The recent tragic loss of British Volvo Ocean Race competitor John Fisher should have reminded all cruisers of the dangers involved in falling overboard and here are some thoughts on dealing with these situations based on my experiences over many years both as a cruiser and as a Coastguard skipper, crew member and search and rescue controller.
Man overboard situations can range from the hilarious, when friends fall overboard in anchorages with no harm done except to their pride, to the horribly tragic where the victim doesn’t survive.
In some of the latter situations it has been the skipper going over and the crew left aboard not having the knowledge to turn their vessel around and conduct a search, particularly in the case of sailing vessels.
Even some cases of people falling overboard in marinas or at anchor have ended tragically either as a result of injury causing the victim to drown, or the inability of the victim to haul himself/herself out of the water, or the inability of those aboard to haul the victim out of the water. In these cases exposure and hypothermia are often the cause of death.
I’m sure we’re all guilty of this at times – it’s a beautiful day and our friends arrive on board with fun foremost in mind. We tell them how to use the heads but that vital safety briefing about life jackets, fire extinguishers, first aid kits and man overboard drill is forgotten.
Even some professionals overlook this; I’ve been out on a weekend commercial fishing charter and noticed there was no safety briefing of any kind. In reality this may not be too much of a problem provided that the skipper’s there to take charge of an emergency, but who’s going to take charge and handle a situation where the skipper is the victim?
So during a safety briefing it’s essential to cover the basics of responding to a man overboard situation.
This starts with prevention and no crew member should venture onto the foredeck, side decks or boarding platform while the vessel is under way without the skipper’s prior knowledge and then he/she should be under constant observation and wearing a lifejacket or personal flotation device (PFD) equipped with light, whistle and personal locator beacon (PLB).
Anyone observing someone falling in should immediately shout loudly “man overboard”, make sure they’ve been heard and continue to keep their eyes on the victim as well as pointing to him/her because if the observer is distracted it may prove difficult to re-establish visual contact.
Somebody must throw a life ring or some other flotation device such as a large fender into the water serving not only to potentially support the victim in the water but to mark his/her approximate position. This should be done even if the victim can’t be seen as it will mark one limit of the search area.
The briefing also needs to appoint someone to take charge of the vessel should it be the skipper who goes overboard and then to make sure that person knows how to respond in terms of controlling the vessel and managing the situation.
Managing a man overboard situation
You can divide these emergencies into two categories, that is where you can and can’t see the victim.
1. You can see the victim:
The more competent people you have aboard the easier it is to manage this and provided that it’s a crew member overboard (not the skipper) and that visual contact is maintained a speedy resolution is likely.
Unless it’s completely obvious the victim will be safely recovered within a very few minutes a distress call (Mayday) should be made on VHF radio’s international distress frequency channel 16, particularly if there are other circumstances like rough conditions, cold water or the victim may need medical attention. There’s no doubt it’s always a much better decision to transmit a distress call sooner than may be needed and cancel it after a successful resolution than to wish you had made it when the situation starts to go horribly wrong. Ideally you then need a crew member to handle the radio traffic since the responding coast station and responding vessels will divert your attention from the immediate task of picking up the victim. Many coast stations seem to have a system that requires answers to lots of questions, many of which seem irrelevent and time wasting at this crucial point when every minute counts.
If other crew members are available they could be directed to eyeball the victim, prepare a flotation device with a line attached for use in recovering the victim and a fit person could don a PFD and be ready to enter the water if the victim needs assistance (which is often the case).
It is normal to approach the victim from leeward so that the vessel isn’t driven by wind and waves over the victim and when recovering the victim make sure there is no risk of injury from the vessel’s propeller(s).
2.You can’t see the victim
This is always an extremely serious situation and you should immediately record your lat/long, activate the MOB button on your chart plotter and make a VHF radio distress call.
The complexity of the ensuing search depends on whether it’s day or night time, weather conditions. general visibility, sea state and current, tidal flow, whether the victim was wearing a lifejacket or PFD with light and/or personal locator beacon (PLB), elapsed time since last sighting, whether a constant course has been kept since then and your distance from assisting resources such as dedicated rescue craft and helicopters. These resources generally carry search aids such as night vision binoculars, powerful spotlights and thermal detection equipment, greatly increasing the chances of finding a victim.
Rescue helicopters can also drop flotation devices to the victim, put a rescue swimmer in the water, lift the victim from the water, provide paramedic assistance and transport the victim quickly to hospital.
Once a coast radio station has responded to your distress call they will take responsibility for organising the search or pass this responsibility to another competent authority, for example Police, Coastguard or a Rescue Coordination Centre (in New Zealand this is RCCNZ). This task is much better accomplished by such an organisation using a stable platform with all the information resources on hand and experience in managing such situations.
Using the facts you provide they will then establish an area of probability and direct both your own and other responding vessels on how to conduct the search. This takes time and depending on your location it will also take time for responding resources (pleasure craft, commercial craft, rescue vessels, helicopters etc) to reach you.
While waiting it would be a good idea to organise your available crew as for the first example and proceed slowly (e.g. about 5 knots) to search on a reciprocal course, for example if you were cruising to the west on a course of 270d, now proceed to the east on a course of 90d. If conditions allow you may be able to listen for your victim calling out for help.
More than likely you have a GPS plotter which will be displaying your original course line.
Now follow that exact course back. Depending on your own knowledge you may decide to adjust this course for tide and current. In any case ensure you keep a record of the area searched.
If the victim has a PLB remember that its lat/long is transmitted to the rescue authority (in New Zealand RCCNZ), not to you and they will direct the nearest resource to that position.
Remember that victims can survive a surprisingly long time in the water so keep searching and don’t give up hope.
Look for a further posting in about 10 days.