Man Overboard! | Boating Safety

Man Overboard!

When Attempting a Rescue, Move Fast and Stay Calm

“Remain calm.” Experts tell us to do that in every emergency, and with good reason. Initial reactions often set the stage for the outcome. If you are one of the nation’s nearly 13 million recreational boaters, you may at some point experience a passenger falling overboard - a potentially dangerous situation for both you and the person in the water. Preparing ahead of time and making rescue procedures routine can help ensure that if this should happen, you’ll know how to get the person back aboard safely. Here is what to keep in mind:

Remain calm when a person goes over the side, but do not remain quiet. This is one circumstance in which it’s not rude to yell and point. As soon as someone notices a person falling into or flailing in the water, he or she should point to the individual and shout “Man Overboard!” followed by “Port Side!” or “Starboard Side!” depending on whether the person is on the left (Port) or right (Starboard) side of the boat. Then keep pointing until the person is rescued.

This is essential in open water where it’s easy to lose track of a person’s position in the water. If you have a marine GPS device on board, chances are it has a Man Overboard (MOB) button that will help you maneuver back to the original point of loss. But having someone keep watch and point is still vital because a GPS cannot calculate the effects of the current.

Why shout? First, it will alert everyone on board that an individual has fallen into the water and that all attention must focus on rescue. Second, hearing the words “Man Overboard!” assures the person in the water that he or she has been seen and that steps are being taken for his or her recovery.

As for the rescue itself, here’s where a good catchphrase comes in handy: “Reach, Throw, Row, and Go.” This lists the order in which you should try to bring the person in the water to safety. First, swing the stern and propeller away from the person in the water. Then, if the person is conscious, alert, and within arm’s length, REACH for the victim and pull them toward the boat. To do this safely, be sure you’re wearing a life jacket. The boat’s configuration will sometimes dictate your retrieval point depending on the freeboard and any deck fittings. If you’re trying to reach the victim with your arm, lower your center of gravity and assume a prone position on the deck. Make sure you are holding on to something stable with your other arm. This arrangement can help prevent you from going overboard. It works especially well in choppy water conditions. If the person is farther out, you can extend your reach by using something like a shirt, towel, pole, or paddle to pull them to safety. If another passenger is available, have them grab hold of your belt, legs, or ankles for increased safety.

Too far away? Then THROW the victim something buoyant such as a boat cushion or life ring, an extra life jacket, or any buoyant object, even an empty cooler. While the person’s life jacket will keep them afloat, there’s something about having a buoyant object to hold on to that calms the nerves of all involved. It will also act as a reference point should you lose sight of the person in the water; if a search becomes necessary, emergency responders will have an immediate visual reference on the direction of drift, which can benefit the search operation.

If the person is too far out for a thrown buoyant object, ROW – or, more accurately, “maneuver the vessel” – over to the person. Always approach them from the boat operator’s side so that the person in the water is in view at all times. When you begin to get close, turn off the engine to avoid a propeller strike. Now, throw them a buoyant object and help them back aboard.

If the above steps cannot affect a rescue or if the person in the water is unconscious – and entering the water would not put an experienced swimmer in danger – someone may GO to the person. This should be considered a last resort and preferably would be done by a person trained in water rescue. If there’s any doubt about safety, the best action is to call the U.S. Coast Guard or local marine patrol on Channel 16 of your marine radio for assistance. But if immediate action is necessary and the decision is made to “Go,” the swimmer should be wearing a life jacket and take along a buoyant object – that life ring, extra life jacket, box cooler, etc. – and keep it between him or her and the person being rescued. In such a crisis, even the strongest swimmer risks injury and drowning, so inexperienced or non-swimmers should never go into the water to attempt a rescue, even if wearing a life jacket. In this case, call the Coast Guard instead.

Once you have the person up next to the boat, getting them back aboard by way of a boarding ladder or bathing platform is recommended. That way you won’t risk more people falling in. If the victim is unconscious or otherwise unable to lift his or her own weight, having a lifting strap on board provides an effective alternative. Otherwise, two individuals can each place a hand under the victim’s armpits and – in a smooth and coordinated move – carefully pull the person aboard.

“Reach, Throw, Row, and Go” are the basics for rescuing someone in the water. Once you know the steps, create a drill and involve the whole family. Brief, periodic reviews like these instill the information needed in an emergency. With practice drills, you’re more likely to remember what to do, even when less than calm. Review the rescue steps at regular intervals and again whenever you take on a new passenger. This way, if a passenger falls overboard and your heart starts to race, chances are good you’ll still know exactly what to do.


1. Reach for the victim and pull them toward the boat. Too far to reach?

2. Throw the person something buoyant – a spare life jacket, an empty ice chest, anything that floats. Too far out for a thrown object?

3. Row or maneuver the vessel closer to the person in the water, being careful to keep the person in view at all times. Victim unconscious or otherwise unable to aid in their own rescue?

4. Put on a life jacket, take along something buoyant, and Go to the person in the water. Consider this a last resort. If there’s any doubt about safety, call the U.S. Coast Guard for assistance on your marine radio.

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The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency's Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to "Boat Responsibly!" For more tips on boating safety, visit