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This is a topic no one particularly likes to contemplate. It’s great to be prepared for a man overboard scenario, and Amy and I have been trained to handle the boat if one of us goes overboard, we do focus more on prevention.
Years ago, I was captaining one of the dinner cruise boats out on Clear Lake. The day had high winds which made for a bit of chop on the lake. As I was approaching the end of the lake and preparing to make my turn to head back towards our marina, I saw a kid in the water, looking like they were struggling to get back on their boat. The father jumped in to help and was able to get the kid on board, but the wind pushed the boat away before he could get on board himself. His wife and kid were struggling to get the boat moving by themselves and the father appeared quite panicked so we hailed him with our PA, asking if he needed assistance. When he said yes, we went into Man Overboard mode.
My crew moved all the guests inside and I maneuvered the boat so that we were downwind of the man in the water, preventing the wind from pushing us on top of him and making the situation worse. Fortunately, he had on a life jacket, but we threw him a life ring so that we could pull him toward the boat. The crew helped him up the man overboard ladder, and I was able to move the boat back towards the middle of the lake since the wind was blowing us quite close to shore. At this point, we were able to communicate with his wife and instruct her on how to drive his boat up to ours and transferred him back safely.
Fortunately, everything went very well, but it just reinforced to me how critical it is to be prepared for that sort of situation, even if our main goal is to ensure it never happens!
Here are the preventative steps we’ve taken.
We have a full enclosure around the helm and the cockpit that allow us to stay ‘inside’ in rough conditions. All of our lines lead to the helm, so in rough conditions, there shouldn’t be a need to go outside of the enclosure.
Read about our full enclosure.
If we do have to go out onto the deck, we need to have a way to strap ourselves onto the boat.
Amy made our jacklines out of 8mm Dyneema line. Each end has an eye splice; one end is luggage-tagged to a cleat and the other is lashed on to the cleat using smaller Dyneema.
We have three jacklines; one that runs along each side of the boat at the toe-rail, and another that runs across the bow.
Amy and I each have our own Spinlock Deckvest to wear when needed. These safety harnesses come with a whole slew of features:
- auto inflating
- high-intensity flashing light
- mesh pocket for VHF/PLB Locator
- thigh straps with recessed clips
- safety line cutter
If the worst does happen, and either Amy or I get swept off the boat, the other person needs to be able to find them. I have an immense amount of trust in both Amy and my ability to handle the boat, and there are some great systems out there to help make finding a MOB easier.
These are very new, but I think they provide the best odds for being found by your own boat. The latest device by McMurdo called a Smartfind S20, can be installed onto your safety harness/PFD and can either activate manually or automatically depending on your brand of harness. Once activated, it will create a MOB AIS data point on our chart plotter that will continuously update and can be seen by other boats nearby as well.
These are designed more to notify worldwide rescue services and assist in the MOB location by those services. They are less useful to an individual boat unless you have equipment that can specifically obtain the frequencies transmitted. Otherwise, we would be reliant on rescue services to try and give directions to the person in the water. That being said, a PLB together with a Personal AIS device would be a very useful combination.
There are small, waterproof, handheld, floating VHFs that can be clipped on to a safety harness and could then be used to communicate with the person in the water. These handheld VHFs also have GPS displays.
Spotting a person in the water could be tricky, even with an AIS fix, but a boat is a bigger object for the person in the water to spot. Plus, hearing from the other person that they’re on their way back for you can help prevent panic.
As I said, the absolute first priority is to stay on the boat. There is always risk inherent when sailing, as with all things in life, but we want to make sure that we have the equipment and systems necessary to mitigate that risk as much as possible and allow us to find a person in the water should the need ever arise.