Responding to our recent report on man-overboard recovery maneuvers (Practical Sailor January 2010), several readers asked about the next stage of recovery, getting the victim on board. As difficult as it is to make contact with a person in the water (Practical Sailor May 2008), getting the person back on board, particularly on todays large, high-freeboard cruisers, is no less daunting.
Over the years, Practical Sailor has examined this subject from many different angles. Our most recent detailed report on man-overboard recovery gear appeared in the January 2006 issue, in which noted marine writer John Rousmaniere examined 12 different devices tested during the 2005 Crew Overboard Retrieval Symposium on San Francisco Bay.
The products tested in San Francisco could be generally categorized as ladders, slings, or nets. Although some devices were better suited for certain circumstances, our testers agreed that Lifesling2, a modified horseshoe buoy meant to be dragged behind the rescuing vessel, was the most versatile. It effectively served as a device for making first contact with the victim, and as a sling for hoisting them back into the boat. An improved (with reflecting tape) Lifesling3, which has the International Sailing Federation stamp of approval, is now available.
Once the victim is securely in the Lifesling and alongside, he can be winched or hauled-either manually or using 5:1 lifting tackle-back onto the boat. Halyards and toppinglifts are often suggested for lifting, but a cockpit winch is often the easiest to use.
One problem with sling-type devices such as the Lifesling is that the victim could suffer secondary injuries during a vertical lift. Risks of a vertical lift include: a semi-drowned person ingesting more water, a spinal-injury victim suffering further injury during the lift, and a potentially fatal loss of blood pressure (particularly in a victim suffering hypothermia). With care, these risks can be mitigated, but an effective horizontal lifting device could be a boon to rescuers.
Another drawback to the Lifesling and most other lifting devices tested at the 2005 symposium was that they were ineffective with unconscious victims. Even expert swimmers had trouble donning the Lifesling while they were wearing an inflatable lifevest. (The inflatable version of the Lifesling is very difficult to get on over an inflated PFD). Not only will the unconscious victim be more difficult to spot and make contact with, but hauling a limp 160-pound body aboard a modern slab-sided monohull in a seaway makes piano-moving look easy.
Most of the symposium-tested devices that worked for unconscious victims were described as parbuckles. In its most basic form, a parbuckle is a rope that is looped under cargo (such as a barrel) for lifting. The sailors version is usually an extra sail.
When used as a rescue parbuckle, two corners of the sail are fixed to points on the rail of the boat (stanchions, for example), and the third corner is attached to a halyard or topping lift. The sail is lowered into the water, and the victim is maneuvered into this makeshift net and then hoisted back aboard and “rolled” onto the deck.
In action, this type of rescue is not as simple or elegant as it appears on paper. A sail is not a net. It doesn’t easily sink, and it tends to fill with water when it is lifted.
Designed by Bob Wright, an experienced sailor and director of intensive care at St. Vincents Public and Private Hospitals in Sydney, Australia, the Seascoopa is still in the development phase. Wright hopes it solves many of the problems of similar parbuckle-type devices. Most of the parbuckle-type devices evaluated in the San Francisco symposium were deemed “complicated,” with the rescue times (the time from when contact was made, to getting the person on board) ranging from at least 2 minutes to as long as 10 minutes.
What sets the Seascoopa apart from the other devices is its compact, lightweight packaging and an interlocking three-piece carbon-fiber whisker pole that holds the trapezoid-shaped net out at right angles to the boat.
The ultimate goal of the device is to make it possible for a single person to safely secure and lift a much heavier person aboard with minimal effort. In addition to reducing some of the risks associated with a vertical lift, the Seascoopa aims to simplify making contact with the victim. Because it can be employed while the vessel is slowly making way, the recovery involves less stationary bobbing, when the boat is at the mercy of wind and waves. (An underway recovery, raises other risks, discussed later.)
Construction and Design
The Seascoopas design and construction details show that a lot of thought and testing has gone into the device. The yacht Seascoopa model that Practical Sailor tested was developed from an earlier model designed for small rescue RIBs. The inflatable boat Seascoopas are now being marketed for rescue craft in Australia.
The net itself is made of heavy-duty polypropylene, reinforced at the edges with heavy-duty PVC canvas. The whisker pole is an interlocking carbon-fiber pole joined by a bungee. High-quality stainless steel hardware and cordage is used to secure the net to the boat. Polypropylene handholds are positioned on the perimeter and inside net, and polypropylene rope at the leading edge has a weighted core to keep the rescue net underwater while it is being dragged.
The net, three-piece whisker pole, and all the necessary guys and hardware pack into a heavy-duty PVC trifold bag measuring 36 x 6 x 12 inches and weighing 25 pounds. The bag is meant to fit in the cockpit locker of a cruising boat.
To deploy the Seascoopa from the fully packed configuration, you unfold the bag, attach the lifting line (usually a topping lift or spinnaker halyard) to the lifting strop at the “head” of the Seascoopa. You must also attach the two corners of the Seascoopa to stanchions or fixed points on the boat, assemble the whisker pole, and secure the foreguy. The whisker pole must be fixed to a ring at the lifting strop a certain way, depending on the side of the boat used for rescue. Usually this is determined in advance, and the pole is pre-attached accordingly.
Although a rescuer could deploy the Seascoopa from this packed configuration in an emergency, doing so quickly and effectively would require lots of practice and preparation, and preferably, extra crew. After several practice runs, it took our testers at least 3 minutes to convert the Seascoopa from stowed bag to a deployed net, too long in our opinion.
A more useful approach would be to keep the Seascoopa device in the “ready” mode. PS used this setup during on-the-water tests. In this configuration, the whisker pole is pre-
assembled, lifting lines and foreguy are pre-set, and the Seascoopa is repacked in its bag. This time, however, the bag is unfolded to its full 8.5-foot length and stowed along the rail of the boat. Although the bag can be well secured in this location, it would likely take a thumping on a monohull with low freeboard going to windward on a long, wet beat.
To deploy, you open the Velcro closure at the bags center to reveal the lifting strop and foreguy. Attach a halyard to the lifting strop and hoist to a preset height. This causes the bag to burst fully open, freeing the pole and allowing you to set the foreguy. In this configuration, deploying was accomplished in less than a minute. Keeping a spare halyard attached to the Seascoopa in the “ready” mode would reduce the setup time by several seconds.
To evaluate performance, Practical Sailor practiced recovery from a 46-foot catamaran in calm seas. With its wide sidedecks, high freeboard, and level deck, the Dolphin 440 was a good candidate for the Seascoopa. In these very benign conditions, the Seascoopa worked just as it was designed. Like a human trawl net, it scooped the “victim” up at about 1.5 knots.
The most challenging elements were at the start of the recovery, when the rescue boat was coming alongside the victim, and at the end, when testers needed to “roll” her under the lifeline.
Like any man-overboard drill, this is clearly a routine that would need to be practiced repeatedly to maximize the chances of success.
Until further testing in more rigorous conditions, we have to withhold judgement on this product. Testers also noted some minor details that could be improved: More rugged purpose-made whisker pole and fittings are in order; the hull-attachment snap-hooks should be the locking type and have bigger inside diameters to fit around stanchions; and the 5:1 block and tackle used to tension the Seascoopa alongside the boat should be longer.
If you are seriously concerned about being able to bring your unconscious shipmate back on board without assistance, watch as this product evolves. In our view, it would need to be kept “at the ready” to be useful, not stowed in a locker. Even in “ready mode,” keeping sight of the victim during deployment is a stumbling block for short-handed crews. Also, scooping up the victim requires precise driving and hours of practice. Without practice, this is simply gear taking up space.
We can see how this device might appeal to designated “rescue boats” in a rally or a race, or even to a high-rolling cruiser with plenty of locker space and a well-trained crew. However, it is not something we can recommend without further testing. In our view, the best man-overboard antidote is a good-quality tether and harness system, and failing that a well-practiced routine using a Lifesling. In the meantime, well keep watching as the Seascoopa evolves and hunt for others that hope to deal with the nightmare scenario: a large unconscious, or semi-conscious person in the water.
Check out the video of our Seascoopa sea trial at www.insidepracticalsailor.com. Manufacturer videos are also posted on the Seascoopa website.