Man Overboard!

The vast majority of fatalities in boating occur from a person falling overboard. What can you do to avoid becoming a statistic?

In this post, we discuss some of the more subtle aspects of going into the drink (or not), and extricating yourself. Previous posts in this series include: “Getting Out and Back“, and “Staying Afloat“.

Avoid Going Over in the First Place

Safety first! Are bolt-on rail rod holders friend or accident-waiting-to-happen?

Bolt-on rail rod holders. Friend? Or accident waiting to happen?

  • Stuff bolted to rails tend to rotate around the rail when put under stress. Rail-mounted rod holders look like handholds when you’re going overboard, so they need to be as sturdy as handholds. We’ve nearly gone over a couple of times when we grabbed a rod holder for support and it turned around the rail it was mounted to, allowing our hand to slip off.
  • Gear needs to be stowed so that you don’t trip over it.
  • High railing around the boat perimeter is a good idea, but interferes with fishing. On Toy Boat 2 we have high bow and side rails, but none in the stern.

Stay With the Boat

Let’s say you have the misfortune of going over the side. If you’re fishing with someone, they will hopefully see that you’ve gone overboard, and come back to get you. If you’re alone, or both of you go overboard, what happens next?

Let’s start with the case where the engine is running when the accident occurs. Hopefully, you remembered to attach the engine’s kill switch to you, so the engine stopped when you fell out. If not, you may never see the boat again, especially if you have no-feedback or hydraulic steering, or an autopilot.

In years past, with rotary steering, the engine’s torque sometimes would cause the boat to make a big circle, and allow you to try to catch it as it circled back. This was a mixed blessing because there have also been cases where people were run down by their own boat.

Even if the motor is not running at the time you go over, you may still have problems catching the boat. If the wind’s blowing 20 MPH and you go over the side, will you be able to swim fast enough to catch the boat as it drifts away? Skiffs with high freeboard catch a lot of wind, and because of their shallow draft, can sail away pretty quickly.

Man overboard! A sailing tether can help keep you on board.

Sailing Tether. Courtesy West Marine.

Sailors have known about this issue for a long time, and have developed specialized teathers to keep them connected to the boat if they go overboard. These tethers are basically long sections of nylon webbing that have rubber shock cord inside, and carabiners, snap hooks, or shackles on either end.

One end goes on the sailor (who is usually wearing a specialized harness or harness/lifevest combination), the other end goes to a rail or a safety line (called a “jackline”) running the length of the hull. The shock cord is there to contract the tubular webbing and keep it under control as the boater moves around the boat.

In Toy Boat 2, we keep two home-made tethers handy. Clipped to the console handrail, they are long enough to let us walk to the far corners of the rear cockpit without unhooking. We built ours from left-over stuff from our rock-climbing days: 1″ tubular nylon webbing, two carabiners, and some light rubber shock cord. Since we wear SOSpenders life vests all the time while on the water, we clip the other end to the vest’s harness.

If you use tethers, it is important to make sure you use the motor’s dead-man switch. If you go overboard while wearing a tether, you don’t want the the motor to keep running…