Responding to a Man-Overboard Situation | Boating Safety

Responding to a Man-Overboard Situation

Ignoring a basic safety precaution can lead to dire consequences.

Dockside Confessional: Bucket Brigade

It was a sunny day on Delaware Bay, and our gang of five buddies from Philadelphia was headed out for some fishing aboard my new 25-foot Aquasport. The boat was well-equipped with new electronics and all the required safety gear. I was a fairly new skipper but had received some training from a professional captain and considered myself competent.

We headed for Bug Light, where we'd heard the weakfish were biting. We were cruising along at a good clip over the calm water, and I asked one of the guys to get a bucket of water to thaw some bait. The next time I looked around, there were only three other people in the cockpit.

"Where's Joe?" I yelled. The guys looked in confusion, and then we saw Joe, all 300 pounds of him, bobbing in the wake 100 yards behind us. Joe, by the way, can't swim. I cut the throttles, turned the boat and raced back to get him. As we approached, we could see Joe was holding onto an overturned bucket for dear life. He'd tried to scoop water into the bucket while we were running, and the force of the moving water yanked him overboard. We threw him a life ring and pulled him alongside. Even though the water was calm and there was no wind, it took a good bit of doing to haul him aboard.

After the initial shock of the incident wore off we realized how lucky we'd been. On a calm, beautiful morning, not far from shore, we'd had a close brush with death and learned some lessons about the serious consequences of even momentary inattention.

The Confessor Replies
Yep, there were definitely some lessons learned that day — the first being the importance of life jackets. Coast Guard statistics show drowning is the number-one cause of death among recreational boaters, and in 90 percent of those fatalities the person was not wearing a life jacket. The need for a life jacket should be obvious for crew members who can't swim, but even accomplished swimmers don't do well under the burden of sodden clothing and shoes, and rough weather will tire even the strongest in short order.

You apparently had your Type IV throwable PFD within easy reach, so kudos for that. But as you discovered, hauling a person back aboard isn't always a straightforward process. Had there been wind and waves to deal with, or had your crew member been injured, the situation would have been far more difficult and possibly dangerous.

In weather fair or foul, it's a good idea to start each cruise with a safety briefing and perhaps a discussion on the proper handling of a man-overboard situation. There are plenty of good resources in print and online detailing the particulars of a man-overboard emergency response, and we're guessing you've since studied a few of those sources.

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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