Introduction: Rescuing Someone Fallen Overboard From a Boat

(try this, it's fun - and who knows, you might save a life one day)

If someone falls into a pool, it's usually more humourous than a cause for alarm. Even if they are hurt, as long as someone sees them, they can be pulled out quickly enough to prevent drowning.

If they fall from a boat, or into a fast-flowing river, it's more serious.

If someone falls off the back of a boat doing 6 knots, Instantly they are too far away to climb back. In ten seconds they are 30 metres away - too far to throw a line. In five minutes they are nearly a kilometer away, about the apparent size of the planet Venus. In 30 minutes in cold water, they may die from hypothermia.

Step 1: Equipment Required

In a real emergency, if you don't have something, improvise. It's more important to get on with the rescue than to waste time looking for the "correct" equipment.

The following items are useful, at the least. They may be required equipment in some jurisdictions and for boats of a certain size.

- 60 metres of floating line
- two life buoys, or medium sized floats
- a marker buoy
- a boarding ladder (should extend 80cm into the water)
- a sling, or harness
- davits or spar with block and winch
- floating lights
- PFD (personal flotation device or life jacket), one per person, with light and whistle
- GPS receiver
- VHF radio
- Heaving line (flaked into a soft bag for an effective throw)
- powerful flashlight or spotlight
- swim fins

The purpose of the marker pole is to be visible in waves several feet high. Typically the pole is sold with a code "O" flag ("man overboard") in a cover. Mine was lost and replaced with a scrap of fabric.

The small floating lights are suitable for attachment to a PFD. The larger one is intended to be attached to the life buoy, but may be used separately. The small ones are activated by contact with water, the larger one by orientation (when stored inverted, it is off).

The sling shown is actually intended for someone to sit in while working aloft, not as a rescue sling. But it is strong enough, and easy to secure around a victim.

A block and winch are useful to retrieve an injured or unconscious victim. On a sailboat, the main boom may be used as lifting tackle as shown. On a powerboat, a boat davit may be available. Even on a relatively small boat, the deck may be a metre above water level so a "pool rescue" technique is unsuitable.

(It would probably be better to stow the bicycle somewhere else. However, it is not actually preventing easy removal of the lifebuoys. The buoy shown needs repair, but is fully functional - anything to hand is better than the best equipment stowed out of reach)

Step 2: First Response

A lot depends on how many crew are available. If there are only one or two people doing the rescue, some steps must perforce be left out.

- throw in a marker pole
- if the victim has no PFD, throw in something to support them - a life buoy, PFD, water toy, fender, etc. It doesn't matter what - it's more important to do it quickly.
- if at night, throw in a light

If two or more crew:
- shout "man overboard:" to alert other crew
- one person keep pointing at the victim and keep them in sight continuously
- record the location on GPS. But only if it is immediately to hand; don't waste time looking for it,
waiting for a fix, or trying to figure out how to work it.
- if the victim may be hurt or unconscious (for example, they were knocked overboard by a spar) - or they can't swim - a rescue swimmer should jump in to help them. It's worth taking a few seconds to take swim fins if available - it is much, much easier to tow someone or do rescue breathing if wearing fins.

Step 3: Prepare to Come About

The next step is to prepare to navigate back to the victim. In a small powerboat, this may be trivial. In a larger boat, or when under sail, it may be more complex.

Continue to steer a straight course, keeping the victim in sight, until ready to turn.Take down and secure all sails, if this can be done rapidly, then return under power. If sails are left up, they may block the view of the victim and will limit the possible courses that may be steered. In high wind, they may be a hazard to crew doing the rescue - loose sails and lines can flap with considerable force and often have metal fittings capable of inflicting injury.

Depending on the weather, sails in use, and condition of the victim, it may be necessary to cut loose a sail such as a spinnaker that cannot be quickly furled. A float may be secured for later retrieval.

In busy or restricted waters (which is to some degree a function of vessel size), it may be prudent to issue a safety notice on VHF radio, e.g. "Securitay securitay securitay sailing vessel Cygnet has man overboard in Victoria harbour entrance. Vessels not assisting please stand clear". This will probably trigger a long conversation with the Coast Guard, diverting a crew member from the actual rescue.

If the rescue swimmer is underequipped or inexperienced, e.g. a parent jumped after their child, another swimmer may gear up (fins, wetsuit) to assist if necessary.

In a large vessel, or depending on crew and availability, it may be best to launch a smaller boat such as an inflatable to effect the rescue. In which case, the parent vessel need only manoeuvre to allow this.

(during the exercise in the photo, the sails were already furled)

Step 4: Execute a Williamson Turn

It is actually quite hard to steer a boat of any size back to a particular spot in the water. There are a couple of manoeuvres that make this easier. One is the Williamson Turn - ti requires no equipment, although a compass is helpful, and puts the boat on a return course back along its original track.

- To start, steer a straight course away from the victim
- Put the helm hard over and wait until the boat has turned 90 degrees.
- Put the helm hard over the other way, and wait until the boat has turned 270 degrees. Be careful to keep the victim in sight during this second turn. Do not change speed.
- The boat should now be heading directly towards the victim

If a compass is available, the course change may be made based on compass heading. If not, pick a mark on the horizon off the boats beam (on land, or a distinctive cloud, or just use a best guess), and steer until the boat is heading for it. Then turn the other way until the boat is heading for the victim.

It doesn't matter which way the initial turn is made, or how fast the boat is going, or how sharp the turn is. All that matters is that the speed is consistent and the turns are of equal radius.

If a GPS waypoiint was saved where the victim went overboard, it may be used as an aid to returning. However, the victim (and marker pole) will drift with current or tide while the GPS waypoint will not. A well-executed Williamson Turn will give better results.

The video shows a drill with 2 uninjured victims, and sails already furled.

Step 5: Pick Up the Victim

If the sea is calm, and the victim is in good condition, this is easy. Just come alongside the victim and have them climb aboard, using a boarding ladder if available. Don't forget to retrieve any floats or marker poles etc.

If the sea is rough or the boat is making way under bare poles, it may be hard to safely come alongside the victim. The following procedure may be used:

- deploy a float or life buoy on a floating line, and let out some length of line behind the boat.
- steer a course around the victim, keeping them in sight and the propeller well away from them at all times. If possible, come to a stop to windward of the victim, protecting them from waves that will throw them against the boat. The line should be drawn towards the victim, allowing them to grab hold of it. Then gently pull them to the side of the boat and assist them to climb the ladder

Alternatively, in moderate seas, use a heaving line. Throw it beyond the victim, not at them, so that they can catch the rope as it is pulled in. Using a line in a bag, secure the free end and, leaving the line in the bag, throw it so that the line deploys from the bag in flight. If the throw fails, fill the bag with water, flake the line on deck to run freely, and try again.

If all you have is a (non-floating) dock line, tie a fender on as a float and use that. In heavy seas it may be hard for even a good swimmer to swim to a ladder, and they will tire more easily.

Step 6: Unconscious Victim

If the victim is unconscious, injured, or otherwise unable to climb aboard unassisted, it may be necessary to use a sling or harness

- rig a block and line to allow the victim to be hoisted vertically from the water
- the rescue swimmer positions the sling or harness around the victim, under the shoulders. If no sling is available, make a loop in the line using a non-slip knot such as a bowline. If the victim is already wearing a safety harness, use that.
- one crew member winches the victim up, while another steadies them and prevents them from banging into the hull, catching their legs in rigging etc.
- the tackle should have sufficient height to clear the topsides, railings, lines etc.
- lower the victim to the deck, cockpit etc., then remove the sling and administer first aid

During this exercise, we did not have sufficient height on the tackle, so that we had to drag the victim over the safety line. We should have tightened the topping lift, or otherwise raised the boom (used as a spar to support the block) by about 1 metre. It was impossible to do this once the victim's weight was on the boom. In a real emergency, we might have cut the steel lines to avoid further injury to the victim.

It may be necessary to perform CPR on the victim in the water if they are not breathing, as it will take too long to bring them aboard. This technique is often taught in SCUBA classes.

Winching aboard:

Step 7: Stand Down

After the victim is brought aboard, recover all equipment used or abandoned during the rescue (buoys, lines etc.), stow it away and continue the voyage.

If a radio alert was issued, it should be cancelled, e.g. "securitay securitay securitay SV Cygnet rescue concluded standing down". If a Mayday was issued, cancel that ("mayday feenee")

Step 8: Rescue at Night

If performing a rescue at night, use a floating light to mark the victim's position. It is almost impossible to see someone in the water in the dark. If you cannot see the victim, you should stop engines and try to listen for them.

We did not try a live exercise at night (too risky, not so much fun) but I cast a marker pole adrift.
The photo shows the pole about 100 metres away, illuminated by a plug-in spotlight. The reflective band around the float may be clearly seen, also a slight reflection from a small band on top of the pole.
There is also a lifebuoy, with reflective tape on the upper side, which was completely invisible - as would have been a person in the water. The floating light attached to the pole was easily visible when it flashed. The light attached to the lifebuoy was only visible when it was not obscured by the buoy itself.
This was in totally calm conditions; the lights were right at the water's surface and would have been easily obscured by waves.
When a small pocket flashlight was used, the reflector was visible to the eye but much dimmer - it would have been hard to see against any lighted background.

Step 9: Notes

These procedures should be practised - apart from the safety benefit, it's fun!

The original flag on my marker pole was lost. I had substituted fluorescent flagging tape, but it became obvious that that was far too small. Probably, a rigid mark or balloon about 30cm across would be better than a flag.

Code flag "O" is really supposed to be flown on a vessel that has lost someone overboard, not on a marker pole (which is why the flag has a cover on it when not in use). One should probably also
hoist shapes and lights for "restricted in ability to manoeuvre" when effecting a rescue, but many boaters don't know the code and besides, you don't have time.

For night use, the marker pole needs a light at the top of the pole, not just sitting in th water.

The sling and tackle procedure needs to be worked out beforehand, making sure of clearances, winch location etc.

Calling 911 on a cellphone or calling on VHF channel 16 is probably pointless, and worse, will prevent a crew member from taking part in the rescue by tying them up on the radio. Emergency services will want to know a lot of details about the vessel description, number of people aboard etc. etc. and may take hours to come to your assistance in any case. Of course, if you can't find the victim in the water, then you need to call. Don't call 911 (land-based emergency services) - make a Mayday call on VHF 16 or call the coastguard (*16 on some cell networks). All vessels hearing a Mayday must respond - it does not require emergency service intervention. However, in coastal waters the coastguard will probably take over and direct operations - they have experience, well-sited radio antennas, and can relay messages between vessels out-of-sight of each other. If you do make a Mayday call, and then recover the victim, you must cancel the call ("mayday feenee").

It is hard to see something in the water from any distance - I have lost various hats, towels etc. overboard over the years. Some undoubtedly sank quickly, but others I lost sight of and then could not find. A person in the water is easier to see, but in bad weather may quickly become hard to find. A PFD will hold a victims' head further above water and make them easier to see, quite apart from any help in keeping them afloat. While green camouflage PFDs are available for hunters and may be legal in some jurisdictions, orange is generally a better colour if you actually want to be rescued.

Note on drills:
Pick a reasonable place to do a drill - not a commercial traffic lane or crowded anchorage. If in sight of shore or of other vessels, it may be wise to make an announcement on VHF 16 saying that it is a drill and not the real thing, otherwise well-meaning individuals may try to help, or call emergency services thinking that someone is in real danger. However, this is not a reason to avoid doing drills - picking up a hat or pole is no substitute for picking up a real person, and a proper lifesized weighted dummy would also look like a real victim from a distance.

Practise with a heaving line, too.