimmer to work.

Comments (12)

What happens after an MOB is recovered is just as important.

Since a Mayday call was made the Coast Guard should med-evac your crewman as the victim will be suffering from cold water shock. Secondary shock can kill the victim many hours later while drinking tea in the saloon. The victim should be under observation in a hospital. Secondary drowning is also a huge risk if the victim took water into his lungs as a result of the cold water shock gasp reflex.

If a med-evac is not possible as you are offshore beyond the VHF range then you are likely on your own. However your mayday call can still be relayed or the EPIRB might initiate a rescue. You may want to brush up on your rescue helo techniques and approaches.This is what the floating smoke is for! If the Coast Guard rescue Helo shows up, they will not go home empty handed.

Good preparation is recognizing shock and maybe how to treat it. Treating shock is beyond most sailors as well as their first aid kit.

Get the victim off the boat and under medical care. The captain is responsible for Safety of Life at Sea. Regardless of how the victim says he feels, get him off the boat. Either turn around and go back or call for a med-evac.

Posted by: rav555 | September 15, 2019 11:40 AM    Report this comment

The first thing a helmsman does when MOB is declared is START THE ENGINE AND PUT IT IN GEAR AND MOTOR SAIL. 99% of the yachts today have engines. USE IT.

THEN.... if the point of sail is downwind turn up across and into the wind to avoid a gybe. Sheet everything in and center the main. This will work UNDER POWER.

If sailing upwind or on a beam reach TACK THE BOAT after calling CRASH TACK to warn the crew. Sheet in the sails tight and TACK THE BOAT.

Screw the spinnaker, just dump the air. Let it wrap if you have to what is more important your crewman or the spinnaker? That is what the engine is for. Unwrap it AFTER you rescue your crewman.

Tacking the boat STOPS THE BOAT. Turning up into the wind while downwnd STOPS THE BOAT. You are UNDER POWER. Just steer the boat to recover your crewman in his lee.

It works.



You engine is your biggest asset for saving lives.

Posted by: rav555 | September 15, 2019 11:03 AM    Report this comment

The image of the person with their feet against a surface was taken in a pool and the surface in concrete, not the slippery side of a boat. Additionally, pushing outwards in the absence of both stability and good friction will actually greatly increase the effort required to lift the the person by worsening the leverage.

In fact, there is little the MOB should do, other than keep their elbows down to avoid slipping out of the harness (remember that crotch straps are NOT rated for lifting, only for holding the PFD down, and several have failed during hoisting in drills).

Posted by: Drew Frye | September 13, 2019 10:22 PM    Report this comment

"Could you give some thought (and share it) as to how any of these methods would vary when a couple is sailing and one goes overboard? Reacting, keeping track, recovering, etc?"
When only two persons are sailing, personal AIS should be carried at all times by both persons, and a chartplotter with AIS display capability should be at the helm or visible from the helm, just as a mmsi registered vhf radio with DSC capability should also be at the helm.

Posted by: ancaeus | September 8, 2019 3:23 PM    Report this comment

Excellent points about sailing with only one other person aboard.

'No one has asked what would be the quickest way to get a spinnaker free of the boat." Use your knife to cut any line under load, and let the lines run. Littering is not an important issue when you need to save a life.

Jack lines, personal floatation with a built in harness, and a tether should be mandatory when leaving a sheltered cockpit if you are short-handed. When there are only two persons on the boat, if the weakest person on the boat cannot safely handle the sails that are set, then too much sail has been set. Roller-furling jibs should be on all short-handed boats. Consider roller furling main sail or Lazy Jacks. Roller furling asymmetrical spinnakers are an off-wind sailing option. Consider a small well-positioned power winch, if a manual winch is too challenging for the weakest crew member.

Posted by: ancaeus | September 8, 2019 3:09 PM    Report this comment

No one has asked what would be the quickest way to get a spinnaker free of the boat. I assume that the cost of a spinnaker would be disregarded if saving a life were dependent on returning to a MOB as quickly as possible. It would only be of passing interest to ask if a spinnaker with lines would float.

Posted by: Edspa | September 8, 2019 11:08 AM    Report this comment

I sail short-handed(2 of us) or with additional inexperienced guests.
I put a snap shackle on my main sheet traveler which would allow me to quickly release the sheet and drag it to the side or back of the boat where there is a ladder.
This is intended to give me the extra power to get the victim on board.
Honestly I have not done much practice.
Pls rig the life vest with a MOB strobe and whistle, picked up an AIS for a reasonable price for my crew this spring. I see none of this in the photo.
All this might be excessive but if I lost someone I would never sleep again.
I like the suggestion of heaving too.

Posted by: ArtN | September 7, 2019 4:50 PM    Report this comment

The PS article on revisiting MOB techniques includes a photo of the PIW at the beam of the boat with the rescue line of the life sling most likely at the hands of someone on deck. What for me is unique about this scene is that the PIW has their feet against the upper area of the hull, in a position to use the leg muscles to assist in lifting themselves clear of the water. This simple technique could be especially critical in getting the PIW above the surface of the water if the boat is still moving and also if the PIW significantly outweighs the onboard rescuer. Effective use of remaining energy in this situation reminds me that a mountain climber's cam-loaded rope clamp can provide additional advantage by the PIW sliding it up the rope and pulling on it with both hands. It could be attached at the ready on the life sling at all times. Mine is a Petzl brand for line diameter up to 1/2" and designed with a large rubber-padded eye as a handhold. It has a spring that serves to keep the cam positioned against the line, so it ought to be checked periodically for corrosion. Thank you for the article and for including the photo!

Posted by: Tayana 37 | September 7, 2019 2:34 PM    Report this comment

Brandy it's great to practice the under-sail returns and recoveries shown but in practicality for the reasons you allude to, drop and motor is probably the most life-saving in that situation. Even loose sheet the main and not drop it.

And approach the POB from leeward, not windward as shown. Unless you are on flat seas, and in that case, there more likely wouldn't be a POB to begin with. In any of the situations shown I wouldn't want to be the POB and have the bow the blow across and knock me unconscious or worse during the time retrieving, the boat drift over, drag me under and finish me off. If the POB is to leeward everything has to click like clockwork in an amazingly short period of time (seconds, not minutes) in order not to turn a bad situation into a worse one.

Posted by: KMan | September 7, 2019 11:24 AM    Report this comment

I am relatively new to sailing, and perhaps this would not work in big water in the sea, but we were taught (1) have a lookout, (2) head up or down from point of sail to a beam reach, (3) as soon as safely feasible, tack into the opposite broad reach - using beam reaches each tack means you'll track the same course each time you turn, since you are turning exactly 180 degrees, (4) when in sight of the person, aim downwind of them far enough that you can (5) turn directly upwind when you reach them to depower the boat and assist, if possible and safe, the person in getting aboard. Obviously there are some situations where this may not work or be the best plan. Motoring always has the danger of the person or a line getting caught in the prop. This method avoids gybing and taking you too far downwind in the process. I'm not proposing this as the last word, just contributing another possibility. Thanks for the article.

Posted by: Jackrabbit267 | September 7, 2019 11:16 AM    Report this comment

Over 99% of the time the crew of Pleiades, our Catalina 34 consists of just my wife and myself. Virtually ALL of the "man overboard" techniques I have read - and I have read many - describe having one person spot and point to the person in the water, another deploy a life-ring and strobe light if at night, another, or others, tend to the sails, and - oh by the way - someone steer the boat. Obviously, if there are only two people, and one of them falls overboard that leaves exactly ONE person to do "everything".
Clearly, the standard methods will not work. My wife and I have discussed this many times. As we see it, the ONLY practical approach for a couple is for the person still aboard to immediately slam the boat head-to-wind, sails be damned (a person's life is worth any number of sails), and basically heave-to. If the person in the water is able to swim, they do so and will have to climb up the boarding ladder. If there is a strong current or big seas, and they cannot swim to the boat then the remaining person MUST turn on the engine, power down wind of the victim in the water (watch out for an accidental gybe!), and then power head-to-wind just to weather of the person in the water, stopping close by.
Sadly, if the victim have hit their head going overboard and are unconscious they are probably going to die. I weigh 250 lbs, my wife weighs 130 lbs. Deploying a life sling, halyard, and winch is meaningless even if I am floating just 10 ft away. If I am conscious, but injured (e.g. a broken arm) I will STILL have to get myself up the boarding ladder in rough seas, with minimal aid from my wife. These are simply the realities of a terrible situation. Thus, our first rule of sailing together: unless you are intentionally going swimming, do everything humanly possible to stay aboard Pleiades!

Posted by: Navigator PFJ | September 7, 2019 9:48 AM    Report this comment

Good article - thanks...

Could you give some thought (and share it) as to how any of these methods would vary when a couple is sailing and one goes overboard? Reacting, keeping track, recovering, etc?

Perhaps you already have and I was not aware..

Thanks again

Posted by: Brandygirl | September 7, 2019 9:24 AM    Report this comment

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