Man Over Board P1 - What should you consider?
This is the first in a three-part series of articles, looking at how to prepare for and deal with man overboard situations.
Losing a member of crew overboard is serious and every skipper's worst nightmare. Every crew should have plans and procedures in place to deal with such a situation.
Personal equipment to enable the crew member to remain afloat, equipment to help you make contact with the man over board (MOB), and a means of recovering the person from the water safely and quickly should all be considered.
Most importantly, once you have a plan in place, practice it - and then practice it again with someone else taking control!
Time is absolutely critical. And with that as our primary concern, we look at what you can do to ensure a successful recovery.
Step 1 - The Skipper's Responsibilities
Safety of the crew is ultimately the skipper's responsibility. And preparation is the first, and possibly the most important step you can take in dealing with a MOB incident.
As any doctor will agree, prevention is better than cure. Dealing with a MOB incident before it happens is certainly easier than dealing with it when there is a crew member in the water.
- Briefings. Telling the crew and guests about the motion of the vessel should be done before you leave the dock. 'One hand for the boat' is a sound piece of advice, and getting people to move from one hand hold to another instills confidence in the less sure-footed.
- Hand holds. Make sure the crew know what they should hold on to.... and what not to grab. And if someone is really not confident about moving about on board, then sit them somewhere in the cockpit or near the helm position and give them a task to focus on.
- Encouraging confidence. Buddying a novice with an experienced hand will breed confidence and trust, and they will soon begin to enjoy what they are doing.
- What to expect at sea. Briefings about what to expect when the vessel is under way is the first step, but the skipper should also remember to continue to brief everyone on board whenever the vessel is about to do something new. Whether it is tacking or gybing, accelerating onto the plane or simply changing direction, all of these actions can lead to a MOB incident. So think ahead, and be prepared!
Step 2 - Helping Ourselves
Even the very best briefings will not totally eliminate the possibility of a MOB situation. So what can the crew do to help themselves?
The crew's personal equipment can quite literally be the difference between life and death.
- Cold shock. Even in the summer, water temperatures around the UK can be very cold. A paddle at the beach is a totally different situation to falling from a boat a mile off shore. Falling into the water can be a frightening experience and even the fittest crew will not be able to avoid the almost instantaneous 'cold shock' as he or she hits the water.
- Insulation. After the initial submersion, the clock begins to tick. There is a common misconception that bulky clothing, sailing waterproofs and boots will pull you under. The reality is that air trapped inside clothing provides extra buoyancy and can act as an insulator.
- Increasing survival rates. Wearing appropriate clothing such as close-fitting base layer underwear, fleece mid layers and correctly-fitting outer waterproofs will extend your chances of survival.
The RNLI have been running an educational campaign, 'lifejackets are useless unless worn'. And there is no better advice!
Slim, lightweight gas inflation lifejackets have been available for many years and with prices starting at under £50 for a good quality automatic model, there is no reason to neglect this essential piece of safety kit.
Automatic or manual? If you hit your head and are concussed, a correctly-fitted automatic lifejacket will turn you face up in the water and should keep you afloat indefinitely.
Conserve energy. Wearing a lifejacket means you will not need to expend precious energy and heat swimming to stay afloat.
Maximise visibility. The bright yellow air chambers of a life jacket are a much more visible target for a vessel to return to than someone's head, low in the water.
Accessories? With some carefully-chosen life jacket accessories the person in the water can even begin to help in their own recovery.
- Life jacket crotch strap - essential! A crotch strap stops your life jacket riding-up and ensures that it stays in the optimum position. If you haven't got a crotch strap, then buy one now! Many people have tragically drowned wearing poorly fitting life jackets.
- Life line - most makes of gas inflation life jacket are available with an integral deck safety harness which will allow a crew member to attach themselves to the vessel with a life line. Provided the jack-stay lines or hard-points are far enough inboard, a life line should significantly reduce the risk of someone being lost overboard.
- Life jacket light - indicating your position to your vessel as it turns around will help it recover you in the fastest time possible. The latest models of mini automatic life jacket lights are cheap and easy to fit, usually being looped over the oral inflation tube. A life jacket light should definitely be on your list of essential accessories after buying a crotch strap.
- Spray hood - you can improve the likelihood of a successful MOB recovery in bad weather and rough seas by fitting spray hood to the life jacket. This will protect your face and airway from waves and driving spray - the most common cause of drowning - allowing you to see and breathe normally and focus on helping yourself.
- Waterproof torch - even in daylight, shining a torch directly at the vessel can help the crew pick you out from the background swell. At night its use is invaluable.
- Personal flares - there are several personal Day and Night Distress Flares on the market. Whilst people can feel nervous about using one, the dense cloud of orange smoke they produce in daylight can be seen for several miles, and if a vessel has lost sight of the MOB, they can be the most effective signal of all.
- Personal EPIRBs - a personal locator beacon (PLB) should not really be considered a MOB device. They are designed to signal your distress to the coastguard when no-one else knows you are in difficulty. Most vessels do not have the equipment on board to track the signal from a PLB, so they will not usually help your vessel find you any more quickly.
For more information, see an earlier issue of The Beacon, Personal EPIRBs - what use are they really?
In part two of our man overboard series in the next issue of The Beacon, we will be looking at how to make contact with your crew member in the water.