INSIGHTS: Man Overboard – Episode 1

A crew member overboard is something we all dread. We all know to hang on tight and not to fall in, but if a crew member does go over the side we need to know how to get back to them quickly and get them out of the water.

Duncan Wells (RYA instructor, features writer and author) will be providing a series of short articles for INSIGHTS on how to deal with a variety of possible Man Overboard situations, plus the best equipment on the market to locate and recover a crew member from the water.

Published 3 years ago

Episode 1 – Sailing to windward, close-hauled and the man goes in!

The Facts:

You might not be aware but the definition of cold water is water that is below 25ºC. That is pretty warm water to me. Not many seas are that temperature. The human body temperature is 37.5ºC, so immersion in water at 25ºC means the body is cooling all the time.

At 35ºC – the body starts to become hypothermic
At 33.9ºC – we lose mental capacity
At 30ºC – we lose consciousness
At 26.7º – we die

So if you remain in water at 25ºC for long enough you will eventually die. In fact the experts, such as Mike Tipton from Portsmouth University in the UK and Mario Vittone from Cold Water Boot Camp in North America, take their measurements of cold water from 15ºC, which simply cools your body more quickly than water at 25ºC.

Before we start do remember, hang on tight and don’t fall in . . .

The Scene:

There are just two of us on my Hallberg Rassy 352 (she is sloop rigged with a long fin keel and skeg rudder). We are sailing close-hauled, both of us are wearing lifejackets and the other guy falls in.

The Reaction:

Assuming I see him go in I spin the boat round straight away.

1. Crash Tack

I spin the boat around fast by crash tacking.
Say we are sailing on port tack, with the wind coming over our port side and the sails set in the starboard side, I will turn the helm hard to port to make the bow go to port. The bow will go through the wind and the boat will now be on starboard tack. I won’t touch the sheets of the sails and while the main will come across onto the port side with the wind blowing on it from starboard, the headsail still secured to the winch on the starboard side will now be pinned the wrong side of the mast. It will be what we call ‘aback’. This will help to turn the boat quickly and we will soon be facing downwind.

2. Downwind

When the wind is dead behind us we will gybe. The headsail will unback itself and the main will come across onto the starboard side of the boat and we will be back on port tack. We keep the helm hard over all the way through this.

3. Turning towards the wind

Now the boat will start turning towards the wind as we go from a beam reach to close-hauled once more. Keeping the helm hard over will mean that we will once more tack from port to starboard and continue to spin round. I will keep the helm over and the boat will continue spinning round.

4. Don’t lose sight of the MOB

Why are we spinning round? Because we don’t want to lose sight of the MOB, we want to stay with him and we will if we keep spinning round. Both of us will drift with the tide or current.

And if a man has gone in while we are sailing to windward he will be in the swirl of water as we spin round and generally not more than 20 yards from us.

Spinning round near to the MOB also gives me the chance to offer him encouragement and he can see that I am there, rather than sailing off into the distance to effect some bear away and return manoeuvre, which I cannot afford to do, because my number one concern is keeping my eye on the man.

Swirl of water

5. Throw a line

We can see him and we are near him so my first move is to throw the throwing line at him which I keep in a cockpit locker ‘on top of everything, ready’.

If he grabs the throwing line there is a chance that he can haul himself back to the boat.

6. Procedures if the man can’t help himself

  • I will lock the helm hard over, which will allow me to leave it and get the engine started.
  • I will hit the MOB button on the chart plotter.
  • If I am inshore or just offshore I will send a Mayday distress alert.
  • I must not lose sight of the man in the water.
VHF repeater in cockpit   

A Mayday must be sent as while I will do everything to try and retrieve the man myself I may need outside help and it’s always best to let people know as soon as possible. Of course I will have to speak to the coastguard or rescuers on the radio and so it is important to have a repeater for the VHF in the cockpit and to have the chart plotter in the cockpit too, because the last thing I must do is to lose sight of the man in the water. And I will if I have to go down below to hit the MOB button on the plotter or to use the radio.

7. Approaching the man in the water

Assuming I have to come to him, I will do so under engine and with the sails still set as they were for sailing to windward, in other words, sheeted in tight. And I will approach him from up wind and aim to have the boat in the heave-to position.

That is to say with the wind on our starboard side I will have the headsail aback and the wind will be trying to push the bow to port. At the same time the wind in the mainsail – which is set normally and is out to port – will power up the sail and try to drive the boat forward.

The helm will be set at between 25 and 35º to starboard to turn the boat to starboard and so the drive of the boat to starboard by the main will be countered by the push of the boat to port by the wind on the backed headsail.

Ideally we will be stopping the boat in the water. A little astern may help here.

Headsail aback boat at about 45º to the wind, stopped in the water. Reefs in both sails as it was windy.

When I am close to the casualty – and remember if I have the engine on, regardless of whether or not it is in gear, I will make sure that the casualty never comes further down the boat than amidships, because of the danger to propellers turning or stopped and dangly legs- I will let out the main further, this helps to de-power it and stops us from running past the casualty.

8. Securing the MOB to the boat

Assuming the MOB is wearing a lifejacket and depending on the MOB equipment you have on board, recovery can be handled in a number of ways.

If he has one of my MOB Lifesavers inside his life jacket, I will boathook this off the water.

Or he may prefer to keep it in its pouch attached to the top of the lifejacket and again I can grab this with the boathook.


If the MOB has no Lifesaver in his life jacket, I will have to throw a line to him and hope he can manage to secure the line to his lifejacket. Generally the two parts of the lifejacket bladder are pushed together as they support the weight of the man and the ‘D’ ring – that we always imagine we can secure a line to – is hard to get hold. He may be able to attach the line to the belt or harness of his lifejacket. Remember, if he wasn’t expecting to go in the water he will be in shock and he may have lost the capacity to use his fingers.

In this case we are going to need to deploy the liferaft, or a dinghy if it is ready inflated on davits, say. Either way we need to attach the liferaft or dinghy to the boat. Then we need to get into it and get our man into it.

We will of course have had to get our boat to become stopped in the water without any creeping forward or fore-reaching as it is called, so practicing heaving-to and getting ‘0’ knots of boat speed is very important.

I always advocate playing with our boats before venturing to far off shore just to see what they will do.

In the hope that he has a Lifesaver in his life jacket, I will then secure this to the boat.

9. Recovering the MOB

At this point I can get the sails down and then set up my retrieval rig.

This for me is a 6-part ratcheted block tackle from Harken suspended on the spinnaker halyard.


I have measured everything out before hand – that’s part of my MOB preparation. The tackle is set high enough to get the man in over the guard wires, with the bottom block at deck level to attach to the Lifesaver.

A piece of blue tape on the spinnaker halyard tells me when I have raised the tackle high enough. I then tie it off with a figure of eight and a locking hitch.


I keep the tackle extended and coiled in a bucket ready, so there is no delay in setting it up. To prevent it from twisting I tie a silk by each block, once round and then a bow, which is easy to undo with cold fingers.

I have carabiners at either end of the tackle. I never use snap shackles not with MOB, they can come undone too easily and I find them hard to open and close especially with cold fingers. I use Kong locking gate carabiners.

I don’t trust the snap shackle on the end of the spinnaker halyard so I will tie a bowline in this and then clip the Kong carabiner on the top block to this.

I will clip the carabiner on the bottom block to the guard rail for now to keep it out of harm’s way.

Then I will clip the Lifesaver into the Kong carabiner on the bottom block.

Actually I will take the handle of the Lifesaver in one hand and whack the carabiner at it and it will clip on. That’s the beauty of carabiners you can whack them at what you want to attach them to. And I really don’t like the marine carabiners which are stiff and have sharp edges to the gates. The Kong carabiners are the best. Anything that is quick and safe. Carabiners with gates that you have to twist to unlock don’t work me me either, not quick enough.

I will tension the tackle by pulling on the hauling line. And then if I am able I will add in the Rescue Sling under the casualty’s knees and clip this into the kong carabiner.

 The beauty of the Harken ratcheted block tackle is that if you let go of the hauling line the casualty does not go whizzing back into the water, which he would do if there was no resistance within the tackle. In fact the ratcheted block allows a rescuer to hold the hauling line with just finger and thumb with the full weight of the casualty on it.

10. Lifting the MOB out of the water

Now I am ready to bring him out and he will come up horizontally. This is important if he has been in the water for some time as he may have started to become hypothermic. He will also have been experiencing hydrostatic squeeze where the pressure of the water keeps warm blood around his vital organs. If he were lifted vertically out of the water, the pressure would be removed and it is possible for this warm blood to rush to his boots causing a massive loss of blood pressure and a heart attack. Bringing him out horizontally keeps this warm blood in around the organs.

A note here. The biggest issue with a man in the water is choking and drowning and so getting him out as quickly as possible is desirable. Search and rescue operators will always try to bring the man out horizontally and if he is to be lifted a long way, say into a helicopter, they will always bring him out horizontally. We will be bringing him out just a short way and it is generally considered that if trying to bring him out horizontally is difficult to achieve, then getting him out vertically to the deck of the yacht is acceptable. It is essential to remove him from the water.

You will notice that I mentioned not having a cam cleat on the top block, because if you have a cam cleat on the top block which is now 15 feet or so in the air it can be difficult to un-jam it by flipping the line free. If the weight of the casualty goes onto the tackle this is likely to jam again almost instantly.

We also need the ability to lower the casualty every so often as we bring him up. He and his lifejacket will catch on everything (rubbing strake, gunwhale, lower guard wire, upper guard wire) and while we use our foot to kick him free, sometimes we have to lower him a little to help.

One advantage of approaching him from upwind is that the boat may well be heeling a little towards him, which reduces the distance we have to lift him and helps to keep him clear of all the things he may snag on as we bring him up.

11. Speaking with rescuers

We had called a Mayday and we will have had to speak to rescuers and we need to tell them that we are going to try and retrieve him ourselves and so if they don’t hear back from us the minute they call us up it is because we are hard at it.

Whether rescuers arrive with you or not, or whether you remembered to call a Mayday or not, the minute you have the man back on board you need to call that Mayday because you will need medical advice to establish that all is well with your crew member.

If you are mid-ocean then getting him back on board is the primary concern. With him back on board you could call a Mayday and hopefully pick up a ship which has a doctor on board who may be able to give you advice. If you are part of a rally then you need to abide by the rally regulations on MOB.

The Physical Effects of MOB:

Of course we have designed our mob drill to result in a speedy retrieval of the man and would hope that he has not started to become hypothermic. Hypothermia takes about 45 minutes to set in, although this time varies depending a number of factors, temperature of water, whether you are male or female and your physique.

The most immediate problem for a MOB is first shock, which can cause hyperventilation and you may take water into your lungs which can choke you.

Next is incapacity. The body – being clever – has realised that you are in cold water and to protect itself it makes sure that it retains warm blood around your organs. Capillaries in your extremities shut off. As far as the body is concerned the extremities are not where we need warm blood and so quite quickly you lose the capacity to use your fingers. This is why it is so important to have some type of MOB lifesaver in your lifejacket. While I can hand a line down to the MOB, if I can’t get him to attach it to his lifejacket harness I can’t get him back on board. Which is why we have lifesavers where we don’t go down to the casualty, he comes up to us.


There are many ways of retrieving a man back on board, this is just one. Whatever you do you need to find a system and prepare it and practise it, in the hope that you will never have to use it.

The point though is that if a man in the water in a lifejacket does not have a MOB Lifesaver fitted to his lifejacket and he cannot attach the line that we are handing down to him, then this makes things very difficult. We simply cannot reach down to him from the average 35 foot boat to attach it for him.

Above all make sure everyone on the boat hangs on tight. It is a complicated procedure if anyone ends up in the water.


Other MOB Articles by Duncan Wells:



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About the Author:

Duncan Wells is an RYA instructor and features writer for Yachting Monthly, Sailing Today & Practical Boat Owner and author of Stress Free Sailing, Stress Free Motorboating and Stress Free Navigation. Duncan runs an RYA recognised training centre in Bucks, UK and also created the MOB Life Saver.


Other INSIGHTS can be found here.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of or World Cruising Club.

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  1. March 21, 2020 at 4:04 AM
    meri_thor says:

    Great advice (not new but very welcome update). Having been in the water myself and having some 5,000 hrs maritime flying combined with approx 40+ years sailing I cannot stress how important it is to keep sight of the MOB. An additional key aspect is that you ‘see’ the person go in…..

  2. March 19, 2020 at 2:08 PM
    rolty says:

    Some very useful new thoughts on MOB procedure. I like the plan to go round in circles to stay close to the casualty