What would you do if one of your passengers fell overboard? How much thought have you given to what you would do if that occurred? Furthermore, if it’s you in the water, is your crew trained to handle the situation?
There are a few things that should be done as soon as a person falls overboard. Any crew member or passenger on board that observes the incident should shout “man overboard” clearly and loudly enough for the vessel’s operator and all others to hear.
On recreational vessels, due to their size, shouting “man overboard” is usually sufficient. On larger vessels where the operator is isolated from the passengers and crew, other means of notification will be required. Going to the bridge, or using a telephone or intercom may be the alternatives.
As soon as possible after a person is spotted in the water, a buoyant device (anything that floats) should be thrown in the direction of the person overboard. Care should be taken to avoid hitting the person with the buoyant device. The object is to mark the spot and to give the person in the water something to hold onto.
Another very important step is to assign a “pointer” who will keep their eyes focused on the person in the water, and their arm outstretched with their finger pointing in that direction. The “pointing” aspect of this is critical, since if you take your eyes off the person for a second, and they go under in that second, continuous pointing will get you back to the spot. The pointer also serves as a guide for the boat operator.
Marking the spot is critical. Never make the assumption that the person in the water is a “good swimmer” or in “perfect shape.” Mark the spot anyway. The fall overboard may include a knock in the head on the way over, or the fall may be the result of some condition that could render the person in the water motionless. Unconscious people cannot swim.
Keeping track of how far the buoyant device actually lands from the person who is in the water is also very important. If after turning the boat around, you cannot see the person in the water, they are likely to be under water. Remembering how far the buoyant device landed from the person in the water will help you find the person, if they are not visible above the water line later.
If you have several people on board, assignments can be distributed among them. However, there may be times when you are the only remaining person onboard, and all assignments will fall on your shoulders.
If you have the additional help on board, while on the way back to retrieve the person in the water, you can be getting a few things ready. In a cold-water situation, towels, dry clothing, blankets, etc. will be needed. A person in a life vest standing by to go into the water, if necessary, would be helpful. Cold water may render the person in the water unable to climb a boarding ladder without assistance from below.
As you may have noticed, there are a lot of things to think about with respect to a man overboard situation. Next time you are out on the water, practice your man overboard procedures using a large fender or other suitable floating object.
Until next time, we wish you clear skies, fair winds and calm seas!