Throwable Man Overboard Aids

Quickly making contact with a man overboard is essential to the victims survival. The Quick Stop maneuver and other proven man overboard sailboat techniques typically call for a throwable flotation aid that can be tossed with accuracy from a cruising sailboat. We tested the Lifesling Inflatable and other unique personal flotation devices (PFDs) that claim to greatly improve the odds of making contact with a man overboard.

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In an era when the ordinary life ring is being replaced by a wide range of improved rescue devices, Practical Sailor tested several rescue products that boast unique advantages as man-overboard flotation and retrieval aids. We gathered two throwable man-overboard devices that use automatically inflated chambers for flotation-the TechFloat from Survival Technologies and the Lifesling Inflatable from West Marine-and one made of expanded polyethylene foam-the Personal Retriever. Each comes with floating line; the bitter end of each is intended to stay in the hands of the rescuer or be tied to the vessel. Only the TechFloat is a certified U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) personal flotation device. We also tested a fourth throwable MOB aid-the Rescue Stick by Mustang Survival. Its a different animal than the other three, but shares many of the same features.

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In a man-overboard emergency, one of the most vital steps rescuers take is getting flotation into the hands of the victim. If you can do that-and at the same time establish physical contact with the victim by way of a line-the chances of a successful rescue improve dramatically. That’s not always as simple as it may sound, but several well-regarded empirical studies have proven the importance of getting flotation to and making contact with the person in the water.

Lifesling Inflatable Practical Sailor tested several products that boast unique advantages as MOB flotation and retrieval aids. We gathered two that use automatically inflated chambers for flotation-the TechFloat from Survival Technologies and the Lifesling Inflatable from West Marine-and one made of expanded polyethylene foam-the Personal Retriever. Each comes with floating line; the bitter end of each is intended to stay in the hands of the rescuer or be tied to the vessel. We also tested a fourth throwable MOB aid-the Rescue Stick by Mustang Survival. Its a different animal than the other three, so we separated it from the group.

How We Tested

To evaluate these products, we assessed the construction of each and then put them into action. We tossed each repeatedly on land to determine their relative range and then repeated the efforts on the water, throwing each device from the deck of a 13-foot Boston Whaler at a floating target some 50 feet astern. To test how functional and useful each was to the man overboard, we had a “victim” get in the water as if being rescued.

TechFloat Life Ring

Survival Technologies, based in Trenton, N.J., manufactures the TechFloat-75 feet of polypropylene line attached to an inflatable horseshoe buoy fitted with a Halkey-Roberts V85000 auto-inflating device. All of this is contained inside a coated nylon pouch fitted with soft, nylon webbing straps for handles. To use, the rescuer grasps the bitter end of the line and tosses the pouch to the victim in the water.

The seams on the TechFloats inflatable bladder are heat-sealed. It has an oral inflation tube, two 2-inch by 3-inch SOLAS reflective patches, and a bridle made of 5/16-inch, braided line that attaches the horseshoe to the heaving line by way of a stainless carabiner. The product also has a 3/4-inch nylon strap and a small, plastic, snap-on buckle for the victim to clip around himself. A small ACR, Coast Guard-approved whistle is attached via a lanyard. The rescue line is described as 1/4-inch polypropylene, but the line on the device we tested was 5/16-inch line. This braided line is coarse to the touch for better gripping, but smaller in diameter than many of the lines on the throw bag products weve previously tested (May 2006 issue).

We tested the TechFloat in about 10 knots of quartering breeze and flat seas. It flew 47 feet on the first toss with excellent accuracy. Due to its heft (1.75 pounds), it would likely fly as far as any of the non-inflating throw bags weve tested. The TechFloat began to inflate within three seconds after hitting the water, and took only a few more to fully inflate.

Several features keep this device from being ideal, in our opinion. The first is the orientation of the auto-inflation mechanisms switch; it lies perpendicular to the buoys tube and pokes into the wearer. If this component were rotated 90 degrees, the buoy would be more comfortable. However, comfort is not a critical issue with these rescue devices, and Survival Technologies Richard Switlik explained that its necessary to orient the device this way so that it can be easily repacked.

Lifesling and TechFloat MOB ProductsThe more substantive criticism pertains to the design of the horseshoe buoy. Our 190-pound tester found it very difficult to get the inflated buoy around his torso due to the narrow diameter (11.5 inches) of the buoys opening. The 1-inch snap buckle on the devices cinch strap is relatively small and might be difficult to use for someone who is likely to be in a panicky state and cold.

Switlik told Practical Sailor after our test that Survival Technologies will now make the TechFloat with 1-inch webbing and a larger buckle. He said they will also make the strap six inches longer to accommodate larger adults.

The TechFloat is not suited for hoisting a man-overboard back onto the boat. Survival Technologies sells a different device-the MOM8-for that purpose, Switlik said. “The TechFloat is designed as a flotation aid, with easy, rapid deployment so that it can be gotten into the hands of the victim as soon as possible.”

We will be interested to see how the device fares over time because the bridle is attached by way of two small grommets that lack any reinforcing where they pierce the fabric.

You can re-throw the bag, but the horseshoe must be disconnected by unclipping the stainless carabiner. Instructions dictate laying the line on deck in large coils as you retrieve it and keeping water in the bag for rethrowing. We did this and discovered that the bag redeploys well. However, like the other products we tested, the accuracy and range are decidedly diminished on rethrows (about 35 feet with good accuracy).

We found the TechFloats instruction card and the directions sewn on the bag straightforward. It was relatively easy to rearm and repack. Re-arm kits sell for $20 each. A stainless mounting bracket ($79) is available.

Bottom Line: The TechFloat functioned as advertised. Were glad that Survival Technologies has decided to increase the size of the webbing to accommodate larger adults.

Lifesling Inflatable

Coast Guard approved Personal RetrieverWest Marine markets the Lifesling Inflatable as a device intended for “use in conditions where the victim cannot be reached by vessel-in surf, shoals, rocks, or rivers where a more compact rescue device is desired.” That message seems to contradict the instructions published in the Lifesling Inflatable owners manual. (“If contact with the COB is not made, do not retrieve the inflated sling, but instead circle the COB while towing the sling until contact is made…”) Nonetheless, this is a serious rescue device.

Deploying the Lifesling Inflatable is similar to deploying the TechFloat. The Lifesling comes stored in a gelcoated, fiberglass case roughly the size of a large shoe box (the newest models now use injection-molded cases) and can be mounted on the aft pulpit or near the cockpit. (The product we tested came with mounting hardware and instructions.) There are basic deployment instructions-both written and illustrated-screened on the outside of the case. Theres a removable lid that is kept in place by a nylon strap with a quick-release plastic buckle.

The inflatable buoy has two interconnected chambers that inflate by way of a CO2 cartridge triggered by a Halkey-Roberts Alpha 90000. West notes prominently in the owners manual that this device requires maintenance and will have to be repacked after each use.

The chambers seams are welded, and the edges of the fabric are protected by nylon webbing sewn over them. The buoy has an oral inflation tube, two 2-inch by 4-inch SOLAS reflective patches, and a 1-inch nylon strap sewn to the bladders that acts as a bridle for the retrieval line and a handle for rescuers to pull the victim out of the water as the Lifesling also serves as a hoisting device.

The rescue line-soft, polypropylene braid (3/8 inches in diameter)-is easy on the hands, and unlikely to kink or absorb much water.

The Lifesling Inflatable was easy to toss with good accuracy, even in a quartering, 8-knot wind. On the water, it outdistanced the TechFloat with superior accuracy. It inflated in less than five seconds after splashing down, and our tester didn't have to unbuckle the snap to get the buoy around his torso. The downside to this, however, is that it would likely be loose on children or smaller adults. We found the Lifesling Inflatable simple to repack and rearm (re-arm kits are $20).

The 14-page owners manual is thorough and comes with useful illustrations, but it lacks specific information about inspections.

Bottom Line: A well-engineered device. We like the durable case with instructions and the soft line. Its also a strong attribute that it is built for double-duty as a hoist, but it would be a better product if the horseshoe were also equipped with a whistle.

Personal Retriever

Lifesling Inflatable and the TechFloat MOB DevicesAfter five years of research and empirical testing, Life-Safer Inc.s Personal Retriever received Coast Guard approval as a substitute for Type IV 20- or 24-inch white ring buoys. Of the products we tested, the Personal Retriever is the only one that has Coast Guard approval. It is OKd for use on board “uninspected commercial vessels and inspected vessels not carrying passengers.”

The Personal Retriever is a disk-shaped foam device (17 inches in diameter by 3 inches thick) that can be deployed quickly. It is intended to be thrown at or beyond the victim in a manner similar to a Frisbee. Made of expanded polyethylene foam with a petroleum-resistant coating, the device weighs just 1.5 pounds, but its manufacturer claims it will provide 11.24 pounds of positive buoyancy. Coiled around a hard, plastic spool built into the disc is 100 feet of 3/16-inch, laid polypropylene line, which uncoils from the Personal Retriever as the device spins toward the victim. The rescuer holds on to the bitter end of that line, which has a nylon webbing retaining strap that the rescuer can slip over his shoulder before tossing the disc. Since the device is made of soft foam, it won't hurt the victim if it strikes him-that is a significan’t advantage over many Type IVs.

Practical Sailor testers threw the Personal Retriever farther than the two inflatable devices-both on land and on the water-but achieving accuracy took practice. (Our testers needed roughly 10 to 15 minutes to refine their technique.) Like a Frisbee, this disc has a tendency to turn unexpectedly and wander off course if not thrown by an experienced hand. Life-Safer keenly emphasizes that would-be rescuers should familiarize themselves with the product in advance. Its simple appearance belies the fact that practice (and in some cases training) is required to ensure that its used correctly and therefore successfully.

Life Safer claims the device will fly true in up to 15 knots of wind, but we were unable to test that claim.

The good news is that the Personal Retriever is quick to deploy-less than 10 seconds-and once the disc hits the water, if you need to retrieve it for a second throw, you can do that easily. The disc is designed to flip upside down when you begin retrieving the line, so it skates along the waters surface with little resistance.

From the victims perspective, the Personal Retriever disc is relatively easy to hold onto while in the water, though the line is more coarse and smaller in diameter than the others, making it less comfortable to hold. The device needs some reflective material, in our opinion, to make it more visible to the victim at night.

The Personal Retriever comes with a nylon pouch for storage and protection from UV. We found the owners manual useful; and, buyers also can receive instructions on CD, DVD, or videotape. There are brief instructions on the device.

Bottom Line: Simple and quick to deploy, this device would be useful aboard almost any vessel, but practice is mandatory.

Conclusions

Each of these devices will help someone who has fallen overboard, but each requires some practice. Both the Lifesling Inflatable and the TechFloat require less initial practice than the Personal Retriever to be proficient, but both also require more maintenance due to their inflation systems. Between the two inflatable devices, we prefer the Lifesling Inflatable. Its design makes it easier to don and more comfortable to wear, and it can be used to hoist the victim aboard.

Its more difficult to compare the Lifesling Inflatable and the Personal Retriever. We applaud the creators of the Personal Retriever for their simple device that can be thrown potentially twice the distance of the Lifesling. But were partial to the inflatables added buoyancy, and the greater security they offer the victim. With the Personal Retriever, the victim must maintain a grip on the device or the line, a feat not likely easy for someone who is tired, cold, or in a large swell. With the Lifesling Inflatable, all that person need do is keep their arms over the top of the inflated chambers. So, the Lifesling Inflatable is our Best Choice, while the Personal Retriever is our Budget Buy.

But we are not convinced that the advantages of the Lifesling Inflatable outweigh those of the conventional Lifesling2, which we examined in our January 2006 issue (“Slings, Scoops, and Ladders“).

In the demanding San Francisco Crew Overboard Trials of 2005, the Lifesling2 proved its versatility time and again, and we cannot ignore the many benefits of having a buoyant device that not only requires minimal care, but if necessary, also can be easily and quickly rethrown in a MOB situation.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Ideally in a man overboard situation, the person overboard would already be wearing a PFD. In that case, the floatation of the rescue device would less important than other aspects. Any thoughts on how already wearing a PFD would affect getting into each of the reviewed rescue devices and getting it secured?

  2. Many years ago, at Aventura Sailing in Dana Point Harbor, I decided to reject all of the standard MOB procedures in favor of a simple heave-to or tacking maneuver. The rule is to be back to the MOB within 30sec.
    The description goes: “The person should have been wearing a PFD but won’t be, so we carry one on the stern pulpit to instantly throw at him.” This would be a Type II that can be worn. The Type IV throwable with 40′ [or so] line attached to the pulpit is only thrown after the boat has been parked upwind of the MOB. [Years ago I noticed a problem holding the bitter end of the line in a hand; sometimes ‘the hand’ would let go.]
    Rationale: A person falling overboard unexpectedly will have a moment of shock, chill, probably choke/gasp, and then panic. Seeing a PFD being thrown at them with orders to “Put that on!” gives them a goal; you don’t want them to ever stop fighting for survival. Long ago the military realized that in such situations some had the tendency to give up while others would keep going no matter what the odds. That immediate goal keeps them fighting.
    Now they grab the throwable and are pulled back onboard and offered another beer [which is probably the reason they were overboard in the first place] and everyone laughs. But it could have been a tragedy.
    I will never forget reading about a famous sailor who died during a race in SFBay when a hiking arm broke dropping several crew into the cold water. Survivors said they could “see it in his eyes” at the moment he was giving up.

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