Rescuing a Man Overboard

Key steps for retrieving a man overboard.

two people overboard near a rescue boat.

The difficulty in retrieving a man overboard (MOB) never hit me until I faced the real-life rescue of a swimmer in distress. We weren’t at sea, but rather in the harbor within 50 yards of the dock. Most rescues take place under more challenging conditions. Yet having the right gear and using teamwork can help with retrieval, be it one of your crew who went over, a victim of a capsized boat or a swimmer in distress. It’s also important to avoid panic, because rescues require clear thinking. While the situation might require a different order, here are key steps for retrieving an MOB.

Eyes on Target

If one of your crew falls in, immediately call out “man overboard” to alert the crew, and then check your heading and turn 180 degrees. Emphasize to your crew, “Don’t take your eyes off him.” Instruct them to point out the swimmer and continually call out the relative bearing from the bow and the distance, as in “11 o’clock, 75 yards.” At the same time, press the MOB button on the GPS/chart plotter to serve as a reference point in case you lose sight of the swimmer. If the MOB wasn’t wearing a life jacket, throw one out; if you lose visual contact, there’s a chance the swimmer might be able to find it.

If you can’t locate the swimmer, immediately alert the Coast Guard or local marine patrol via VHF radio Channel 16, and be prepared to report your exact position, a description of the crew member and the estimated time and position that he fell in. Next, hail all vessels in the area on Channel 16 and alert them to the MOB, requesting their assistance in search and rescue.

In your own search, use the track or trail function on your chart plotter to retrace your course, keeping in mind that currents and wind might have carried the MOB some distance from where he fell in. Instruct all hands to scan the water from the highest point possible, utilizing any binoculars on board, and their naked eyes.

Approach to the Swimmer

With the MOB in sight, approach cautiously from his leeward (boat downwind or downcurrent from the swimmer) for better boat maneuverability and to avoid drifting over him. Have ready a throwable flotation device such as a life ring or throw cushion with about 50 feet of line attached. If necessary, loop together three or four dock lines, and make fast the line so you don’t lose it.

Once close enough, toss the ring or cushion. If anything, err on the side of overthrowing, so the swimmer can grab the line if not the flotation device. As soon as the MOB is in tow, make sure the engine’s out of gear and haul him in.

Boarding Process

Always carry some sort of boarding device if your boat doesn’t already have a swim platform or some means of reboarding from the water. It could be a rope ladder or hook-style boarding ladder that hangs over the gunwale.

You’ll likely need to help lift the swimmer aboard, even if you have a boarding device. Grab him under the arms as soon as you can. Once aboard, get the crew member as dry and warm as possible and ascertain his condition. Look for signs of hypothermia, ingested water or injuries. If you see signs for concern, seek medical attention immediately.

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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