Recreational Boating Safety – Man Overboard

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
I remember a recent case in which a recreational vessel traveled for miles before anyone realized a passenger was missing. His body was found a couple of days later. It is important to keep a count of all passengers on board the vessel at any given time. Any time you, as the boat operator, hit a particularly rough section of water, such as when you cross another boat’s wake, you should check to make sure everyone is still aboard. “MAN OVERBOARD!” is one of the worst alarms to hear while underway. Even the best swimmers can become disoriented when unexpectedly falling into the water, especially when the boat is moving at speed. Prolonged exposure to rough seas or cold weather can quickly weaken a swimmer. A person who falls overboard could be suffering from shock, may be unconscious, and possibly injured. Rapid recovery of the person is a must.

MOB Prevention
Another term for a man overboard is MOB. That is the term I will use in this column. People don’t just fall overboard. Something happens they are not prepared for, and the end result is often tragic. This column today is intended to provide some general guidelines. Actual situations will vary and all details are beyond the scope of this column. But you can reduce the chances of going through a MOB situation or reducing the severity of the accident by following some safe boating practices to reduce the chances of you or one of your passengers falling overboard.

  • Life jackets- all persons on board should wear a properly fitting life jacket when the boat is underway. A person falling overboard at speed with no life jacket has less than a 10 percent chance of survival if not found immediately.
  • Seating- all persons should be sitting in a seat and not on the gunwale, bow, or stern of the boat when underway. Be sure to seat your passengers in a manner that evenly distributes the weight. Persons not seated in seats while underway can be ticketed. We have many propeller injuries and deaths yearly due to persons falling overboard while seated on the bow.
  • Moving about- persons should not move about recreational boats while underway unless absolutely necessary. You can always bring the boat to a stop for passengers to change positions in the boat. Not only can a passenger fall overboard trying to change positions, but the resulting change in the distribution of weight can cause the boat course to change enough to flip the boat or otherwise put the boat and its occupants in danger.
  • Changing speed and direction- sudden changes in speed or direction, such as suddenly backing off on the throttle, coming out on the throttle from a stop, or making sharp turns, can catch passengers off guard and cause them to lose their hold on a grab rail and be thrown overboard. Before changing speeds greatly or changing course, announce your intentions to your passengers. When coming out on the throttle from a stop, say “Coming up!” When backing off on the throttle to come off plane say “Coming down!” Let your passengers know about these terms before getting underway so they will know what you mean when it happens. For sharp turns, simply announce the direction of the turn such as “Turning to port!”
  • Train passengers- no passenger should be asked to perform a task they are not trained for. This includes any task in which there is risk of falling overboard, such as deploying or retrieving the anchor and assisting with docking. This doesn’t mean doing everything yourself, as some people I know like to do. Instead, take the time to train someone on board to do it. People have been thrown overboard while performing such a simple task as putting out the fenders because they hadn’t been trained how to maintain three point contact with the boat at all times.
  • Tight ship- as the captain, you need to make your boat safe for passengers. Keep your decks clean and tidy, and free of tripping hazards. Make sure handrails and grab rails are securely attached and not loose. Make sure all gear is stowed before getting underway.
  • Suddenly in command- If you, the boat operator, become incapacitated or fall overboard, you should have at least one person who knows how to start and operate your boat. That person will be “suddenly in command.” Every year boat operators die because no one else on board knew how to operate the boat or the marine radio to call for help. Name a second in command and let them operate the boat enough to be familiar with it enough to swing around to get you if you fall overboard or if you become incapacitated. Teach everyone how to operate the marine radio and make an emergency call for help.

General MOB Procedures
The action taken in the first few seconds after a person falls overboard determines the success of the recovery. An alert crew can do much to save the life of someone who might otherwise drown. If a person enters the water, the first person to realize it should follow these procedures:

  1. Spread the alarm in a loud voice by repeatedly shouting “MAN OVERBOARD!” It is also very important to shout out the location the person fell overboard (port/starboard side, the bow, or the stern).
  2. Throw a ring buoy with strobe light (or anything that floats) over the side as quickly as possible. It does not necessarily have to be thrown toward the MOB; just get it in the water as soon as possible.
  3. Maintain sight of and continuously point (open handed) to the individual in the water while carefully moving to a position in sight of the boat operator. Give clear, loud verbal directions as well as the condition of the MOB (conscious/unconscious, injured, etc.) to the operator.

Once the alarm has been sounded, the person at the helm has several tasks to complete in order to successfully recover the MOB. Though a quick recovery is preferred, at times it is better to slow down, assess the situation, and ensure everything is done properly the first time. Not every MOB recovery is the same. It is always better to make a correct approach slowly and recover the person on the first attempt rather than an incorrect fast approach resulting in the need for a second try. Starting a turn to maneuver back to the MOB is a common first step, but if boat traffic in the area is heavy, turning the vessel might endanger others.

GPS Assistance
I am a firm believer in always using my GPS to help navigate. I use the Trails feature to show the course I have taken so that if I have to backtrack I can. Here is one way I have practiced a MOB recovery: I have a fishing hat that floats. Sometimes the wind catches it and it blows overboard. I treat that hat as a MOB and retrieve it as if it were a person. Every GPS I have seen in recent years has an emergency MOB button (Man Overboard) or MOB procedure. By pushing this button you create a way point that you can navigate back to as a means of starting a search pattern if sight is lost of the MOB. Practice using that MOB button every once in a while, and use the resulting waypoint created as practice to navigating back to that point. On my GPS, pushing both the plus and minus zoom buttons at the same time creates a MOB waypoint.

A MOB kit can be as simple as an extra throw cushion or extra life jacket with a long line attached to it. Even if you don’t have a line attached, an extra life jacket can be used to mark a spot in the water that you will return to begin your search. Remember, a life jacket is designed to hold your head above water, and if the waves are higher than a foot, you can easily lose sight of the MOB. There are some nice MOB throw bags commercially available. With those kits, you attach the line on the throw to a railing or cleat and toss the bag to the MOB. The bag contains line that pays out as the bag is tossed.

Maneuvering to Recover a MOB
In most cases, you will start by turning in the same direction the person fell overboard. Turning toward the same side the person fell overboard will kick the stern away, thus preventing the propeller from injuring the MOB. If the person falls off the bow, the turn should be in either direction to kick the stern clear. Don’t forget to warn the other passengers before making the turn so they don’t fall overboard as well. If the person falls off the stern, in some cases, the eddy current located off the transom can hold the MOB tight against the stern. Applying additional power while turning sharply to either port or starboard will push the MOB clear.

Recovery in Heavy Vessel Traffic
In some cases, turning the boat is not possible because of vessel traffic or a narrow channel. In these cases, slowing down and stopping are other options. Once the boat has stopped, the MOB can swim back towards the boat for recovery. Another option is to slow the boat to bare steerageway, spin the boat around, and recover the MOB. An increase in speed is not necessary during the turn. Recovering the MOB as soon as possible is important, but sometimes an increase in speed will catch the other passengers off guard and possibly eject them from the boat. If operating at high speed when the MOB takes place, it might be best to slow down before starting a maneuver. The boat operator should carry out the turn at a safe speed to ensure a more stable platform for the recovery crew. Don’t forget that sudden reductions in throttle can cause the wake to catch up to the boat suddenly and cause severe rocking, making it hard for everyone to hold on. If a person is trying to move on deck at the same time as the wake wave hits, they could also end up in the water.

The best way to handle a man overboard situation is to operate in a manner that reduces the possibility of it even happening. This includes keeping a tight ship, ensuring that all persons are properly seated while underway and also includes notifying your passengers before making sudden changes in speed and direction. In addition, you can train your passengers to assist you by having them shout “MAN OVERBOARD!” and pointing toward the MOB if they see someone go overboard.

[BC: Dec-12-2023]

Facebook Twitter
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Site by