The toughest problem with a crew-overboard rescue is the last step, the retrieval on deck. This is not to say that there’s anything easy about making contact (“COB Recovery—Making Contact,” November 1, 2005) or performing maneuvers. But everything can go perfectly until you have to get the victim up those final two or three feet. Many ingenious people have been trying for years to solve this problem, and we tested some of their ideas at the 2005 Crew Overboard Retrieval Symposium on San Francisco Bay last summer. I helped run the event, which was sponsored by West Marine and Sausalito’s Modern Sailing Academy, with the support of several charitable and other organizations concerned with boating safety. Over four days and two nights, 115 people in 15 boats (keel, multihull, and power) took part in some 400 rescue exercises.
We tested a range of products and concepts, from a few new devices put together expressly for the event to the tried-and-true Lifesling. We also challenged old assumptions. During the trials I asked the crew of the Grand Banks 42 trawler to test the theory that a fixed boarding platform is an adequate recovery aid. The conclusion? In a seaway, an elevated platform can be a very effective hammer, and the legs of transom ladders can act as spears.
And when rescue crews folded up the ladders for safety, our trial “victims” had nothing to hold onto because the nearest grab rail was too high. Boatbuilders should also be paying attention to the findings from these trials.
One discovery that should not have surprised us, but did, was that the charter boats that Modern Sailing Academy provided — Beneteau sloops between 33 and 43 feet — weren’t well equipped to undergo the standard rescue methods as taught in sailing schools and manuals like my The Annapolis Book of Seamanship. On a boat with two relatively small roller-furling sails, no spare halyards, and small winches, simply rigging a Lifesling takes considerable imagination.
Karen Prioleau, one of my four colleagues on the event’s organizing committee, responded by inventing a new test that she called “creative boarding.” She asked crews to improvise rescues from the limited gear at hand. Dan Rugg, a senior instructor in the U.S. Naval Academy’s sailing program, detached a boom topping lift (the boom was also supported by a rigid vang) and turned it into a halyard to support a Lifesling’s hoisting tackle. Another improvisation that many crews tried successfully was the elevator method. But ultimately, we wanted to see how useful the available recovery gear, much of which carry a pretty hefty price tag, actually was.
Recovery devices break down into either ladders or hoists. Several “soft” cloth ladders and ladder-like devices were tested. The results were mixed because soft ladders tend to be buoyant. We experienced the best success with these devices on the boats with slab sides—the Seawind 1000 33-foot cruising catamaran and the Grand Banks 42 trawler. Given the round bottoms of most keelboats, the victims who tried to climb the narrow steps of the Plastimo Quick Launch Safety Ladder and the Markus Safety-ladder reported that their feet and legs slid under the hulls. Either the bottom steps should be heavier, or the manuals should instruct users to hang a weight (say, a winch handle or block or bucket) off the bottom step. And testers complained that with both ladders, the steps were too short and narrow for secure footing. Many also suggested better handholds.
The wider Markus Scramble Net, which is something like a cargo net suspended from the side, offered more support, although setting it up to a grab rail on the cabin trunk did take some time.
We also tested the Noodlevator. The inventor of this device (a loop of line with some foam around it) promised that once someone connected it to the main boom topping lift and the victim climbed in, you could swing the victim on board. The theory evidently needed more noodling, as our testers eventually resorted to a Lifesling lifting tackle.
Sometimes it’s not necessary to hoist the COB victim vertically out of the water. The crew of the 40-foot trimaran in our tests was able to haul a victim over the low, sloping stern of an ama like a giant tuna. But with normal high-sided sailboats with lifelines, a hoisting device is almost always mandatory.
In our on-the-water tests, the familiar Lifesling was generally well-received. It’s been around for so long and has been so well covered in manuals and magazines that its operation should be widely understood. (See “The Delusion of Textbook Recovery,” page 28). After the person goes over, the device—a yoke-shaped sling at the end of a long line—is deployed and dragged astern. The boat maneuvers in the best way that puts the line or the sling in the hands of the victim, either by circling or by letting the device drift downwind or down current. (Don’t expect a swimmer to get to a rescue device that’s several yards away.) Then the boat is stopped, the victim is pulled in, and a halyard pulls the sling and victim out of the water.
Many testers concluded that the 3:1 hoisting tackle was tricky to set up properly and may be insufficient on a boat with small winches. Some practice will solve the first problem, and a bigger tackle the second. Another worry was that maneuvering to deliver the line and sling to the victim can be time-consuming, stretching to over 10 minutes in some cases. Again, the solution is practice, coupled with a feel for the helm. While the nimble J/105 maneuvered very quickly, crews of heavy, slow-turning boats discovered that it’s a mistake to just put the helm down all the way and follow the perfect oval pattern shown on page 29. The long-keel, heavy-displacement Island Packet 38 made 11 perfect circles before the crew stretched out their turn a little. Egg- or D-shaped turns will help the vessel maintain headway while pulling the line to the victim within two or three passes. The payoff for a little bit of practice and forethought is reliable contact and a hoisting device that is immediately ready.
The Inflatable Lifesling received a thorough tryout in our trials. Uninflated, it’s a throw bag that can be heaved much farther and more accurately than the standard Lifesling. After it hits the water, the automatic inflation system kicks in and it becomes another buoyant Lifesling able to keep a victim afloat and, after it’s hauled to the boat, able to support the victim as he or she is lifted out of the water via a halyard.
Because the inflated sling is so lightweight, it skated on the water and would not follow the boat like the foam version. Sailing slowly upwind of the victim and letting the device drift down seemed to work better. Some victims said that the buckle system’s black-on-black color scheme confused them when they tried to secure the sling around their chests. Once testers got used to it, the Inflatable Lifesling became quite popular. On the second day the data recorder on the catamaran noted, “Inflatable Lifesling rated overall best single piece of equipment.”
The MOM 9 is another hoisting device we tested. It’s an inflatable system with a pylon and a small life raft. The victim crawls into the life raft and is pulled or paddles to the boat, where someone onboard hooks a halyard into the device’s lifting strap. Because there are no drain holes in the raft or its drogue, they can hold enough water to make the hoist even more difficult. In one hoist I observed, the water shifted and the raft tilted precariously.
We also tried two somewhat large halyard-hoisted recovery devices that, while showing potential for big boats, are too bulky to be stowed aboard normal cruising sailboats and too complicated to be used except after considerable practice. The Markusnet from Iceland is a scoop-shaped assembly of straps in which the victim can stand, sit, or lie in a fetal position. One of our victims fell out of it. The Lifescoop, which is still in development, is a stretcher with a long handle that’s used to push the stretcher out from the boat and under the victim, and then pull it back so a halyard can be attached.
We also had a parbuckle to test. This ancient hoisting method uses a large triangular cloth, with one edge connected to the vessel’s rail and the third corner out in the water. Once the victim is maneuvered into the bunt, the crew on deck pulls on the outer corner with a line or halyard and, taking advantage of the built-in leverage, rolls the victim up to the rail. The version we tested, the Morlift, is made of mesh so water drains out and victims don’t feel like they’re drowning. Because the cloth is buoyant and may even kite above the water, it’s not always easy to climb in or get an unconscious person into position. We found that the lower the rail is, the less chance there is of kiting, so parbuckles may be best suited for small boats. Another problem was that the Morlift did not have enough attachments along the rail. A gap would open and our long-suffering victims were spilled back into the drink. Another parbuckle-like device was the BOB Sling, a long roll-up ladder-like system of webbing and stainless steel rungs. Its utility and flexibility were limited by the fact that it could be set up on only one side of the boat.
Of all the hoisting devices, we still prefer the Lifesling. It is a little bulky, true. But its operation is so simple that most of what you need to know is in the instructions on the pouch. And it’s well suited to a variety of rescue scenarios. Statistics compiled by the Seattle Sailing Foundation based on 105 rescues using the Lifesling showed that even when the device is not employed in a textbook fashion, it still does the job whether as an improvised heaving line or as a hoisting device. And if it fails the first time, it can always be reused immediately. Just pull it in, sort out the line, and try again. As anybody who has spent time around boats will know, sailors are always looking for second chances.
Most of the devices discussed thus far require some activity on the part of the victim. The big problem in crew-overboard recovery is connecting with and retrieving an unconscious or otherwise helpless person. We used a 150-pound mannequin nicknamed “Bob” to glean an up-close lesson in the problems of grabbing an unconscious victim and either hauling all that dead weight on board from alongside or getting it into a Lifesling, parbuckle, or other hoisting device. We discovered that the lower the deck, the easier the job.
Ultimately, recovering an unconscious victim may require putting another person on the water in a small boat or even in the water. These are steps not to be taken lightly. In either case, the rescuer must wear buoyancy and be tethered to the boat so he can be quickly recovered.
The trials raised four key points:
• Buy and practice with proven gear. That means a throw bag and the Lifesling. Each has multiple uses, makes contact with victims at a distance, and is tied to the boat (which means if it doesn’t work the first time, you can try again).
• Try out textbook maneuvers on different points of sail and in different wind and sea conditions, and be prepared to improvise. I like the Quick Stop because it automatically keeps the boat within sight of the victim, but any one of us may well find that the best rule is, “Get back there now! Any way you can!”
• Work on your sailing skills in as many conditions as possible.
• And stay on board so none of this is necessary. Buy good safety harnesses, set up the boat for them, and use them.