Tips to Preventing a Crew Overboard Incident

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Some simple steps can reduce the risk of a crew overboard incident.

Smaller boats

  • Keep low and use one-meter tether going forward. Double tether when working. Sit down. Some days the only smart way to move forward of the mast is to scoot.
  • The long tether may be used in cockpit, but only rarely on deck.
  • The decks are thinner; every attachment requires a backing plate to spread the load.
  • With outboard-powered boats, the tether must never reach past the transom. Propellers kill.

Multihulls

  • Run the jacklines well inboard when possible.
  • Stop jacklines 4 feet short of front edge of tramps or front beam; the greatest MOB risk is a sudden stop when the boat slams into a wave.
  • Tramp lacing must only be used as a hardpoint if it is at least 7 mm and is tied off at frequent intervals to prevent a zippering failure.

Fast Boats

  • Dont fall in. The tether must make it impossible to fall off. If this is not possible, remember that at over 15 knots the harness and tether will tear you in half; you will be better off without a tether if you go over the rail. PFD and PLB always.
  • Rigging must be foolproof at speed. Over time, you become accustomed to the speed and it is easy to become complacent.
  • In-shore and supervised racing. If MOB recovery is fast and dependable, it is probably safer to fall cleanly into the water than to be caught by a tether, hanging over the side. This is NOT an excuse for lax sailing practices; use short tethers that will keep you on-board and move carefully. Be certain of your MOB recovery drill. PFDs and personal locator beacons are essential. Night and bad weather can invalidate this exception very quickly.

Other Tips

  • Some sailors add chest-high lifelines between the shrouds-a practice that has its cons (see PS June 2018).
  • Add non-skid anywhere your foot can go. Areas around hatches and cleats are too often left slick.
  • Add non-skid on steep slopes. Often sloping cabin sides become walking surfaces when heeled. And even if a surface is too steep to walk on, when a foot is placed there in a stumble, good non-skid will make the slide considerably slower and often times recoverable.
  • A swimmer-accessible ladder is a must for cruisers and short-handed racers. There have been serious incidents, even at anchor, when a sailor suddenly learned how difficult it is to reboard a high freeboard boat from the water. A ladder can be a great aid to recovering an uninjured MOB. However, it may not be usable in rough weather and do not assume the victim will be able to get to it.
  • Lines in the water. A common reason for not being able to start the engine during MOB recovery is the risk of fouling the prop with lines in the water. Keep the tails tidied up at all times so that this is not a risk. If you need the engine, spend just a few minutes hauling the line in. Shorthanded or with less skilled crew, using the engine may be the safest way.
  • A parting thought, many of us reach a balance of risk that we are comfortable with and become complacent. Experience alone does not automatically make you a safer sailor.
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.

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