What to do in a ‘Man Overboard’ Situation

 What to do in a ‘Man Overboard’ Situation

You may not think it, but a man overboard is one of the most common boating emergencies, and there are many reasons as to how it could happen. It could be through lack of experienc and not realising how slippy the deck can get, it could be due to a storm or it could even just be carelessness. Either way, somebody falling overboard can be deadly if they cannot be retrieved quick enough. It is hard enough trying to turn a small boat around, how much harder would it be for a cruise ship?

If the person that has fallen overboard is one of a group and everybody follows the correct procedures, it is much more likely that that person can be pulled back on board safely.

“Man Overboard”

The very first step for anybody that has seen the person fall overboard is to shout “Man Overboard”, along with the location (port = left, starboard = right.) Yell as loud as possible but never take your eyes off of the person in the water, not even for a split second. This shout will then be relayed by others on the boat until the captain hears, at which point he will shut down the engines or drop sail.

The spotter should remain the spotter until the man or woman is back on board. Other members of the crew can each take a job but the spotters job is to keep the victim in his sight.

Point the Victim Out

The spotter should not stop pointing at the victim in the water. It is incredibly tough to try and keep an eye on somebody in the water so this will give everybody else on board direction.

Floatation Device

If the person in the water is not wearing a personal flotation device, have somebody throw a flotation device into the water for the victim to swim to. If your boat is traveling at a high rate of speed, start throwing in anything that floats to leave a trail to the scene. Seat cushions, magazines, even your hat — anything visible that floats can work.

If you have a smaller or slow-moving boat, you may be able to coast to a stop and throw a lifeline to the victim, and the crisis is averted.

Turn Back

If the boat has gone too far past the victim, then you’ll need to turn back to pick him or her up. Generally, two types of turns are used to quickly return to a point of origin — the elliptical and the Williamson. The elliptical is an oval turn and results in an approach to the rear of the victim. After the vessel has some space from the victim, it turns hard on the same side that the incident occurred 180 degrees, straightens out and then performs a second 180 turn to circle around toward the victim. The Williamson turn may be a little quicker. For this one, make a hard turn immediately toward the same side the person went overboard and hold a straight line at 60 degrees from the victim. Then turn hard back the opposite way and circle around until you’re on a course heading straight toward the victim from the front. The Williamson takes the shape of a sideways teardrop, with the point of origin being the duct.

Once near the victim, the captain should approach slowly, and carefully.


Toss a lifeline with a loop into the water and have the victim hook the loop around their body under the armpits. Tow the person in slowly. If the boat is small, get two people to carefully lift the victim up into the boat by both arms with the victim’s back facing them.

There is a good chance that the water is cold so once aboard, you may find that the victim is suffering from one of the following cold-related illnesses:

Cold shock – Dropping into cold water can cause a quick gasp that lets water into your lungs.

Swimming failure – In cold water, you’ll lose dexterity in your limbs quickly and may not able to swim well. This makes it tough to keep your head above water.

Hypothermia – Hypothermia happens when your body loses more heat than it produces, and your core body temperature drops below 95 degrees. Symptoms of hypothermia include:

  • slurred speech
  • stiff joints
  • loss of coordination
  • slow pulse
  • uncontrollable shivering
  • loss of bladder control
  • puffy face
  • mental confusion

To combat hypothermia, the victim must be brought into a warmer environment immediately. Cover him or her with blankets, sleeping bags, jackets, or whatever warm items may be on board. Remove wet clothing and replace it with some dry duds. Keep him horizontal and calm — reassure him that he’s going to be fine. Huddle around and hug the victim to create warmth and then seek professional medical attention as soon as possible.

Here are some more man overboard tips:

  • Never jump into the water to rescue a victim unless you’re wearing a life vest and are tethered to the boat. If you jump in it means two sets of eyes are needed on board and you are potentially making the situation worse.
  • If the rescue is at night, light a white flare to illuminate the area.
  • Never back a boat up to a man overboard — the propeller can be deadly.

If You Go Overboard

Your only job, if in the water, is to stay alive and keep your head above the water. If you’re the man overboard, there are a few things you can do to help yourself in your bid to survive.

If possible, and you can react quick enough, cover your face and mouth with both hands to avoid cold shock when you are entering the water. If you aren’t wearing a personal flotation device, you’ll need to float or tread water. The best way to float is to recline flat on your back with your head above water. Arch your back, extend your arms to the side and let your legs float up in an extended position. This float will help you to conserve energy.

Another method that can save you even more energy is the survival-float, or dead man’s float. Here’s how to perform this method:

  • Take a large breath and then put your face in the water.
  • Relax the rest of your body and let it hang — the back of your head is the only part above the surface.
  • When you need a breath, pick up your head and exhale, moving your arms and legs just enough to keep afloat.
  • Breathe in deeply and repeat.

Only attempt to tread water if you’re certain you’ll be rescued very soon and you feel strong enough as it will use up a lot of energy. Use scissor kicks in a vertical position while waving your arms back and forth with your head above water. If you’re in cold water, pull your knees to your chest and hold them to help to retain heat. This is known as the H.E.L.P. — Heat Escape Lessoning Position.

Share Your Thoughts

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.