Members' Online Book: Person Overboard Prevention, Chapter 1 of 14

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 person overboard (POB).  For the short-handed crew, that time could be better spent:

Short-handed POB Recovery is an Illusion

In my opinion, for the two-person crew offshore, no matter how well equipped and drilled, the chances of recovery of a person overboard are not great, even in the best of conditions. And once the wind gets up they become slim indeed.

Just think about the ideal voyaging conditions for a moment: Twenty knots of wind on the quarter; big trade wind sea running; boom guyed out with a preventer; jib goose winged on the pole. And you are asleep below.

Even if you have an automated MOB alarm, as we do, and so know the moment the watch stander hits the water, what do you think the real chances of recovery are by the time you get on deck and get the boat turned around? Remember those guyed-out sails?

Even if by some miracle you locate a bobbing head in all those waves, perhaps with the assistance of one of the new AIS-based beacons, what about actually getting the POB back aboard?

You know all those great short-handed recovery practice videos you see? What do they have in common? Relatively smooth water without significant swell, that’s what. And swell will make every step of the process many times harder or even impossible.

But wait, it gets worse. In all likelihood the POB situation is not going to happen in the conditions I sketched out above. No, it’s going to happen just after the vane gear lost it and jibed the boat all standing…with a thunderstorm bearing down from aft…in the dark. Now how do you fancy your chances of a successful recovery?

This is why I always tell my crew in every POB briefing to “imagine that there is a 500-foot cliff on the other side of those lifelines”.

You Should Still Practice Recovery

Don’t get me wrong, I think every voyaging crew should have the gear and procedures in place to recover a person overboard. (We have both a Jon Buoy and a LifeSling, as well as a recovery tackle.) After all, you can still have a POB situation in smooth water inshore and, in that case, having the right recovery gear and knowing how to use it can save a life.


But what really matters to the short-handed crew offshore is making as sure as humanly possible that the POB situation never happens in the first place—we need prevention, not cure. That’s what this Online Book is about.

Book Chapter Navigation:

The Risks of Falling Overboard at Sea >>

Please Share

Meet the Author


John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

30 comments … add one
  • Henrik Johnsen Feb 12, 2013, 10:21 am

    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 Feb 12, 2013, 1:07 pm

    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 Feb 12, 2013, 2:17 pm

    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.

    • John Feb 13, 2013, 2:19 pm

      Hi Marc,

      Great comment, full of good wisdom, thank you. I find your story about being saved by the tether when you were least expecting trouble—very telling.

  • Jacques Landry Feb 12, 2013, 11:30 pm

    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 !?

  • Chris Feb 13, 2013, 1:27 pm

    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.

    • John Feb 13, 2013, 2:17 pm

      Hi Chris,

      So true about the dangers of cold water. Although there is one piece of good news on that front: Latest research, based on real experiments, shows that you can survive and remain functional for 30 minutes in freezing water, as long as you don’t suck water into your lungs during the first shock from immersion—this new data was a big surprise to me.

      • Chris Feb 13, 2013, 2:35 pm

        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 Feb 13, 2013, 7:12 pm

        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 Feb 13, 2013, 2:02 pm

    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.

    • John Feb 13, 2013, 2:14 pm

      Dave, your a hard man…and a realistic one.

    • David Engdal Mar 31, 2013, 2:58 pm

      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.—timme-i-vattnen-utanfor-laso,c440870

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

  • Christopher Feb 13, 2013, 7:33 pm

    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 Feb 13, 2013, 9:55 pm

      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.

  • John Feb 14, 2013, 10:48 am

    Hi All,

    Wow, really great and thought provoking comments that have given me some great ideas for adding to this series. Therefore I am deliberately not engaging on some of the issues raised, but this does not indicate any lack of interest or agreement.

  • Nicolas Kats Feb 14, 2013, 1:07 pm

    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 Feb 14, 2013, 3:37 pm

    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 Feb 14, 2013, 3:58 pm

    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 Feb 18, 2013, 2:30 pm

    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 Feb 18, 2013, 3:22 pm

      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 Apr 25, 2013, 8:10 pm

      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.

  • GUILLOT Jean-Claude May 19, 2013, 4:16 am

    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

    • John May 19, 2013, 7:50 am


      Very interesting comment. I think that you are right that the combination of always leaving a track enabled on your plotter and having an AIS transponder significantly increases the chances of recovery.

      Do you wear lifejackets? I ask because a good life jacket would significantly increase the chances of the POB being able to stay alive until recovered.

  • GUILLOT Jean-Claude May 19, 2013, 6:18 pm

    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

  • JT Mar 29, 2014, 12:31 pm

    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?

    • John Mar 29, 2014, 4:14 pm

      Hi JT,

      I think that’s a very interesting idea. The big problem I see is that the harness attachment point is not anywhere near strong enough. The site says 750 pounds which is about 20% of what testing has shown to be the required strength for an offshore sailing harness.

      Having said that, if the company could be persuaded to fix that, I think you might be on to something. The point being that there more I learn about the existing harnesses and lifejackets we use in the offshore sailing world, the more I believe that we have a lot of improving to do and that we should look to other sports and learn.

  • JT Mar 29, 2014, 5:58 pm

    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.

    • John Apr 1, 2014, 9:07 am

      Hi JT,

      I did do a quick calculation on the forces generated by someone being dragged and, if memory serves, they came out about 700 pounds, and that for the static load not taking into account impact loads as the person hits the water. On the bright side, I assumed being dragged front first, which would generate higher loads than being dragged by the back.

      Still, all in all, the attachment points on that white water harness just look way too light to me and I have learned over the years that in the absence of really good data my gut feelings about such things are often fairly accurate.

      My other worry is the simple practicality of managing a tether attached to the back in a place almost impossible to reach, particularly with our system of multiple tethers.

      I liked the look of a jacket mentioned earlier in this Online Book that uses a front attachment point that then transfers the load to the back of the shoulders when someone hits the water, might be the best solution, although I have not heard much about it lately.

  • Ed Finn Oct 9, 2014, 9:53 pm

    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%

    • John Oct 10, 2014, 8:12 am

      Hi Ed,

      A sad, but probably very true assessment.

Only logged in members may comment: