Practicing Person Overboard Drills on a Sailboat (or any boat…) Part One

How to approach the PIW

Assuming you’ve located and thrown floatation aids to the PIW, how do you approach the person? How do you get him or her back onboard?

First of all, observe what is around you in terms of depth, channels, other vessels or land. Where is the wind taking you and the PIW? Where can you go or not go? If depth is the issue and the person is not injured, he or she may be able to stand with his or her head above water. That would be nice but not likely because most of the time, you’re operating in water where you can’t stand, but you may be operating near water where the PIW stand. Where would that be?  So where is the wind or current taking the PIW and where you can or can’t or should or should not be are concerns. Some may tell you to approach from downwind and that might work in some cases, and may be necessary if the person is unconscious or injured so as to keep the PIW from hitting the boat, but in general, I’d say coming from upwind is best.

I have a page from a reprint I found in an old file, possibly from a Navy Manual but it says “Generally, the victim should be taken aboard midships on the leeward side. This will keep the victim away from the propellers, give the victim some protection from waves and ensure that the vessel will not be blown out of reach.”

 An old circular from The Commander, US Coast Guard Activities, Baltimore on “Man overboard procedures” reads “A common concern of placing the vessel upwind of the PIW (person in water) is that your recovery station may be on the opposite side of your vessel. The advantages of being upwind far outweigh any disadvantages. It allows your vessel to drift down onto the PIW instead of drifting away from him. Should your vessel become disabled at this point (throttle cable breaks, line gets caught in the screw etc.) the wind will push you towards the PIW.”

Can anyone definitely say which side is best? On a windy day, you may not be able to approach from downwind. Again it depends on the boat and conditions, but the advantage of an upwind approach is simply that your boat can shield the wind (and maybe the waves as well) by creating a lee for the PIW.  For sailors in particular, going up or downwind may be determined by your point of sail when the PIW fell. If the goal is to get to the person quickly, then tack or gybe to turn toward them without considering what’s up or down. And while under sail, it is often best to remain under sail and not use the engine. In such a rushed situation a loose sheet may foul the prop and then you are in a real mess and will not be able to rush back to shore under power if needed after effecting the rescue—or a crewmember will have to go overboard on purpose to possibly unfoul the line.

Again—this is where practice counts. Of course it’s only a simulation but practicing stopping and turning quickly under power or sail and approaching a floating object is essential. If you are a sailor, how often do you gybe?  How quickly can you do it in fifteen knots of wind without causing another and perhaps worse situation than having someone overboard? An uncontrolled gybe without proper warning to the crew could make the situation deadly. So again, one has to take into account the environmental conditions, the crew’s abilities and the boat’s handling.  Assuming you have approached the PIW and he or she is capable of swimming and getting onboard without help or with little help, your problem is solved. But if the person is injured or weak or unable to climb on board due to his own condition or lack of a ladder or swim platform, what do you do? And as I have said in Part One of this series, nothing beats practice and drills to make a real emergency situation more manageable and successful.This is Captain Paul Foer “From the Foerpeak”. Please be sure to read Part Three of this series “From the Foerpeak” at