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 calmly.

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!


  1. Crew overboard is my number-1 fear.

    1. Yup, it's high on my list too, particularly since I have young children as crew.

  2. Thank you for this post. It is always good to practice this. Better to be prepared for the worst.

  3. Thank you for this post. It is an important thing to practice. You can never be too prepared.


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