Rethinking the MOB Recovery

Spate of accidents calls for re-assessment of long-held rescue practices.


Man overboard recovery failures have become a frequent headline, and details about these tragedies hold lessons worth learning.

Recent, back-to-back incidents have involved safety gear malfunctions, shortfalls in boat handling skills, and lapses in sound decision making. They have also caused several aspects of rescue orthodoxy to come into question.

Weve previously covered rescue techniques such as the Quickstep, Figure-8, and towed Lifesling in great detail (see PS January 2010, Man-overboard Retrieval Techniques,). However, in the wake of the recent tragic incidents, it is time to reevaluate these skills.

The big question is whether these hallmark safety responses still meet the needs of racers, cruisers and day sailors alike? Are jacklines and tethers keeping sailors safer, and are the narrow bows and wide-open aft decks on modern race boats and cruisers sound ergonomic advancements in sailboat design or an accident-prone advent of naval architecture?

Two years ago, we raised concerns over high stakes sailing adventure charters such as the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race (see PS January 2017, (Risk Management and Renting Adventure, January 2017).

Recently, the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch released their evaluation of the fatal MOB incident aboard CV30 Great Britain. It lends support to the issues weve raised in a multiple reports, and are raising again here (see PS March 2018, Safety Tethers Under Scrutiny).

On November 18, 2017, the crew of CV30 was comprised of one pro sailor and 16 amateurs. The boat had departed Cape Town, South Africa, and was 1,500 miles from Fremantle, Australia when the crew of the 75-foot, 35-ton boat scrambled to reduce sail. The paid captain was at the helm when a big wave slammed into the port quarter slewing the boat to starboard, precipitating an accidental jibe.

Rethinking the MOB Recovery
Even in moderate breezes, rescuers often speed past the person in the water, prompting many experts to suggest practicing recovery in a variety of conditions, and using the engine, if needed, to make up for any lost momentum.

The bowman, who was helping to wrestle down a piston-hanked, No. 3 Yankee (high cut jib) went over the side. He was tethered to the boat and able to quickly climb back aboard. Moments later, another pay for adventure crew, Simon Speirs, was also tossed overboard.

Speirs was clipped in, but a longer tether caused him to be pressed against the hull and dragged through the heavy seas at 9.3 knots, even though the skipper had immediately tacked the boat to put Speirs on the high side. The remaining five crew on the foredeck, all of whom had been involved in the sail dousing effort, were unable to hoist Speirs back aboard.

Crew Response

The bowman handed him a halyard with an open shackle to clip to his harness, but the load on the tether made accessing the attachment point very difficult.

While struggling to connect the halyards snap shackle and having been dragged through the water for almost five minutes, things got even worse. There was a loud snapping sound as Speirss tether clip deformed and relinquished its hold on the jackline.

The double-action clip had been caught under a bow cleat laterally loaded and failed due to the unanticipated angle of pull (see PS March 2018).

With the headsail only three-quarters of the way down, and an override on the mainsheet winch, the CV30 was far from under control and ready for tight MOB recover maneuvering.

The crews response to the situation included deploying MOB gear, electronically marking the position, starting the engine, and coping with running rigging damage that hampered maneuverability.

The initial attempt at recovery failed, the partially doused Yankee started to self-hoist in the strong breeze and pitching seaway. And just as another crew went forward to cope with the flogging sail-he too was pitched over the lifelines. Fortunately, he had both his long and short tether clipped and was quickly hauled back aboard.

It took three approaches and a total of 32 minutes to recover Speirs, who was unresponsive when brought back aboard. The recovery was completed in half of the time of the rescues on Lake Michigan during the 2017 and 2018 Chicago Mac Races. It was twice as fast as the recovery of Sarah Youngs body in the 2015-16 Clipper Race. The MAIB report mentioned that since the introduction of the CV-70s there have been 15 reported MOB incidents in which crew have gone overboard tethered to jacklines and quickly hauled back on board. It seems that not separating from the boat can be a big plus, but being towed alongside at speed has a danger all its own.

The safety valve in such scenarios is the ability to immediately tack into a heave-to position or at least slow down by coming head to wind. Unfortunately, when racing with a spinnaker up, runners set and/or a preventer engaged, such an abrupt change in direction and change in rig load, can lead to more trouble-even a dismasting.

Drag-and-Drown Effect

The drag-and-drown effect first came to the forefront in the 1999 doublehanded Farallons Race when Harvey Shlasky and Van Selst were pitched from the J-29 they were sailing during a severe knock down. Both men were tethered and wearing inflatable PFDs. Selsts life jacket inflated and he was able to climb back on board, but Shlaskys PFD did not inflate and Selst was unable to haul him out of the water.

Shlasky was being towed astern at just a few knots of boat speed due to sails not being completely doused. Being towed through a rough seaway, even at slow speeds, significantly increases chance of aspirating water and drowning.

One of the lessons learned from this tragic incident was the importance of not running jacklines all the way to the very stern of the boat. Terminating them further forward prevents a person in the water (PIW) from being dragged in the turbulence of the stern wake.

A subsequent lesson was the value of a taught, inboard jackline and a short tether that will keep the head of a MOB as close to the toerail as possible. And finally, theres the age-old sail-dousing challenge. Bolt rope luffs, piston hanks, slides, slugs and various furling systems each have their own idiosyncrasies. Having a low-friction track and car set up to handle the mainsail or a down haul line on a piston-hanked jib help to get the sails down in extremis. Well-maintained roller furling headsails are like an extra set of hands for the shorthanded crew.

Slow Your Approach

Fast is fun, is a slogan popularized by Bill Lee, the Wizard of Santa Cruz and a key player in the development of ULDB ocean racers. He coined the phrase to highlight the exhilaration found in speed under sail, and I agree completely.

However, in a recent email exchange, Bill and I also concurred that there are times when speed is just what you don’t want. We were focused on the final part of a MOB recovery approach and the difficulty that arises in making contact with the person in the water (PIW).

Post incident analysis has revealed that in many cases too much boat speed hampers rather than helps the recovery. The final approach to the PIW needs to conclude with an as slow as possible contact with the victim. We concluded that recent incidents on the Great Lakes, Monterey Bay and in the Clipper Cup highlight a need for boat-handling skill thats more akin to picking up a mooring under sail than it is to extra speed at the starting line.

In many cases, the wild card is the seaway. It complicates even momentarily holding a vessel head-to-wind.

Safety experts have long worried about the risk of the propeller harming the PIW, but there clearly instances in which the engine can be essential to quick recovery. The real killer is the inability to stay on station and connect with the person in the water.

All too often we hear about multiple misses, excess time in the water and the recovery of a lifeless body. Its clear to everyone that its not wounds from propellers that is claiming lives. It is the inability to make secure contact with the person in the water.

Design Implications

Part of the risk of a MOB incident involves the success of sailboat design. Performance, in a boat speed context, has greatly improved. Double-digit velocity creates more multi-axis acceleration due to seaway impacts. These energy transfers require a faster reaction time regardless of how quickly the helmsman can adjust or how adeptly the crew can cope with a foredeck thats falling into a wave trough. These amplified energy transfers increase the likelihood of a sailor being launched in an unwanted direction. Harnesses, tethers and jacklines can mitigate the risk, but theres a learning curve involved in getting the most from such gear.

Along with the faster boats comes a growing preference for wide-open spaces astern. Big race boats with Laser-like profiles feature wide sterns and not much of a cockpit well. Handholds are few and far between and theres not much to reach for when a breaking wave sweeps the stern quarter.

Tales of sailors being knocked over or washed through leeward lifelines are growing more common. When it comes time to cope with a crew overboard incident, step one has already failed.

It is the designer, builder, skipper, and victims effort to prevent the MOB incident in the first place. Contributory factors can include poor nonskid, insufficient handholds, poor jackline setup, and tether use, bad decision-making,,and crew agility. Once a person goes over the side, a well-practiced reflex action is needed and time is the big enemy. When it comes to rescue maneuvers, the right choice depends on vessel design, crew size and skill, and the conditions at hand.

Crew Capability Matters

Last spring, noted author and marine safety expert John Rousmaniere and I participated in the Hampton Mariners Museum Safety at Sea Seminar. Just before the session began, we chatted about the findings of the 2005 San Francisco MOB Symposium-a large-scale training/research project put together by Chuck Hawley and other West Coast safety advocates.

One of the lingering memories from that symposium was how the game plan had to be changed on the very first day. Initially, the project was envisioned to be a crew recovery technique test bed, with attendees demonstrating varied rescue techniques and evaluators using GPS recorded data to quantify results.

From the start it became clear that most participants didnt have a clear understanding of the rescue maneuvers and 75 percent of those executing a quickstop maneuver were flying by victims on a beam reach. Organizers quickly shifted gears and the first day became an instructional experience rather than a data gathering opportunity.

The attendees were retaught the Quickstop, Figure-8, Reach-Return and Lifesling recoveries. It improved proficiency, but there was still a high incidence of rescue attempt failure due to excess speed during the final approach. It resulted in too little time to effectively secure the victim to the vessel. All the testing was done inside the Bay, so the complexity added by a significant seaway was not experienced.

Heavy Weather Rescues

A few years later, while working at the U.S. Naval Academy, I had a chance to take a fit, agile, midshipman crew to sea and observe dexterity put to good use.

It was during the winter offseason, and we had pre-positioned two Navy 44 sloops in Jacksonville, Fla. Over spring break, a couple of crews of midshipmen were shuttled south filled with the expectation that their sortie would be a run to Key Wests Margaritaville. Instead, after a couple of daysail training sessions, we set off with intentions to do some winter Gulf Stream crew overboard recovery practice.

Rethinking the MOB Recovery
Getting into a lifesling while wearing your PFD is more challenging than it may seem, especially if conditions are rough.

Our dummy was appropriately named Oscar. Oscar, used to denote the letter O in the phonetic alphabet, is also the maritime code (and signal flag) used to announce that there is a person overboard. Our Oscar was a large fender with a big bucket tied to one end. Training involved the familiar use of the Quickstop maneuver, a tactic that works well with these heavy displacement, ruggedly built 44-foot sloops (see PS August 2008).

Crews were quite familiar with the maneuver, but the 20-knots plus conditions and typical eight-foot Gulf Stream sea state caused considerable difficulty. The key lesson learned was that the familiar, close reach approach to the victim (jib doused) needed to be sailed just a little deeper, in order to use the mainsheet as an effective throttle or brake. This helped keep headway maintained as the bow pitched in the confused seaway. The engine was started in the final approach, but kept in neutral unless a final nudge was needed. Recovery involved using a boat hook to snag the fender.

Success indicated that the crew did get close to the victim and kept boat speed to a minimum, but if Oscar was life size, the actual reboarding would have been much more complex. The maneuver greatly benefited from having an eight-person crew.

Attempting a shorthanded Quickstop in a building sea, would have been a much greater challenge and a Lifesling tow would have been the preferred approach.

We also tested the no-jibe, reach-and-tack type of recoveries, and found it interesting to note that one of the key challenges was the same as what hampers the Quickstop. In both theres a need to maintain an awareness of where the victim is situated in relation to the boat and to true wind.

Often the boat turns toward the victim when it is still upwind of the PIW and as the approach unfolds, the crew can’t depower without turning upwind and away from the victim. Even with the mainsheet fully eased, theres enough flow over the sail to provide too much boat speed and the result is a victim flyby.

Boats with sharply swept back spreaders are more prone to this problem. The cure lies in steering deep enough during the initial phase of the recovery to allow a close reach approach to the PIW and to use the mainsheet to accelerate and decelerate during the final approach.


One thing is certain, when it comes to a MOB incident-the deck is stacked against shorthanded crews. In a double-handed cruising or racing context, one of sailors becomes a victim and the other a single-hander. The person still on board has twice the obligation he or she had just a few moments ago. The sail handling requirements alone are daunting. Rescue maneuvering adds a whole new level of complexity. At this juncture, a Lifesling and a reliable engine become the tools of the trade for the cruising or racing sailor.
For more on man overboard recovery techniques, see (PS January 2010, Man Overboard Retrieval Techniques. Our digital eBook MOB Prevention and Recovery available in our online bookstore ( integrates retrieval technique with our testing and research into harness, tethers, and other MOB prevention gear.

Voyager, writer, educator, and a frequent PS contributor, Ralph Naranjo is the former Vanderstar Chair at the U.S. Naval Academy. His book The Art of Seamanship, is available at the Practical Sailor online bookstore (

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at