This is Captain Paul Foer “From the Foerpeak” with Part Three of my three-part series on Conducting Person Overboard Drills or Person in Water (PIW).
In parts one and two we discussed the importance of drills and practicing for rescuing a person in the water. We covered locating, procedures, and approaching the victim. Now we turn to how to get that person back onboard. The first thing to know is that if is never easy even in those ideal conditions we discussed earlier. If the victim is strong, uninjured, a good swimmer and the water is calm and warm, and there is a boarding platform or ladder, it might be fairly easy. Otherwise, despite one’s best efforts to approach the victim, it may be difficult if not impossible to get the person back onboard.
Certain devices such as the “Lifesling” (this is not and endorsement) specifically designed to get a PIW back on board have become popular in recent decades. Get one. Install it properly it. Learn how to use it. Inspect it regularly. Keep in mind that many such devices use polypropylene line because it floats, but it can be slippery, hard to tie and hard to throw. It also degrades rapidly in sunlight and when that happens after being unattended, it can even cause splinters in your hand or break apart.
Of course ladders and swim platforms are great so if you don’t have one—get one. Check it regularly, especially those that fold into a swim platform by collapsing. They may require lubrication. Make sure everyone practices using it and can get back on. These are crucial safety features. Have you ever tried to lift a person out of the water and up to a boat? It ain’t easy—not even for strong and young, professional crews. In addition to devices mentioned above, sailors can always improvise with a halyard and a harness, even a makeshift one perhaps, or they can lower the jib, make sort of a hammock out of it and drag it into the water, but care must always be taken. All kinds of things such as a rope ladder can be improvised but again, when used improperly, items such as a boom or a boat hook can cause further injury.
Don’t send someone else into the water unless it is absolutely necessary to aid the PIW. If you must, make sure that person has plenty of flotation, is tethered to the boat, won’t get pulled into the boat or propeller and is strong and knows what he may be up against. Again, performing drills, training and inspecting equipment are must-dos. When seconds count and you are in an extreme situation such as having to rescue a PIW, remain clam. Don’t panic as this will only lead to more complications.
Other boaters or perhaps the Coast Guard or marine police may eventually come to your assistance. Except for possibly getting banged by the boat, having a PIW next to and attached to the boat, even if you can’t get him onboard, is better than having the PIW floating or trying to stay afloat further away from the boat. Only the conditions and your experience and judgment can determine exactly how to handle this but if I have not said it enough already, nothing will substitute for some good training.
A word about tethers and harnesses is on order. If the PIW is uninjured, he can adjust or even remove his harness and/or pfd if necessary. In an extreme situation, a tangled mess holding the PIW to the boat or other object could be dangerous if not deadly. In weird situations, the supposed lifesaving value of a pfd could become a deathtrap. If a person’s hands are cold or injured, he may not be able to free himself or even cut himself free. There are many types of shackles and fittings, but I believe that a snap shackle with a pull cord is best and safest. Some may disagree I know, but I am thinking of rare and extreme situations.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of training the crew to spot the PIW, alert the crew, throw over flotation and then maneuver the boat safely and quickly to get back to the person. Practice. Practice. Practice. Everything else is commentary.