Crew Overboard Rescues
Quickly turn back to keep the COB in sight
and nearby. The chances of a recovery plummet
if the person in the water can’t be seen. That will
happen within less than 100 yards because a head
in the water is about the size, shape, and color
of a half-submerged coconut. At a speed of only
three knots, a boat will cover those 100 yards in
just a minute. So it’s crucial to stop the boat’s
forward progress by at least luffing into the wind
or, better, by tacking back. Don’t jibe. Why? A
jibe can be dangerous, it eats up lots of distance,
and it may leave you with a beat back to the COB.
Assign a crew member to stand in the cockpit
in a place visible to the driver and point at the
COB. At night, throw buoyant flashlights or strobe
lights into the water to create a trail back to
the swimmer. Meanwhile, shout encouragement to the
COB. People who have survived falling overboard
report that there is no despair quite like the one
of watching helplessly as the boat sails away with
no sign that anybody knows the crew is one sailor
Two good methods for turning back and making rescues
under sail or power are the quick-stop and the reach-and-reach
(also called the figure 8), shown in these drawings
from the new edition of The Annapolis Book of Seamanship.
The quick-stop works under sail or power
and it’s the method I prefer.
What you do is tack the boat immediately and
begin sailing tight circles around the swimmer with
the sails trimmed flat. It’s important not to ease
the sheets or tack the jib—this is a crucial part
of the maneuver. A backed jib quickens the turn
and slows the boat, and a tight mainsheet keeps
the boom from banging around and injuring crew members.
You don’t want to be distracted by sheets or the
boom while concentrating on the rescue. Because
the boat should make tight turns, the quick-stop
may not work well in light winds or with heavy boats.
But a boat can do a quick-stop maneuver even with
its spinnaker flying. What you do in this case is
head into the wind right away and then ease the
spinnaker pole forward to the headstay and drop
the chute rapidly. Most likely the kite will be
wet, but it will also be doused.
The reach-and-reach (or figure 8) may
work better than the quick-stop in light or strong
winds, and with boats that don’t tack quickly. (Practice
and experience will tell you which tactic works
best for your boat.) After the person has gone over,
turn the boat onto a beam reach briefly (less than
20 seconds), and then tack and reach back for the
same amount of time, always aiming downwind of the
COB. When the boat gets exactly downwind of the
target, head up into the wind. This avoids a jibe,
which (again) consumes time and distance and is
dangerous in a fresh wind.
In the reach-and-reach (figure 8) method,
tack, come back downwind of the COB,
and head into the wind.
method keeps the boat near the COB through
a series of tight circles with the sails
trimmed flat. Do not adjust the sheets
as the boat tacks and jibes.
|2. Get buoyancy to the COB as
soon as possible, before and while turning back.
Immediately throw cockpit and seat cushions and
life rings—anything and everything—to the COB.
|3. Stop the boat. Under sail or
power, come to a halt or a near-halt within 20 feet
of the COB. One way is to sail alongside on a close-hauled
course with the sails luffing, almost like picking
up a mooring. Or the boat can be made to lie stationary
upwind of the COB with the sails luffing, doused,
or rolled up.
|4. Make physical contact with the COBeither
with a heaving line or by stopping the boat alongside
the person. A valuable skill here is to be able
to accurately heave a sheet or other line 20 feet
or farther. Some dedicated heaving lines can be
thrown very accurately; good boats store them near
the helm. If the boat is stopped upwind, a Lifesling
can be let down to the COB.
|5. Get the COB back on board.This
is often the most difficult step. It can be extremely
difficult to haul an exhausted person who is weighed
down by soaking clothes up and over the topsides.
Many rescues have reached this stage only to fail.
If the COB is strong and agile, he or she can climb
up a swimming ladder or a step improvised by dropping
over a line with a bowline tied in its end. Or try
the elevator recovery. Tie the bitter end of a long
line near the bow (say at the bow cleat), drape
the line along the topsides, and, near the stern,
lead it through a block to a winch. The COB, hanging
onto the rail or lifelines, steps on the line with
both feet. The crew on deck pulls on the line, which
lifts the COB. For this method, however, the COB
must be strong and agile.
|Of course, not every COB will be able to help
his or her rescuers. A helpless COB could be grabbed
by several people and manhandled onto the deck.
But what does a typical small crew do? For this
we are blessed to have the Lifesling, an essential
safety device that was invented by the Sailing Foundation
in Seattle, WA, specifically for the "mom-and-pop"
situation where a small, solitary person must recover
a larger COB.
The method is simple enough to be described on
the Lifesling’s yellow or white pouch. Here’s a
summary: (1) a buoyant yoke is trailed from the
boat at the end of a line as the boat circles the
COB; (2) after the COB grabs the yoke and gets into
it, the crew lowers the sails; (3) with the boat
dead in the water, the crew pulls the COB to the
boat’s side and (4) attaches a halyard to the yoke
and pulls the COB onto the deck. If you have a Lifesling,
be sure to deploy and tow it astern to work the
kinks out of the line. And, of course, practice
using it. Some sailing organizations sponsor COB
recovery clinics with small boats standing by.
The most dangerous situation is when the COB
is unconscious or otherwise helpless. Here you’ll
have to put another person into the water. It’s
imperative that the rescuer wear a life jacket,
be attached to the boat with a line, and carry flotation
and a second line or a Lifesling to the COB. Each
of these lines must be handled by a crew member
on deck. Once the rescuer swims to the COB, the
life jacket and second line are attached and the
COB is pulled to the boat, where you attempt to
use passive recovery methods.
All these COB rescue techniques should be practiced
regularly—by heaving over and picking up cushions,
for example—with everybody taking turns at different
positions. Where is it written that the skipper
won’t be the one in the drink? Whoever is at the
helm should learn how to issue orders clearly and
calmly in order to keep the crew organized, focused,
and free of the confusion and panic that can turn
an emergency into a tragedy
|The Lifesling rescue device is used to lift the COB on deck. It also provides buoyancy and a link to the boat.
||In the elevator recovery, the COB steps on a line that is tightened and is lifted to the rail.