Man Overboard Rescue For Powerboats

By Tom Neale
Illustrations: ©2012 Mirto Art Studio

Few of us plan for a crew member to fall overboard. Getting that person back aboard is harder than you think.

Unless you do the right things, fast, when someone falls overboard, that person could be lost. Man-overboard (MOB) fatalities make up 24 percent of all boating deaths. Our BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water has studied these incidents over a five year period and created a picture of the typical accident. The majority of cases do not involve bad weather, rough seas, or other extenuating circumstances. "Most happen on relatively calm waters, on a small boat that's not going very fast," said Chris Edmonston, president of the BoatUS Foundation. "Victims tend to be men. Fishing is a prime activity, and in many cases, alcohol is involved."

Numerous articles have been written about recovering a lost crew member from a sailboat, but MOB procedures for powerboaters have seldom been addressed. In light of the profile above, we present a general overview of MOB scenarios and procedures for the benefit of all boaters, no matter the size of your boat. We include an accompanying sidebar, "Brother, Save Thyself," about how to get back aboard a small boat. We also present and illustrate the Quick-Stop method, favored by many sailboaters:

Know Your Boat's Characteristics

When someone falls overboard, it's critical to get to the victim quickly. Think about how you'll do this on your boat without endangering the victim with your prop. Consider the freeboard of your boat. If it's high, this makes it difficult to get a victim back aboard. If your boat has a squared chine (bottom), waves may cause the boat to crash down on a victim who's alongside, while a rounded chine may push the victim away from the boat and out of reach. Look at your stern platform. Will it help, or plunge down on a victim, pushing him underwater and perhaps into the props? Before there's an emergency, consider how these factors affect your boat's maneuverability, and fit your boat out with gear that might mitigate some of these challenges (see MOB equipment sidebar).

Chart: Three Alternatives For Returning To A Man Overboard Victim

Consider Your First Steps Before The Worst Happens

If you have an MOB, the following basic procedure needs to happen immediately. To prevent confusion from impeding swift action, practice. But remember, your exact actions must depend on many variables.

  1. The instant someone falls overboard, yell "Man overboard!" to alert crew to the emergency, and establish an unceasing visual on the victim. If you have enough crew, assign this job to one person and let nothing interfere with that person keeping the victim in sight and pointing at the victim from that first moment on.
  2. If you're unsure of where the person is or if there is a chance the props could endanger him, stop the boat and ensure that the props don't injure the victim now or later.
  3. Activate your GPS MOB button if you have one.
  4. Throw MOB gear, life jackets, flotation cushions anything that will help the victim float and help you keep track of him, but not so much as to confuse a search.
  5. Return to and attempt to retrieve the victim. Several alternative methods are illustrated on these pages and discussed in the next section.
  6. If the situation is life-threatening, call mayday three times on VHF 16. Then say, "Man overboard," and give your location, boat description, and the description of the victim. Do this three times in succession. Don't hesitate to issue a mayday you can always cancel it if you get the person back aboard safely.

Sea and wind state:

When you get closer to the victim, determine how much and how fast the wind and sea are pushing your boat, which is having the most effect, and how fast you're drifting. If the sea is rough, it may be dangerous to come alongside the victim, especially if he's exhausted or injured. Go slowly. If he does not have flotation, try to toss him a flotation and/or retrieval device as you approach.

Water temperature:

Sudden cold-water immersion can cause involuntary gasp reflex or cardiac arrest. Often a surprised MOB victim will instinctively gasp and suck in a large volume of water, which could lead to drowning. Also, a victim's loss of body heat may weaken and disorient him, limiting his ability to swim or help in his rescue. The victim should try to maintain core body heat for as long as possible by keeping his arms down and crossed, and knees bent up to his chest, if possible. Wearing a life jacket helps the victim's odds significantly.

Physical condition of victim:

Excess weight, poor swimming ability, panic, lack of arm strength, injury, hypothermia, and other factors make retrieval extremely challenging. The person in the boat may need special equipment or assistance to get the victim aboard.

Skill, size, and ability of person(s) aboard:

One person aboard a high-freeboard boat may find it almost impossible to get a victim aboard, particularly if either person isn't in good physical condition, or if the larger and/or more skilled person is in the water. Think about an alternative, such as a Lifesling, or another system that could work on your particular boat.Visibility:

Take a look around. If visibility is poor, slow down and make sure you know where the victim is. If an approaching fog bank or squall could reduce visibility soon, get back to the victim before you lose sight of him.

Other boats:

If you're in a rough inlet with many boats racing past, position your boat to protect the victim and begin visual warning signaling. In some cases, it may be prudent to wait for help before you begin retrieval. One example would be if you were alone on board and another boat nearby with strong experienced swimmers and retrieval gear responded to your distress call and was on their way to the scene.

If you want to save an MOB victim, the time to start is now. Begin planning and practicing what you'd need to do in your circumstances in your boat. This helps generate intuitive, appropriate reactions.

Practice MOB techniques by throwing a fender with a bucket attached into the water. Return to it, approach it, and get it aboard while being extremely careful that you keep the props away from the "victim."

The best equipment may be useless unless you know how to deploy it without thinking. For example, if you have a Lifesling with tackle, on a calm day, near shore, practice putting a person in the water, rig it, and use it. Also, practice with the "victim" pretending helplessness. The "victim" should be wearing a life jacket.

Practicing may teach you that the best you can do is to stabilize the victim safely alongside and call the Coast Guard for help on the VHF. Unless you're in really cold water, it usually takes a relatively long time to become unconscious due to hypothermia. The key is to keep the victim from drowning, getting injured, or becoming disconnected from the mother ship.

As you practice, think through contingency plans for each of the three steps necessary to retrieve a person who has gone over the side: Return to the victim, approach the victim, and get the victim aboard.

Return to the victim:

If a person goes over the side while the boat is underway, it's normally best to turn toward the side he went over, in order to swing the stern and props away from the victim.

You should know instantly when someone goes over if you're in a smaller center console. But in a larger boat, more time may pass before you notice. To find the victim, you will need to calculate and steer a reciprocal course back to the location. The illustrations above show several methods for returning to a victim. For more information, refer to the Coast Guard Boat Crew Seamanship Manual.

If you need to rely on the MOB feature on your GPS to find the victim, learn where that button is, now, so you can push it while doing everything else needed at the same time. Be sure you will understand, even under duress, what the GPS is telling you.

Approach the victim:

Two effective alternatives for approaching the victim are illustrated above. Decide on the best approach based on factors including but not limited to sea state, current, whether other boats are approaching, your boat's characteristics, and your crew's capabilities. Have those responsible for pulling the victim aboard (hopefully more than just you) in position and ready.

In most situations, it is safest to approach the victim with your bow facing into the wind and waves. If possible, throw him a line when you get close enough. Then turn off the engine(s), pull the victim in to the boat, and bring him to the ladder-hoisting area. This will minimize the chance of striking the victim with the propeller.

On a smaller boat without a lot of windage, it may be safer to come to a controlled stop upwind of the MOB and drift down on him, with crew ready to reach over and grab him. This may prove challenging on a boat with a lot of windage and high freeboard, but relatively easy on a center console. In some circumstances, it may be better to approach downwind but circle closely and come into the wind next to the victim.

While it is usually safest to approach the MOB with the wind and waves over the bow, this may not be possible in a narrow channel, in large waves, near obstructions, or in other circumstances where maneuverability is limited. To prepare for these situations, practice approaching the victim with the wind and sea behind you, very slowly. Maintain control of the boat to avoid floating over the victim.

If you have a Lifesling or other retrieving line, slowly circle the victim, towing the line behind the boat until it comes within the victim's reach (see illustration above). Then stop the boat and pull the victim in.

Get the victim aboard:

The very best way to get a victim back aboard is with a strong, well-built ladder. If you don't have a ladder or a Lifesling with tackle, a recovery line looped under the victim's arms (see illustration) may enable one or more people to pull him up over a relatively high freeboard.

When trying to retrieve a victim and bring him back aboard into a center console with low freeboard, it may help to position the victim facing the boat with both arms reaching upward. If the person aboard has the necessary strength, he should reach down and grasp the victim's wrists; the victim should grab the rescuer's wrists; and the rescuer should lift the victim straight out of the water. If you have a net or tarp, you may be able to secure one side to your gunwale, carefully work the net/tarp under the victim, then hold him in place until more help comes.

MOB testing has proven that if the victim is helpless and unable to assist, it will be very difficult to get him back into the boat. If you have a strong swimmer aboard, conditions are appropriate, and it's safe to do so, consider having that person (wearing a life jacket) go in and help the victim get to and climb up a strong ladder. But remember that you now have two people in the water, and, potentially, two victims at risk. Calling mayday, keeping the victim next to the boat, and waiting for assistance may be a more prudent course of action.

Crew Briefing

Each time you go out, make an MOB briefing part of your departure routine. Show people where life jackets are stowed. Better yet, encourage your crew to wear them. Most drownings occur quickly. If your crew are wearing life jackets when they go in the water, they'll stay alive longer and you will have a much better chance to save them.

Stress the necessity that someone keep an eye on an MOB victim at all times, point out throwing devices and recovery gear, show how they work, and explain challenges such as plunging stern platforms and rolling hard chines. Show crew where the radio is and how to broadcast a mayday. Also, before you set out with your crew for the day, identify a second-in-command (the person with the most skill other than you) who can take control in case you're the victim. The enemy of a successful rescue is confusion. There should be less of it if the skipper has set the stage. 

— Published: October/November 2012

Sobering MOB Facts

Our BoatUS Foundation has created a snapshot of boating fatalities that occurred between 2003 and 2007, a five-year span that gives good insight on MOB accidents and how they happen, so that we can work to help lower those numbers. In that time-frame, 749 of the 3,133 total U.S. boating fatalities were MOB:

  • 24% were characterized as "falls overboard."
  • 24% died at night, and 76% died during the day.
  • 82% were on a boat under 22 feet in length.
  • 63% didn't know how to swim.
  • Only 8% of the non-swimmers were wearing a life jacket.
  • 90% of accidents occurred when water conditions were calm or had less than 1-foot chop.
  • Just 4% of the boats had two engines.
  • 85% of fatalities were men.
  • Average age was 47.
  • During the day, alcohol played a part in 27% of the deaths.
  • At night, alcohol played a part in 50% of the deaths.
  • Falling overboard while fishing accounted for 41% of the deaths.



BoatUS Magazine Is A Benefit Of BoatUS Membership

Membership Also Provides:

  • Subscription to the print version of BoatUS Magazine
  • 4% back on purchases from West Marine stores or online at
  • Discounts on fuel, transient slips, repairs and more at over 1,000 businesses
  • Deals on cruises, charters, car rentals, hotel stays and more ...
  • All For Only $24 A Year!

Join Today!