The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

We Should Focus On Staying Aboard, Not Recovery


Over the years I have attended a number of Safety at Sea Seminars, and even presented at a few. And I’m a great believer in their benefit for cruising couples, even though they are often associated with ocean races and focused on the safety requirements of that way of going to sea.

Having said that, these seminars spend a huge amount of time explaining the procedures for recovering a crew overboard (COB).  For the short-handed crew, that time could be better spent.

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Henrik Johnsen

I could not agree more.
It becomes more and more clear that the self deploying lifevests can have major drawbacks, unless one choose the very best ones, and always uses tigh straps. Are we about to swap safety for comfort?
I recommend to read the report of the investigation of a fatal MOB outside the coast of UK June 2011.

Dick Stevenson

Agree with above. We (almost always just the 2 of us) operate on the belief that if you fall overboard you are dead. This does not mean we do not do MOB drills and would not try hard to attempt the rescue, but the odds are just way against recovery. Staying attached to the boat is our first priority.
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Marc Dacey

Man, I always get in after that *other* s/v Alchemy guy…

While we too run “retrieve the hat/lifering” drills every season, the principle of “stay with the boat” is a very important point to stress. I too feel the one Safety at Sea seminar I attended did not stress enough. I’ve always equated a tether and harness with a seatbelt. It’s possible to be thrown clear in a car accident and end up with only scrapes, certainly, but it’s vanishingly rare. Why roll those dice with the clearly indifferent sea?

Even when you can be seen, and if you have a working PFD, you can still be drowned or injured (further) by waves, or by your co-skipper smacking you with a boat, or that nice, sharp prop, or through breaking an arm trying, fruitlessly, to get aboard. All the slings, AIS-SAR devices and Super Laser Pointers in the world reduce the adverse odds only slightly that you will be safely recovered…particularly if we are talking a single, perhaps smaller, crew left aboard and a high freeboard typical of modern cruisers.

On an Atlantic delivery in 2009 with steady, fairly strong night watch winds of about 25 knots apparent, I was tethered to the helm, but was laying athwartships on the cockpit cushions, admiring the stars. Out of nowhere (and no, I was not asleep!), we were hit with a brief “clear-air” squall that heeled the boat about 35 degrees over. The cushion I was on, with me atop it, slid rapidly down. My sandaled feet were splashed with foam. The tether stopped me from sliding right under the lifelines.

I’ve been religious on this point ever since and have written about the fallacy that safety gear will do a whole lot more than prolong the agony should you leave the boat beyond the range of SAR resources and/or in anything more than a calm seaway. Staying safe means staying aboard. Comfort is the least of one’s worries if you are watching the stern light move off at seven knots. To pretend otherwise is the triumph of hope over logic.

That said, sailing around Toronto’s waters in the summer, I rarely use a tether, but rarely fail to wear my PFD. It’s a different proposition in crowded waters and fair weather, in my view, but making my kid wear a vest all the time meant his parents “bought in” to “always wear a PFD” logic, even on calm days.

Jacques Landry

Right on John.

The only way to survive is to stay in/on the boat! Water out there is generally cold, and you will quickly have no strength or abilities to even grab something thrown at you.

I teach diving, and always starts an OW course by saying that “The only safe dive you will ever do, is the one you don’t”! Same with sailing, the only insurance to get back on board safely, is not to fall in the first place.

How many people died because they were tethered to the boat and drawn ? Very few, always in races, always in unstable boats. I have read all these stories, they don’t apply to us cruisers. So, for the rest of us, a tether is the best insurance.

Hope you’re getting back on your feet and will be ready for the coming season! Although you must be buried under snow in the Atlantic provinces !?


A good USCG friend, who is not longer with us, once opined that the principal benefit of life jackets of any stripe offshore was body recovery. For him, offshore was a flexible term. In the winter months it started at the dock.


Yep, John, but it’s really hard not to suck in after screaming “Oh, S**t” (insert language of choice and amplifying expletives as desired)

Marc Dacey

I would like to read that research on freezing water. I’ve seen scientists dipped into frosty tanks in the lab, but I think falling off into an icy ocean would evoke a stronger reaction.

Given the shock of such an event, remembering to hold your breath is a big “if”. I was at the toerail on a Catalina 47 during a docking, and I was unaware there was a midship line beneath my foot. I was flung directly off the boat, went down about eight feet (the C-47 has a five-foot freeboard) and was shot to the surface like a hairy dolphin when my PFD went off.

I think I may have swallowed something at some point during that brief period. It was early June in Toronto. Temperature in the water, 15-16 C. Still felt pretty freakin’ brisk.

Dave Benjamin

One of my acquaintances crewed for an experienced older captain who gathered his crew around the salon table prior to a crossing and asked them what they expected would happen in the event of a POB. A spirited discussion followed naturally. The old captain simply listened. After a while he said, “you’re all wrong, every one of you.”

The crew was shocked. How could it be that they all had it wrong?They had covered all of the procedures taught by the various sailing schools.

The captain explained that in the event someone fell overboard, that they would go below and gather around the table, pour a shot of rum, and drink a toast “to the unlucky (expletive deleted) who let himself fall overboard”. After the toast they would divide up his or her possessions.

David Engdal

Well, some are lucky, and are indeed saved.

The link below tells a story from 2009 about an event in my home waters (Sweden-Denmark), not so far from the coast (10-20 nm).
A one-armed (!) man fell over board between Sweden and Denmark a night in august. His 16 year old son who was the only person left onboard couldn´t find or get him back onboard, but sailed back towards Sweden to get coverage for his mobile phone. Hi finally did and then called the 112/JRCC. The father was later found (alive and awake) by a danish fishing vessel and picked up by a helicopter about 10 nm away and 5.5 hours after falling over board.

Moral: You should never give in. And you should wear a floating device of some kind.


Hmmm… I agree that the edge of the boat is most realistically considered to be a cliff at sea and especially so with cold water and/or some “weather”. That being the case automatically inflating harnesses might well increase risk at sea, as they subtly inspire one to take that one or two steps without being clipped in…. this would be an example of “risk homeostasis” or “risk compensation” where we settle on an acceptable margin of risk and then “consume” the added safety from a bit of gear/equipment. Trick is that our ability to evaluate the efficacy of higher tech/complexity solutions is limited and biased for most towards techy/fancy = better. I live in the mountains and work in and around avalanche terrain, and analogous type situation: Given that 1 out of 6 people caught in an avalanche are dead before it stops moving… the prudent course of action is to not be in one. Yet take a groups of experienced and trained back country skier and ask them to turn off their avalanche transceivers and their behavior absolutely changes… to more conservative decision making.

I had an interesting discussion with some USCG personnel re the non-use of life jackets for our children – when the boat is moving they are not allowed to use them as we feel they are unsafe. They have two choices, stay below deck (not even one foot in the cockpit) or in a harness and clipped to the boat. At anchor or at the dock they must use a life jacket or pass the swim test which is jump overboard and swim around the boat once in the waters in which we are traveling.

Marc Dacey

An interesting point of view, akin to my contention that seatbelts and airbags in cars do not just save lives of lawful drivers, they allow morons to speed without the former level of consequence.

Sure, I’m being a little facetious, but talk to a transplant surgeon: Involuntary donations are way down because bad drivers are just getting bruised, not killed. Strangely, use of a PFD without a harness could get you killed, and not bruised.

Nicolas Kats

Something is left out here – the boat herself.
A skittish horse is hard to stay on, but a steady reliable horse is easy.
Same with boats.
With boats trending towards lightness, there is increased heel, hypersensitivity to small waves, & greater speed.
Some of these boats require heroics to change the jib or even just to step forward on deck.
The safety mentality (MOB drills, EPIRB, PFDs permanently worn on deck, jacklines, liferafts etc) becomes disproportionately important on this sort of boat.
Falling overboard is far more of a concern than on old heavy designs (OK, big generalization!!).
My point is, boat design & characteristics probably are the one biggest factor in MOB incidents & concerns.

Dan Alonso

My life sling is Cat 1 sternrail decoration. My PFD lives in a lovely locker down bellow. My live tag raymarines auto MOB is most used when I’m towing my dinghie. I’ve been a long time advocate of “NOT GOING OVERBOARD”. 75% of my sailing is solo and offshore. When I was 16, My first solo trip from RI to Maine. Well off Cape Ann, I was not tied in and heading to the bow. I took a little stumble, not even close to going overboard but I sat there looking at the water. Crystal clear, this would have been death. I don’t believe in the accident of fall overboard. It’s a choice and it comes down to COMMITMENT and HONESTY about your actions. No one is coming for me. I live in my climing harness. I think the best restraint is the one you’ll wear. I look forward to your series.

Dan Alonso

Good point Nikolas. It made me realize the importance of our role to her to keep her stable and sure under foot through our observations and boat handling skills. I sail a Hallberg 49. As much as I appriciate her stability, running less canvas and responding early gives me a stable platform that greatly reduces the likelyhood of an event.

Richard Hudson

Great, thought provoking series, John.

I think the risk of falling overboard has a lot to do with the height of the lifelines relative to the height of the person. I’m tall and get quite concerned about falling overboard when on boats where the lifelines come up to not very far above my knees. Shorter people on the same boats feel much more confident about staying aboard.


Marc Dacey

I concur completely on lifeline height, although it’s just as easy to slip under one in some circumstances as it is to be (relatively) tall and to trip over the baby-gate heights currently installed as some kind of “go-fast” styling on modern cruisers.

One of my pet peeves, along with unsecurable sole hatch lids, unthrough-bolted backing plates (or their absence), and not enough handholds is the almost universal absence of 30-inch lifelines on boat-show offerings. If you are average male height of 5′ 10″, say, you will hit such a lifeline squarely with your backside or across the top of your pelvis…unpleasant, sure, but you are more likely to stay aboard with that six extra inches of “fence”.

Gene Gruender

Richard, we must think alike. I’ve had 2 boats we took to sea on, a Hunter 37 cutter and our Cheoy Lee 40 Midshipman. One of the things I did to prepare both of them was to make new lifeline stanchions a foot taller with one more wire. I viewed the originals as something to catch me at the knee and make me do a dive. If they are going to be there, they need to be worthwhile.

When we take off, we go a step farther. I take a line, and run it from the stern to a stay in the center of the boat, attached to a clamp on cleat, then to the bow. With that about 2 feet higher in the center at the stay and the higher lifelines it’s almost like a net around the boat.

We get comments on our lines. They go both ways. The people who think they are silly haven’t been on an offshore passages, the ones who like them have made passages.

Robert Chapman

I’m looking to get a boat and have been looking seriously at taller lifelines, or liferails rather than lifelines (1″ stainless steel tubing all the way around the boat at thigh-height). I have actually seen one or two either in-person or in advertisements: that would make me (an older sailor) much more confident of staying aboard.

GUILLOT Jean-Claude

Sailing as a limited crew (my wife and me, both around 70 years old) we know that one of us may fall overboard and his disparition may be found only 4 to 5 hours later. We have chosen the following procedures :
– our GPS plotter (Raymarine A70D) is allways run on TRACKS, START TRACK when we sail then STOP TRACK, ERASE TRACK after arrival. The remaining crew member knows (s)he would have to motor back during 4 to 5 hours on the recorded TRACK to try to recover the missing one ;
– the crew member on duty allways wears a personal AIS transmitter Kannad SafeLink R10, which might enlarge the search area by 4 nautical miles on each side of the track.
jcglt – S/Y BUAHINIA

GUILLOT Jean-Claude

Hi John,
Of course, we wear our lifejacket with integrated harness but we replace the standard safety tethers found in any shipchandler shop by lines with bowline knots on each end as I dislike these metal buckles hitting badly the deck everywhere and a bowline knot is so easy to tie and untie and has never failed…
Jean-Claude S/Y BAUHINIA


What do you think about using a swift water rescue PFD with integrated harness? I’ve started using one of these last year for the following reason:
– They are high flotation (17lbs)
– They are designed for mobility
– The tether attachment point is in the back of the PFD so you are less likely to be drowned if you are dragged
– It has a quick release so that you can detach if you are being dragged under
– In a fall you would tend to spin face-first which gives you more of a chance to catch yourself

The downsides are:
– They are relatively bulky and heavy
– They would be hot for warm-weather sailing

Here is the one I ended up with:

After reading multiple accounts of sailors being dragged and drowned I searched for a good solution and a swift water PFD seems to fit the bill.

However, when I look around I don’t see or hear of anyone else using this style of PFD. Am I missing something? I’m afraid I’m making a bad assumption somewhere, since they don’t seem to be in use by other sailors. Maybe the breaking strength (740lb) of the tether attachment points are too low?

What do you think?


Thanks for your thoughts. The 750lb test strength is what concerns me the most as well. As a rock climber, used to more dynamic safety systems, I feel like that may be mitigated by using higher stretch jacklines (running centerline on the boat) along with a dynamic tether. With some stretch in the system, I think you could (almost) guarantee forces less than 1000lbs. I’ve not done the calculations though, so I could be way off with my ‘intuitive’ take on the forces involved.

Ed Finn

I always wear my life jacket, so my wife will have something to bury, Its a ‘closure ‘ thing…
Probability of death if you fall overboard while sailing solo- 100%
Probability of death if you fall overboard whils sailing with crew 99.9%

David B. Zaharik

September 6, 2003, 5 miles north of Active Pass in British Columbia, almost in the middle of Georgia Strait at dusk, solo sailing, I fell off my boat into 14 C water. I was not wearing a lifejacket but rather polar fleece jacket, long johns, knee high rubber boots and I sank like a stone. So much so, that I could not stop the descent into the abyss until I had pulled my jacket off and kicked off the boots. By that time I did not know which way was up so let a little of the remaining air out of my lungs to figure out which way was up following my bubbles.

I was deep… I am guessing 30+ feet. I could not see the surface of the ocean but kicked and pulled with everything I had. I did not think I would make it to the surface without breathing in… I did and as I surfaced screaming I saw my boat Esperance sailing (motoring) off into the sunset at 7 knots.

My natural instinct kicked in and I sprinted front crawl for about 75 feet and stopped realizing that no one can swim 7 knots.

So there I was almost mid-strait in cold water with the sun setting.

I remember looking north toward Point Roberts USA and thinking, no way. Then turning in the water south toward Mayne Island and my heart sank. I knew where I was (37 minutes at 7.5 knots) and I knew the temperature of the water and I knew I was dead within 2 – 3 hours.

I used to be a competitive swimmer so I set off swimming front crawl. I also, thankfully spent years as a life guard and one of the skills I learned and practiced was making a floatation device out of my clothing. After a few minutes with my head in 14 degree water, I realized I wouldn’t last 30 minutes, so I pulled off my pants, tied knots in the legs and hoisted them over my head holding the waist opening like a wind sock. The air fills the pants and gives you about 15 minutes of floatation… repeat as necessary. (Yikes)

3 hours and 45 minutes later doing one arm breast stroke in the pitch black darkness of night I made it to Mayne Island. I have no idea how many times I filled my pants (sorry for the pun). However, once touching land I unfortunately I had to crawl 2 miles after climbing a cliff (which I fell off) to the nearest house/cabin. I was so hypothermic I could not walk.

Cut a long story short, I made it to a couples cabin at 1045 pm. I knocked on their door, scared the dickens out of them, and they set into motion the recuse that had already started. My boat played chicken with a super tanker who realized there was no one on board and sent a Mayday out on my behalf. I was watching the Canadian Coast Guard hovercraft search for me while I was swimming, never believing I was actually going to survive. In the darkness of the night I had no idea how near or far I was to land or if I was even moving. I just swam with the lights of Vancouver at my back knowing that if I could stay conscious I would eventually hit land.

I passed out two times, coming to as I sank and breathed in water. The third time I was descending into tunnel vision and I knew my body and brain was shutting down. It was then I separated the connective tissue in my left calf that joins to the achilles tendon and the pain was so intense, blood pressure rose enough to keep me conscious. (So goes the doctors medical theory anyway).

I lived (just in case you were wondering).

Moral of the story. I would have had a hard time even with a life jacket… hypothermia doesn’t care if you are wearing one. Stay on board. Tethers are the only thing that will keep you onboard. The comments about lifelines are understandable but it was a pelican clasp that was not locked properly that caused the fall. Simply put… tether yourself to the boat with a tether short enough to not allow you to even hit the water.

Marc Dacey

Having been kept on board by a tether during an Atlantic knockdown, I didn’t need convincing, but thanks for the appalling if ultimately successful story of survival. Once, I fell off a boat in water about 12C and went 15 feet to the bottom (luckily, in a basin). Like you, I found it was very hard not to breathe water, it was such a shock to the body. Thanks for sharing this.

Ronnie Ricca

Have you thought of doing an article on MOB throwable gear like a Dan buoy of sorts, strobes, etc.? What works, had held up and what is the deal?

I have read the book many times and it’s great! About to order the gear for our tethers and jack lines in the next month. Have a merry Christmas!


Ronnie Ricca

What has held up cruising and what is the real deal?*

Never mind, I found it.