The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

The Cockpit Is NOT As Safe As It Feels

It’s well worth reading the excellent report from US Sailing on the tragic crew overboard (COB) death in the 2022 Bermuda race.

Lots of good analysis and some great recommendations.

That said, the biggest takeaway for me is that the cockpit of a sailboat at sea can provide an illusory sense of safety.

The fact is that even with:

…the wind in the low to mid 20s, with some higher gusts…

US Sailing Report

a wave can near-broach the boat and wash a person right out and over the lifelines, as happened in this case.

…this wave washed Colin over the top of the leeward lifelines and into the water…

US Sailing Report

Phyllis and I have always tethered in the cockpit, even in much more benign conditions than that.

In fact, our rule is to be tethered, even in the cockpit, any time we are sailing in swell, which is pretty much any time out of sheltered waters.

Reading this report was a good reminder for us to stick with that policy.

Much more on COB prevention.

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Alastair Currie

That story is indeed tragic.
So many barriers were not in place or were not good enough for the intent: lifejacket, harness/safety line, recovery sling, recovery method. Two hours to get the person back on board suggests significant failures of competency through lack of preparation or practice. ISO Lifejackets are mandatory on my boat, I supply them all, and all life jackets are fitted with Life Savers. See link below, I also bought the whole kit. The life saver is attached to the lifting strop and tucked into the lifejacket and deploys when L/j inflates. Once stopped alongside, to windward, I use the boat hook to grab the lifesaver and secure to boat, then attach to the lifting device. It is fastest and easiest method of recovering a POB I have come across. And the best thing, it requires no assistance from the POB. I swear by them as vital safety equipment. No association except as a customer.

So sad, a preventable death.

Rob Gill

Hi John,

That was my reaction too. Crew acted admirably and performed most credibly. The extension tether, whilst a good idea in theory may be just annoying in a real rescue situation, wrapping itself around the POB. Or worse, getting dragged under the boat to wrap around the propellor when manoeuvring in close for pick up – which is just too scary to contemplate.

When we did our offshore safety course there was much discussion about the ways to recover a POB who had been in the water for some time. The importance of lifting the POB horizontally was one key focus, to avoid the very real risk of POB heart failure. This can occur as the blood rushes to their legs (under gravity) when being lifted vertically, and away from vital organs where has been sustaining the POB’s life.

I see the Life Saver recovery kit has a sling to lasso the POB’s legs, and place under their knees for the lift. But I just can’t see any way this could be achieved in even benign offshore conditions, even if the POB was conscious and assisting with their own rescue.

Eric Klem

Hi John and Rob,

I think it is interesting to note that pretty much all vessels above a certain tonnage that is not overly big rely on a small rescue boat like a RIB and basically nothing else. The idea is simply to be low enough to the water that you can just claw the POB back aboard and also have a small enough boat that it isn’t out of synch with the person in the waves. I have done drills many times with this system and while it is challenging, it is a brute force and relatively straight forward approach that works provided that it is not too rough and the rescue craft is reasonable. Contrast it with trying to pull someone up over the rail of a boat with a few feet of freeboard and that is almost hopeless as the rescuers are lying on their stomachs trying to lift with their arms as opposed to standing up and using their whole body and sliding the victim. Most of the professional rescue services try to do something similar with a boarding area midships right at water level setup for 2 strong people to manhandle the POB back aboard.

Live bait really scares me too. I have no personal experience with it with a POB but have used it in whitewater and there are a lot of not very nice failure modes.


Rob Gill

Hi Eric,

Yes, that’s an interesting development (having RIBs), since I was at sea in big ships as trainee and then navigating officer.

We have over 1 metre freeboard when upright, so retrieval amidships is a real issue. It was very interesting the crew in the report ruled out a midships retrieval.

We considered using the top third of our in-boom furling mainsail as a parbuckle, out under the leeward lifelines with main halyard attached. Then rolling the POB up the hull side. I don’t envisage this working in more than 15 knots TWS. AND no way our First Mate could or would be able to execute this alone, so we have pretty much ruled out any midships retrieval.

We carry our 2.4 m RIB on our sugar scoop on passages (after much consideration, including good input from this site). It provides protection to our aft cockpit from following seas, and is attached securely but in such a way that the cockpit can drain easily and release any wave strike from ahead or side.

Our rescue process is first to launch the Dan Buoy with its integrated lifebuoy and AIS transmitter, and then use the RIB on the end of its long painter as a rescue sling, to lasso the POB.

We can put a rescue diver in a wetsuit in the RIB to assist, or the dinghy has a hoisting strop running from bow to stern that sinks in the water at step height to allow a POB to self rescue into the RIB, and then transfer from there.

If we are short handed, and the POB has been in the water too long to self-help, we let the dinghy go with a sea anchor and use our actual rescue sling to bring the POB to the stern. Once the POB is lassoed and buckled into the rescue sling, we have them secure.

Then we grab a specially prepared bunk squab which is 2.2 metres long and around 900 mm wide, with a strong and wide webbing strap, sewn along three sides which we rig in the stern entry port to create a ramp running over the sugar scoop and into the water (like an aeroplane exit slide). The strap has generous webbing handholds sewn into the bottom and sides.

We then take the rescue retrieval line to our electric halyard winch and wind the POB in, and on to the ramp, then up into the cockpit through entry port, protected from injury and being dragged under the counter by the squab.

We have practised using the dinghy and the sling to bring a POB to the stern, but not with the squab to date (first mate won’t let me immerse it in sea water as its “day job” is in the guest cabin). Any thoughts, or critique welcome.


Rob Gill

Hi John,

When I was at sea as a navigator, we were aware of a cadet who fell overboard from a ship nearing the Caribbean Islands – don’t have all the details sorry, this was over 40 years ago.

He was recovered more than a day and a half later, alive and with no life jacket. And later a colleague told me that the search was almost abandoned, when he, also a young cadet at the time, and keeping lookout watch-on-watch on top of the bridge house of another ship, spotted something in the distance through his binoculars. The sea state at the time I believe was “slight”.

The point being that along with life jackets and sea state, sea temperature is a key factor and where we sail in Auckland and Northland NZ and across to the Pacific Islands / Australia, we can consider self-help rescues as realistic possibilities. But where you sail John, or further South in NZ, it’s quite different.

I’m with you on rescue dinghy difficulties, and even this short exchange has been useful in reinforcing the need in bigger waves to go straight to the ramp, and not risk failed dinghy rescue attempts where the POB could get exhausted and cold.

Keen to have your considered thoughts on our recuse ramp concept if and when you have time John. Perhaps even a feature that could be designed in to the A40 from the start for very little cost?

For completeness, our lasso and retrieve method relies on the Lifesling which is kept on our pushpit ready to launch, but still relies on the POB being able to secure themselves in to the lifebelt.

If there is interest, I will take a photo of the ramp in place (with the foot in the dinghy). Who knows, I could even persuade our First Mate to allow a test in waves to report.

Ngā mihi, Rob.

Rob Gill

Hi John,

I think being short handed, the rescue ramp would take less time to retrieval, and I also believe the ramp / horizontal rescue to be easier to execute, with overall less risks when compared with a halyard / vertical lift:

  1. Vertical lift in sling triggering serious medical events, especially for 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 short-handed
  4. Same as Risk 3. causing drowning

I timed rigging our rescue ramp on my own and took some photos as promised. Unfortunately, the “add photo” feature seems to be turned off for this post.

Shall I email them to AAC or can you toggle on the “add photo” in comments for this post?


Eric Klem

Hi John and Rob,

Interesting thoughts. I am with you guys that launching a RIB would be very challenging for a shorthanded couple. Even with a full crew, it would be challenging on cruising size boats I think as finding a way to store the RIB that allows it to be quickly deployed and having skilled enough crew would be tough. If just daysailing, then it might well be a good technique when there are a sufficient number of capable crew.

The rescue slide is an interesting concept, I had never heard of anyone trying it before. It seems to me that it could solve for 2 things: protected the POB from being bashed against the boat and lowering the pull angle to lower the force. Rob, is this a commercial product or something you have custom made?

Whenever I think about this, I keep coming back to just wanting to be able to clip a harness on the person directly and lift from that. The lifesling seems to me to suffer from the person wanting to lift their arms. Having tried one just for experimentation, I kept wanting to try to hang onto the line and not keep my arms down. Rescue swimmers tightly wrap their legs around the persons upper body when lifting with a sling and I believe it is just for this reason. In gaming this out in my head with a worn out victim, I have sometime wondered whether trying to tie their arms down would make sense but then I realize how hard that would be, it would probably be better to tie around each wrist and lift from there even though they would have significant local injuries from it. I have never heard of a lifejacket crotch strap being marketed as allowing lifting but if this were the case, it would seem that clipping directly to the harness with the halyard would be by far the best way. Of course, then you would have to get hooked to it but with a responsive victim, that is probably just as easy as putting on a lifesling. This obviously doesn’t solve the person not wearing a harness problem.


Rob Gill

Hi Eric,

This was designed by me and made by our first mate using webbing and sailmaker’s thread.

It utilises one of our very firm and long guest cabin squabs as the ramp and sewing a webbing strap around the perimeter to secure the ramp in place.

I posted details and pictures in the AAC POB Prevention Book here: Rescue Ramp photos.

Mitchell Allen

I agree, and read and re-read the report.
The crew seems to have done extremely well under those conditions. I am amazed too, that they were able to recover him at all.
It’s a very sad and sobering report. My thoughts go out to the crew and family. I’m sure they still suffer the after effects.
And, I hope that I never have to encounter such an event.
This reinforces the safe practices we sail with, but I know we can do better.

Mitchell Allen
sv Sonata,
San Francisco Bay