How To Save A Man Overboard

You hear a splash off the port side of the boat. Pretty soon you hear the slapping of the water and a quiet cry of “HELP!” It’s immediately followed by a member of your crew shouting “Man Overboard!” These are the words every captain hopes not hear when out on the water. But it happens, and hopefully we never have to experience this, but it’s important that we all know the correct procedure in How To Save a Man Overboard.

Step One. Assess the situation.

What is the state of the person in the water? Can they swim? Do they have a pfd on?  Are they breathing? Gasping For Air sinking? What is the temperature of the water? How long have they been in the water?

Step Two. If They Are Breathing and Stable- Throw them a tow rope and personal flotation device.

As soon as you can see that they are stable, the next thing to do is throw them a pfd, a life jacket will work, or any type of floatation device. Toss a stable line that you can use to tow them back into the boat and help them safely back into the boat. See the Coast Guard picture for a demonstration below.

Man Overboard 1

Step Three. If They are not stable- Follow step two and add this:

If they are floating but not breathing, your victim could be in shock, could have their lungs full of water, got the wind knocked out of them or have hypothermia. If you are in cold water, hypothermia is a good culprit. THIS IS IMPORTANT: Your victim will have a much higher chance of survival if you are able to tow them back into the boat. In a best case scenario, have one person grab their arms, and another grab their legs and lift them into the boat facing up and as flat as possible. Studies have found you lift their arms over their head the blood rushes down to their heart too quickly and has a possibility of killing them.

If your victim is drowning, the first step would be to put a pfd on yourself and grab an extra pfd and flotation device and jump in after them.

Step Four: Once in the boat:

Lay your victim on the deck of the boat face up. Give them a chance to collect themselves before sitting them up. If your victim is in critical condition you may have to perform CPR and mouth to mouth if  not breathing. (Please review the proper procedures for CPR)If hypothermia has set in, make sure to take off their wet clothes and wrap in warm blankets and take them to the warmest part of the boat.

Easy Safety Preventative Measures:

pfd 1

  • Make sure you have enough PFD’s on board for each crew member and and all passengers. WEAR IT! Wear it out. Children and those with special needs should have their’s on ALWAYS.
  • Keep a warm blanket or towel on board at all times.
  • Keep a First Aid Kit along with extra water and food in case of emergencies.
  • Be sure your radio is working and the settings are correct to contact the Coast Guard and Harbor Patrol.



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  1. Robert says

    Uh, as a river runner and veteran of many rescues, two people pull the person onto the boat. Each person grabs one side of the top of the life jacket, then you heave them aboard. The last ocean rescue I was party to, in heavy seas, that was the ticket. What you describe might work, but I’ve never seen that executed in big waves.

    1. getwet says

      Thanks for your comment Robert. I believe you are right, probably 90% of the time you’ll want to have two people grab each side of the top of the life jacket. I tried to make it clear in the article, but perhaps I could clarify even more…when lifting the victim into the boat by arms and legs trying to keep their body as horizontal as possible, is only the case when severe hypothermia is present. This is a new tip we learned in a sailing safety course earlier this year. And, as stated earlier, each situation will be different so being in the ocean in big waves, your options will be more limited.

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