Mike Baron, U.S. Coast Guard Boating Safety Division
In 2011, there were 359 recorded accidents involving a “person in the water” (PIW) or a man overboard (MOB) — an extremely dangerous situation for rescuers and the individual in the water. Knowing what to do and when are essential to maximizing safety and survival.
Raise the Alarm and Keep the Person in Sight
The first person to notice someone overboard should point to the individual, shout “Man overboard!” (followed by “port side” or “starboard side”) and then keep pointing until the person is rescued.
If there is a marine GPS on board, hit the MOB button, which will help you maneuver back to the point of loss. If you’re close enough, throw a buoyant object toward the swimmer to help mark the position and help him stay afloat. But it’s vital that someone keep spotting and pointing at the individual, who may move or be swept to another location.
Contact the Coast Guard, If Appropriate
If the situation could be life threatening, and especially if you lose sight of the person, call for help immediately using your marine VHF radio. Announce “mayday” three times, followed by “man overboard” and give your location, boat description and a description of the victim. Do this three times. You can always make contact again if the rescue is successful and the person is uninjured.
Take Action in the Proper Order: Reach, Throw, Row and Go
Ensure that as you return to the person, the stern and propeller are away from him — keep the victim inside the turning radius of the boat. Never back up to return to the person overboard.
If the person is alert and within an arm’s length, REACH for the victim and pull him toward the boat. After making sure you are wearing a life jacket and have secure footing, extend a pole, paddle, shirt or other object toward the swimmer. If you must use your arm, lie prone on the deck and hang on to a strong point with your other arm — and have another passenger hold your belt or legs, if possible.
If you’re too far to reach the person, THROW something buoyant for him to hold on to, even if he’s wearing a life jacket. It could be a cushion, an extra life jacket or even an empty cooler — anything that could be a location marker and provide extra support for the person in need of retrieval.
If the person is too distant for a throw, ROW — or maneuver — the vessel to him. Always approach the individual from the boat operator’s side, so the MOB remains in view. As you get close, turn off the engine to avoid a propeller strike, toss a buoyant object and help him back aboard.
Only as a last resort should someone GO to a person in the water. If the MOB is unconscious, injured or unable to get aboard without help, and a strong swimmer — ideally someone trained in water rescue — can assist, then a water rescue may be attempted. The rescuer must wear a life jacket and take another buoyant object to keep between himself and the person in the water.
Getting Back on Board
Bringing the person aboard via a boarding ladder, the swim platform or the lowest point on the boat is preferable. On many boats, the best way to retrieve a person is with a good boarding ladder. It should stand off the hull for toe clearance (unlike a rope ladder), and it should be strong, easy to place, firmly attached, long enough for a victim to climb easily and have good handgrips.
To help bring the person aboard, use a lifting strap, a rope with a large loop that can go under the MOB’s arms or two people placing a hand under the MOB’s armpits who can carefully pull him aboard.
Seek medical attention if necessary. The individual may have unseen injuries, may have taken in water or could have hypothermia, confusion and loss of energy.
Practice Makes Perfect
Create a drill and practice it. Doing so will help people remember the steps and ensure they know where flotation devices and emergency equipment are stowed. Try to keep the drill realistic by using a heavy/awkward object in the water, so potential rescuers understand the difficulty of pulling a person aboard. Also, ensure passengers know how to use communication and safety equipment, in case the operator goes overboard.