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  • Krabby

Man-Overboard Drills

“I hear you had some excitement on the Race Committee boat during Yachting Cup.” I implored of The Editor.

“I’ll say we did! There was not just one, but two man-overboards on my course. MOB’s can quickly turn into serious situations, but fortunately, our result was just a couple of soggy sailors,” replied The Editor, recounting her experience while in command off the mark-set boat.

“What?! Let me get this straight. Two different boats, competing in the same race lost crew over the side in separate incidents?” asked The East Coaster.     

“Exactly. And oddly enough they happened in quick succession. I had just recovered the first sailor and was handing off dry clothes when I heard the radio blow up with another MOB. I almost thought it was a relay of old news, but nope. I’ll tell you though, two MOBs seemed extreme for the conditions. There was more action in the water than on it that day! It was a relatively breezy day, by San Diego standards, with some strong gusts so that might have been a factor,” explained The Editor.

“Yes, that could be a factor. It’s easy to become complacent with regard to weather in San Diego and then when the breeze freshens a little, we can get caught off guard. That said, a man overboard situation can occur in any condition. Even in the calmest seas and breeze people can forget where the boat ends and the water begins. There is a reason that cry ‘man overboard’ shivers the bones of even the saltiest of sailors because the situation can turn ugly fast.

The best way to solve the man overboard issue is not to fall off the boat in the first place. In the immortal words of the famous square-rigger captain, Irving Johnson, “Safety, never heard the word, only a fool would let go.” Which of course key to staying on the boat. This is where the problem begins...most people think they can hold on no matter what, until, suddenly, the boat is sailing away from them. At that point, it’s a little late to remember to put on your life jacket, harness, and locator beacon.

It is the absolute responsibility for everyone onboard to assess the conditions and don the appropriate gear. The skipper must make the final call as to who is qualified to be on deck in those conditions and what gear is needed. Every time the boat leaves the dock, if there is any doubt as to what to do if someone goes overboard, then a quick review of the man overboard procedures must happen so everyone knows what to do.

“You are always preaching prevention and preparedness. Seems like more man-overboard drills are a good idea,” pointed out The East Coaster.

“I can attest to the importance of having this knowledge burned into the back of your mind/muscle memory. I’m grateful for training Krabby has given us... he makes every lost hat (or occasional lazarette cover) on Sally a MOB drill,” recalled The Editor. “Point well-taken. Everyone onboard should have a clear understanding on what needs to happen if someone goes over and well-rehearsed drills are a great way for the crew to become familiar with our MOB protocol,” I answered.

“I remember my first Ensenada race on Sally when we got caught in a gale on the delivery home. Those conditions were something. I can’t imagine locating a MOB in that washing machine let alone recovering a crew member in that sea state,” said The Editor recalling her early sailing days. “So, let’s outline the procedure for our readers - what to do when all the prevention doesn’t work, what needs to happen and in what order?” asked The Editor. “US Sailing has listed the protocol on their website (https://, but I’d like to hear Krabby’s version.”

Three things must happen in short order:

1. Keep eyes on the victim without fail.

2. Deploy the man-overboard device (life ring, man-overboard module, etc.) and any other ‘litter’ to help visually locate the MOB area. If the victim is within hail and conscience instruct them to calmly swim to the device not after the boat, saving their energy for the recovery.

3. Turn the boat around.

This needs to all happen almost simultaneously but I listed them in order of importance. It’s important to never take your eyes off the victim because they can easily get lost in the trough of the waves or sink below the surface. The key to recovery is to see them in order to bring the boat back to them. Hitting the Man Overboard (MOB) button on your GPS will record your coordinates.

A throwable flotation device must reach the victim before the boat is too far away. This marks the spot so the helmsman can steer toward the victim. Turning the boat around immediately is trickier than it sounds. If you are on a motorboat or a sailboat using the auxiliary, then you need to take care that you swing the stern away from the victim when turning in order to keep propellor from the victim. Before you turn, look at the compass to determine the reciprocal course back to the MOBs position. Under sail can be more complicated. If you are sailing on the wind, bear away and jibe all standing if the jib is left on the original tack you should end up hove to and to leeward of the victim. If you are downwind with the kite up, it is a different story. If you are sailing deep, then dousing the kite during a crash jibe has the best chances of success. It’s not an easy maneuver but it minimizes the chances of damage. It is important to know the boat to determine the best way to maneuver (why practice is critical). The point is you must turn the boat around immediately! Remember that sails can be replaced - but not people. Once the boat is turned around under sail, do not start the engine until you are sure all sails and lines are out of water. Fouling the propellor will not help the victim.

Recovering the victim is careful work. Maneuver alongside by approaching from leeward, taking care to keep the propeller clear of the MOB. Depending on the condition of the MOB you may need to deploy the boarding ladder or life sling to bring him aboard. During this operation, you should notify other vessels in the area that you have a man-overboard situation with your VHF radio. If at any point you have any doubt as to your ability to handle the situation - notify the Coast Guard. They are our friends and it’s what they are here for,” I said finishing my lecture.

“Wow, Krabby, thats a lot of information, especially without asking for a drink. You must be thirsty by now,” noticed the East Coaster.

“’Man Overboard’ is a sobering cry. I hope that will help some of our fellow yachtsmen understand how important it is to be prepared. I believe I earned my ration of rum,” I said as my voice dried out.

Here’s to a safe summer of sailing. Cheers!

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