Not many sailing safety issues chill the blood like the thought of falling overboard. But, even more dangerous could be the recovery itself. Why is that? You may have read and practiced different overboard approaches. But there's still a lot of controversy about the final approach to bring the person alongside, close to your small sailboat. Read on to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each. Then, you decide.
Think of real-world conditions when most overboard emergencies occur. Books often show boats in flat seas. In reality, the boat may roll from side to side in beam seas. This often makes recovery the most dangerous part of the overboard emergency.
Read one book or another, or one magazine article or another, and authors tend to disagree on recovery side. Should you place your boat upwind of the victim or downwind? In the end, I believe there will be no 'fixed in stone' answer. We all must decide on this based on the conditions at hand. Realize that this will be the most dangerous part of any overboard recovery.
Do You Know Your Boat's 'Bare-Hull' Behavior?
Take your boat out on a windy day with wavelets wherever you sail. Drop all sail and allow the boat to assume her normal attitude in the current conditions. Most all vessels, from the smallest sailboat to the largest super tanker, will lie beam to the wind and waves or almost beam to the wind when 'bare hull' (no sails or propulsion).
Note her drift rate, or how fast she drifts crab-like in a sideways direction. Now, imagine that you combine that drift with seas. Even the smallest sea will create a rolling motion on a vessel.
The amount of roll will depend on under-body configuration (keel, amount and location of ballast, vessel displacement and freeboard) and, in particular with some power vessels with flying bridges or 'tuna towers'--weight aloft.
Some boats snap roll in a quick right-left motion whereas other heavy displacement boats with longer keels and heavy ballast will wallow from side to side. Use this exercise to get an idea of your boat's behavior after you round up alongside a person in the water.
Once alongside, you will drop sails right away to stay next to the victim and prevent the boat from 'sailing off' on her own while you conduct recovery. As soon as you do, your boat will assume a position close to that in your experiment. In a seaway, she may tend to rise and fall and roll from side to side. Each overboard circumstance will be different. I believe there are no easy answers, and that you must make the call based on the environmental conditions in your location.
Approach Side Pros and Cons
Use your knowledge of your vessel's behavior in a seaway to give you the edge in a real overboard situation in the future. Look over the table below; add your thoughts to it. Discuss it with your sailing partner or crew. Show your sailing partner or crew how your boat lies ahull (under bare poles) and how to heave-to on your sailboat (see 'Related Articles' below). Remember that they might be the ones doing the recovery if you fall over the side!
* Windward Approach
Boat will drift down to person (better control).
Less chance of drifting away from person.
Blocks wind and waves to create a 'calm' for recovery.
Flotation can be thrown and assisted by wind and waves.
Easier to launch dinghy or inflatable if necessary for recovery.
May be better choice if victim unconscious and unable to assist.
Boat could slam into person in a seaway (rise and fall)
Boat could push person beneath the boat.
Requires a fast, efficient recovery system to avoid injury.
* Leeward Approach
Sail closer to victim for recovery.
Protects person from severe injury in seaway.
Must come closer to person for recovery.
Boat could drift away from person before recovery completed.
Flotation and rescue equipment must be tossed upwind.
May require that you make a second attempt if person out of reach.
Man overboard recovery will always be the most dangerous part of the MOB evolution. Just another reason to practice 'stay aboard' techniques at all costs. There are specific body motions that will help you stay aboard.
The basics are grab, look, and go. Do not even think of movement until you have a firm grip on something that will not give way. Look for tripping hazards on deck before you proceed. Then and only then, move your feet. Basic? You bet.
But I believe you would find in most every MOB incident, one of these was forgotten in the moment. We all have forgotten to hold on when changing out a sail. A gust hits, the boat heels, and we slide. Or we may have forgotten to brace ourselves first before we perform a simple task. One way or the other, overboard incidents will continue to happen from time to time.
Each skipper must decide on the final approach to the person in the water based on the 'on scene' conditions at his or her location. No weather forecast can predict local conditions. I believe the best preparation will be an intimate knowledge of your own specific boat. Know her bare hull and heave-to characteristics in different wind and sea states. Then you will have the confidence to make the best decision possible in an overboard emergency at sea.
Keep your sailing crew or partner aboard at all costs to avoid the difficulty of man-overboard recovery at sea. Know your boat's capabilities ahead of time to equip yourself with the confidence to handle this sea-going emergency--just in case the unexpected comes your way!
John Jamieson (Captain John) with 25+ years of experience shows you the no-nonsense cruising skills you need for safer sailing worldwide. Visit his website at www.skippertips.com. Sign up for the Free, highly popular weekly 'Captain John's Sailing Tip-of-the-Week'. Discover how you can gain instant access to hundreds of sailing articles, videos, and e-Books!