Losing a crew member overboard is a boat owner’s worst nightmare. The skipper is not only responsible for the boat but for all the crew as well. Accidents will happen, and as a result, we all must be ready to act quickly to make a successful recovery. Not many people have studied this problem more than Richard duMoulin who is a past commodore of the Storm Trysail Club, creator of the Storm Trysail Club’s Junior Safety at Sea Seminars and the current chairman of the STC’s Hands-On Safety at Sea seminars. He has raced in every major ocean race and won the doublehanded division of the Bermuda Race four times. He is constantly thinking about what to do when things go wrong offshore.
As a result of sailing with and against duMoulin for over 25 years, he pulled me into safety at sea training. For over 20 years I have taught man-over-board recovery at the Larchmont Junior SAS, and since 2010 I have been an instructor at the STC’s hands on safety at sea seminars at SUNY Maritime.
Through actual on-the-water recoveries and studying after-action reports of recoveries gone wrong, the two of us, along with others at STC have come up with some new thoughts about MOB recovery. In recent years there have been some crew overboard incidents that had unfortunate outcomes. MOBs have either drowned before the boat got back to them or they got hit by the boat. The faster you recover the MOB, the better your odds of a successful recovery. But do it right and safely the first time. Need to stay close so that you can see the person and, the farther away you get, the longer it takes to recover the person.
Other lessons learned are that trying to stop a boat right next to the person in the water while under sail takes too long as most sailors need to make several approaches.
Sailors usually go overboard in heavy air with a sea running. Sailing back to and stopping right next to a MOB is hard to do and most sailors take many tries when doing MOB practice. Therefore, we suggest a new approach that involves using the boat’s engine. As a direct comparison, try sailing up to a mooring and see how many tries it takes. But with an engine to slow you down or speed you up, you are able to pick up that mooring on the first try every time.
Making matters worse, modern boats are difficult to control at slow speeds because they have high-aspect foils that stall out at slow speeds. Boats with twin rudders do not get the accelerated flow from the propeller that helps steer a boat at slow speeds. Therefore, getting close to a person in the water creates the risk that the boat will not be under complete control.
Now a person in the water is not a mooring ball. The mooring can be run over and all you get are some scratches in your bottom paint. But running over a MOB can be deadly. Therefore, we are proposing two different solutions that allow you to recover a MOB while keeping your boat 10-15 feet away from the person until they are in a Lifesling and the hoisting aboard process has started. But for this to work, all lines need to be out of the water so that the propeller does not get fouled. The two techniques we are recommending that are better than the standard quick stop are:
1. Lifesling as a Throw Line
2. Lifesling with the Midline Lift
How to do a recovery using the Lifesling as Throw Line:
- Yell Man Overboard, throw flotation, assign pointer
- Hit MOB button on GPS
- Head into the wind and stop the boat.
- Get lines out of the water and start engine — keep in neutral
- Drop or roll up headsail
- Drop the mainsail and tie it down on the side opposite from the Lifesling. When the main is down, the boom cannot fly around and the boat can be stopped at any angle to the wind.
- Again, check that all lines are out of the water
- Motor back to the MOB and position the boat 10-15 feet away from the MOB and upwind.
- Keep the boat safely away from MOB
- By not coming alongside the MOB, person on the helm never loses sight of MOB
- Also, by staying away from MOB, can continue to use engine to adjust position without risking MOB
- Halyard can be attached to tied loop in Lifesling line and hoist with a winch.
THE MIDLINE LIFT
The Midline Lift is derived from what the professionals are doing on 100-footers and 70-foot trimarans that not only don’t maneuver well at slow speeds, but they have chines that are dangerous to crew members alongside the boat. The benefits of the midline lift is that the boat keeps away from the MOB and the MOB is only next to the boat as they are being hoisted out of the water. The midline lift works well for shorthanded boats like cruising couples as explained below.
To do the midline lift, tow the Lifesling to the MOB by making a tight circle around the MOB. Tow the sling to the MOB, just as you would bring a tow rope to a water skier. For a cruising couple this is a much better option since once the person left aboard goes to hoist the halyard, there is no one to drive the boat. So even bringing the boat within 10-15 feet of the MOB could be dangerous.
When the person in the water puts the Lifesling under their arms, the boat is stopped and turned 90-degrees to the MOB. Then the spinnaker halyard is clipped to the tow line and then hoisted. This way the person will be pulled clear of the water just as they come next to the boat. The person can’t get under a chine or slammed by the boat.
To make the Midline Lift work best, replace the yellow polypropylene line with 8mm Spectra line. Like the polypropylene, the Spectra floats, but it is much stronger and will not stretch as much. Also, the tow line should be twice the mast height, less 10-15 feet (3-4 meters). If the line is too long, you will not be able to get the person high enough to clear the top of the lifelines.
Practice on your own boat with your crew is crucial to being able to act quickly and safely when under pressure. Having a team member in the water when the wind is blowing can make people freeze up or make hasty decisions because of an overflow of adrenaline. I always tell seminar participants that the first thing a racing crew does when they get to the starting area is to sail upwind and practice a few tacks and then jibes to get the crew focused. Then I point out that if something as basic as tacking and jibing have to be practiced before every race, how can they expect to do a MOB recovery well if they only practice once a year.
Practice should be broken down into two main parts that can be practiced separately.
1. Returning to the MOB
2. Hoisting the MOB aboard.
Like practicing anything, start in light air. Before or after races, practice returning to an MOB. This way you’ll be practicing with your full crew. It is important that everyone knows how to start the engine, create an MOB waypoint on the GPS and know all the steps that need to happen. Throw a cushion, attached to a bucket, over. The bucket will act as a sea anchor. Have different people act as pointer, driver, MOB button pusher, engine starter, etc. It is very important that many if not all crew know all these jobs as you never know who will go over. A great suggestion from duMoulin is to have one person be a note-take or videographer. That way you can have a good debrief of what worked, what can be improved, and what needs to not happen going forward.
Practice hoisting a person out of the water at the dock or mooring. Only when your team has had a bit of practice do you want to try a recovery of a person in the water with the boat. As your team gets better and better with the maneuver, the final examines are to practice an MOB recovery in high winds and waves and then again at night.
Practicing on your own boat is important since all boats turn at different rates, have safety equipment in different locations, have different engine starting sequences and the MOB button and radios can work differently based on the unit and manufacturer. Here is an important story to consider.
A month after one of the Storm Trysail Club’s Hands-on Safety at Sea Seminars, I sailed on the Sydney 43 CHRISTOPHER DRAGON in the American Yacht Club’s Spring Series. We lost a crewmember overboard while we were in our starting sequence. Fortunately, CHRISTOPHER DRAGON was one of the boats used to teach man overboard recoveries at the STC’s SAS seminar and her skipper had learned that his boat, with its high aspect keel, could not do a textbook quick stop recovery. During the seminar, he learned that the boat at slow speeds without the jib would fall into irons. Therefore, instead of trying to come up to the person and stop with the jib down, the crew of DRAGON knew their best option was to deploy the Lifesling and sail around the MOB until he got hold of the polypropylene line. Only then was the boat stopped. In this real-life recovery, the MOB was picked up in two minutes and we still had time to get a good start.
In his seminars, duMoulin uses a motto from the US Marine Corps — “Practice the way you fight; and fight the way you practice.” Go out with your crew and learn your boat and its equipment and practice at least once a month if not more.