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WorldSafety and SurvivalMOB

Man Overboard

One Important Lesson Before You Go Overboard

In EVERY MOB incident surveyed to date, 100% of the people who did not go overboard survived the incident. The simple rule is to keep those harnesses on and lanyards attached when up on watch, and don't unclip to go pee over the transom. I always have spare lanyards on board so if you need to take a second to go maneuver around some obstacle on foredeck, go take one. Better to have the second lanyard get in your way than to get hit by a big wave while you're unclipping/reclipping your only lanyard and end up in the drink.

Man Overboard Procedures

Man overboard, all hands on deck, the dreaded cry that is every sailor's nightmare, a crewmember overboard, probably in the worst possible conditions, at night with a sea running.

Unfortunately, with most crews the person in the water is now in deep trouble, no pun intended. Recovery manoeuvering hasn't been practiced much, if at all, and what those on board do in the next few minutes will have a direct bearing on whether or not the MOB is successfully recovered.

In short, for a recovery to be successful we must perform the following three tasks nearly simultaneously.

  • Keep sight of the MOB
  • Deploy the MOB marking gear
  • Begin recovery manoeuvre.

Keeping the MOB in sight

The first priority is to keep the MOB in sight. It is important to stress during your pre-sail briefing that if anyone sees someone go overboard, their job, besides loudly announcing MAN OVERBOARD, is to keep the MOB in sight as well as call and point out his position relative to the boat. You must make it clear to all that if they have the MOB in sight, their one (and only) job, until told otherwise by you, is to keep their eyes locked on the MOB. To look away for even a second is to lose sight of the MOB.

The lookout should hold their arm out, pointing at the MOB, lining up their forefinger and the MOB. When they disappear for a second, the finger will still be pointing near where the MOB is located.

In every class I have ever taught the lookout eventually looks away, usually just for a second and is always surprised when they can't find the simulated MOB in the water. Remember only a person's head will be visible, and perhaps an arm if he is waving.

Deploy the MOB Marking Gear

We must also deploy the MOB marking and survival gear. Unfortunately, on many boats the gear is located where it will take too long to deploy. Deployment of poles, life rings, MOM units and such must require no more than pulling a lanyard and having the gear fall away.

I've seen poles stored at the shrouds, poles that are tied up so well it will require precious minutes or a knife to release, strobe lights and life rings secured with several wraps of line, horseshoe buoys with their strap wrapped around a pulpit bar so they won't be accidentally lost. MOB gear MUST release instantly if it is to properly serve its function. Any delay in releasing your MOB gear will leave it too far from the MOB to do him/her any good. Keep in mind that at six knots your boat is leaving the MOB behind at the rate of 10 feet per second, or 600 feet each minute.

Recovery Manoeuvre

Now we come to the actual recovery manoeuvre. Currently, the various instructional and safety authorities differ on what manoeuvre is best, so the best solution is to learn all the techniques available. Practice will help you to determine the method that will work best for the situation you are confronted with.

For all those teaching MOB recovery stress the importance of remaining as close to the MOB as possible and the Quick Stop and Jibe manoeuvres do exactly that.

However, today we find most boats generally shorthanded and steered on autopilot with no one on or close to the helm when an MOB occurs. The result is that by the time someone gets to the helm and physically takes control of the boat you will have already sailed far enough away that short radius manoeuvres such as the Quick Stop and Jibe won't work and a Figure 8 manoeuvre or variation thereof will be required.

All the following manoeuvres have three points in common.

  • First, they can all be carried out by a shorthanded crew, i.e., one person.
  • Second, all the manoeuvres require that your final approach to the MOB be made from a close reach. This is the only point of sail from which it is possible to both fully luff the mainsail and repower the sail to maintain forward movement if you should find yourself stopping short of the MOB. Trim adjustments to repower the mainsail should be done before you lose steerage: haul in on the mainsheet until the mainsail stops luffing, then, as boat speed picks up, you can haul the sheet in tighter for more power.
  • Finally, in each case you must determine whether to approach the MOB to windward or leeward. The sea state and the condition of the MOB are the determining factors in your decision. If the MOB is waving at you, surrounded by gentle seas, then you just need to get close enough for the MOB to catch a heaving line, regardless of the wind direction. If the MOB is unable to help himself then you must manoeuvre the boat close enough to reach the person from the deck. If the seas are large, approach to leeward of the MOB so the boat won't fall off a wave and cause further injury to the person in the water. If the seas are small you can approach to windward of the MOB. Either way remember the boat will drift faster than the person in the water will so have retrieval gear ready to deploy.


Jibe Manoeuvre

From a close hauled or close reaching position the easiest and fastest recovery manoeuvre is the Jibe. It keeps you the closest to the MOB, usually within heaving line distance, and with very little work on the helmsman's part will bring the boat right back along side the MOB.

If someone is on the helm when the MOB occurs the helmsman simply jibes the boat. When the jib back-winds cast off the sheets and as the bow comes around to the MOB steer to bring him alongside.

If no one is on the helm when the MOB occurs and you sail a few boat lengths away before someone can reach the helm a jibe will still work. When someone does reach the helm jibe the boat as above except when the jib back-winds cast off the jib sheets and steer a course to take you downwind of the MOB to a point where you can head up to a close reach for your final approach. Cast off your mainsheet if necessary to bring the boat to a stop alongside the MOB.


Quick Stop Manoeuvre

The Quick Stop is best performed when close hauled or on a close reach. In some sea and wind conditions you may not have enough boat speed or sail power to tack the boat without trimming the main as you head up. With a shorthanded crew, trimming the main and steering at the same time may be difficult.

After successfully tacking, sail in a circle to windward of the MOB.

As you cross directly windward of the MOB begin to steer downwind to where you can head up and approach the MOB on a close reach. Keep the radius of the turn large enough that you can maintain steerage, making the circle larger or smaller as necessary to reach the MOB.

Keep in mind as you head up to a close reach it will be necessary to jibe. As you head downwind keep the boom in close to the centreline so you won't damage anything as you jibe.


Figure 8 Manoeuvre

The Figure 8 manoeuvre has lost favour with some instructional agencies but it is still the manoeuvre of choice in many situations. When a jibe can't be performed for any reason, when the manoeuvre you just tried has failed, when in doubt as to which manoeuvre is best, do a Figure 8.

While the Figure 8 manoeuvre does take you a few boat lengths away from the MOB, it keeps up boat speed and manoeuvrability. It also keeps you on the same plane relative to the wind as the MOB and allows the crew a few moments to prepare and to gather themselves together.

The manoeuvre begins with the helmsman bringing the boat to a beam reach, with the lookout calling out the distance and direction to the person in the water. As the boat is sailing away the helmsman should look over his shoulder periodically and attempt to keep the MOB in sight. When the boat has sailed at least four to five boat lengths, further if necessary, and everyone is ready on deck, the helmsman tacks the boat, crosses his outbound wake and comes to a beam or a broad reach on the opposite tack, aiming for a point downwind of the MOB. While two to three boat lengths is usually sufficient, the real determinant is knowing how far the boat will carry in the existing conditions with the sails luffing. From a position downwind of the MOB, head up to a close reach until you are as far from the MOB as the boat will carry. Slack the sheets and, with sails luffing, coast up to the MOB.

Pros and Cons

Each of these manoeuvres has its advantages and disadvantages. If the conditions are right and the crew can react quickly enough then the Jibe manoeuvre is extremely quick, regardless of the sail configuration. The jibe will usually keep you within heaving line distance of the MOB. Timed tests with students new to sailing have consistently resulted in pick up times of under one minute.

The Quick Stop manoeuvre, which also keeps you close to the MOB, is preferred by many sailors. Keep in mind you must have enough boat speed to carry out the tack and to maintain manoeuvrability. You can easily find yourself in irons, especially if seas of any size are running. The Quick Stop is best carried out from a close hauled or close reaching position.

The Figure 8 manoeuvre takes you away from the MOB but allows you time to get control of the situation on deck. If the boat is sailed on a solid beam reach in both directions the MOB will be just to windward of you as you return and you will be nearly a perfect distance away to stop the boat alongside of the MOB as you approach on your final close reach.

If at all possible your recovery should be made under sail. It will be safer for the person in the water if you approach without the engine running and you are less likely to get a line caught in the prop. Research shows recoveries of MOB by vessels under sail are more successful than recoveries under power. Some of that success may be because the boats recovering under sail have practiced.

Recovering the MOB

Once you have the MOB alongside you have to get him back onboard. If the person is able to help himself, use a ladder. If the person is not able to climb aboard you will need to hoist them up with a Handy Billy (block and tackle) or a device like the MOB Up as even a weight lifter will find it impossible to lift a body encased in wet clothing aboard. Here the Lifesling comes into use, similar to the horse-collar lifting rings used by the Coast Guard to lift someone from the sea into a helicopter. The MOB places the Lifesling around their back and under their arms facing the opening in the Lifesling. Once the person is alongside a halyard or Handy Billy is attached to the sling and the MOB is hoisted aboard. The MOB Up has its own collar, but can use the rope and collar of the Lifesling.

If a Lifesling isn't available a piece of line with a loop large enough to pass over a person's head and shoulders will do fine. Make sure the loop is tied with a bowline and not a slipknot or you will injure the MOB as he is hoisted aboard.

Should it be necessary to send someone overboard to assist the MOB, several precautions need to be taken. If the water is cold, the person going into the water should be in foul weather gear, with their ankle and wrist bands, waist straps and collars tight to keep as much water out as possible. The person going into the water MUST also wear a life jacket and a safety line attached to the boat. The person going into the water should also be trained in water rescue, as in lifesaving techniques. Remember the MOB may be panicked and can easily climb on top of the rescuer and force him under even with the lifejacket on. A person trained in water rescue should be able to recognize the warning signs of panic as he approaches the MOB and take appropriate action. Think twice before you send someone over the side, because when you do, the boat now has two MOBs to deal with.

If the MOB is injured then precautions must be taken to prevent further injury when hauling him back onboard. If the MOB was hit by the boom, then injury is likely. If the MOB was hit in the head and is unconscious then a neck injury must be suspected and the head and neck stabilized before hoisting him out of the water. Exactly what you need to do in this situation and how long you take to do it will depend greatly on the water temperature, sea conditions, number of crew available to help and their experience level.

In general, for MOB recovery to be successful you must practice and practice and practice. You must practice in a variety of conditions and learn how your boat will react. Practice with crew and single-handed and with various sail combinations. Constant practice will result in skilful reaction to a very serious situation with a successful recovery.

I suggest you also play the What if game: Take a look at your MOB recovery equipment and ask yourself, If I need to deploy this gear, is it ready to go instantly? Do I know how to use it?

To help answer those questions, unpack and look over your Lifesling. Take out your Handy Billy or MOB Up and practice with it. Look to see where you will attach it to the boom or the stays and make sure the line is long enough to reach the water and back. If you intend to use a sheet winch to lift the MOB, plan the manoeuvre and make sure there is enough line to a winch via a block with a fair lead.

Hopefully, a MOB will never happen aboard your boat and all your practice will never be put to use. All that practice won't be wasted because a skipper who has a reputation for MOB recovery skill through practice will be one sought after by the best racing crew. Best of all, you'll be able to recover your favourite hat the next time it flies off your head.

MOB Gear

There are sailors, hopefully a smaller number every year, who steadfastly deny that they, or anyone on their boat, will fall overboard. While the number of people who go over the side unintentionally is small, especially considering the number of people who go sailing, if you're involved with a man overboard rescue, whether it's you or a shipmate, then the numbers aren't nearly small enough.

Prevention is the best cure, but people have spent unseemly lengths of time being towed alongside, attached by their tether, and in a case in last year's Atlantic Rally for Cruisers an overboard crewmember died before he could be brought back aboard by the lone remaining crewmember.

Start your MOB program by having everyone wear a harness and a tether whenever they venture topside, even to the cockpit, especially when things are piping up and seas break into the cockpit. From personal experience I can testify that you cannot resist a sufficiently big wave, regardless of what you are holding onto. The tether needs to be strong, the harness properly fitted and the attachment point capable of taking sizable loads, quite likely five or six times your body weight.

If the MOB is fully conscious, alongside the boat and attached by a tether, you may only need to drop a rope ladder or steps to him. If he's unconscious, you have a limited amount of time to get him back aboard. Even if you have several strong crewmembers on the rail, it is extremely difficult on a bouncing boat to pull someone up the sides and get them aboard. If you're shorthanded, as most of those who cruise are, it is impossible. Literally.

A mechanical force multiplier is needed, whether it's a sheet winch and a halyard or a dedicated block-and-tackle rig such as the ones made by Lifesling or the ratcheting lever system marketed by MOB Up. Both methods allow a single person to lift another out of the water and get them on deck.

If the MOB is no longer attached to the boat, place a high priority on getting a line to them. Throwing a line takes some measure of practice and skill, and with the MOB rapidly disappearing in the wake, you only have one chance. Several manufacturers offer throwing lines, packed in a throwable bag or as a weighted monkey's fist with a precoiled line in a bag that stays on the boat, while others offer products that will literally shoot a line to the MOB, using compressed air, a rocket or a modified shotgun.

You won't have time to go below and dig out the special gear, though, so a throwable line in a small bag, with either a weight or a ring the MOB can grab, will probably be the best compromise.

Prepacked throwing lines, with a weight, a float or a small quoit are available from nearly every manufacturer of marine safety gear, or can be put together yourself. The important thing is that they be kept handy in the cockpit and that the entire crew has practiced throwing the line.

Easily deployed boarding ladders, made of rope, nylon webbing or metal steps connected by rope, could be invaluable, and for single-handed sailors there are ladders that have a short length of line hanging over the side. Pull the line and the ladder drops down.

The whole business is made immensely more difficult and eventual rescue more unlikely if the MOB isn't wearing a life jacket. He won't float as high out of the water, won't have the gear that comes with a life jacket, and probably won't have a harness to grab. Even the bare minimum flotation provided by the belt-pack variety of life jacket, is vastly better than none at all.

The best way to deal with a MOB is to not let it happen, but if it does, you will be glad you spent a few afternoons practicing finding and retrieving your hapless shipmate. The confidence that will instil will make the process familiar during a time when panic has to be kept at bay.
Article courtesy of


Publications, etc.


List links to discussion threads on partnering forums. (see link for requirements):


  • MOB Report - Excellent article from US Sailing. (.Pdf)


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