One of the most feared aspects of sailing is losing a crew member overboard. It is very easy to lose sight of someone in the water. The following Crew Overboard (COB) Recovery techniques are taught by sailing schools world wide.
Under sail, there are two recognized maneuvers in a COB situation. One is called the ‘Reach and Reach’ or ‘Figure Eight’ method (also called the Six Second Reach), the other is called the ‘Quick Stop’ method. We will also discuss a third COB method that we call the, ‘Quick Stall’.
All methods are very effective so it is important to practice all of them because different situations often favor one method over the other. It is also important that your crew and passengers be instructed of what to do in the event of a COB situation – both from being the victim COB to being a crew member during a COB.
Preventing a COB
The best approach is always prevention. As a skipper is it your duty to take all steps necessary in order to minimize the risk of a COB situation from arising. As a crew member, it is your responsibility to inform yourself of the risks, not put yourself at unnecessary risk and to take all precautions if at risk.
1.) Wear a Harness: If solo sailing, if on deck at night or in conditions of poor visibility, in bad weather (high seas and strong winds) or in any other situation where you may be at greater risk of falling overboard, always wear a harness.
It is good practice to have your boat rigged with Jacklines before leaving harbor in the event harness’ are required.
2.) One Hand for Yourself: The old rule, ‘one hand for yourself and one hand for the boat’ is particularly true in poor weather conditions. Always make sure you are hanging onto something secure at all times in case you are suddenly knocked off balance – especially if you are on the foredeck.
3.) Keep a Look Out: Always be aware of what the boat is doing. Keep your eyes on the water for irregular or rogue waves. If at the helm, shout ‘wave’, if a large wave is approaching so that the crew can brace themselves with a firm hold.
4.) Know Your Limitations: If you have poor balance or any impairment that could put yourself at greater risk, swallow your pride and let someone else more suited for the task to take over.
5.) Wear the Right Gear: Dress warm – hypothermia slows your reaction time and weakens your strength, making you more susceptible to losing your balance and not being able to grab hold.
6.) Right Equipment: The boat should be rigged with Jacklines. Harness’ and tethers should be readily available. The skipper should always instruct the crew as to the proper usage of harness’. Use a two tether system if a crew member must go forward. This will ensure that the crew member will always be tethered to the boat in the event that one tether must be unclipped in order to get around an object blocking the crew members path.
Before we discuss the ‘Reach and Reach’ and the ‘Quick Stop’, in any COB situation you should do the following:
1.) Anyone seeing a person go overboard should immediately shout, “Crew Overboard”, point and continue to point at the COB and not take their eyes off the COB until or unless another spotter is appointed.
2.) Throw out the COB marker. Throw the COB buoyancy. This means anything that will help the COB stay afloat – life jackets, life rings, boat cushions etc. These items will also help mark the location of the COB. (Always keep life jackets and other objects of buoyancy close at hand – not below deck.)
3.) The skipper will appoint a spotter – usually the person who initially saw the COB. The spotter is to maintain constant visual contact of the COB.
4.) Shout words of encouragement to the COB. “Don’t worry, we will get to you.” “Stay calm, we are just turning around to come back for you.” etc.
5.) Stay calm on the boat – it is a stressful situation but fueling an already stressful situation by panicking will not help – it will only make matters worse. Do you job, follow the skipper’s instructions and stay calm.
6.) The skipper will give directions as to what maneuver he will be doing.
7.) Once close to the COB the skipper will give directions to throw the COB a floatable line. If the line is not attached to a sling, make a large loop in the end using a bowline so that the COB can place the line around his body and under the arms. (It is wise to have a line specifically dedicated to this purpose before leaving dock so that it is all set – preferably with a sling or life ring attached.)
8.) The skipper will likely direct that all sails be lowered in order to hold the boats position.
9.) Slowly pull the COB to the boat making sure that the COB is able to keep his face out of the water. Pulling the COB too quickly may pull them under.
10.) Once beside the boat, pull the COB aboard. It is likely that the COB will be able to offer much assistance as they will be cold, tired and traumatized.
Crew Overboard – Recovery Maneuvers
The goal of any COB maneuver is of course to get the COB back onboard quickly and safely. This means not losing sight of the COB, getting back to the COB as quickly and to STOPPING next to the COB in order to make recovery. Stopping is extremely important as the COB will not likely have the strength to hang onto a line of a moving boat. Also, dragging the COB will likely pull the COB under the water.
Which maneuver you chose to use depends on the maneuverability of the boat and the wind and sea conditions.
Crew Overboard – Reach and Reach
(See Diagram Below)
Sometimes called the ‘6 second reach’ or the ‘figure eight’, this COB maneuver is well used in heavy seas and strong wind conditions.
Whenever someone shouts “Man Overboard”, the person at the helm will immediately put the boat into a beam reach (sail straight across the wind). The advantage of doing a beam reach is that if you lose sight of the COB, you at least know that you can come about (tack back) and retrace your course and regain sight of the COB. The other important aspect of doing a beam reach you always know that you will be able to sail back on the same course and not find yourself trying to sail against the wind or control your running speed sailing downwind.
Once the helmsman has sufficient space between the boat and the COB, (note: a crew member who is able to judge boat lengths should be shouting out distance from the COB in order help the helmsman determine when he has sufficient room to tack about.), the helmsman will tack (not gybe).
When coming out of the tack, head immediately down wind (broad reach) from the COB. If you are sailing solo, release the jib sheets and let the jib luff to slow the boat speed.
When you are at a Close Reach angel to the COB, turn up into a Close Reach pointed slightly below the COB. If you sailed towards the COB at a Close Hauled point of sail, a wind shift could stall the boat or in strong winds, you will not be able to make much head way. Sailing at a Close Reach point of sail gives you more ‘wiggle’ room.
As you approach the COB from a downwind position, slow the boat speed by slightly turning up into the wind and then turning down to avoid stalling. Once close and still downwind from the COB, turn the boat into the wind so that it stalls and comes to a stop beside the COB. It is important that the crew know which side of the boat the COB will be on once the boat has stalled.
Once stopped and beside the COB, through a line to the COB – see above.
Important Aspects to Remember:
Maintaining sight of the COB is critical – give yourself enough room to tack about and angle downwind but don’t wait to tack until you have lost sight of the COB.
If you fail to head downwind coming out of the tack, you will gain too much boat speed heading back to the COB and will not be able to stall the boat without heading upwind from the COB.
From a leeward (downwind) position, approach the COB on a Close Reach point of sail. Get a feel for controlling boat speed by heading up (turning up into the wind) and heading down (turning down wind).
Crew Overboard – Quick Stop
(See Diagram Below)
Once the helmsman hears the shout, “Man Overboard”, he will immediately call for a tack.
Unlike a standard tack, the jib sheets will not be touched which means that as the boat comes about, the jib will back on itself.
The mainsail, as the tack is initiated, should be pulled into the center line position of the boat. This will slow boat speed and the backed jib will help swing the bow down through the turn.
The sheets are not touched and with the rudder turned in the same direction the boat will continue to sail in circles around the COB until such time as you can pull up to the COB from a leeward position and stall the boat beside the COB.
Since you will approaching the COB from a leeward position, once below the COB you will need to gybe to head back up to the COB. Again, the sails are not touched. The mainsail is already secured over the centerline so there will be no swing of the boom.
If you are short of crew, this is an excellent method for recovering a COB. Nothing has to be done to the jib sheets and only the mainsail needs to be centered.
In heavy winds and seas this method of recovering a COB presents a few more problems in that the boat will catch a lot of wind at the top of the tack and the bottom of the gybe creating a lot of heeling.
The advantage to this maneuver is that you are always circling the COB and therefore reduce the chances of losing sight of the COB.
Crew Overboard – Quick Stall
(See Diagram Below)
Although not particularly sanctioned as a COB method of recovery, in reality it works very well.
As soon as the helmsman hears, “Man Overboard”, he turns the boat straight into the wind and puts the boat ‘in irons’. The boat will generally stop within 1 or 2 boat lengths. The sheets and rudder need to be controlled so that the boat does not turn and catch wind and start sailing away.
Once the boat has stalled, what do you do then?
At this stage you could start the motor and lower your sails and motor back to the COB.
If your motor is running as the COB approaches the boat – make sure it is in neutral, or better, turn it off when ready to bring the COB aboard so that the COB or a line does not get caught in the propeller.
Picking up the COB – Leeward or Windward
On the approach back to the COB, the skipper has to decide whether to pick up the COB on the windward or leeward side of the boat. An argument can be made for either side.
The Canadian Yachting Association (CYA) recommends picking up the COB on the windward side of the boat.
In high winds and rough water, most people will instinctively turn their back or face away from the wind. In a COB situation, where the COB is being picked up on the windward side of the boat, this means that the COB is now looking downwind towards the approaching rescue boat and will be able better assist in their own recovery.
When the COB is picked up on the windward side of the boat, the helmsman in most cases, will have a better line of sight on the COB as the boat approaches. The helmsman will naturally be on the windward side of the boat to counter heeling and his line of vision will be along the boat and not be impaired sails, boom, rigging etc. by looking across the boat.
The American Sailing Association (ASA) recommends picking up the COB on the leeward side of the boat.
With the COB being to leeward, the boat protects the COB from the wind and waves and the boat tends to flatten the water to leeward making it easier to recover the COB. (The CYA feels that the boat could wash on top of the COB.)
With the COB leeward, it is much easier throwing a rescue line down wind as opposed to against the wind.
A good skipper will be well practiced at picking up a COB either the windward or leeward side. Which side is better is more likely determined by circumstance – severity of weather, number of crew, type of boat etc.
Getting the COB Back Onboard
If the COB is too heavy to pull aboard by crew power alone, here are a few alternative suggestions.
If the COB is able to hold onto the side rail or toe rail of the boat, run a line from a forward cleat back to a cockpit winch. Dip the line over the side so that the COB can stand on it. Once the COB has the line under his feet, winch in the line which will raise the COB to deck level. Pull the COB aboard.
Another approach is to push the boom out over the COB (line the boom of a crane), using a block and tackle system (either one that you have stowed on the boat for this specific purpose or using the boom vang) attached to the boom, hoist the COB out of the water and then swing the boom back over the deck to recover the COB. In heavy seas this method is not advisable as the rocking of the boat makes it difficult to maintain control over the boom.
An alternative to the block and tackle system off the boom is to attach the COB line to the mainsail or jib halyard and hoist the COB out of the water using one of the cockpit winches. If you do not have a ‘life sling’, you can rig a sling with a bowline or double bowline tied in. (Remember, the bowline creates a non-slip loop.)
You can also use the jib to lift the COB back onboard. Tighten and secure the jib sheet on the side of the boat you are going to make the COB recovery. Ease the jib halyard until the jib lies in the water – like a hammock. Ease the COB onto the sail. Using a cockpit winch, raise the jib. As the sail lifts, the COB will be lifted to deck level where the COB can be rolled onto the foredeck.
Once the COB is back onboard, check for physical injuries and treat for hypothermia if the COB is showing any indication of being cold.
Crew Overboard – Summary
Always be prepared. Practice COB’s during recreational sailing time and especially if you are on a different boat from what you are used to.
Have all safety gear readily available – life jackets, COB markers, life rings, throwing lines, boat cushions, block and tackle.
Have a plan in place with contingencies. Make sure your crew and passengers are aware of what to do in the event of a COB situation.