EVERY NOW AND THEN someone falls overboard. What happens after that — whether they’ll live or die — depends on a lot of different circumstances, including the time of day or night, the state of the sea, whether or not their disappearance was noticed, the temperature of the water, the number of crew available for rescue, what the victim was wearing in the way of safety gear, and so on.
Every episode of a person overboard is so different from every other episode that
impossible to drew up a fixed set of actions to deal with the situation. Clearly, the crew remaining on board will have to make a lot of spur-of-the-moment decisions, and just as clearly, there will be a lot of luck involved in a successful rescue.
Nevertheless, there is a basic crew-overboard procedure that can be applied and adapted as necessary, and one of its chief functions might well be to avoid the panic and inefficiency that quickly assumes lethal proportions when there is no coherent emergency plan with which everyone on board is familiar.
So here’s a 10-point plan that could form the basis of a crew-overboard procedure. It should be learned by every member of the crew. I realize that that is a tall order, because not many sailors will bother. Nevertheless, the skipper should insist that everyone under his command at least becomes familiar with it. There’s little point in printing it out and handing copies to people when an emergency occurs because usually there won’t be time or opportunity to study it, but at least crewmembers who have read it in advance will recognize the steps being taken and perhaps use their own initiative when the skipper is too busy to give individual orders to everyone. It is, after, a list of common-sense moves. This is how it goes:
1. Shout “Crew overboard!” to alert the crew.
2. Throw overboard horseshoe lifebuoys and anything else in the cockpit likely to provide flotation or mark the spot. Heave a Lifesling buoy overboard.
3. Detail someone to point at the person in the water and keep pointing, no matter what.
4. Press the button on your GPS that saves your present position and allows you to track back to it.
5. Note your compass course, then turn the boat on a reciprocal course as quickly as possible. It is very important not to stray too far from the victim.
6. Approach the victim cautiously from leeward and be prepared to cut power to avoid propeller injuries.
7. In one end of a suitable line, tie a bowline to slip over the victim’s head and shoulders. This will probably not be needed if you use a Lifesling and the victim is correctly attached.
8. Haul the victim up out of the water any way you can — into a dinghy, onto the deck, or into the cockpit, with a halyard, block and tackle, or sheer muscle power. On a calm day, you might be able to lower the mainsail into the water and roll the victim aboard in the bunt.
9. Treat the victim as necessary for water inhalation, shock, hypothermia, or heart failure.
10. Radio for medical advice or broadcast a Mayday call if warranted.
Who can hope to be safe? who sufficiently cautious?
Guard himself as he may, every moment’s an ambush.
— Horace, Odes
“Would you prefer red wine or white, sir?”
“Shucks, it makes no difference to me young feller, I’m color blind.”
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