If you have ever fallen into the water from a boat, you don’t need to be persuaded about the importance of rescue gear to get you safely back on deck. While you are struggling to stay afloat, you might be nearly invisible to your friends back aboard who are desperately trying to maintain visual contact and turn the boat around. Your bobbing head among the waves strongly resembles a small, brown coconut. A few yards seem like a mile, and that cockpit just four feet above you is an impossibly long climb up the slippery topsides as hypothermia from cold water quickly depletes your strength. What equipment and practices do we recommend?
To prevent a COB (crew overboard) event, be sure your railings/lifelines are secure and properly anchored, with pelican hooks that won’t spring open, and stoutly thru-bolted stanchions. For open-water boating, fit low-stretch jacklines, wear a safety harness and clip on with a secure tether. For more on this equipment, read our Advisors on Lifelines, Harnesses and Jacklines.
Throwables: all boats over 16' must carry a “Type IV throwable device,” and most boats use a square buoyant cushion, with only 18lb. of flotation and no retrieval line if you make a bad throw. You only get one try, and then have no physical connection to the victim. Ring buoys and horseshoe buoys are more buoyant, can be mounted conveniently on bulkhead or rail (a throwable device is useless and doesn’t satisfy Coast Guard requirements when buried in the bottom of a lazarette). Some types allow attachment of a retrieval line or drogue. The Rescue Stick is a compact baton-shaped inflatable float (without retrieval line) that inflates into a horseshoe buoy. (It is not USCG-approved).
Lifesling: two versions of the Lifesling are currently available. They’re the world’s most popular overboard rescue gear, and are regarded by experts as the most effective. Test results confirm this, including a major 2005 test co-sponsored by West Marine. Lifesling choices: the upgraded original called the Lifesling2 for recreational boaters and the larger Lifesling3 for bigger recreational and commercial vessels. They combine the benefits of all the above throwable products, and also function as lifting slings to hoist the victim onboard.
With 125' or 150' retrieving lines, Lifeslings allow you to maneuver in a circle around the victim and tow the device and line directly to the crewmember, so they do not need to swim after it (tests showed that fully-clothed victims quickly become dangerously tired from swimming even a short distance). Once contact is achieved you just haul the person hand-over-hand to your vessel, avoiding danger from a spinning propeller. To download the still-relevant 2006 Final Report from the Crew Overboard test, written by noted author John Rousmaniere, go to the Safety section of our West Advisor Articles page. It provides an impartial evaluation of rescue maneuvers, signaling devices as well as a wide range of equipment.
Maintaining contact with a victim who goes overboard, which may be nearly impossible at night or in the presence of large seas, is the first rescue obstacle. There are two strategies to deal with this: victims must make themselves as visible to rescuers as possible and the boat must stay in the vicinity. Wearing a personal strobe like the ACR Firefly3 or a cyalume lightstick like the Orion Personal Marker Light, a bright waterproof flashlight or clothing marked with SOLAS reflective tape will all help you be seen. Staying afloat so you can be rescued is simple: wear a PFD appropriate for the conditions. Unless you have been seriously injured, proper flotation can keep you alive until rescued, sometimes even after you have become unconscious due to hypothermia.
Hypothermia, the abnormal loss of body heat to the environment, occurs rapidly in water, which absorbs heat about 25 times faster than air of an equivalent temperature. Hypothermia causes loss of motor skills, judgment and consciousness, and eventually results in death. While water less than 60° acts more quickly than warm water, hypothermia can be a threat in waters as warm as 85°F. Many COB techniques fail to account for the fact that victims rapidly lose the ability to rescue themselves as hypothermia progresses. Even strong swimmers and individuals trained in survival methods gradually lose their ability to swim, think, use ladders, communicate, tie knots or hang on.
In some circumstances, such as with singlehanders or a Volvo 70 traveling at 30 knots, the boat cannot or does not return to pick up the victim. Solo boaters must wear harnesses to ensure that they are not separated from the boat. Your crew might not know that you have gone overboard, the boat might be sailing under a combination of sails or equipment that make it difficult to reverse direction (poled-out genoas, spinnakers, unreefed sails, drogues) or the crew may not have the skill to handle the boat. While each case is different, the likelihood is that if you are rescued, it will be by your own boat and crew. Harnesses and skilled crewmembers, who immediately punch the MOB button on the GPS to save the coordinates, skillfully maneuver the vessel and maintain a visual fix on the victim, are part of the solution.
Generalizing about the best rescue method for every powerboat or sailboat is risky. Multihulls, specifically, vary widely in their handling, and even two similarly sized multis might use dramatically different maneuvers. Some cruising monohulls are more comfortable beam-reaching with plenty of speed, and are less apt to head upwind or downwind during the rescue. The best advice is to experiment with your own boat and know what works best.
Reaching the victim in the water often proved the easy part of the rescue for participants in Crew Overboard Tests we co-sponsored in 2005. Getting them back aboard was often substantially more difficult. Swim ladders and swimsteps, relatively easy to climb in flat water, became lethal weapons with waves. “It is a serious mistake to assume that a swim platform is a safe or reliable rescue platform,” observed test Final Report author John Rousmaniere. “With a Grand Banks 42, even a two-foot chop caused enough rolling to make it a sledge hammer.”
How you hoist the person back aboard from the water is heavily dependent on the type of boat you own. Lifesling Hoisting Tackles, stowed in the case with the Lifesling and deployed with a halyard (on sailboats) or from a davit line or other lifting point at least 10' above the water (on large powerboats) are recommended. They include adequate mechanical advantage (the 3:1 sailboat version intended for use with a winch; the more powerful 5:1 powerboat model includes a cam cleat).
Our advice to you: buy, install and learn to use the Lifesling. Lifeslings mount in a protective enclosure on the pushpit or bulkhead.
Crew overboard poles: if your boat is moving fast and someone goes overboard, you may travel hundreds of yards before you can successfully turn around (especially a sailboat under spinnaker which must douse the sail and then start the engine). These poles are stored in an easily accessible location in the stern, where they can be immediately dropped overboard, marking the approximate location of the person in the water.
Personal safety lights: if you go over the side at night, your chances of survival are negligible, but if you carry a small, bright light in your foul weather gear or a pocket of your PFD, you can signal your rescuers. The participants in our COB tests found the Greatland Rescue Laser Flare to be especially bright and effective.
Your life jacket: to state the obvious, your chances of survival increase dramatically if you wear your PFD whenever you are on deck. You may not be conscious when rescuers find you, but a PFD that keeps your breathing passages out of the water will keep you alive. Life jackets only work if you wear them.