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Safe Boat Operations – Man Overboard

Source: Mariners Learning System, by Captain Bob Figular

“MAN OVERBOARD!” is one of the worst alarms to hear while underway. Clear thinking and decisive action is of primary importance when a person falls overboard. Even the best swimmers can become disoriented when unexpectedly falling into the water. Prolonged exposure to rough seas or cold weather can quickly weaken a swimmer.

One of the first things every boat owner needs to learn is how to prevent a man overboard situation from occurring in the first place. Some things to pay particular attention to are:

  • Keep decks clear of trip/slip hazards.
  • Ensure lifelines are up and in good condition.
  • Do not allow people to rid on the bow or go forward while underway.
  • Keep alcohol use in check while underway.
  • Alert all crew to the possible dangers and procedures to follow in the event of a “MAN OVERBOARD”.

In addition it is critically important to ensure that everyone onboard is wearing appropriate life jacket while underway. If someone should fall overboard, the proper life jacket will keep him or her afloat if unconscious and if properly equipped may provide signalling devices that will assist rescuers in locating the person.

If a person enters the water unexpectedly, the crewmember who first sees that someone has fallen overboard should follow these procedures:

  1. Spread the alarm in a loud voice by repeatedly calling out, “MAN OVERBOARD!” It is also very important to shout out the location the person fell overboard. For example, if the person fell over the starboard side, the alarm should be, “MAN OVERBOARD, STARBOARD SIDE!”
  2. Throw a ring buoy (or anything that floats) over the side as quickly as possible. It does not necessarily have to be thrown towards the person in the water; just get it in the water as soon as possible.
  3. Maintain sight of and continuously point to the individual in the water while carefully moving to a position that the boat operator will be able to see them from.

Once the alarm has been sounded, the boat operator has several steps to complete in order to successfully recover the person in the water. 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 Man Overboard 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.

There is no single correct order in which the following steps should be taken. Everything depends on the situation at hand. Starting a turn to maneuver back to the person in the water is a common first step, but if boat traffic in the area is heavy, turning the vessel might endanger others. Each step is important in its own way and needs to be conducted to ensure a successful recovery.

The information provided here has been a general guideline. Actual situations will vary and all details pertaining to each are beyond the scope of this discussion. It is important to remember that the key to a successful rescue is preparation, practice, and alertness.