Wednesday, April 2, 2014


The recent incident with a MOB on the Clipper Race raised again doubts about the practicability and training in what regards recovering a man overboard. It was in plain daylight, the man went overboard near the skipper that raised the alarm immediately, the conditions were rough but far from extreme (35K), they had a full competent crew that had trained this type of situations, a professional skipper and they took one hour and a half to recover the man from the water. Unbelievable and frightening!!!

If the man went overboard in the North Atlantic he would not have survived to hypothermia. This seems not to be acceptable but previous accidents show that this is more the rule than a freak accident, I mean, the recovery time. Analyzing the situation we rapidly conclude that the main reason for the huge time they took on the recovering was due to having lost the MOB from sight. They took 1 hour and 12 minutes to find him again and about 18 minutes to recover him after that. The recovery itself was made in an acceptable time, what did not went well and could have been fatal, was that they have lost him out of sight.

 How can that have happened and how to prevent it from happening?

Losing a MOB of sight is very easy if adequate measures are not taken by the skipper. If the MOB happens on a broad reach or downwind with the boat at speed, specially if the boat is going fast (and with 35k we can assume that was the case) it is not easy to stop the boat and the natural reaction of a crew is to help with the maneuver, turning the boat as fast as they can top the wind and lowering the sails, or reducing them. This is what all will try to do if no specific orders are given otherwise and having all doing that is a massive
mistake. With the boat changing direction to take the wind out of the sails the relative position of the MOB towards the boat changes drastically and if someone takes the eyes out of the MOB, even for some short moments, it is very difficult then to know where to look to find him again and easy to get him lost.

The specific order that should be given by a skipper to a crew member, even if the crew is a small one, is that he shouldn't do anything other than to keep his eyes on the MOB and have, at all times, his arm stretched pointing to him. This will allow the crew, without asking anything, to turn the boat around on that direction and should prevent the loss of the MOB.

Regarding the physical recovery of the MOB it seems they have sent another man, hold by an halyard  and then hoist both together with the help of the halyard? or each at a time? Anyway something only possible with a big crew, the very powerful winches of a big boat and several on the side helping pulling them up.

 Unfortunately, even when the MOB is not lost of sight, sometimes, even with him attached to the boat by a tether, there have been situations when the crew was unable to pull them back on board before drowning or being killed by hypothermia. On these cases and with a small crew, the best solution in a modern boat, with an open transom or a sugar scoop transom  to secure the mob with a line and bring it to the transom, lower the stairs and help him coming in eventually pulled by the topping lift line. Even if the mob is unconscious and someone has to go to the water to help, that is the best place to put him up since with modern high freeboards on the side, that's the place where it is possible to grab someone from the water. On many modern boats that have a swim platform that is even easier, provided that too many don't go over it and exceed its max load.

Here a test by Yachting Monthly on several devices designed to help in a MOB recovery:

More views on this subject are welcomed :-)


Hi Paulo - I have been involved in two MOB recoveries in my racing career. Both occurred during spinnaker jibes, the first in the Juan de Fuca Strait, between Washington State and British Columbia, during the Swiftsure Race, the second in San Francisco Bay, immediately after the finish of a crewed Farralon Islands Race. In both cases, the boat was moving downwind very fast, and a significant gap opened up between the boat and the MOB during the time it took to drop the spinnaker, turn the boat, clear lines from the water, and start the engine. 

Fortunately, there was a dedicated person keeping their eyes on the MOB both times. However, I would say it easily took more than 30-45 minutes to recover the MOB both times; in the Juan de Fuca Strait incident, the MOB was already hypothermic and could not climb aboard the open transom on the swim ladder. Three crew had to pull him aboard by his PFD harness as he had already given up making an effort on his own. The situation was made even more dangerous in that the MOB's PFD had already auto-inflated during a very rough and wet upwind leg, so he had no floatation when he went in the water.

 In the second case, on SF Bay, the MOB tore a knee ligament when she hit a stanchion as a running back stay loaded up and tossed her overboard during the jibe. Fortunately, her PFD did inflate and the water temperature was not as cold. With 20+ knots against a strong ebb current, conditions were too rough for several smaller boats nearby to retrieve her, so she had to wait for us to motor back to her position and retrieve her over the transom. Both of these situations involved big boats (40ft and 52ft) with full crews.

 I have to confess that after these experiences I became very nervous racing offshore for a few years. As a bowman, I often found myself in risky situations - during spinnaker peels, going up the rig, head sail changes, etc., - when the boat would be surfing downwind at 14-16 knots or pounding upwind in big breeze and waves. Sometimes, hanging out at the end of the spinnaker pole or hanging from a halyard changing spinnaker sheets after a peel, it would flash through my mind that if I went in the water, the boat would travel several miles before it could be turned around, during which time I would be floating in a very cold Northern Pacific ocean, a tiny speck amid white caps and big waves. That was in 2008-2009, at which point I shifted my activities to smaller sport boats and dinghies.
 Since then, I've gotten over that period of anxiety, and am eager to go offshore again. But the whole MOB thing still makes me somewhat reluctant to take my wife or anyone else lacking in experience and a certain degree of physical fitness.

I realize, as a cruising sailor, one tends to be much more conservative and take far fewer risks than racing sailors do, whether crewed or solo. And I suspect that even when I start cruising, I'll probably tend to take more risks than I should. A lot to think about, for sure.

Great Post Pelicano, and again your experience is valuable. Regarding mine, in about 30000Nm cruising I only had two MOB and none of them was a problem. The first one was in the early 80's were I was not greatly concerned about that. A navy Sargent that took a ride on my traditional boat found out that it bounced a lot more than his Navy ship and went overboard. I think he had also drunk a bit  too much red wine at lunch. I don't remember very well except that it was fun and it was not dangerous except for the Sargent dignity. I managed to turn around quickly and pick him without even using the engine. To be truth to put that engine working it was not an easy or quick operation and the boat had only 7m even if it was an heavy one.

The second one was not a MOB but s WOB :-) and involved a 18 years friend of my daughter, some years back, in winter. I was motor-sailing with weak wind and happily it turned out to be just a funny accident. She did not panicked, we exchanged some jokes to show her that we were not worried and when I turned the boat around she asked if she could swim a bit more since the water was not so cold. That girl had some flair, she is an air hostess now.

So, as you can see no bad experiences and not too worried about that. Me and my wife are very careful about staying on the boat and use tethers in bad weather. If she goes overboard probably I will manage to get her in, if I go overboard with the boat sailing she will probably not be able to fish me out. I just accept that and act has if I was sailing solo.

Racing with the boat going very fast it is just a lot more dificult to stop the boat and turn around. The distance to the MOB will be much greater and a good look out is needed not to losing him from sight.
Probably you know this movie that it is a classic. Great crew and great recovery since it was the skipper that went overboard, but I don't see nobody with the eyes fixed on the MOB while they are maneuvering.

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