All Hands on Deck - Crew Overboard Procedures

"I watched with horror and stunned disbelief as the wave carried her aft. I leaped after her. She was already most the way off the boat when the backs of her legs snagged the upper lifeline. A split second later I had a death grip on her thighs. I tried to drag her back into the boat, but I couldn't overcome the force of the water."
- John Kretschmer from Sailing a Serious Ocean

After reading many sailing blogs and books and talking to lots of people, I'm pretty certain that the following three fears are prominent among many sailors:

1) Big (really big) waves
2) Sinking/capsizing
3) Crew overboard

Today I'm going to summarize our crew-overboard procedure. I'm doing so both to share it with you and to make sure it's clear in our own heads and hopefully refine it based on feedback from readers.

First, let me say that I truly believe most crew-overboard emergencies can be avoided completely by careful planning, safety equipment and awareness. Jacklines, harnesses and tethers work really well at keeping people on the boat, but only when they're being used. Clearly, crew-overboard is still an emergency sailors need to be ready for, as some tragic experiences have shown.

This is no time to fall overboard. Use those jacklines!
(photo by K. Walters)

The first rule of a crew-overboard emergency is to not lose contact with the crew that has just gone overboard. Many of the recovery attempts I've read about fail because the crew left on the boat focus too much on sailing, positioning and preparing the boat for recovery while the person in the water becomes lost. So, as soon as someone goes overboard, anyone witnessing the event needs to keep a finger pointed at the person while shouting "Crew overboard!". One person's sole responsibility should be to keep pointing to the position of the person in the water. 

At this point, the person nearest to the helm should push the MOB (man overboard) button on the chartplotter/GPS and take note of the course and heading. If you've got a VHF radio equipped with DSC (digital selective calling), the DSC emergency button should also be pushed to send an alert to the Coast Guard. A mayday call on VHF channel 16 may also be made. If you're sailing offshore, this will have limited effect, but for coastal sailing extra help may mean the difference between life and death. Anyone else in the cockpit should deploy the MOB pole (see this review for an innovative inflatable pole/buoy) and flotation devices (horseshoe buoys, lifejacket, throwable cushion, etc.).  While most of the the emergency flotation devices may not reach the person in the water, they will act as a "bread crumb" trail to aid in tracking.

Do NOT stop pointing at the person in the water!

On our boat, the engine is started next. There are many methods for attempting a sailing rescue ("Quick-Stop", "Figure 8", etc.), but I think all unnecessarily complicate the recovery unless your engine will not start or the sea conditions are simply unsafe for motoring. This is no time to be a purist. If you've got a motor, use it!

The next step is to secure the sails. For us, this means furling the headsail and sheeting the main to centerline. Dropping the main can take precious extra time and lead to sails spilled on the deck that can block vision, so we keep it up and sheeted in. Now the boat can be turned 180 degrees using the engine so that it is now on the opposite course and should be generally headed back towards the person in the water.

Up to this point, all of the above actions should only take 2-3 minutes max. Potentially cold water, possible injuries and drift/currents dictate that you should act quickly, efficiently and calming.

Remember, there should still be someone pointing at the person in the water and communicating with the person at the helm. 

The helmsman should watch the heading and the MOB point on the chartplotter. The helmsman and other crew should also watch for the trail of flotation devices and the MOB pole while continuing to communicate with the pointer, who hopefully still has an eye and finger on the person in the water. Wind and currents will cause both the person in the water and the floatation devices to drift, so try to stay upwind and/or up-current of the windward-most floating object.

Once the sailboat has arrived back at the person in the water, recovery is the next process. If conditions are calm and the person is conscious and not injured, they may be able to simply swim to the boat's boarding ladder and climb back aboard. However, many factors can complicate the recovery such as waves, darkness, injury, unconsciousness, etc. Regardless of the scenario, a person in the water is likely to be cold and panicked, so the crew aboard the boat will need to act with a calm urgency.

A throwable line and a recovery device such as a Lifesling are extremely important pieces of gear. If you have an easily deployable dinghy, this may be useful for recovery, particularly if the person in the water is injured or too tired to assist with recovery. Many people also believe that the crew on the boat making the recovery should stay on the boat, no matter what. This means no one should get in the water to help with recovery even if the crew overboard person is unconscious or disabled. I understand the premise of this rule (i.e. not having two people overboard!), but I'm not sure I wouldn't jump in if one of my children were unconscious or injured and I knew other crew aboard the boat were able to competently keep the mothership in position.

Hopefully a quick, safe recovery can be made and the Coast Guard can be notified that the mayday emergency is over.

Know your crew overboard procedures and save these guys a trip.
(photo by K. Walters)

Crew-overboard Procedure Summary:

1. Shout "crew overboard" and point at the person in the water. Never stop pointing.
2. Person nearest to the helm pushes MOB function on GPS, DSC emergency function on VHF
3. Deploy crew overboard pole and floatation devices
4. Start boat engine
5. Secure sails (furl headsail, sheet in mainsail)
6. Turn 180 degrees to opposite course, back towards person in the water
7. Recover person in the water

I believe crew-overboard procedures should be practiced at least once per year, if not much more frequently. The more you practice and become familiar with your crew, boat and equipment the less panicked you'll be when an emergency actually occurs. Many skipper's practice unannounced by tossing a fender, cushion or watermelon overboard and shouting "Crew overboard" to begin the practice procedure and get the crew used to reacting spontaneously. Unfortunately, many crew overboard situations don't end quickly or safely. A compounding factor is the fact that someone going overboard often happens in stormy seas and/or the dark of night. Still, a crew that knows emergency procedures and has practiced them, even only in calm daylight conditions, is more likely to have a successful recovery.

There are a lot of variables that could effect the above procedure. For example, a crew-overboard emergency during a night passage, while offshore, or when sailing short-handed (small crew of 1-2) all make things more difficult. These scenarios are precisely why crews should be absolutely diligent about preventing a crew overboard emergency in the first place by wearing harnesses and tethers at all times while in the cockpit and on deck. In Beth Leonard's excellent book, The Voyager's Handbook, she tells of a Royal Yachting Association instructor's poignant advice; "Here's the reality. If you're shorthanded in the  middle of the ocean using self-steering with one person on watch and another asleep below, then this is the only man-overboard drill you will ever need." As the instructor spoke these words, he waved good-bye over the stern of the boat.

Save the waving for your friends and family back on the dock as you leave port and practice your crew overboard drills this spring!

Be Found! Plastimo Inflatable Dan Buoy

"No one will go to the rescue of a drowning man if his cries are feeble."
-Sri Sathya Sai Baba (an Indian guru)

Man-overboard poles, or MOB poles, have been commonplace on sailboats for several decades. In fact, many races and offshore cruising rallies require a MOB pole to register for an event. The idea is simple: Create an easily deployable device that makes finding someone who has fallen into the water easier even in high waves and low visibility. In other words, transform a drowning man's cry into an unmistakeable and powerful beacon. But stowing a 10' to 15' rigid pole can be troublesome, particularly if can't be mounted on the backstay. 

Traditional rigid MOB pole

Enter Plastimo's inflatable IOR Dan buoy...

Plastimo's inflatable MOB buoy just before
installing it on our stern rail

This unique device attaches to a stern rail and has a torpedo shaped canister that can quickly be thrown into the water during a crew-overboard emergency. A thin line connecting the mounting bracket to the canister triggers a CO2 cartridge to inflate the device when thrown.


When inflated, the Dan buoy provides a red and yellow flag 6.5' above the water as well as an automatically activated LED light with an 8-hour battery life. There's also a signaling whistle. What's that you say? Why can't someone invent a way for people who fall overboard to be comfortable while waiting to be recovered? Well, have you seen the adjustable webbed seat and handle on this buoy? The base of the inflated buoy also contains a rigid ballast and v-shaped battens for stability and there's even a small 11" drogue anchor to help resist drifting.



We now have the Plastimo Dan buoy installed on our stern rail and I plan to sacrifice a CO2 cartridge this spring by testing it to see how well it inflates and just how visible it is at a distance. Stay tuned for a follow-up field test review!

Split Rigs According to Perry (Guest Post by Bob Perry)

I'm sure at least of few of you, like me, have been patiently waiting for Bob Perry's sequel to the guest post he provided here a month or so ago about sailboat rigs (If you haven't read it yet, check here). What follows is the sequel where Bob focuses on split rigs (i.e., rigs with multiple masts). A big "thank you" goes to Bob Perry for his continued guest blogging here on SailFarLiveFree.com. Bob has provided a lot of really great design perspectives and experience that help me better understand the cruising sailboats that I love so much. Maybe more importantly, it's been a lot of fun interacting with one of my sailing heroes.

Split Rigs According to Perry, by Bob Perry

I use the term “split rig” to describe any boat with more than one mast. It’s important to keep this discussion in historical context. There was a time when dividing up the big rig of a sloop was a practical matter. It was done to break the sail area down into smaller individual components to make handling easier. But today we have nice big winches, roller furling for jibs and mains, fancy line handling hardware, aluminum and carbon fiber spars and lighter weight, high tech sail fabrics. The modern fractional sloop rig is very easy to handle and the benefits of the split rig have diminished to the point where we are left with split rig disadvantages. If you prefer a split rig I think it’s best to realize that it’s a subjective decision most of the time. You might just prefer the look of a schooner, ketch or yawl. I can’t argue with that. Actually I have, but in the end I have always lost that argument.
What are the disadvantages of the split rig? Weight aloft would be one. Complexity and clutter would be another. Cost certainly is increased when you add another mast with its required chainplates, mast step and additional sail detailing. But I have designed a lot of split rigs and if that’s what the client wants I’m happy to oblige.


An Islander Freeport 41 ketch, my very first design job for Islander,
chugging along nicely with modern off-the-wind asym chute and mizzen
staysail drawing well.

Let’s start with the yawl. Yawls look great with their itsy bitsy mizzen, usually hovering over a long stern overhang. While there have been yawls and yawl-like rigs for many years, the popularity of the yawl boomed in this country during the late 40’s and 50’s when the dominant racing handicap rule was the Cruising Club of America rule, the CCA. There was a bit of a glitch in the way the CCA measured sail area. Sails flown off the mizzen mast, i.e. mizzen staysails and mizzen spinnakers, were not counted in the measured sail area. So if you had a 44’ yawl and could fly a 300 square foot mizzen staysail off the wind, that was 300 sq. ft. of “free” sail area. This was eventually corrected in the later days of the CCA and when corrected yawls disappeared from the racing fleet. But when the free sail area was allowed, the dominant ocean racers like the famous S&S FIGARO and Alan Gurney’s magnificent WINDWARD PASSAGE were all yawls. Any race that was an off-the-wind race gave a distinct advantage to the yawl. While the token mizzen was of little use at all, big mizzen staysails and mizzen shuts were the key to rule efficient off-the-wind boat speed. Most of these boats beat to weather with the mizzen furled and then unleashed an inventory of off-the-wind mizzen flown sails for off-the-wind horsepower. The only practical side to the yawl for a cruising boat was that the little mizzen made a great riding sail to keep the boat head to wind at anchor. You can hang your radar off the mizzen too. Or you can stow your fishing poles alongside the boom. You can also use the mizzen boom as a lifting device for your outboard.
I only drew one yawl and I did it for my friend Jimmy Hiller when we were exploring designs for a CCA style “retro” cruiser. The boat never got built and as I look back at the design it’s obvious to me that try as I might, I never really captured the strength and beauty of the boats designed by Bill Tripp and Phil Rhodes. Right near the top of my all time favorite boats is the Rhodes design CARINA, a classic CCA yawl.
Perry's only yawl design - A 48-footer that was never built

I won’t fall back on the old definitions for ketch and yawl. The criteria used in the old days just don’t hold up today. Where is the mizzen in relationship to the waterline “buttwater”, the rudder, the helm? Boats today are very different than the boats of the 50’s. Rudders are much farther aft.  A center cockpit boat has to have the mizzen aft of the helm. For me the difference between yawl and ketch is strictly one of proportions. A yawl will have a very small mizzen, well aft. A ketch will have a much bigger mizzen stepped further forward. It doesn’t make any sense to me to define the difference with numbers, just use your eye.
When I was a kid it was almost automatic that any “serious” offshore cruising boat would be a ketch. History was full of them and they made sense given the technology of the day. The ketch had some advantages. The three sails were smaller than the two sails of a comparable sloop. The center of pressure was lower for better stability, although, the VCG was often higher due to the weight of the mizzen mast. So I think the stability argument can be questioned. Many sailors like the ability to sail “jib and jigger” in a blow. This meant furling the main and sailing under jib and mizzen. This works and can be very convenient but I wouldn’t count on this configuration to give you good performance to weather. One problem that all split rigs share is that the mizzen or aft sail is always sailing in the bad air of the forward sails upwind. The apparent wind for the mizzen will be closer to the wind than the apparent wind angle for the forward sails. So, in sheeting the mizzen in to get clean air over it, weather helm can easily be created. Many ketches go to weather in a blow with the mizzen furled to relieve helm pressure. During a two week cruise in the BVI’s where we had plenty of breeze we never flew the mizzen on the 54 ketch I sailed.
This is the CT 54, my very first GRP (glass reinforced plastic) design. I was 26 years old. They built 100 of these classic ketches. They sail very well considering the general nature of the type.


I have designed two ketches that really surprised me with their performance. The very first Tayana 37 that was delivered to Seattle was a ketch version. The boat was beautifully balanced and went to weather very well. The other ketch that surprised me was CAPAZ, a 48’ motorsailer with an all inboard rig. CAPAZ was very close winded.
The 48' motorsailer ketch CAPAZ

But my favorite ketch of my own design has to be the CT 65. They built about 30 of these and they sail very well. Vladimir Ashkenazy, the famous maestro, owns one and that makes me happy. I find this a very good looking ketch with classic ketch rig proportions.
CT 65 ketch

But today I have a new ketch being built at the Pacific Seacraft yard in North Carolina. This is the 63’ CATARI. This ketch has a bigger mizzen, well forward. We were working with a rig height restriction on this design so I needed to spread the area out to get the sail area I needed and come up with a mizzen that would be  a true driving sail, effective upwind and down. It’s a complex rig made even more complex by the fact that this boat has both an aft cockpit and a center cockpit. The deck layout has been a real challenge.


CATARI, a 63' ketch

I can’t forget schooners. Of all the split rigs the schooner is the most photogenic. But with the big sail aft the schooner can be a challenge to balance and often the foresail is blanketed by the large main when off the wind. Schooners made sense in the days of working sail when small crews would have to handle large schooners. But today the schooner rig is expensive and getting four sails (jib, staysail, foresail, mainsail) to line up and work efficiently upwind can be a challenge. The schooner rig is not close winded. My friend just bought a beautiful old Alden schooner. It’s a lovely boat but it is not fast. I have only designed one schooner. I tried to talk the client out of the schooner rig but he just wanted a schooner. JAKATAN is a modern schooner with an all carbon fiber rig and single point halyards on the foresail and main. We eliminated the throat and peak halyard arrangement typical of gaff rigs in favor of a simpler single halyard system. It works well. JAKATAN is very fast with a modern underbody and a powerhouse off the wind.

JAKATAN, a modern schooner

We didn’t look at cat ketches. They can work well but there are not many of them. I didn’t mention staysail schooners either. They are just a variation on the schooner rig and I don’t think they have any real advantage. But you have my basic thoughts on the pros and cons of split rigs. They can all work well given a good design but none match the performance of the standard sloop for efficiency. -BP

Want more sailboat design perspectives from Bob Perry? Start with these: