IT IS CALLED A LIFESLING FOR A REASON!


Crewmembers on deck should be tethered to the boat when recovering a MOB.

This is not a commercial; rather it’s a lesson learned the hard way.

Those of us that work at UK Sailmakers are keenly aware of the importance of safety-at-sea, and particularly the need to understand, practice, and prefect the art of man overboard recovery.

The Chicago Yacht Club just released a 60-page report with its findings and recommendations following the death of a sailor who fell overboard in the 2018 Chicago Mackinac race. As a Safety At Sea instructor for the Storm Trysail Club, I would like to give you my takeaway from the report.

On July 21, 2018, about a half hour after the start of the 330-mile Chicago Mackinac Race, Jon Santarelli, an excellent swimmer, slipped overboard from the cockpit of the TP 52 IMEDI. The wind was blowing 18-25 knots and the waves were 6-8 feet in height. There was an all-hands effort to get Jon back on board; unfortunately, after three passes, Jon slipped under the water.

His inflatable PFD was set to auto-inflate…but it didn’t, and he didn’t manually inflate it. The boat executed a Quick Stop maneuver, and then circled around but the boat had too much speed to stop near Jon. On the second attempt as they got close to Jon, a wave forced the boat up and over Jon and he went under the boat from starboard to port. IMEDI circled a third time, and this time they were able to stop the boat very close to Jon, but as they tossed Jon a line and he raised his arms, he slipped below the water and was not seen again.

To read the full Chicago Yacht Club incident report, click here.

Rewind to the headline and the opening paragraphs about how the STC helps teach and train MOB recovery with a Lifesling. The Lifesling, with its floating collar at the end of a 150-foot floating yellow polypropylene line, removes the need for pin-point accuracy in returning to a MOB and helps recover the person on the first attempt. There’s no argument that it’s hard to stop a sailboat at a specific place in ideal conditions, let alone hitting a specific mark in high winds and waves. It’s even harder…nearly impossible…to do so when adrenaline is pumping and the crew is anxious because a friend is in peril.

The Lifesling, used by circling the victim as if you were picking up a downed water skier, doesn’t require that you to sail so close to the swimmer that you risk hitting the MOB. And, once the MOB puts the collar under their shoulders, they are mechanically attached to the boat and you are not depending on someone’s grip to hold on. Also you have the advantage of a powerful halyard winch to bring them back aboard. Even a small person can lift a soaking wet 250-pound person out of the water using a winch.

Had the Lifesling been deployed when Jon still had the strength to swim to it, there may not have been no need for a third attempt or perhaps even a second attempt. Once the person in the water gets hold of any part of the line, the boat can be stopped by luffing into the wind or by using the engine.

It’s easy for us to sit here in our office and proclaim these concepts, but we do speak from experience. I was on Andrew Weiss’s Sydney 43 CHRISTOPHER DRAGON in 2014 when a crewman went overboard on a cold spring day just after the five-minute warning for a race. The story about the recovery was published in November 2014 and it is reprinted in the next article. Thanks to crew practice and training exercises, Weiss was able to maneuver his boat to effectively and efficiently recover the MOB with the Lifesling, and still start the race on time.

Weiss had learned through his training exercises that, like the TP 52 IMEDI, having a small profile fin keel makes the boat handle differently than a more traditionally designed boat, because they go into “irons” at slow speeds if the jib is lowered.

So, what does all mean? Simply that you can’t practice MOB recoveries enough. The most instructive practice sessions are when you can put a person in the water, so use those warm summer days. You should not be afraid to use all your MOB gear: Lifesling, MOM, Dan Buoy, Man Overboard Pole, etc. And don’t be afraid to throw anything over the side that will float. Give the person in the water every chance possible to grab one. Another benefit of a lot of floating items is that it is easier to see the person in the water marked with a “debris field.” And, finally, make sure your inflatable PFDs work.

We, like the rest of the sailing community, were deeply saddened by the loss of Jon Santarelli; yet we know that such tragedies are possible regardless of how much training we all undergo. That said, we must all continue diligently to be aware of conditions around us. We must anticipate the worst-case scenario. We must do whatever we can to prevent this from happening again. In reality, that is a tall order from the “wish doctor;” but take the time to read this report from the Chicago Yacht Club. Share it, digest it, practice its recommendations. Most of all, sail safely. To read the full Chicago Yacht Club incident report, click here.


To make it safer to lift a victim from the water with a Lifesling, make sure there is loop tied in the Lifesling line 6-10 feet from the floating collar. This way the person on the deck can attach the halyard to the Lifesling without leaning out over the side of the boat.

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23 Comments

  1. You have not mentioned that a Lifesling has an internal clasp that the victim should snap together ASAP. That tightens the sling around the person and makes lifting them out of the water more reliable. If it is not clasped, the loose fit can allow the victim to slip out of the sling.

    Look at the photo above. You see the girl in the sling holding on with both hands. Clearly, she has not secured the clasp. That would be potentially fatal in a rough sea with shock loads applied to the line as the boat pitches.

  2. You have not mentioned that a Lifesling has an internal clasp that the victim should snap together ASAP. That tightens the sling around the person and makes lifting them out of the water more reliable. If it is not clasped, the loose fit can allow the victim to slip out of the sling.

    Look at the photo above. You see the girl in the sling holding on with both hands. Clearly, she has not secured the clasp. That would be potentially fatal in a rough sea with shock loads applied to the line as the boat pitches.

  3. I can enthusiastically endorse the Life Sling and crew training in its use. On October 4, 1992 the following occurred. Sailing a J-30 in about 15 knots of wind and three-foot waves we had rounded the last mark and set a chute for a downwind leg to the finish. As our bowman was moving from the bow to the rail he slipped on the mylar genoa and fell over the life line. I was driving and the only one to see this happen. I called man overboard and did a quick stop. Dropping the chute went smoothly because we had practiced overboard drills many times. The main trimmer and I worked together to fall off, deploy the Life Sling, and circle our bowman who was very visible. It took two turns around before we got the sling to our man overboard, partially because we had to maneuver carefully to avoid the 150 or so boats in the large fleet bearing down all under chutes. In our practices we timed our recoveries, so it was natural for the main trimmer to start a watch, when I called MOB. The recovery was done in less than five minutes. I don’t think our boat was ever more than a hundred yards from the MOB. Even with that great performance by the crew, things could have gone much worse for our bowman who was dressed in full foul weather gear and boots were it not for his auto-inflate PFD. Practice, practice, practice. An actual emergency is not the time to figure out who does what.

  4. I can enthusiastically endorse the Life Sling and crew training in its use. On October 4, 1992 the following occurred. Sailing a J-30 in about 15 knots of wind and three-foot waves we had rounded the last mark and set a chute for a downwind leg to the finish. As our bowman was moving from the bow to the rail he slipped on the mylar genoa and fell over the life line. I was driving and the only one to see this happen. I called man overboard and did a quick stop. Dropping the chute went smoothly because we had practiced overboard drills many times. The main trimmer and I worked together to fall off, deploy the Life Sling, and circle our bowman who was very visible. It took two turns around before we got the sling to our man overboard, partially because we had to maneuver carefully to avoid the 150 or so boats in the large fleet bearing down all under chutes. In our practices we timed our recoveries, so it was natural for the main trimmer to start a watch, when I called MOB. The recovery was done in less than five minutes. I don’t think our boat was ever more than a hundred yards from the MOB. Even with that great performance by the crew, things could have gone much worse for our bowman who was dressed in full foul weather gear and boots were it not for his auto-inflate PFD. Practice, practice, practice. An actual emergency is not the time to figure out who does what.

  5. During a recent gusty and rough water Potomac River (less than a mile from the White House) sailboat race, a J/24 under spinnaker experienced a broach and lost a crew member overboard without a PFD. Aboard an Alerion Express 28, we saw the MOB and hoped other boats would execute a rescue, but none were successful. With our Life Sling at the ready, we circled back to the MOB and deployed it. The MOB grabbed the long floating line, donned the Life Sling and we pulled him abeam. With only two crew members, and given the windy and rough conditions, we could not use the spin halyard to hoist him aboard. Instead, we deployed our Plastimo Quick Launch Safety Ladder and pulled the exhausted MOB safely over the side deck and into the cockpit, a very difficult and strenuous maneuver in spite of our low free board. Yes, I strongly encourage every sailboat’s safety kit to include a Life Sling and the suggestion of making a loop in the line, 6-10 ft above the collar for attaching a spare hoisting halyard, is an excellent idea!!!

    • This same thing happened on the Patapsco River years ago. A J24 broached and lost a crew member, without a PFD (!!). The J24 did try to recover the MOB twice, unsuccessfully due to the high winds and sea state. Another boat did deploy their life sling but the crew was not aware of the proper procedure to use it and were also unsuccessful. The J24 did recover the crew member on the 3rd pass, after what seemed like a lifetime. Even with a low free board it was very difficult for the crew to haul the MOB onto the boat. Having a life sling ready and crew with knowledge how to use it properly is crucial to safe sailing. The club has also now initiated an instant race cancellation procedure anytime there is an MOB so that all focus is on recovery. Along with regular reminders to practice and know your MOB procedures.

  6. During a recent gusty and rough water Potomac River (less than a mile from the White House) sailboat race, a J/24 under spinnaker experienced a broach and lost a crew member overboard without a PFD. Aboard an Alerion Express 28, we saw the MOB and hoped other boats would execute a rescue, but none were successful. With our Life Sling at the ready, we circled back to the MOB and deployed it. The MOB grabbed the long floating line, donned the Life Sling and we pulled him abeam. With only two crew members, and given the windy and rough conditions, we could not use the spin halyard to hoist him aboard. Instead, we deployed our Plastimo Quick Launch Safety Ladder and pulled the exhausted MOB safely over the side deck and into the cockpit, a very difficult and strenuous maneuver in spite of our low free board. Yes, I strongly encourage every sailboat’s safety kit to include a Life Sling and the suggestion of making a loop in the line, 6-10 ft above the collar for attaching a spare hoisting halyard, is an excellent idea!!!

  7. Although I have a lifesling I have heard that it can cause dangerous compression of the chest when the MOB is being hoisted aboard. Possibly worse in colder waters of the Canadian West Coast? Patrick

  8. Although I have a lifesling I have heard that it can cause dangerous compression of the chest when the MOB is being hoisted aboard. Possibly worse in colder waters of the Canadian West Coast? Patrick

  9. The lead video of the February 14, 2019 issue Scuttlebutt Newsletter – i looked at the video and was looking at lessons learnt. Why would you try a lift somebody from the water at the shroulds? It would have been more prudent to lift the person over the transom of that boat. that is the fault of the skipper and the crew for lack of training. for a j24 sail along side the person and pull them on board on the leeward side and tack the boat easy.

  10. The lead video of the February 14, 2019 issue Scuttlebutt Newsletter – i looked at the video and was looking at lessons learnt. Why would you try a lift somebody from the water at the shroulds? It would have been more prudent to lift the person over the transom of that boat. that is the fault of the skipper and the crew for lack of training. for a j24 sail along side the person and pull them on board on the leeward side and tack the boat easy.

  11. Understanding necessary maintenance and built in redundancies in an inflatable life jacket is a skill too. Every sailor with an auto inflatable life jacket should be very familiar with the two built-in back up inflation methods: pulling the manual inflate tab or using the oral tube to inflate the bladder. If an auto inflate fails, it is still a very viable life jacket (if you have it on). Inflate it! Practice by orally inflating life jackets at least once a year. Leave them puffed up overnight, to ensure the bladder seal is undamaged. Check the expiration date on the inflation mechanism. If you travel by air with your life jacket, check to see you still have a cartridge. Ensure a cartridge is installed, the inflation mechanism shows green, and the foil is unpierced on a regular basis.

  12. Understanding necessary maintenance and built in redundancies in an inflatable life jacket is a skill too. Every sailor with an auto inflatable life jacket should be very familiar with the two built-in back up inflation methods: pulling the manual inflate tab or using the oral tube to inflate the bladder. If an auto inflate fails, it is still a very viable life jacket (if you have it on). Inflate it! Practice by orally inflating life jackets at least once a year. Leave them puffed up overnight, to ensure the bladder seal is undamaged. Check the expiration date on the inflation mechanism. If you travel by air with your life jacket, check to see you still have a cartridge. Ensure a cartridge is installed, the inflation mechanism shows green, and the foil is unpierced on a regular basis.

  13. As a lifeguard I was trained to "Row, Tow, or Go" to recover a victim in the water. I guess with a sailboat it would be more like "Throw, Tow or Go". I was not there, but after reading the full report I believe that there is a good chance that the MOB was dazed or in shock; possibly concussed. A person in these conditions cannot manually activate their PFD. It is the last line of defense, but perhaps there should be a plan to have a crew member tethered to the boat with a spare sheet be prepared to inflate his vest and retrieve the MOB or bring them flotation. This is of course with a stopped boat.

    This takes practice, and training. I always tell my crew to pay attention to who does not take safety training seriously. If you fall overboard and you see that person on the transom, things will probably not go well for you. Be the person that everyone wants to see on the transom.

    A seemingly functioning individual may not be. Unless they tell you otherwise, assume they are impaired. As a collegiate baseball player I was involved in a violent collision at home plate. I remember being called out. However, I do not remember promptly getting up, walking over to the opposing team’s bench and sitting down. This was at our home field. My teammates had to come retrieve me.

  14. As a lifeguard I was trained to "Row, Tow, or Go" to recover a victim in the water. I guess with a sailboat it would be more like "Throw, Tow or Go". I was not there, but after reading the full report I believe that there is a good chance that the MOB was dazed or in shock; possibly concussed. A person in these conditions cannot manually activate their PFD. It is the last line of defense, but perhaps there should be a plan to have a crew member tethered to the boat with a spare sheet be prepared to inflate his vest and retrieve the MOB or bring them flotation. This is of course with a stopped boat.

    This takes practice, and training. I always tell my crew to pay attention to who does not take safety training seriously. If you fall overboard and you see that person on the transom, things will probably not go well for you. Be the person that everyone wants to see on the transom.

    A seemingly functioning individual may not be. Unless they tell you otherwise, assume they are impaired. As a collegiate baseball player I was involved in a violent collision at home plate. I remember being called out. However, I do not remember promptly getting up, walking over to the opposing team’s bench and sitting down. This was at our home field. My teammates had to come retrieve me.

  15. Given that water is much denser than air, the waves had much greater power than the wind.

    Here is a video showing conditions about the time of the incident.

    https://youtu.be/WmeMp8lfJ0o?t=108

    And if you read the Coast Guard part of the report, you will see that they recalled their RBS because it exceeded its safe operating range. That may not mean much to the average sailor, but watch this video to see an RBS in action off Oak Street Beach in Chicago.

    https://chicago.cbslocal.com/2018/09/08/dangerous-high-waves-kill-man-along-lake-michigan/

    You do not want to be swimming in that kind of wave condition. Wearing a harness would be a better strategy.

  16. Given that water is much denser than air, the waves had much greater power than the wind.

    Here is a video showing conditions about the time of the incident.

    https://youtu.be/WmeMp8lfJ0o?t=108

    And if you read the Coast Guard part of the report, you will see that they recalled their RBS because it exceeded its safe operating range. That may not mean much to the average sailor, but watch this video to see an RBS in action off Oak Street Beach in Chicago.

    https://chicago.cbslocal.com/2018/09/08/dangerous-high-waves-kill-man-along-lake-michigan/

    You do not want to be swimming in that kind of wave condition. Wearing a harness would be a better strategy.

  17. Every one PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE STOP refering to the MOB/COB as needing to swim to the Life Sling !! The entire reference to getting the tow rope to the fallen water skier is correct – just wait where you are in the water and the Life Sling will come to you the MOB/COB.
    You MUST
    PRACTICE…PRACTICE…PRACTICE
    with the whole crew
    in all conditions
    until the entire crew is fully versed and confident in how the Life Sling COMES TO the MOB/COB
    Roger Baske

  18. Every one PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE STOP refering to the MOB/COB as needing to swim to the Life Sling !! The entire reference to getting the tow rope to the fallen water skier is correct – just wait where you are in the water and the Life Sling will come to you the MOB/COB.
    You MUST
    PRACTICE…PRACTICE…PRACTICE
    with the whole crew
    in all conditions
    until the entire crew is fully versed and confident in how the Life Sling COMES TO the MOB/COB
    Roger Baske

  19. Mr. Baske,

    I take your point about bringing the line to the swimmer, as one does with a water skier.

    But waterskiing is done with powerboats that can be put in neutral or even reverse. Sailboats can’t do that. The boat needs to have forward motion for the rudder to have any effect. So once you bring the sling to the MOB the residual motion will mean you begin towing the MOB. who then becomes a de facto drogue. The MOB begins steering the boat!

    Even if the boat comes to a full stop, pulling him to the boat creates an equal and opposite reaction force that pulls back on the boat.

    If you were to look at the design of tow boats (AKA tugboats), you will see that the attachment point for the tow cable is forward of the rudder and propeller. That is to enable the helmsman to steer the boat against the drag of the tow. Having the Lifesling stored and deployed from the stern puts the attachment point aft of the center of effort, propellor and rudder degrading the ability to steer the boat.

    Rather than mounting the Life Sling on the stern, it would make more sense to mount it near the mast for exactly the same reasons why tugboats attach tow hawsers well forward and not at the stern.

  20. Mr. Baske,

    I take your point about bringing the line to the swimmer, as one does with a water skier.

    But waterskiing is done with powerboats that can be put in neutral or even reverse. Sailboats can’t do that. The boat needs to have forward motion for the rudder to have any effect. So once you bring the sling to the MOB the residual motion will mean you begin towing the MOB. who then becomes a de facto drogue. The MOB begins steering the boat!

    Even if the boat comes to a full stop, pulling him to the boat creates an equal and opposite reaction force that pulls back on the boat.

    If you were to look at the design of tow boats (AKA tugboats), you will see that the attachment point for the tow cable is forward of the rudder and propeller. That is to enable the helmsman to steer the boat against the drag of the tow. Having the Lifesling stored and deployed from the stern puts the attachment point aft of the center of effort, propellor and rudder degrading the ability to steer the boat.

    Rather than mounting the Life Sling on the stern, it would make more sense to mount it near the mast for exactly the same reasons why tugboats attach tow hawsers well forward and not at the stern.

  21. Mr. Thompson,
    I am fully aware of the differences between helming sailboats and power boats, having raced keelboats for over 50 years and have participated in 52 Chi – Mac races.

    It is unlikely we will resolve our differing perspectives in this public forum.

    Granted, an able bodied MOB can assist in their own rescue by swimming to the Life Sling line.
    Consider an injured MOB who is unable to swim to the Life Sling line. In this case, the Life Sling needs to be brought to the MOB. Typically, the line will come to the MOB before the Life Sling gets to the MOB.
    Managing the Life Sling line by hand from the boat can expedite getting the line and Life Sling to the MOB, and provide slack in the line between the boat and MOB while the sailboat is brought to a stop by heaving-to or using auxiliary power.

    I have been involved in 8 MOB recoveries, all points of sail , wind and sea state – all non Life Sling; all under sail, no auxilry power used. In each event, the boat forward motion was effectively halted to bring the MOB back aboard the vessel.

    Since the introduction of the Life Sling we have practiced annually with a volunteer crew member acting as:
    Fully functional MOB
    Injured but able to assist MOB
    Unconcious MOB (Use the Life Sling to lift the MOB on board)
    And continue to practice all other MOB recovery methods in all conditions

    MOBs tend to occur at the most inopportune times; during a sail change, a gybe, mark rounding, reefing, a knockdown, gear failure, boom break, rigging failure i.e. dismasting.

    MOB procedures require the same dedication and practice as hoisting the kite, dousing the kite, kite changes, jib changes.

    Practice MOB in all conditions, all points of sail, all sail combinations
    Practice with the Life Sling.
    Practice
    Practice
    Practice

    Roger Baske

  22. Mr. Thompson,
    I am fully aware of the differences between helming sailboats and power boats, having raced keelboats for over 50 years and have participated in 52 Chi – Mac races.

    It is unlikely we will resolve our differing perspectives in this public forum.

    Granted, an able bodied MOB can assist in their own rescue by swimming to the Life Sling line.
    Consider an injured MOB who is unable to swim to the Life Sling line. In this case, the Life Sling needs to be brought to the MOB. Typically, the line will come to the MOB before the Life Sling gets to the MOB.
    Managing the Life Sling line by hand from the boat can expedite getting the line and Life Sling to the MOB, and provide slack in the line between the boat and MOB while the sailboat is brought to a stop by heaving-to or using auxiliary power.

    I have been involved in 8 MOB recoveries, all points of sail , wind and sea state – all non Life Sling; all under sail, no auxilry power used. In each event, the boat forward motion was effectively halted to bring the MOB back aboard the vessel.

    Since the introduction of the Life Sling we have practiced annually with a volunteer crew member acting as:
    Fully functional MOB
    Injured but able to assist MOB
    Unconcious MOB (Use the Life Sling to lift the MOB on board)
    And continue to practice all other MOB recovery methods in all conditions

    MOBs tend to occur at the most inopportune times; during a sail change, a gybe, mark rounding, reefing, a knockdown, gear failure, boom break, rigging failure i.e. dismasting.

    MOB procedures require the same dedication and practice as hoisting the kite, dousing the kite, kite changes, jib changes.

    Practice MOB in all conditions, all points of sail, all sail combinations
    Practice with the Life Sling.
    Practice
    Practice
    Practice

    Roger Baske

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