As we get back to boating after a seasonal layup, we often take stock of safety items and inventory them to ensure we’re properly equipped and legal and refresh any items with expiration dates. While having serviced, operable equipment is important should a safety issue arise, do we give the same time and attention to the boat handling skills needed to effect an overboard rescue? I’m sure that most responsible boaters have this on their minds, but thinking about something versus practicing it are two different things, and sometimes making the time to practice is hard considering all of the factors which compete for our precious time on the water.
Cold Lake Temps
Water temperatures on the Great Lakes at this writing are averaging in the mid-to-low 40-degree mark. In certain northern locations, it’s much colder as ice can still linger for several more weeks. This means that any crew overboard situation can be grave in a short amount of time. In these temperatures, hypothermia begins in minutes, and without treatment, death can occur in 1-3 hours. Therefore, it is crucial that measures be taken to keep everyone aboard and properly equipped for the conditions. Accidents happen though, so what do we do if someone ends up in the water? Regardless of how many people are aboard, or how the boat is propelled, there are some decisive actions that can be taken to improve the chances of getting crew back aboard quickly so aid can be administered.
Steps to Recovery
Think of any recovery operation as a series of steps: locate the victim, or their last known position if you don’t have visibility, return to that position through maneuvering, and deploy rescue aids. Assuming you are in daylight conditions with decent visibility, one person aboard should keep visual contact with the overboard crew: this is their only job—to point and keep eyes on the victim. Other crew can rig the deck for rescue by clearing lines, getting rescue devices, pressing the MOB button on the plotter, and calling out directions to the captain, while someone else makes a distress call on the VHF. Why the distress call? Well, until the crew is back aboard, you don’t have any way of knowing how severe their injury may be. It is far better to dismiss an already-arrived rescue boat that is equipped to render aid than to call for one after it’s too late.
With eyes on the person and the equipment staged and ready, maneuver the boat back to the victim. A turn is usually quickest, but which type of turn will depend on sea conditions, current, and visibility. Assuming visibility is good, reduce speed, put the rudder hard over in the direction of the victim, then turn the vessel through 250 degrees from the original course, maintaining speed throughout the turn. Reduce the rate of turn to approach the victim ahead of the propellers, judging wind and current to bring the vessel alongside the victim. With engines in neutral, recover the victim. This simple maneuver is called an Anderson Turn, and is both quick and efficient in calm water with good visibility.
If you are in nighttime, or other visibility-restricted conditions, you’ll need to return to an exact point for the best chance of recovery. To accomplish this, once again put the rudder hard over in the direction of the victim, but this time make a 60-degree deviation from your original course. Then, place the rudder hard over in the opposite direction until you are within 20 degrees of your reciprocal course, and keep the rudder amidships. You should be returning to the original location, or very close to it depending on wind and current. This technique is called a Williamson Turn, and it is a very good all-around maneuver for situations where action is delayed or where visibility cannot be maintained.
Though these two turning maneuvers are appropriate for any type of vessel, sailing vessels can take advantage of the ability to remain on station while pointed into the wind by using a figure-eight turn. Again, with eyes on the victim, bear away or tack to create an angle between the vessel and the victim. Next, turn toward the victim, and with them on your leeward side, turn head to wind and initiate recovery. Visualize this maneuver as a figure-eight, but with the victim in the middle of the bottom loop.
Next week we’ll discuss other ways to keep your crew safe and be able to assist others who may be in need, as well as equipment that makes these tasks easier. In the meantime, remember the old saying about keeping one hand for you and one for the boat. Wear a lifejacket and make staying aboard your top priority!