Few safety issues in sailing face as much scrutiny and controversy as the man overboard scenario. So much so that it is now more correct to refer to this potentially life threatening situation as ‘crew overboard’ – presumably to make the prospect of drowning a more gender-neutral, inclusive way to die. If only the controversy ended there.
Two factors define the overboard emergency in sail training: what to do when someone inadvertently leaves the vessel and how to get them back on board. There should probably be a third component as well, which is what to do if a) the person is recovered and b) if the person is not. However, the first is primarily a first-aid issue (treat for hypothermia, cold shock, shock, head injury, etc.) and the second a legal matter (alert the authorities and hope you did the right thing – more on this later).
Training schemes worldwide vary in their methodology for what to do in the overboard situation. Deckchair enthusiasts with plenty of time on their hands and not a lot of practical experience seem fond of devising ever more complicated and tortuous routes for sailing off and returning to the casualty. The figure-of-eight method is popular, as are the triangle method and the reach-to-reach method, not to mention the good old Williamson Turn (which is really a big ship thing). Most sailing instructors pimp one method as sacrosanct and spend hours brain-washing their students into perfecting the technique. It’s all good for the students practical sailing skills (tacking, gybing, wind awareness and speed management) but is it realistic?
The RYA is surprisingly mute on the subject of best practice. In the Yachtmaster practical examination the only stipulation is the casualty is kept to leeward of the vessel and the vessel is stopped, preferably within a metre of the target and preferably within a reasonable amount of time. The methodology is left to the candidate and the resultant effort is often a point of discussion between the candidate and the examiner. It’s a sensible practice because it allows the candidate to react to the conditions appropriately.
Regardless of the conditions there are two actions which should be topmost in anyone’s mind when faced with an overboard situation. Firstly, stop the boat as quickly as possible as close to the casualty as possible. Try and do it safely or risk another casualty. The closer the vessel is to the casualty the greater the chances of recovery. This point is not debatable to anyone who has experienced rough conditions or lost someone overboard at night.
The second action should be to start the engine. The vessel is far more manoeuvrable under motor than it is under sail. Also not debatable. Importantly though, being under engine allows for a straight-line recovery (as in the shortest route between two points is a straight line). This further reduces the time to retrieval, which could be the difference between life and death, in reality.
Yes, it is possible to lose the engine. The statistics on overboard situations are hardly comprehensive (think of the number of successful recoveries which likely go unreported) but there is very little evidence which supports the idea that engine failure happens with any frequency in real overboard situations. So why so much emphasis on recovering a casualty under sail?
Even more frustrating is the presumption that picking up a person under power and sail requires any less skill or ability than doing the same thing only under sail. In fact, a likely scenario in which both sail and power compliment each other would be using the sail to assist the engine in heavy conditions to help return to a target lying upwind – that’s realistic. How often does a Yachtmaster candidate (or equivalent) successfully complete their overboard scenario in the exam only to be asked by the examiner why they didn’t use the engine?
One last thing. Unless it’s a calm day and the person in the water is swimming back to the boat and laughing about their embarrassing dip in the pond then skippers should treat an overboard as a Mayday situation. It’s easy to notify the authorities that everything is okay but it will be catastrophic for everyone involved if it’s left too late.
PS – hopefully anyone reading this is aware of the considerable effort made to keep the “man” out of the “overboard”.