Falling overboard is one of the greatest fears experienced sailors have while making a passage on their boats. While newcomers to sailing may think falling overboard is no big deal, given the relatively slow speed that a sailboat is traveling, in reality it is often a life or death situation and many sailors have died as a result of falling overboard. The reason a trip over the side of sailboat can so easily turn tragic is that sailboats, once underway with sails set and sheets hauled tight, can be difficult to stop and turn around. This difficulty is compounded in strong winds or rough seas, which are often encountered in the stretches of open ocean where sailboats venture. In addition to the difficulty of stopping a sailboat and going back for a person who has fallen in the water, there is the added difficulty of even seeing that person amid cresting waves. If someone goes overboard at night, the difficulty is multiplied exponentially. Even if the person in the water is easily spotted and the boat can be brought alongside, hoisting someone who is injured or otherwise incapacitated aboard a large boat in rough seas is no easy task. For solo sailors who fall overboard, there is practically no hope at all unless a crew from another boat happens to spot the hapless swimmer in the water.
Given all these dangers of falling overboard, every sailor should take every precaution possible to avoid going overboard in the first place. This means always wearing a safety harness, installing strong lifelines around the perimeter of the deck and making sure the deck has a good non-skid surface that is easy to walk on without slipping when it is wet.
Beyond these precautions to prevent a man-overboard incident, there is also additional equipment you can carry on board to aid in the rescue of someone who still goes over the side despite these precautions.
The Coast Guard requires that all boats, whether large or small, carry at least one Type IV PFD. The Type IV PFD is a throwable personal flotation device designed to be tossed from the boat to a person in the water to provide them an aid to staying afloat until they can be rescued. On sailboats venturing offshore, this throwable PFD should be of the best quality available. A proven design is the horseshoe-shaped PFD that provides lots of buoyancy and is easy to hang on to in rough conditions. This thowable PFD should be mounted securely in its own special rack near cockpit and stern of the boat, so that it is instantly accessible to heave overboard. In addition to the PFD itself, there should be a long heaving line also secured in the same place and ready to deploy. A heaving line is a lightweight rope kept neatly coiled or packed in a nylon bag so that it can pay out without tangles when it is thrown to a person in the water. It helps if there is some weight on the end to aid in throwing it a longer distance, but the line itself should be of the polypropylene type that floats. It can be attached to the thowable PFD, but sometimes this can interfere with throwing the PFD, so it may be preferable to keep them separate and toss the line to the person in the water after they have grabbed hold of the flotation device.
To aid in finding an overboard crewmember in rough seas, sailors have developed special gear in addition to the simple horseshoe buoy or round life ring. The man-overboard pole is one such device that all boats should carry. This is a long pole with a flag on the top end and a weighted float on the bottom, designed so that it will float upright and hold the brightly-colored flag high above the waves, where it can be easily seen. The man overboard pole is tossed into the water so that the swimmer can grab it along with the throwable PFD. With this device, it is easier for the crew of the boat to maintain visual contact with the swimmer while the boat is being turned around and maneuvered back into position for a rescue.
Sailing at night presents special difficulties, and for this reason most man-overboard poles are equipped with a flashing strobe light mounted at the top that can be switched on by the person in the water or by the crew that is tossing it. Also essential to nighttime sailing are personal strobe lights that are attached to each crewmembers safety harness or around the upper arm with a Velcro band. These waterproof strobe lights can be turned on by the person wearing them if they fall into the water, and they immeasurably increase the chances of finding a person in the water at night.
A final essential item for man-overboard emergencies are a device known as the Life Sling. The Life Sling is a padded harness that forms a big sling that can be used to lift an unconscious person from the water with the aid of the sailboat’s halyard. This is a necessary item, especially for a short-handed crew. Many lives have been lost simply because an overboard sailor could not be lifted back onto the deck. The Life Sling can help prevent this sort of tragedy.
Equip your sailboat with this essential man-overboard equipment and make sure everyone on board knows how to use it. Practice using it in safe conditions by conducting man-overboard drills, and you’ll be ready if someone ever falls over the side on a passage.
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