The Risks of Falling Overboard at Sea

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In the last chapter I wrote about why Phyllis and I are more focused on not falling overboard in the first place than recovery. Now we need to look at the actual risks.

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 25 years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 20 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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Marc Dacey

Risk in our culture is poorly understood, to which I attribute increasingly poorly conveyed math skills (we now have 45 year old teachers who were raised with nothing but “new math”) and a focus on disasters in news and entertainment. We see the results of the hurricane or the passenger jet crash and do not consider all the years the town wasn’t blown down, and the thousands of hours the plane continued to fly.

People get into cars every day, perhaps even mulling over how crazy Uncle John is to drag his missus to anchorages off some frosty Terra Incognita. Perhaps those people are killed on the highway. Uncle John sails on, bereaved but breathing.

It’s clear that we as a society have explicitly accepted that the perceived freedom of driving on highways (or in America, to have a 1:1 ratio of guns to people, I suppose) is worth the risk of owning such devices and accepting the physics involved. The difference from accepting the same sort (if not degree) of risk in sailing is that for a car crash or a gunshot wound, there is an extensive and usually prompt response from various rescue personnel, and doctors are, in fact, standing by. Throw in airbags and seatbelts, and it is much harder to die in a car than it used to be.

By contrast, the sailor is effectively alone. Short of developing methods of teleportation, there is no way to get from shore fast enough to prevent a drowning, and even reaching a boat in a timely fashion is dependent on nearby ships capable of diversion. As often as not, they find some debris and a small slick, and that’s if their was some sort of floating beacon. Even today, fully equipped sailors and their modern boats can disappear without a trace, leaving nothing but informed speculation.

Needless to say, this focuses the mind. It should encourage a sort of heightened safety awareness, like that possessed by the manager of a fireworks factory, I suppose. One is surrounded by minor hazards that must be recognized and managed, and occasionally practiced for (I’ve changed a seacock in the water…it’s a process with almost more drama than water, and there’s a fair bit of water).

So the key to managing risk is to have a proper context, I think. A boat can be made only as safe as the habits of mind of skipper and crew allow. Some boats are run in a relaxed, seamless fashion…and then you see loads of labels, and you are shown the part of the log with the schematic where all the safety gear is located, and the instructions for running the engine a child could follow. Crew members will be seen testing hatch closures or walking the deck at dawn looking for pins or fasteners that have worked loose in the night. There is a culture of risk management aboard. There is seamanship. That’s how I define it, not just as the ability to splice or knowing when to reef. It’s a bit more holistic than that, and it centers on risk reduction.

Other boats aren’t obviously unsafe, but there may be seen a series of minor malfunctions, clearly past-due gear, pre-emptive jury-rigging, or just too much rust or wear for comfort. There’s a lot of quite old boats still sailing on Lake Ontario, because freshwater is kind to fibreglass, but if I spot a 1970s gate valve below your waterline, for instance, or single, non-SS hose clamps in the head intake, I may elect not to crew with you. We know gate valves stick and were made of brass. We know non-SS clamps rust and fail and sink boats at dock. It’s 2013. Finding brass gate valves and hardware store single clamps has just told me that you manage risk, if even consciously, in a haphazard or slack fashion.

So another wrinkle is that risk management also has an element of psychology in it. Careless or underinformed sailors fail to drown or lose their boats every day, but when they do, it is not entirely unexpected. I could give you a list of people for whom a nautical misfortune would not be an entirely unexpected event…but then why should the sea be different from the land in that respect?

And there’s the secret, really: If you can recognize risk, and through thought, preparation, maintenance and simple prudence can manage it, you are probably safer alone in the high latitudes than you are in the waters off Miami on a holiday weekend, because you aren’t surrounded by people in heavy vessels who are not, or who are incapable of, managing risk.

Sailors can learn a lot from books on investing and gambling, by the way, or by hanging out with actuaries!

Marc Dacey

I am somewhat unusual in general, but in particular for a North American in that I neither drive nor own cars. Frankly, while sometimes inconvenient, it’s freed up a lot of money for boats and paying down mortgages. Anyway, I cycle everywhere, sometimes with bicycle cargo trailers to carry boat stuff. On my cycling vacations in the early ’90s B.B. (before boats), my wife and I saw dozens of those “black spots” in Ireland, places where either speed, boozing or the eccentric curves of Irish secondary roads had killed someone, usually a young person to judge by the “shrine photos”.

So when your only company are bergy bits, dozing whales and (perhaps) a stray, awash container, I would agree that your odds are substantially better than while leaving a harbour with a horde of tequila-augmented jetskiers. The risk assessment is improved off Labrador not because those things (bergs, boxes and baleen) aren’t themselves potentially dangerous, but because there are in some senses fewer variables or wild cards to account for.


When I consciously entered the work of risk, it had wings attached. Sails came just a few years later. Risk management was transferable (don’t like the “M” word, though). It was simplified for me by my instructors and leaders. It came down to, “persistently minimize your maximum regret.” We talked in terms of elimination, avoidance, and mitigation — think: dry up that wet spot; walk around the wet spot no one dried up; wear high traction foot gear when walking thorough wet spots to get the mop to dry them up.

In my experience, especially teaching young, immortal airmen to handle bombs and such, safety gear had to be divided into two categories — risk mitigation and emergency response. My team made a point with those young folks that the gear we required them to use to do their jobs was not “safety gear,” they were “doing the job right gear.” That distinction lowered the hormonal barrier to using the gear.

“Safety” was saved for fire extinguishers, etc.

In our minds, tethers are not safety gear, they are doing the job right gear — and, yes, for now, we get to define “right.” And for us a tether that allows one to get into the water while attached to the boat, is not a tether, it’s a towing warp and you’re the trawl door.

Wilson Fitt

Hi John

I always wear a harness and tether at sea but only rarely when day sailing along shore. Apparently my muddled mind has concluded the risk is different in these two situations even though the only MOB incident of which I have direct knowledge (thankfully, not personal) happened on a sunny summer day in protected water and could very easily have ended in tragedy.

Risk, as we all know has at least two dimensions: the likelihood of an adverse incident and the nature of its consequences.

The likelihood of falling overboard is small assuming you have decent nonskid, adequate stantions and lifelines and convenient handholds. I have never come very close and only once can I remember fetching up against the end of the tether. Tethers slow you down and are sometimes a confounded nuisance but I think, by forcing the wearer into slower and more deliberate movements, they reduce risk in and of themselves.

The consequences of falling overboard when offshore are catastrophic. Death is highly likely even if you are still attached to the boat and approaches certainty if you become separated from the boat.

A few years ago my wife and I participated in a “survival at sea” course. The classroom portion was an informative if predictable overview of hazards and precautions including a discussion the various MOB recovery strategies. Then came the fun part.

We jumped into the pool wearing normal summer sailing apparel: relatively light clothing, oilskin pants and jackets, sailing boots and a lifejacket. After bobbing around for a minute or so, the course instructors turned down the lights, turned on the wave machine and started up a big fan complete with sound effects. We all managed to stabilize ourselves with backs to the waves but not before swallowing a fair amount of water. Once our confidence had been thoroughly shaken we were directed to try some basic recovery exercises. Climbing up a scramble net was nearly impossible even for those of us who thought we were pretty fit. The trick was to start slowly and let the water drain out of your clothing, but even then what remained in clothing, boots and pockets seemed to double your weight. A life raft was inflated in the pool and we tried to scramble in. Everyone was getting tired by then so the scramble was difficult verging on impossible without someone already inside to haul you up. Being inside the covered raft in choppy waves resulted in near seasickness for a couple of us after only a couple of minutes. The only realtively easy exercise was a simulated helicopter lift in the course of which we were harnessed up by a “rescue” assistant.

We were told that the water temperature in the pool was about 19 degrees celsius. After a half hour everyone was borderline hypothermic, perhaps aggravated by stress verging on fear even in that relatively controlled environment.

This experience made a single deep impression on me. DON’T FALL IN THE WATER!


Had a little problem with too mutch wind and to big a sail a few years back when I helped my little brother out of a thight spot and had to fight for myself afterward.
But as you say, Wilson and John, it really helps to keep the prioritys stright.
And as I have to admit to beeing somewhat of an adrenalin junky, I’m happy that there are this places where you can expirience things like this in a more or less safe envyronment. A way to satisfay that nagging “could I do it?” in the back of the brain without endangering anybody. I’ll keep trying it out in mind, thank you!

Marc Dacey

It might be cost-prohibitive to suggest that everyone intending to go offshore get thrown into a 19 C wave pool, but that sounds like one of more profoundly educational experiences I could imagine undergoing. Very persuasive on the “stay aboard” front.

John McIntosh


My sister and several others drowned when the racing yacht they were delivering back to NZ after a race to Fiji hit a rock in storm just north of Whangaroa Harbour. They were all tethered on to “Lionheart” and were wearing lifejackets. The tethers had only one spring clip at the end of the tether The yacht sank so quickly the Coroner found one of the reason for death is that the lifejacket pulled them up and they didn’t have the strength, or knowledge to pull down on their tether to release the clip. I can go in to greater detail, but this is a brief summary.

So I believe that you have one or the other, a lifejacket or a tether


For reasons not relevant to this topic, we are moving from sail to power. The boat we hope to purchase is magnificently well designed (from a sailor’s eye) and equipped, save for one key aspect. With the exception of life vests there is virtually no consideration of equipment (to borrow the concept the first poster above) to keep the crew on board. There are no D-rings, no MOB recovery equipment, and as I think about it, no lifelines around the ample )and quite exposed) aft cockpit. And, this design known as Down East is routinely used commercially offshore — Grand Banks, Hudson Canyon — with no consideration of proper equipment to stay aboard particularly given the large aft cockpit with very low sides and transom. Needless to say, we will be making a number of changes to mitigate the obvious risk points. Designers and builders of sailboats automatically take staying aboard into consideration (to varying degrees) but this consideration is completely absent in power boats (with the possible exception of trawler designs). I could ask why but that would lead to a self-perpetuating loop discussion.

David Nutt

Our lives are surrounded by risks real and imagined. When younger I never wore a harness all the while blissfully confident that I could hang on by one hand or another either aloft or on deck. Age and the accompanying waning muscles and maybe even experience have shown the successful folly of youth. Today as we develop plans for another trip to the arctic we are spending more time talking about minimizing controllable risks than worrying about the issues beyond our control. The risk is real but so is the risk of driving a car, eating bacon, all the while knowing that not one of us are going to make it beyond our time alive.


I’m climbing for a long time now (around two dekades) and I have found that I have reched a limit. I have trouble to get better because I’m unable to completly trust the gear my life is depending on if I fall.
Every few years there is an accident and someone dies because of gear failure.

Saifety and protection gear can make it safer, can help you if you missjudge or something unexpected happens. But it never ever should become normal practis to use it. Not for me. It is, and at least in the case of thether and lifejacked, should always be the second line of defence.

I’m not an experienced sailor with thousands of miles under my belt. But I have spent a faire part of my free time in the mountains.
The crucial point about risks is for me that you recognice them, and decide how to handle them. Not just live with them and don’t waste a thought about them. Too many people seem to do that, and I’m still hoping that I’m wrong with that impression.


“That is unless you sail on Morgan’s Cloud, in which case you will have to play by our rules.”

Where do I sign up to sail on Morgan’s Cloud?


This dialog is an example of just how thoughtful and wonderful this website really is. I am a relative novice to offshore sailing endeavors as compared to the myriad of “old salts” represented here. A goodly portion of my professional life has been about managing the risk of taking other people’s children into remote wilderness environments and mindfully taking risks with them, so the above dialog is one near and dear to my heart. Reading many aligned, but not identical, perspectives on managing risk gives me confidence in the integrity of the dialog and authors. I appreciate the perspectives from pilots, doctors, climbers, sailors, and others.

Two more cents for the above: “Safe” in the dictionary is defined as “free from harm” and so the only way to be truly safe from the risks associated with a given activity is to not engage in the activity – and thereby lose all the potential benefits. I have had dozens of conversations with concerned parents about our “un-safe” programming where we mindfully choose which risks to take (the ones with real benefits) and about how we strive to manage those risks. It is common in the wilderness risk management world to simplify, and define, risk as the severity of an undesirable outcome times the likelihood of an undesirable outcome.

So to manage the risk of driving to the trailhead we drive the speed limit (decrease the likelihood of an accident) and require everyone to wear their seatbelt (decrease the severity in the event of an incident). Climbers do the same using an automatic belay device (decrease likelihood) and still wearing a helmet (decreasing severity). Standing watch significantly decreases the likelihood of an undesirable outcome aboard but all the same we might choose to have a stout hull just in case. So goes the task of managing the risks we face.

What is artfully reflected in the above comments is that even if one forgoes “safety” type thinking in exchange for “managing risk” we still have a more primal task – the task of choosing what risk to assume and which to wholly avoid. For this task awareness is key; what are the potential risks? Donald Rumsfield famously noted the concept of “unknown unknowns”, the risks we don’t even know to manage. This is the area where sharing experiences (all those great stories of the unexpected, this website, etc.) is so helpful.

I heartily agree with the above commentary challenging the “common wisdom” on what is and isn’t risky. There is a huge difference between real and perceived risk. For intuitional top rope climbing the accident rate in on the magnitude of 1 injury per 2,000 participant days… scary until you consider cheerleading at 1 per 1,000, youth soccer at 4 per 1,000, and youth football at 12 injuries per 1,000 games under the Friday night lights.

Thank you to John, Phyllis, and all the comment authors for sharing as it really does help the rest of us be a bit more mindful about choosing risks, a bit smarter about how best to decrease the odds of an undesirable outcome (stay tethered to the boat), and how best to prepare and respond in the event that the awful happens anyway…


I’d like to recommend an appropriate book indirectly related to this subject. Dr. Gawande (author) is a surgeon at one of Boston’s most famous hospitals. And while the intent of the book was directed at minimizing errors in the operating room, the techniques he described are applicable to almost any scenario related to minimizing risk.
The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right [Paperback]
Atul Gawande (Author)

Wilson Fitt

If I can be so bold as to chime in again, our instructor at the survival at sea course that I refer to above said that in an emergency situation 20% of people can be expected to freeze or panic, 60% will be shocked into passivity but will be capable of taking directions, and 20% will be capable of taking positive action and therefore will become the leaders. His objective was to move each of us up the scale by one step. If we would have been inclined to panic, he wanted to make us capable of taking direction; and if we would have been inclined to passivity, he wanted to equip us to make decisions and help others.

Like everyone else I know that I am made of stern stuff, am brave and strong and have tremendous leadership potential. But even though I have been in a tight spot once or twice, I have never been put to the test in a real emergency, don’t know where I fit in the scale, and sincerely hope that I never have to find out.

I echo the recomemendation of Dr. Gawande’s books.

richard s.

my math has never been particularly good so maybe you can clarify the logic behind risk calculations such as if the risk of taking an injurious fall in the shower is 1000 to 1 then isn’t it always 1000 to 1 even with shower 10,000 with nary a slip down ? thanks

richard s.
tampa bay
s/v lakota

Dick Stevenson

Dear All, Gawande’s work is excellent, in part because he espouses systems so that one is not required to assess risk on an immediate basis. People’s capacity for realistic assessment of risk, especially in the heat of the moment, is questionable. A recent and very sobering assessment of our biases (in this and other arenas) is Daniel Kahnmen’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”. It is a superb book in many other ways as well.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
Ps. I would give a page/chapter citation to Kahnman’s book, except that I now realize that the boon to onboard libraries, Kindle, has the down side of making leafing through to find something impossible. Dick

Marc Dacey

Ah, I wouldn’t worry about it, John. You have far more sea miles than most of us, with a large proportion of them in places entirely bereft of sundowners with colourful paper umbrellas. Your own views are valuable in that context and in the context of the impressive amount of work that has gone before.

Besides, what are your readers going to do? Go to Sailnet and read the latest “what’s the best boat to take around the world”? newbie thread…again?

Not bloody likely. I’m not sure where I am on the seamanship stairway, but such questions no longer interest me. Here, on the other hand, I’ve been inspired by the exchanges of ideas to finish long-dormant draft posts on my own blog, which is keeping me sane during the gales and ice rain of February.

Richard William Lord

I can’t claim to be a “true, blue water sailor” as everyone writing and commenting.. But, I also go “offshore” and have found myself stopping and waiting to “follow the suns path across the sky” to find my way home, back to the dock.. I own neither VHF, GPS or cell phone.. I just head out the pass, look for diving birds and bait pods exploding..

Many times, I’ve found myself chasing gamefish out of sight of land.. If I see baitpods “going off” and birds diving, I keep going, much like the nextdoor neighbors miniture greyhound chasing the rubber ball, in total disregard of any oncoming traffic..

More times than I can count, I’ve had offshore fishermen of 23, 28, 33+ in length pull up, slow down and shout, “Hey, you o.k..?? Do you need any assistance..??.. “Yeah, I’m good..”, I’ll reply.. “Thanks for asking..” All of’em ask, “What tha H— are you doing out here..??”.. “Just fishin’, how bout you..?? You guys need any help..??” .. .. They all shake their heads, look at each other, then look at me like I need my head examined..

As I’m leaving the dock, idling down the canal on my way out, I always put on my life preserver.. It’s just habit.. I’ve had friends ask me, “What’s the point, if your little boat goes down out there, your “done”.. Man, your in the middle of the food chain.. Fish chase that bait, bigger fish chase them and really big fish are chasing them.. You sure you wanna “bob around, dangle and linger..??”

I guess they have a point.. Still, I just—put in on.. It makes me feel good.. Maybe cause I feel like I’m “Gearing up for Battle” or I’m just suppose to, or something.. .. .. I don’t know..

If I was to “go down”, I don’t suppose I’d have much of a chance.. No VHF, no cell phone.. But for what it’s worth, “I have nothing to fear but fear itself” and where there’s life, there’s always hope..

It also goes without saying that more than once I’ve also said to myself when far offshore and out of sight of land, “Fear not, for I am with thee always..”

Richard William Lord

Oh.. I might want to add, my “vessel” is a 1980, 14 foot aluminum MirroCraft “Deep Fisherman” with a 2010 Evinrude 30hp ETEC.. .. And 2, 7 foot oars..


Many months ago this website showed up on my radar, by accident if memory serves correctly. The author (s) and readers and comments that have been here have moved it to the top of my respected and trusted sources list, and the quality of discourse is second to none – I thank you for it. I also live in the high latitudes (not quite as high as John), sailing a 28′ mono in Casco Bay. In 18 months 2 days I intend to depart into retirement on a larger cat (sorry but joints and spouse contributed to that). I think, for those aboard, a tether and good PDF will be required when offshore. My intentions are not to sail in ways as challenging as many here do, but I want to be prepared just in case. I know of one case where none of this would have helped. When the guy came up for his watch, his wife’s tether was there as was her PFD (it was being worn earlier), but she was missing.
Keep up the excellent work everyone.

Nick Hallam

We should look at pilot boats: those tough, powerful, utterly seaworthy beasts of burden which deliver their (ditto) pilots in all kinds of weather. The pilot is undoubtedly wearing his life jacket, as his boat is right there to pick him up if he goes in the water, but the interesting thing for me is the position of the guard rails on the boat: of course they can’t be fitted along the gunwales, as first contact with cargo ship will wipe them off, but the point is that they still work just fine mounted inboard. I used to know one of the pilots for the Welsh port of Barry; this man was also a small-boat sailor, so he knew both sides of the argument, and said that he found the inboard guard rails better, as you could either hold them from outboard or treat them as a ‘cage’ to keep you on board if you were working nearer to the centreline.

Yachts already have inboard handrails, so we are talking about tether systems. To follow the ‘pilot-boat’ logic, we might have a track or rail running close to the centreline (oops – who put that mast there? Make that two tracks port & starboard), to which Safety-Conscious-Sailor can clip on using a SHORT tether. It ought to be possible to route the tracks so that you can reach all parts of the ship to work, but can at no point pass over the edge of the deck.

We have seen attempts at this before, including the proprietary system called Latchway (which became and may still be the standard kit for maintenance working on UK tall buildings), but you don’t see anything like it on sailing boats. Why not, I wonder? Latchway is darned clever, as the attachment device runs along a jack stay wire and can pass over any number of intermediate attachment points. Clever because wire and pad eyes are cheap and because more attachment-points equals less stress on the wire span when the load comes on. Genoa track with slider cars to attach the tether should work just as well and last the life of the boat, plus you could use pin-stops to REALLY keep you in place. I await a lengthy list of reasons why this wont work..

Lastly, quick-release of tether is not optional – it’s essential. I was attached (briefly, which is why I’m still here droning on…) to a sinking trimaran and only returned to the surface because I somehow tore the safety-harness off my body. The buoyancy of my survival-suit was much greater than my strength to pull myself down to the tether clip 6 feet away.


I completely agree with Nick Hallam’s comment “Lastly, quick-release of tether is not optional – it’s essential”
My understanding is the quick-release shackle connected to the safety harness is” designed” to open with a jerk on the release cord even if the tether is under great strain. The end connected to the boat has a Gibb type or carabiner type shackle for attaching the tether to the boat. My fear is depending on the load you may not be able to release in all cases. Having a knife / blade of some sort for an emergency release of the tether may also be in order. Any suggestions?

Marc Dacey

I rarely darken the door of West Marine, as I have all the anchor-themed plastic tumblers I need, but occasionally they have a decent sale on useful gear. They had a sheepsfoot serrated blade folding knife with a lanyard a couple of years back for a mere $9, and I got about four of them to hang on the D-ring of everyone’s PFD. While I also carry a better knife on a belt, and will go to a Spyderco or Boye non-corrosive knife for that spot before we hit salt water, having a sharp, disposably priced knife on the front of the PFD is to my mind a great idea. I tried it on a length of old seatbelt, which is roughly equivalent to webbing, and it cut through in a few strokes…same as with 1/2″ nylon braid. I think if you are being dragged and the quick release is somehow compromised, the teather itself should be considered expendable if you are otherwise in danger of drowning.

I also have had enough experiences where a knife was critical to safety, like having to cut the leach line of an old No. 1 that had snagged on my spreader when the wind jumped from 10 to 28 knots around a headland (yes, my fault, ultimately) that I think an extra one on the PFD makes a lot of sense. YMMV, of course. I keep a couple of cheap serrated bread knives stuck with magnets near the companionway (it’s a steel boat and it’s not near the compass!) for the same reason. They would make short work of even my biggest nylon rode if we had to cut and run in a hurry or I had to free someone’s purpling foot or finger from a strongly tensioned line…which I have seen on other boats.


Many years ago I read an article which the author titled “For Lack of Imagination”. It described how a sailor had been lost at sea and the author was saying how it could have been different if only they had used some imagination to see potential threats. That title, For Lack of Imagination, has stuck with me and forced me to think about what could happen when undertaking some task.

Marc Dacey

While there’s a fine line between seamanlike vigilance and rampant paranoia (or so people tell me), this reflects my experience. I did not break a bone until I was 36, when I slipped on ice and snapped three of them in my leg and ankle. Picture trying to punt a field goal with your own foot and ending up with a joint in the shape of a “Z” and you’ll get the image. The irony is that I was walking back to my own home from a tea party, of all things. Black ice, an Earl Grey-fuelled need to pump the bilge, and a pair of Florsheims in December were my undoing. Back in my roaring days, I was very careful on foot or (regretfully) bicycle tacking my way home on empty sidestreets and never once fell down. One might almost blame excessive sobriety!

Obviously, hazard is both relative and situational. Our knowledge of the relative danger of boats at sea and the situations in which such danger might likely manifest needs to be tempered (as it is with your “continuously tethered” system) with the anticipation that it is a random incidence of inattentiveness that is liable to bite one in the stern as muich as can the dramatic “overboard” or “falling off the masttop” propositions.

I’ve also noticed that there’s a subset of quite careful, safety-conscious boaters who seem to turn into clumsy disaster zones ashore…maybe it’s related to a lack of “land legs” or simply a needed relaxation of the mindfulness required aboard, but these are the sort of guys who end up slicing themselves in the workshop or walking into walls…stuff that they don’t do aboard.

Jean-François EEMAN

Dear John,
Again a serious and very good article. Again a lot of excellent feedback from which we can all learn.
About risk :
I believe that quite a lot of POB accidents do not happen in heavy or extreme conditions. On the contrary. In those conditions we all are
well aware of the risks and try to minimalize it.
We should not forget the risk is/can be permanent even in seemingly harmless situations :
One example which might sound silly: coming out of our bunk to go, sleepy, to the rear of the boat to pee overboard… Even on a quite crossing. Who has never done it ? I have…
According to the coast guards statistics the % of seaman (man of course, but not only counting sailors) found dead with their pants open or down means there is a real risk.
No need to get paranoid. Only a real need of a permanent awarennes.

Peter Passano

Jean-Francois makes a good point re the danger of relieving oneself while at sea in weather. Remember, however, that the USCG stats include the lake and river fishermen/hunters who go out in their 12 ft aluminum skiffs, consume a six pack or two of beer and then stand up to pee.
On my boat I carry a plastic hospital urinal in the cockpit so you can relieve yourself and then empty it overboard without leaving the cockpit. With this system we have pretty well eliminated the risk involved in this routine.



I’ve followed this series with some interest and whilst it is all good/common sense I thought I might recount the tale we told you last year. I won’t go into all the details as they’re not really relevant but for those who’s interest is piqued you can read it here:

We sail a Colin Archer lookalike. The bulwarks are 32cm (13″) high. We don’t have stanchions or guardrails but do have a line each side strung between main and mizzen shrouds which is 99cm(39″) above deck. This line didn’t, but does now, extend between the mizzen shrouds and it was though this gap I went. The reason we didn’t have a line on place was the sheerpole was bolted between them at a height of 137cm or 54″ and visually it presented a pretty solid barrier to going over the side. The accident: I went over with a backwards “somersault”and felt my back against the hull of the boat before momentum carried me over and off the boat. We rarely wear harnesses unless we feel conditions dictate and neither of us were wearing them on this occasion. Had I been wearing a harness this is what I believe may have happened. The harness would have been clipped to a web jackstay and would have been dangling vertically from my chest to the deck. As I went backwards over the side my legs would have straddled the harness (my legs were apart for balance) and I would have ended up trapped upside down, back against the hull, head under water with my legs pointing over the ocean. This didn’t happen but I did end up off the boat. Two pieces of luck were with me. I had been working with the mainsheet and still had it in my hand and I’m married to a very strong and determined woman.

I offer the tale NOT as proof one way or the other about harnesses. It is, if anything, a reminder that going to sea has its dangers and sometimes luck plays a part.

Daria Blackwell

We always ask newbies aboard Aleria what is the number 1 rule of sailing. After lots of interesting answers we tell them simply, “Stay on the boat.”

Alex and I sail short handed almost all the time. We wear our inflatable pfds with harnesses and crotch straps in any offshore or iffy coastal passage, which off the west coast of Ireland is almost always. We have a rule that we clip in before coming on deck. We have double clips on our harnesses so we can switch clip points without ever being disconnected. Agreeing to the rules means there is never a question about following them. It’s simply routine.

We don’t always require tethers in crowded and calm coastal waters, but we did know three sailors (2 racers, 1 cruiser) who lost their lives in NE coastal waters when swept off their boats by swinging booms. We agree that more emphasis on staying onboard should be dedicated in safety at sea seminars. In fact, there should be a safety at sea seminar for cruisers. All the ones I know about are geared for racers.

Michael Kornfeld

Hi John, What an interesting discussion thread from so many, on risk awareness and management. Daria’s comment … It’s simply routine. … Makes me reflect on 30 years in fixed and rotary wing aviation and now a passion in our older age, of sailing. Safety can often be harnessed by one word, especially when operating a complex or simple vessel: even when tired , even when our reflexes and thought processes are slowed by age, even in unexpected situations, even with less than brilliant skills – it is a word that has allowed me to be adventurous, a word that has kept my ageing best friend ag pilot who still flies under powerlines to chat with me. It is a word that might sound dull and being a bit lazy or just slack or “cockie” is its enemy, and we all know about it, but with it we can continue to open up new worlds… This word is : procedure – especially good procedure. Cheers. Michael

Dick Stevenson

Dear Daria,
Your comments about the boom sweeping crew off boats caught my attention. That scenario is particularly worrisome as that event is often accompanied by head (or other) injury, diminishing the POB’s capacity from being fully active in his/her own rescue. For short handed crews that is likely a recipe for a death. For me, the only thing more dangerous on a boat than a boom is poor judgment.
We have a system we have used for decades which allows the boom to be prevented at all times without real hassle. Ours does double duty as a boom vang and preventer together. In short, port & starboard there is a 4-1 block & tackle from mid-boom to a sturdy pad eye on the deck just abaft the chainplates and then lead to the cockpit where it is secured. The boom is always triangulated and stable and release is quick by throwing off one brake.
I have lately discovered that a variation of my solution has been written about by the Fleet Surgeon of the Cruising Club of America. If you already have a vang this is the way to go. The article is accessible on the front page of CCA’s web site. (Title = Permanently Installed Preventer Can Prevent Tragedy At Sea.) Those unsure or sceptical about the dangers booms hold for the unwary or unlucky, would do well to read his report. Not only does it contain instructions for his version of the preventer, but there is a sobering review of actual accidents.
I would be happy to write further about the installation of my boom vang/ preventer and details of operation if wished.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Marc Dacey

John, is there no love for an end-boom preventer that goes forward just to the rail aft of the chainplates? I understand what you are getting at, however.

Marc Dacey

Dick, I’ve been using this on my 33 footer for years and for the same reasons. I will upsize it and do the same on our steel cutter. On the 33 footer, we have mid-boom sheeting to the coachhouse top and no vang. I run preventers port and starboard from a boom bail down and forward to the toerail (loads are lighter on my shortish IOR boom), and then back thorough cam cleats to the cockpit. I can easily (and alone) tension both equally on a downwind run, slack off the mainsheet and then do a very controlled gybe while helming with my legs (you’ll have to picture it!). Then I haul in the new preventer, cinch the old and trim with the mainsheet. It only took a couple of “boom: head shots” before I figured this one out. My wife and kid, both shorter than me, can’t understand the fuss!

While I know the preferred method is to pull the boom forward by running preventers to block in the bow, I have not had problems with this method so far in up to 40 knots (when I would usually douse all but a storm jib or storm staysail), and it doesn’t require 80-100 feet of line per, nor does it create a tripping hazard, as only the slack tails are on deck.

Dick Stevenson

John, Good comments all and agreed. I described my “everyday” preventer/boom vang as that is when most accidents happen and we believe in being prevented most of the time. I have an “offshore” preventer (more awkward than I want for everyday use) which goes forward to the pointy end and back to the aft end of the boom where it attaches to a tail able to be reached even when the boom is way out.
You are good also to mention the boom’s strength. I did not give the details of our instalation in my short response, but, even with robust booms, it is good to figure a way to stay away from point loading by spreading out the load in some fashion. Helping with this isthat one of the design features of our mainsail is to raise the boom tip with subsequent reefs. So far (knock on wood) we have stayed well away from getting the boom tip near the water when running and rolling. Dick


Rule 36
Apologies I missed it but I would add – always assume the lifeline you are thinking about leaning on will break.

Simon Wirth

Hei Allan
Love that one. It’s a feeling I can’t get of, and I think it is a usefull one.
Regrads Simon

David B. Zaharik

Or the pelican clasp holding the line to the stanchion fails… as in my case (see previous article comment)

Michael Kornfeld

Still new to this website John and still learning what and where is appropriate in making a comment ? : Michael Kornfeld Feb 6, 2016, 12:50 pm
Hi John, What an interesting discussion thread from so many, on risk awareness and management. Daria’s comment … It’s simply routine. … Makes me reflect on 30 years in fixed and rotary wing aviation and now a passion in our older age, of sailing. Safety can often be harnessed by one word, especially when operating a complex or simple vessel: even when tired , even when our reflexes and thought processes are slowed by age, even in unexpected situations, even with less than brilliant skills – it is a word that has allowed me to be adventurous, a word that has kept my ageing best friend ag pilot who still flies under powerlines to chat with me. It is a word that might sound dull and being a bit lazy or just slack or “cockie” is its enemy, and we all know about it, but with it we can continue to open up new worlds… This word is : procedure – especially good procedure. Cheers. Michael

Michael Kornfeld

a questioning mind – absolutely agree John. just to make sure, are the changes you and Phyllis made to the jackline use : using a tether that does not allow you to reach the water, and with a quick release at the harness even when under tension? – is there a spot where you discuss what you do now? and also where you mentioned the debate with harness and life vest?

Rekka Bellum

On my last long offshore trip from Japan to PNW, a large wave leapt aboard from the stern and knocked my boat down. I was steering in the cockpit at the time, running with the waves, the weather had been rough and was starting to quiet, but even so…I was swept overboard. I didn’t see the wave. One minute I was steering, and the next all I could see was water as I was swept up.

I fell between the lifelines, but was wearing a tether and it was short enough that I wasn’t dragging too far in the water (just my bottom half), and my arms clung around the lower lifelines. Because I wasn’t too low, i was able to get back in without special gear, just with the help of my partner. The wave ripped the dodger right off.

Depending on the circumstances, a tether can aid or hurt you, it helped in my case… but it really depends (as some of the stories above can attest). This event doesn’t make me an absolute believer in tethers, or lifejackets. In fact, the inflated lifejacket — or lion’s mane, as I like to say — around my neck made it difficult to pull me through the lifelines. We should have been heaving to, maybe.

Ernest E Vogelsinger

Just out on CNN, a boater was thrown off his boat by a wave and miracuously survived:
This was a big motorboat, and he was obviously alone with his dog. The story shows that even on a motorboat you’re not automatically safe from the elements.

Rob Gill

When we did our Advanced Sea Survival training in 2017, there was much focus and discussion on the risks of vertical rescue lifts vs horizontal lifts after a number of reported issues down-under.

There are risks in any rescue, and not just to the POB. But after much thought, we were concerned about the many risks involved for an offshore, amidships recovery using a halyard and vertical lift on our 14.5 metre aft cockpit yacht, with relatively high freeboard amidships (> 1 metre):

  1. Vertical lift in sling triggering serious medical event for POB, especially for a hypothermic POB
  2. POB slipping from the sling in a vertical lift, especially if POB colliding with the hull and trying to fend off
  3. Crush injury if POB winched up next to violently rolling hull amidships, especially if short-handed, causing shock and further complications
  4. Same as Risk 3. causing drowning
  5. Low likelihood of success especially for our slight, much less confident, and less experienced first mate
  6. Danger for the rescuer trying to manage recovery from an open deck, in big seas.
  7. Centre line jack-lines restrict tether wearer movement on-deck, meaning either the rescuer can’t reach to assist the POB in the water or is tempted to unclip their own tether to help recovery (more danger for the skipper here I have to admit).

Since we would be double-handed for a number of passages, and considering the above we have discounted attempting a rescue of a POB using a halyard from amidships.

This lead to developing and rigging our own Rescue Ramp for deployment in our aft cockpit sloop. There are many benefits for us in a POB rescue situation, but being able to execute from the cockpit where the rescuers can remain safely tethered at all times is the biggest one.

John invited me to post some photos in this on-line book for comment and under “risks” seemed an appropriate place – but feel free to move this comment though.

Photo1. Shows our Rescue Ramp (one of two, split squabs in our guest cabin), with bedding pulled aside, ready to grab. Note the wide webbing strap sewn into the squab cover around three sides using sailmakers thread. It has two handholds in the foot to allow removal from its stowed position, and also for the POB to grab hold of in the water.

More photos to follow.

Rob Gill

Photo 2 shows our Rescue Ramp exiting the guest cabin. The squab is long ~ 2.1 metres. About 5 seconds elapsed time from entering the main cabin.

Rob Gill

Photo 3. Shows the Rescue Ramp being reversed out the companionway. Note the webbing strap along the sides with further handholds incorporated.

Rob Gill

Photo 4. Rescue Ramp projected out through the stern entry port, over our sugar scoop, and into the dinghy (for demo purposes to protect the squab from getting wet). This is a tight fit and stays in place well whilst straps secured. Elapsed time about 30 seconds.

Rob Gill

Photo 5. Secure webbing straps under the squab, to the entry port side handles, using double-braid Dyneema rope tails. Ready the Rescue Sling to go out through entry port with bitter-end to cockpit halyard winch and secured ion self-tailer. Elapsed time about 120 seconds, but almost certainly more in big waves.

Rob Gill

Hi John, thanks for the insight – really valuable to have this through your experienced offshore lens. The issues you raise are valid and not surprising in any way.

Some commentary then on the issues, hopefully without sounding defensive, but to give you our design thinking – we have put a lot of thought into this and have dry tested it as far as possible.

First a little background to the thinking: We have invested many months perfecting our jack-line and tether systems based on the AAC gold standard (which we have lots of faith in). We are ALWAYS tethered in offshore.

The likelihood then is we are coastal, and it is a crew member or the skipper overboard. The skipper will always have his life jacket on which is auto-inflating, and if there is more than 10 knots of breeze any crew on deck, will also have a lifejacket on and it will be inflated, if in the water.

Issue 1.
“…hauling a POB head first on their back toward the stern which will be plunging up and down”..

From what I have read here and in other publications, when a POB is pulled by a harness, they are dragged face forward. The Rescue Sling may pull them back first but a conscious POB should be able to turn to face the Rescue Ramp as they near, and if not, why is this?

Issue 2.
“…can’t see any mechanism that will keep the POB centred on the ramp…”

My photos didn’t show, but the retrieval line is lead through the round stainless legs of our cockpit table about 1.5 metres directly forward of the entry port, and then to the halyard winch, meaning the pull is straight over the centre of the ramp.

Issue 3.
“…over an amidships lift where at least the risk of head injury is lower since the POB is facing the dangers”.

Here we diverge in our thinking John, as I believe it is way less risky than attempting a midships vertical lift – for our crew and boat anyway. Here’s why:

If the POB is conscious and able to assist, the ramp has handholds at the bottom and along the sides and the POB can centre themselves. The squab is quite firm and testing with my 78 Kgs shows it is a straight and pretty horizontal pull. I believe they will be facing forward (see above).

If the recuser is single handed, with our cockpit lead halyards, an amidships vertical lift would be impossible for our first mate to execute and extremely hard for the skipper, so a very poor system to choose on our boat.

Using the AAC jack-line and tether system if the rescuer is amidships, they can’t reach over the lifelines to assist the POB for recovery whilst wearing their tether. So again a post choice of rescue system on our boat.

If the POB is unconscious, or too hypothermic to assist, then both retrievals are fraught, but a vertical lift risks death from heart failure and shock, as well as slipping from both their life jacket and Rescue Sling back into the sea with no life support and almost certain death.

Issue 4.
“…key problem that must be tested for in swell with a dummy (too dangerous with a real person) before I would feel comfortable with this method…”

Here we agree completely, ideally this needs testing in real conditions offshore, and we plan never to do so by always being tethered to the boat.

But I am planning to do a test inshore (and not in the marina), this season with my brother helping, who is a volunteer NZ Coastguard skipper (hopefully also with his coastguard boat standing by), and my niece who is a highly experienced surf life saver, and qualified paramedic.

Rob Gill

Photo 6. Push the Rescue Ramp hard down into the entry port, to allow horizontal winching of the POB up the ramp, when POB is secured in the Rescue Sling. By eye, the bottom of the ramp would be around 20-30 cm under the water but may lift at first with each wave. Once the open cell foam gets water logged, it should stay in the water and resist being blown up in the wind.
Total elapsed time for one person is around 120 -> 180 seconds.

Rob Gill

Next task is to convince our first mate that we should practise in waves for real, using the ramp when we don’t have guests aboard, and with a real POB. Any constructive feedback, positive or negative is welcome.