Improving the odds of recovery


For the most part, the average voyaging crew stands a low chance of recovering a crewmember who goes overboard. Not for lack of effort, but simply because the process requires planning and practice. This study of the topic is a good first-step, but we can’t stop here — we must also prepare and improve our skill on the water!

I’ve not lost anyone to the sea in my 37 years of active sailing, having sailed with thousands of crew in calm to stormy conditions; yet, I’ve twice been an overboard victim, and acted as captain recovering four victims on separate occasions.

After analyzing actual accounts of man-overboard (MOB) recoveries (not simulations), it seems clear that each recovery rarely traces the steps of accepted recovery methods. Quite often actual recoveries require a blend of sailing skill best learned by practicing all methods.

Upwind and downwind MOB cases using the Fast Return method. The Fast Return is similar to the Quick Stop because the tack happens so close to the victim.

“Don’t let go,” is the best advice I can give an overboard victim. In the end, it’s the victim who matters most — the victim could care less whether his crew’s reaction follows a method to the “T.” Windward pickup, leeward pickup, sugar scoop ladder? The victim just wants to re-board, and they’ll swim for it if they can. If justification was ever needed for one human to be critical of another it’s given to the overboard victim watching an average crew sail-off for X boat-lengths on a specified point of sail, and… fail to recover him on their first attempt.

Unfortunately a single proper procedure doesn’t exist for every situation. Sailing conditions vary and yacht designs vary; and a specific recovery maneuver may be chosen over another to suit a particular yacht under the prevailing conditions. The recovery crew simply must have strong boat-handling skills in diverse sea-states and wind conditions to raise their odds for success, and it’s beneficial to also have experience with a variety of yacht designs to draw upon while recovering a victim who’s fallen overboard from an unfamiliar yacht, like a charter.

Four recovery methods
The 2005 Crew Overboard Rescue Symposium (Aug. 9-12, 2005; San Francisco Bay, Calif.) led practical on-the-water testing of overboard rescue gear and methods; likely the most extensive investigation of its kind to date. In addition to a final report by John Rousmaniere (June 26, 2006) compiling the symposium’s findings, the symposium also produced heightened sailing skills in its participants via on-the-water exercises undertaken during the study; the sort of hands-on practice average crews should also pursue aboard their own yachts or via custom professional instruction.

The Quick Stop emphasizes the need for an immediate tack and a backed headsail. In effect this puts the boat hove to and windward of the victim offering a stabilized position to ready the crew.

Four recovery methods for mono-hulled sailing yachts using basic sailing skills were highlighted during the symposium: Turning Maneuvers: Quick Stop and Fast Return; and Point-of-Sail Maneuvers: Figure 8 and Deep Beam Reach. These are sound methods, but even an expert sailor will need to study and digest them before beginning on-the-water practice; the average sailor will require significant study and practice to attain the skills necessary for success. In documenting the four maneuvers, Rousmaniere (2006:13) states:

• Quick Stop: Luff into the wind immediately, then make one or more elliptical loops around the victim. To slow the boat and avoid distraction by sheets, trim the sails flat (with the jib left trimmed to one side), or furl the jib. When the crew and gear are ready, head to the victim on a close reach. (This maneuver is also used in Lifesling rescues.)

• Fast Return: If sailing upwind, bear off, and after about two and a half boat lengths, tack, back the jib, bear off, and head up to the victim on a close reach. If sailing downwind, head up, and after about two and a half lengths, tack and head to the victim.

• Figure 8: Alter course to a beam reach, and after about five boat lengths tack, bear off, and return on a close reach.

• Deep Beam Reach: Bear off to just below a beam reach, and after two boat lengths tack and come back to the victim on a close reach.

Figure 8 method uses a beam reach as a midpoint between the victim and the wind. The yacht must also sail downwind after tacking and position to leeward of the victim.

Reattachment vs. recovery
Overboard recovery efforts can be broken into two phases: 1) reattaching the victim to the vessel; and, 2) recovering the victim from the water and placing them aboard the vessel. Ultimately, the victim’s reattachment to the vessel is the first major accomplishment in the process.

Getting the victim back aboard.

Most overboard victims remain conscious and retain some mobility in the water; and, given their pressing circumstances can muster the fight to reattach themselves to the vessel if nearby.

The victim’s submersed mobility will be hindered by their saturated clothing and cumbersomeness of their harness and PFD. Cold water will also zap their energy. Despite these obvious shortcomings, the conscious victim should be considered part of the solution.

Without adamantly favoring one approach over another, a good first course of action to reattach the victim is… immediately deploy the Lifesling as quickly as the victim goes overboard (whether it gets directly to the victim or not). Every offshore yacht should carry a Lifesling that’s fully commissioned on the stern pulpit. A conscious victim can swim a short distance and grab ahold of the floating Lifesling harness to reattach via its direct-tether to the yacht. Meanwhile, the crew will carry-out the Quick Stop maneuver. The procedural tack should be completed before all the slack is pulled-out of the Lifesling’s tether to avoid dragging the victim behind the moving yacht. A yacht sailing at 6.5 knots must complete the tack in 13.6 seconds before reaching the end of the 150-foot tether. Even if the yacht misses the conscious victim on the first pass, the Lifesling’s tether should be drawn within the victim’s reach in the process of circling them. These actions are proven to recover actual victims.

Other formal recovery maneuvers exist; although, the Lifesling Quick Stop (described above) is generally preferred by victims because it is reassuring for the vessel to remain close by, and it offers better odds to maintain visual contact with the victim than any other maneuver. Mostly, the Lifesling Quick Stop offers the victim the option to save themselves, where other sailing-based methods do not. It is the method I stress during the Modern Geographic Sailing Expeditions I lead aboard my boat Solstice. However, factors contrary to these points obviously exist, namely that considerations for how a vessel performs in different wind and sea-state conditions should be made before a yacht’s crew decides which “primary response” method works best in a particular case. Inherent design characteristics of a vessel make maneuvering more or less favorable in specific conditions — we’ll discuss boat-handling practice and other maneuvers later in this article.

The victim also has responsibilities! If conscious, he or she must not let go — they must fight to survive. A victim’s passive approach does not help the crew’s recovery efforts. They should attempt to make contact with whatever debris the crew has thrown to them, preferably the floating Lifesling harness! They should remain in contact with the recovery crew by several means: make repeatable sound from a whistle; raise arms and tread high in the water to be more visible behind waves; and, monitor their exertion-level to sustain these activities throughout the recovery process, giving maximum effort when it counts most.

The conscious victim should even contribute to the rescue by communicating by voice, if possible. Or, illuminate a light-stick; activate personal electronic devices; or even communicate via a waterproof hand-held VHF radio. A consciously-passive victim is as unhelpful as an unconscious one. Recovery odds will be heightened if the conscious victim contributes.

Recovery: re-boarding the victim
Getting the victim safely back aboard the yacht is the pinnacle of success. Again, the Lifesling is a good option and my preferred tool for overboard recovery, serving a dual-function of reattaching and raising the victim from the water to the deck. Conscious or not, the victim can be hoisted from the water by positioning the Lifesling’s harness under the victim’s armpits and around their backside. Two stainless D-rings sewn onto the Lifesling serve to attach hoisting tackle. A conscious victim would have already wrapped the Lifesling around him or herself during the reattachment phase; but the unconscious overboard victim must receive total assistance to don the Lifesling, or any other lifting harness for that matter.

Re-boarding the unconscious victim is the most difficult type of recovery. A crew’s precise yacht-maneuvering to the victim’s location is absolutely necessary. More important, the yacht must stop and remain stopped at the victim’s location before getting them aboard. Few victims will remain attached to the vessel if the yacht has way on; and, an unconscious victim will likely require a tethered crewmember to get into the water to attach the Lifesling or lifting harness. Telescoping boat hooks provide assistance in making contact with the victim, but again, if the yacht has way, the boat hook could be ripped from the rescuer’s grip, and lost.

Any yacht with way will intensify the difficulty of getting the victim aboard. If the sea-state is choppy (an offshore significant wave height of three feet, for example) the recovery effort will suffer considerable difficulty. Rescue via a sugar-scoop transom in average ocean chop will likely cause the victim to be smashed by a yacht’s trailing undersides (the ends of a yacht can be the worst location to mount the re-boarding efforts in waves). The rescuer’s best hope for an easy full recovery is for the victim to somehow be “fitted” with a hoisting-harness, where hoisting-tackle can quickly be attached via a snap-shackle, and to begin hoisting the victim from the water via winch or tackle. If two rescuers can each get a grip under the victim’s arms and pull him aboard the yacht, great, but the yacht’s lifeline gates should be positioned next to the victim, further adding to the precision required in maneuvering the yacht. Even if the victim can be plucked from the sea by two strong rescuers, there should be a hoisting-harness and tackle at the ready.

Boat-handling practice and onboard preparation
An ill-suited and common practice-exercise to simulate an overboard victim’s recovery (assuming the worst-case unconscious victim) is to toss overboard a fender or throwable Type IV life jacket. This type of object drifts passively along with the wind. Then we pick it up using a boat hook, to haul it back aboard with minimal effort. Even with the yacht underway, the crew can pluck the object from the sea without too much difficulty. This exercise should not be considered MOB recovery practice; it is a maneuvering exercise — an undertaking which marginally improves the odds of recovering an actual overboard person… why? Because: 1) the target can drift more rapidly with the wind than a victim would, affectively teaching us to over-judge our real-life maneuvering response; 2) the target’s full recovery can be made using a boat hook without completely stopping the yacht; 3) the recovery crew never uses a hoisting tackle; 4) the recovery crew never had to connect a lifting harness to any victim; and, 5) the recovery crew never entered the water to prepare for an unconscious victim’s recovery; nor practiced hauling a 200-plus pound victim aboard by any means.

What’s perhaps the most disappointing results of the above ill-suited and common MOB practice-exercise is the social conditioning that forms our assumption that every victim’s involvement is passive. I believe this develops a false sense of accomplishment in a crew’s ability to rescue an actual MOB.

Even amongst expert instructors of MOB recovery, there are many variations within the formal methods taught. The obvious explanation for procedural variations must come down to nuances of boat-handling, affected by the prevailing conditions and particular vessel’s design. For example, some instructors of the Quick Stop say you should ease-out the mainsail upon completing the tack, and others say you shouldn’t… the correct answer is obviously the one that recovers the victim under the prevailing conditions, which depends upon the sea-state, wind strength, and the yacht’s maneuverability in those conditions. In addition, fin-keeled and full-keeled mono-hulled yachts will have different turning radii, coasting and slippage characteristics; and every yacht will certainly have different rigging layouts and MOB recovery gear. We may create specific MOB procedures for individual crew and yachts, but it’s the recovery action in atypical situations that saves lives.

Planning, practice, evaluation, and modification of every yacht’s MOB recovery method and equipment should be carried out on a frequent basis — at a minimum each time a new crewmember goes out sailing. Regular crews should undergo this investigation and practice several times per year. Cross-training of roles is a good idea too. On the water practice must include provisions for a full recovery, from reattachment to re-boarding before truly improving one’s odds of recovery. A yacht’s skipper should prepare a complete MOB recovery methodology for the crew, and a cohesive collection of recovery equipment that can be tested and evaluated while on the water. MOB recovery practice should be performed in a variety of wind and sea-state conditions. All MOB recovery maneuvers should be evaluated, including the use of auxiliary engine propulsion (motor-sailing) and purely as a motor vessel.

Final words to improve recovery odds:
It’s the owner or captain’s responsibility to ultimately decide upon the preferred MOB recovery method for the yacht, and communicate and practice it with the crew. Involve the crew in evaluating the methods. The particular yacht’s handling characteristics must be understood before deciding upon the best first recovery response. An exceptional captain and crew will have developed innate skill in maneuvering their yacht through a lot of practice. The crew’s actions must teeter between common sense and memorized routine, for written procedures are often stuffed in a folder below and the crew must act decisively and exceptionally to save their fellow crew.

Regarding the specific argument about how much boat speed a vessel should have at the point where the victim comes alongside the vessel, there exists much unsupported misinformation from the sailing community about acceptable boat speed limits. In my experience and opinion, a stopped vessel is nearly the only way to recover a victim from the water in average ocean conditions, for the rolling, pitching, heaving and yawing motion of the yacht is already a considerable amount of movement. A crew that possesses “exceptional” boat-handling skills means the crews abilities can effectively negotiate the vessel between 0 to 1 knot of boat speed in a wide variety of conditions while precisely positioning the vessel alongside the victim when, where, and how they wish! The vessel must be held stable long enough for the victim to re-board the vessel via hoisting tackle or any other acceptable means. Some boating deaths have been caused by dragging the victim through the water because the vessel was not slowed to an adequate speed or stopped.

The need for high-precision maneuvering that brings the victim along-side the vessel, combined with the reality that crews don’t practice MOB recovery often enough to drill that level of maneuvering, serves as my impetus for recommending the Lifesling Quick Stop as an inexpensive and relatively easy-to-implement recovery method. If we take the time to investigate and improve our MOB recovery options, select and practice a preferred maneuver, and commission a Lifesling on our vessel… we’ve just increased our odds tenfold — I’m certain every sailor would appreciate being the beneficiary of those odds.

Paul Exner is a Coast Guard licensed captain and the owner of Modern Geographic Sailing Expeditions (

By Ocean Navigator