Posted by: fullandbye | June 15, 2007

Raz overboard!

Why was I so cold yesternight?

In a crew overboard situation, a skipper is presented with multiple options for getting the victim to the boat. We have been drilling like mad, using both traditional (figure eight) and more modern (quick stop) methods. As well as making recoveries with and without a lifesling.

In our COB drills, have been using a weighted fender to simulate the victim, and this has worked pretty well as a mark with which to practice precision maneuvering. The thing is, in a real crew overboard situation, getting the victim to the boat is only part of the challenge. Because sailboats heel so much, they tend to have a lots of freeboard, so the victim, assuming they can even reach the gunnel, requires a lot of assistance to get back on board. Pulling a fender on board is a completely different experience than pulling a several score pounds of human+wet clothing on board. This is why there is merit in practicing live man overboard drills.

So I jumped overboard. In the lake. Without a wetsuit. Four times.

The drilling lasted about 45 minutes, during which time I was in the water about half the time. There was a rescue boat in operation in case things got out of control, and I had dry clothes etc. on board. It actually felt warmer in the water than it did on deck exposed to the wind, but the lake is not nearly to its summertime peak temperature yet.

After the last drill the rescue boat sped me back to the WAC to get into a hot shower (the ride back was REALLY cold), but we arrived just as the WAC was closing, and I had to rush my warmup shower and I then made the stupid choice to stand around with wet hair in a chilly twilight. When I got home I was exhausted, and my hands and lips were a little blue. So I ate some soup, drank some tea, took a hot shower, and when I was convinced that I could generate enough body heat, I went to sleep in my sleeping bag under lots of blankets. I feel fine now.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about being the victim is how even under the most controlled circumstances, it is extremely distressing watching the boat sail away from you. You go from the chatter and din of a boat underway to a still silence all alone in an instant. There is a desperate loneliness watching the boat get small so quickly, followed by a sort of terror watching the bow bear down on you again.

This exercise also made me realize how important it is for someone to keep watch on the victim, always. The third recovery was the hairiest, as the boat nearly drove on top of me at the first passing attempt, and ended up needing to make another circle to get the lifesling to me. I was looking at the boat the whole time, but for about 20 seconds there no one was looking at me, and this incredibly frightening. Eye contact is powerful, even at distance.

I also am convinced now that the multiple fancy methods of getting people on board are pretty stupid in practical situations. There is a method where you make a sling out of a sail, and I can see this being useful if the victim is unconscious. There is another method where you disconnect the mainsheet from the traveler track and use the boom like a crane, but for this to be safe the mainsail needs to be down, and it is still dangerous having the boom swinging around.

For three of the four attempts, the spinnaker halyard was attached to a loop in the lifesling line and the crew hoisted me on board by winching me up. During the last recovery the halyard fouled on the winch when I was about halfway up the hull, but there were enough people on board that they just grabbed the sling and manhandled me up.

I am also now convinced that the recovery should be done amidships if at all possible because the hull is the most vertical there, which means the victim will not slide under the boat as much, and the victim can hold onto the shrouds as they are lifted from the water. The rescuers are also able to use the shrouds to keep themselves on the boat in heavy weather.

This exercise was incredibly valuable though. I have a totally different perspective now, and I am pretty sure the people who stayed aboard have a different appreciation for COB situations as well.


  1. That sounds like quite an experience. How does it compare mentally to capsizing? As I recall, the most scary thing about capsizing was that everyone was cold and wet and in the water, so there was the fear that you wouldn’t get the boat righted again before you stopped being able to function. But at least the boat isn’t moving in that scenario…

  2. What sorts of boats were you capsizing?
    Capsizing self-rescuing boats is not an issue for me, but I have also survived literally hundreds of capsizes on boats that are designed to capsize and recover without issue. I have had problems righting a boat exactly once, on a day where it was blowing stink, and one of the hulls sprang a leak and filled with water, making recovery without help from a launch practically impossible.
    Mentally speaking, capsizing is nowhere near as stressful. You capsize, but your boat is with you and if you know what you are doing (and have a boat designed to right easily from a capsize), you right the boat without much ceremony and sail away. When you are overboard, you are trapped helplessly in a hostile habitat, and unless you are ridiculously close to shore (closer than a sailboat would have any business sailing in the first place) there is simply no way you can swim to shore before you suffer early hypothermia, and this is assuming you have entered the water without injury! A lot of COBs are a result of getting hit with a block that comes loose, a sheet that gets violently wrapped around you, a sail that whips across and sends you over, a boom or spinnaker pole that swings out of control and hits you, or a violent tumble caused by wake or swell. The assumption of entering the water otherwise unhurt is a pretty liberal assumption to make.
    When you are overboard, you are completely separated from the only means you have of getting out of the water and underway, and this is really isolating and terrifying feeling. Knowing how small and invisible you are does not help matters either. Having a boat to hold onto (and climb onto if possible), even a capsized one, is better than being alone. You feel tiny out there, you are tiny out there, but even the smallest capsized boat is far more visible than a mostly submerged person.

  3. We were just capsizing lasers, and a laser capsizing drill isn’t very scary. But we ended up capsized once during bad weather one time, and that was pretty scary. We had a launch giving advice and succor in case of emergency, so I was less scared of drowning than of losing a boat I didn’t own.

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