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What to Do If Someone Falls Overboard

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on March 9, 2021. In

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Boat safety is the most important priority any boat owner has. When someone goes overboard and ends up in the water, you need to act fast. The best bet is always to prevent a man overboard situation. But if that’s not an option, then knowing how to react quickly and calmly is key.

When a passenger or crew member is in the water, you may only have a limited time. If the water is cold, hypothermia is a risk. Not to mention fatalities from drowning. This is why it’s important that every passenger and crew member have a PFD or life jacket.

In 2019, the U.S. Coast Guard recorded 299 falls overboard. This led to 189 deaths including 148 from drowning. Those numbers paint a scary picture. A full 63% of people who go overboard do not survive. The odds are not in your favor, so you need to be ready.

Let’s take a look at what can lead to someone falling overboard. How you should react when you have a person in the water, and some ways to prevent a man overboard situation.

What To Do When a Passenger Falls in the Water

When you have a person in the water you need to keep calm. They may panic as well, so you need to keep a cool head. Follow these steps to get them to safety.

  • Your first job when someone goes overboard is to alert everyone. Yell “Man Overboard.” This allows everyone else on board to know you have an emergency. Any nearby boats may also be alerted. And it can help calm the person who has fallen overboard if they know you have seen them.
    • To make the situation more organized, ensure you alert crew members as to which side of the boat. Port side, starboard side, etc.
  • If the boat is in motion, stop immediately. With a powerboat, you do not want to risk a propeller injury. If you are in a sailboat, adjust the sails to slow down.
  • Use the MOB button right away. Not every boat has this, but it’s an important safety feature. MOB button stands for Man Overboard Button. This sets a GPS marker as soon as you hit it. It can help you navigate back to the location at which it was first pressed. Navigation in rough water can be hard if you don’t see the victim. The MOB button makes it easier. But you have to press it right away.
  • Hopefully, the person in the water has a lifejacket on already. If they do not, throw a PFD or lifejacket to them right away. A life ring or other flotation device is good for this.
  • If you have more crew on the boat, have them take on roles. Make sure someone is able to signal to other boaters. Let them know you have a person in the water. This way they may be able to either render assistance or avoid the area.
  • Turn the boat around and keep the victim in sight. You need to pull alongside the person.. Depending on which is stronger, against the current or downwind will work.
    • This requires caution and patience. Especially if your boat has a motor. You don’t want to put the victim in more danger. Propeller injuries account for some of the falling overboard fatalities.
    • Downwind is usually the safest option. This gives greater control. It allows the wind and waves to help bring you and the victim closer together.
    • Remember to turn the engine off again once you are close enough.
    • Always keep the victim in your line of sight. In rough waters this is especially important. They could go under or even be hit by the boat.
  • When you come alongside the victim, you need an aid. A heaving line thrown over the side of the boat, for instance.
  • Do not get in the water with the victim unless you have no other option. Anyone who joins the victim should be a skilled rescue swimmer. If you are not, you could make the situation worse.
  • Pull the victim back to the side of the boat. You should use an assistive device for this, like a boarding ladder. If your boat is too small for such devices, change approaches. Pull the victim on board over the stern to keep the boat balanced.
  • Be careful when pulling the victim in. You don’t want to end up in the reverse situation where they accidentally pull you into the water. Keep a low center of gravity.
  • If you are alone, have the victim take you firmly by the wrists as you take their wrists. Pull them smoothly and forcefully from the water if you are able to physically do so.
  • If there is more than one person on the boat, work together. You and another crew member can each take one of the victim’s wrists.
  • Unconscious victims will require the use of a sling. If one is not available, pull them up from under the armpits.
  • If the victim was dressed, get them out of any wet clothes. This will prevent hypothermia. Hypothermia can set in even in water you think is warm.
  • If they are still conscious, give the victim a blanket or something to preserve body heat.
  • If the victim is unconscious, you may need to perform CPR. It is important that you know CPR if you are taking passengers out on a boat.
  • If the victim needs medical attention, use the VHF radio to call the U.S. Coast Guard for help.
  • Use the VHF radio if the situation is an emergency.
    • Get on Channel 16. This is the channel used for marine emergencies.
    • Call out “mayday” three times to alert authorities to an emergency
    • State you have a man overboard and provide details. Include GPS coordinates, description of the vessel, and a description of the victim
  • There are several situations where you may need to do this;
    • You are unable to quickly locate the person in the water.
    • The person went overboard in a storm
    • You have multiple victims in the water.
    • The boat was in an accident and is in danger of capsizing

What To Do If You Go Overboard

If you find yourself in the water for some reason, how you react could be the difference between life and death. Many fatalities at sea are a result of victims and boaters not knowing what to do.

  • Try to remain calm. One of the hardest part about falling off a watercraft is keeping calm under pressure.
  • In cold water you may experience cold shock. This is an unconscious reaction that causes you to gasp. You can breathe in water as a result. Try to cover your mouth with your hand to prevent this.
  • Stay visible. In rough water this is even more difficult. Wave your hands and make noise so the boater can see where you are.
  • Always were a life jacket. Life jackets serve two purposes. The flotation part will keep you above water. But the bright color is a visual signal. This helps others spot you in the water. If you are not wearing a life jacket, try to use something else. If you have any bright clothing on, keep it above water where it can be seen.
  • If you do have a life jacket on, you can pull your knees to your chest in cold water. This allows you to safely float while preserving body heat.
  • Remove bulky items. If you are wearing a sweater, bulky boots or other clothing, remove it. You may lose it to the sea, but the extra weight is dragging you down.
  • Stay in one place. Even if you are a good swimmer, your best bet is to stay put. Swimming drains your energy quickly. This is especially true in cold water. The boat may also have more trouble finding you if you start moving. Stay in one place and keep the attention of the boater. Depending on where and how you fell overboard, it could take time for the boat to get back to you. It’s best to float and conserve your energy until then.
  • Improvise a PFD. In a pinch you may be able to make a new flotation device for yourself. Depending on what you are wearing, you could trap air in your clothes. Jeans and other pants are good for this.
    • Tie off the legs and then fill them with air. Do this by lifting them out of the water and pulling them back in again, waist down to catch air. Hold the waist shut and the pants should balloon in your hands.
    • Some shirts may also work as flotation aids. Lift the bottom of your shirt out of the water and pull it back in, letting it balloon. Tuck the waist into your pants.

What Can Cause Someone to Fall Overboard

There are several factors that can contribute to a passenger falling overboard. Be on the lookout for these danger signs;

  • Excessive speed. Some speed boats are capable of very high speeds. If you’re travelling fast enough that balance is an issue, slow down.
  • Uneven seas. A passenger can easily end up in the water on rough seas. Be extra cautious when the water is rough.
  • Unsteady passengers. If you have a passenger with health conditions, pay close attention. Likewise, with passengers who are very old or very young. Anyone who has balance or strength issues may be at risk over going overboard.
  • Alcohol. Operating a boat while drinking is obviously dangerous. But being a crew member on a boat with alcohol can be just as dangerous. If people are drinking, make sure it stays within reason.
  • Unsafe conditions. A boat that is messy or has debris scattered on deck is a danger. A sailboat with loose lines and unsecured sails could lead to a man overboard situation.

How to Prevent People from Falling Overboard

The best way to deal with a man overboard situation is to void it entirely. Boating safety is much easier when you plan to avoid problems. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

  • Keep your deck clean at all times. Whether a sailboat or a vessel under power. Loose items on deck are a hazard. People can trip and they can interfere with the functioning of the vessel. Tie down what needs to be tied down. Stow what needs to be stowed.
  • Make sure everyone knows proper boarding procedures. Get on the boat one at a time.
  • Have a designated area for all passengers. Everyone should know where they can safely sit. On the bow or swim platforms are not safe places.
  • Use three points of contact. That means every passenger should have three parts of their body on the boat at all times. For instance, two feet and one hand.
  • Limit rocking as much as possible. Not everyone has sea legs.
  • Make sure everyone has a lifejacket and understands how to use floatation devices. We all know boaters who still refuse to use life jackets. They think they are uncomfortable or that they look stupid. Remember, 63% of people who went overboard that the Coast Guard responded to did not survive. These things save lives.
  • Anti-slip tape can help improve stability on deck.
  • Make sure all railings are secure and solid. If railings are loose and damaged, replace them right away.
  • Limit movement when the boat is in motion. If a boat hits a wave suddenly when someone is walking, they could be knocked overboard.
  • Use alcohol responsibly. When you’re inebriated, maintaining balance is harder. It’s also harder to remember the rules. And you may become less observant of hazards.
  • Always check weather reports before heading out. If it looks like a storm and rough seas, consider rescheduling.
  • Make sure everyone on board understands boating safety before heading out. No one needs to be an expert sailor, but cover the basics. Ensure everyone knows what’s safe to touch and what isn’t.
  • Use boat shoes. These shoes are designed to be comfortable and effective. They help maintain your footing on board of a boat. They grip the deck of a vessel better than something like sandals or normal running shoes.
  • Use safety harnesses. These are very effective devices, especially for new boaters. A safety harness keeps you securely tethered to a jack line. Set at the proper length, it is literally impossible to fall overboard.

The Bottom Line

Above all, use common sense. One of the biggest problems with people falling overboard is a lack of education. Many people get on a boat with no idea what they’re doing. Boating is meant to be fun, but it needs to be respected. Boating safety demands an understanding of how and why you need to do certain things. As a boat owner, it’s your responsibility to make sure your passengers know this.

Having fun in the sun is one thing. Having a few drinks and partying is OK, too. But it all needs to be done responsibly. The number of fatalities associated with people going overboard is no joke. But it can be prevented or avoided if everyone understands what to do.

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