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

Training Sessions wtih Captain Paul Foer
By Captain Paul Foer 
This is Captain Paul Foer “From the Foerfront” with my thoughts on boating safety and seamanship. This is Part One of my Three-Part series Person Overboard (POB’s) Drills or Person in the Water (PIW) Drills. According to the 2016 Coast Guard report on boating fatalities, “Where cause of death was known, 80% of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 83% were not wearing a life jacket.”
   That seems to be a fairly consistent statistic that drowning due to falling overboard is the number one cause of fatalities among boaters and that a lifejacket or personal flotation device (PFD) might avert such deaths. People fall overboard from being drunk, or they were urinating, they slipped, were not paying attention,  got knocked by a sail, a boom or a wave or for any number of reasons, but it happens. Most of these such accidents occurred on boats under 21 feet mainly because of course most boaters are on boats under 21 feet. They are also less stable and therefore more likely to be overloaded or unbalanced than larger boats.
   Some sailing organizations, navies and schools have developed what they say are time-tested techniques and the best method for locating and retrieving a POB. Whatever benefits that provide in many situations, I believe that for most recreational sailors such a “method” may not be the most effective in typical boating situations and that simply stopping, turning the boat and remaining as close as possible to the POB is more important than executing a specific set of instructions.  
   Most of the various maneuvers, and certainly the way most of them are taught, involve performing a series of onboard actions called things such as Quick Stop, The Williamson Turn or by other names. They are likely to work, especially if you are operating a boat with highly trained, strong, well equipped Coast Guardsmen or Naval Academy Midshipmen operating under a Chain of Command under military structures, but what about the vast majority of boaters, some of whom have inexperienced crew? What works for us? Are we prepared if the boat’s skipper falls off?
  After teaching thousands of people to improve their boating skills, I’ve come to the conclusion that you must do whatever works for you, and that means whatever is the fastest, safest and most efficient way on your boat, with the crew and constraints you are likely have. It sounds almost like nothing more than common sense, but how common is common sense in an emergency situation for which you have never rehearsed? As mentioned, there are different procedures used by different schools and institutions but my philosophy is very simple. (As a disclaimer, I urge all sailors and mariners to study and learn different techniques and then practice, practice and practice. Consult with other boaters and partake of professional training.)
   This all depends on YOUR technique, YOUR skills, YOUR boat and other factors but the key concern must always be how to prevent anyone from falling overboard, and this I often overlooked. Inspect you boat for non-skid, footholds and handholds. Wear proper shoes and always hold on to something and take extra precautions in low visibility or rough conditions, but don’t become complacent. Most boating accidents occur on nice weather days. Why? Because that is when most people are out on the water.
    In other words, if everyone stays on the boat, you will never have to employ the skills and methods you practiced over and over again with these drills. You did practice these drills yes? Oh, you didn’t do any drills? Well….
  Some methods tell you to sail at this point or that tack for this many boat lengths and then on this point by slacking the main, or take down the jib after you go so many boat lengths, or…well you get the point. But, it is equally important to train yourself to remain calm and in control, to not lose sight of the PIW and to throw that person as many floating object and markers as possible and control the crew to effect the rescue. This is not just about skills. It is mainly about leadership, communication and remaining calm and in control. Do not lose sight of the PIW.
   Rescue is of course easier on a calm and sunny day than if it were dark or stormy. However, a rough weather day may increase such chances of falling and make rescue more challenging, so you must practice on both calm and rough conditions.
Let’s suppose the following:
1.  It is a clear, calm day with warm air and water
2.  You are a highly proficient sailor
3.  You know your boat inside and out
4.  You have at least one if not two experienced crew on board
5.  The POB is afloat and unharmed and remains visible
6.  You manage to quickly come alongside the POB
Are you with me? Ok, so now what? How do you get the POB back to being a Person Aboard? It is critical of course, but I’ll get to that in a subsequent article.
Now, what if any one of the 6 “ideal” factors listed above were compromised. What if:
7.  It is NOT a clear, calm, warm air and warm water day?
8.  You are NOT a highly proficient sailor?
9.  You DO NOT know your boat inside and out?
10.             You DO NOT have at least one experienced crew on board?
11.              The POB is NOT afloat or IS INJURED or DOES NOT remain visible? 
12.              You DO NOT manage to quickly come alongside the POB?
   And to add to that, what if it is YOU who are overboard and there is NO CREW or NO EXPERIENCED crew onboard? Now you are beginning to see the crucial importance of practicing and trying different methods and with different people at the helm, onboard, overboard and in different conditions. And to beat this dead horse even more, simply don’t go overboard in the first place. Wear a lifejacket or PFD. Use a harness and tether if conditions require that. The best time to put your PFD on of course is anytime you are on the boat. Once you are overboard is at best a distant second time, if you can even do that.
   I have tried to teach a simple technique to many sailors which is to come up to a float such as a fender or cushion on a clear, calm day under ideal conditions and UNDER POWER and many still have great difficulty even approaching the float. I always let them know we will be doing drills, but I surprise them with exactly when I do it. I watch the students carefully. They are almost always slow to react, take command or to communicate in a loud and clear voice. They act as if it is some kind of embarrassing situation.
   It has been suggested to tie that float to a bucket so it will not drift as quickly, simulating more how a person would slowly drift. But, before all of that, I make one overreaching point very, very clear, and that is (drumroll and sound of beating a dead horse please…)  not to fall off in the first place.
   The most common danger on any boat, anywhere in any condition is that of slipping or falling, whether you remain on board or not. The old adage of one hand for yourself and one hand for the boat always applies. Good non-skid surfaces, an uncluttered deck or cockpit, good handholds and anything else that will keep you from falling in the first place is often overlooked or under considered while boating, but it is of primary importance. And to add to that, the things we call “lifelines” are anything but lifelines and are almost always below a person’s center of gravity.
   DO NOT SLIP OR FALL in the first place. Practice! Practice!
This is Captain Paul Foer “From the Foerfront” with my thoughts on boating safety and seamanship. Stay tuned to for parts two and three of my series on rescuing POB’s or Persons Overboard or Person in the Water (PIW).

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