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A way to get aboard from the water

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What is the issue?
Falling overboard and being out in open water is one of the greatest risks to life aboard a yacht. In almost all sailing fatalities the boat survives the incident - a well-tuned autopilot will continue on its course even if we fall off the boat.

Why address this?
Every sailor must have a plan for re-boarding the boat when solo. It's a pretty general requirement for a very important task but varies widely as each boat has its own unique characteristics and varying conditions when the person went overboard.

For safety reasons, and even in leisure circumstances such as swimming, a convenient means of re-boarding from the water is important. But it is all too easy to forget to put a swimbladder down and having permanent means of getting aboard a yacht from the water is a recommended safety measure. The 2006 movie Open Water 2: Adrift, above, more than illustrates the problem when a group of friends fail to lower the ladder of a yacht with a high freeboard in benign circumstances.

How to address this?
Crew based MOB systems are well detailed but the problem is most acute with solo sailors or even cruising couples when one is down below off watch and most likely asleep. It is imperative that the boat is examined to ensure there is an effective man overboard and recovery system that is foolproof. Develop a system that will work perfectly in the hope that you will never have to use it.

The Golden Rule to all overboard recovery systems is a tether, and 'to be always connected while outside of the cabin'. However, it is important to think beyond the tether and how to get back into the boat from the lifelines. Two areas that are problematic are often that the tether is not long enough to get to the stern and the tether needs a way to get past the shrouds and stanchions. Some suggestions to overcome these is to:

  • 1. Run jack lines down the port & starboard deck.

  • 2. Run a second jack line from the bow to stern along the outside of the boat.

  • 3. Carry an extra tether at all times.

  • 4. Carry a knife at all times.

  • 5. Have rope steps trailing from each side of the stern or a swim ladder.

  • 6. Carry a knife at all times.

  • 7. Drag a line from the swim ladder.

The second set of lines is a precaution in the event that you fall over on the high or windward side.
The tragic drowning of the skipper of the Reflex 38 Lion, 15 miles south of Selsey Bill in 2011, proved that having a single lifeline is not enough. He was wearing a lifejacket and he was clipped on with a tether, or safety, line – but when he went overboard from the foredeck on a dark night he had passed by the time the crew could recover him.

The worst side to go over is up near the front of the boat on the windward side as it has the highest freeboard and there is no way that you could reach the rail to pull yourself up. If you fell off near the bow, your lanyard cannot slide on the deck jack line past the stays or the stanchions. At this point, the strategy would be to grab your secondary tether and clip it onto your second jack line that is hanging along the outside of the boat. Then cut the primary tether with your knife. Only then can you slide freely back to the transom where the ladders are located.

Even in benign circumstances, it is virtually impossible for a swimmer to climb aboard many yachts. The topsides are too high and afford little or no purchase as the movie Open Water 2: Adrift presented. For the solo sailor who falls overboard, even in the calmest of environments, this could result in a deadly situation.

Stern mounted rudder stocks can be altered to provide boarding steps
Photo: CC0

A useful approach is to always have something in place that would enable a person to come back on board. All boats are different but could be adapted to enable some sort of structure to be set permanently in place. For instance, a vessel with a stern mounted rudder stock, often already lightened by cut-outs, could be adapted to provide reboarding steps.

A boarding ladder on a stern mounted rudder stock
Photo: Tony Gibson

Likewise, the self-steering Windvane that most cruising vessels carry, could provide the necessary handholds, or be adapted to enable someone to reboard in an emergency.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession.

Solo Man Overboard Drill

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