Quote for the day: "Man overboard recovery is more difficult than you think."

No kidding!

Recovery Methods

There are a number of interesting MOB recovery systems in the world, such as the Sea Scoopa. However, many of them are unsuitable for prairie sailors like me. I need either a method that works with the kind of equipment that is standard on every charter boat, or a system that is compact and light enough to throw in my suitcase.

If I ever get to the place where I own a vessel, then my options for MOB recovery equipment open up a bit. But for now, the methods below seem the most practical.

Note: I am omitting from this discussion all methods that might involve removing a hypothermic individual from the water in a vertical position. The reasons for that have to do with circum-rescue collapse, which is discussed on the Home/Hypothermia page.

If water conditions are calm, and the MOB is still fit enough, then the simple method is the easiest: the casualty comes around to the stern and climbs up the swimming ladder.

However, if there is significant wave action, any pounding of the stern could pose a lethal risk to a person in the water near the stern.

A better method to use if the MOB is still fit enough to assist in his own recovery is the elevator method, rigging a line from a cleat to a sheet winch, leaving a bight down into the water. The MOB steps onto the line, and the crew onboard winch him up until he can step onto the deck.

And by-the-by, notice how much freeboard this yacht has. Nobody, but nobody, is going to just lie down on deck and grab a passing MOB by the collar. Your boat-recovery strategy has got to be something that goes beyond "drag the casualty back on board" as you see in this video.

Now, if we want to learn to tack efficiently, we don't just read about it in a book or look at pictures on the web. We practice it ourselves. This is, or should be, doubly true with man overboard recovery. So during our January 2015 trip to the British Virgin Islands, we decided to test various ideas about MOB. We all practised getting into the boat by the elevator method...and it worked pretty well!


One method that did NOT work was the "brute force" method of just hauling the person up onto the swim platform or into the dinghy. In our case the swim platform was a little small for two rescuers and one casualty to share, so two of my crew tried to haul me into the dinghy. I was not, by the way, trying to simulate unconsciousness. Even with me kicking like crazy, they couldn't get me out of the water.


Once I got back home to Canada, it occurred to me that if we had found the valve to let the dinghy partially deflate, my crew may have been able to recover me. But frankly, this is not a technique we would have wanted to experiment with anyway. We liked having a fully-inflated dinghy to use to get ashore. As Jesus (almost) said, "There is more to a sailing vacation than man-overboard drills."

In the event of an actual MOB emergency, one could perhaps look for the valve...or just stick his knife into the dinghy. You would eventually have the dinghy sink...but better that than to lose a person's life.

However, the "brute force" method, even if you can manage it with your dinghy, needs to be very gentle with the person. We must not trigger the movement of cold, acidic, CO2-laidened blood from his extremities back into his core while we are getting him out of the water.

If you are in the tropics, however (as we were when these photos were taken), drowning - and possibly sharks - are your only hazards. You just want to get him out of the water any way you can, as quickly as you can.

It is one of the unpleasant little ironies of sailing that when you get far enough south that you no longer have to worry about hypothermia, you must start to consider sharks.

2005 MOB Symposium

One of the resources you need to be aware of is the 2005 Crew Overboard Rescue Symposium.pdf document. A broad array of sailors got together in San Francisco Bay back in 2005 to actually test various theories of boat-handling as well as casualty-recovery. It is impossible to overstress how important this event has been to us over the past decade. There are so many who theorize about MOB recovery (I will not mention any by name, but Sail Canada comes to mind), who say "Do such-and-such" without ever trying it for themselves to discover that the technique taught will simply not work.

Those of us who are serious about boating safety need to adopt the motto of the Royal Society: 'Nullius in verba' which is translated as 'take nobody's word for it'.

So download this document and digest it. It has only one weakness: it is 10 years old. It does not take into account the "aha!" moment which has led to the "heave-to, sail-to, heave-to" technique of boat handling. Nor were they fully cognizant of all we have come to understand recently about hypothermia. That said, this is a must-read document.

Parbuckle Net

The 2005 Symposium document does mention the possibility of using a parbuckle net...and even includes a picture of one.

For the life of me, I cannot find anyplace on the web that markets a net such as I see here. It appears to have sturdy margins, with the sort of fine-mesh nylon netting that is used in hammocks. It looks like it would be very compact...easy to pack in a suitcase. But since I have been unable to purchase such a device, I have gone about making my own. Immediately below, I will show you how I tested this. Further down the page, I will have some comments on how you can make your own.


The need to make your own recovery net has gone away with the introduction of the SOS Marine Recovery Ladder, marketed in Canada by Victory Products.

The cost of the SOS Ladder is not dramatically more than what I spent making my Mark 4 net...and is a much more professional piece of equipment in the end.

The only thing that the maker, www.SOSmarine.com has not unpacked is the challenge of getting a casualty with a PFD back on board, as getting them through the lifelines is not likely to work. So you will still benefit from skimming over the material below...but don't go out to buy yourself a spool of parachute cord!!

Using the Mark 4 MOB Recovery Net

Step 1: Bring the boat to a halt just upwind of the casualty. During the 2005 Symposium, they tested out whether the boat should approach the casualty on the upwind or the downwind side. The overwhelming majority of the volunteers who went into the water preferred to have the boat to windward, the casualty to leeward. This gives the casualty a bit of a lee to be in, and makes recovery much easier.

Step 2: Deploy the net. It is packed in its bag with the head of the net at the top of the bag. Clip the carabiner at the head to the spare halyard first. This makes it impossible to lose the net in the wind and the tossing of the boat. (Ignore the background in these pictures. I took them in the basement next to the shelving where I tied the net. More photos net-creation will appear below.)

Step 3: Clip the center of the base of the net to a stanchion approximately even with the mast, or perhaps a little ahead of the mast. You will get the best power from your halyard if it is not binding at the head of the mast by a halyard led too far forward (or especially) aft of the mast. You are clipping a snap-shackle to a carabiner at the center of the base of the net.

The REASON you are using a snap shackle is that at some point, when the net is fully loaded, you are going to use carabiners to attach the base of the net to the outboard portion of the net...then detach the base. This will leave the casualty suspended as in a basket, held ultimately by the single carabiner at the head of the net which is in turn attached to the halyard.

Once you have the casualty in this "basket", you can lift him up and over the lifelines. Pictures of that below.

Step 4: Secure the base of the net securely along the toerail of the boat. If you don't make the base of the net absolutely taut, once the full weight of the casualty is taken up by the net, it will stretch and sag to the extent that you might lose your MOB back into the water.

The technique that I illustrate/describe below gives you a 2:1 mechanical advantage...and DOES let you secure the base of the net taut.

The photo above is a little confusing. I tied a short pull-cord to the snapshackle to ensure that I could pull it open even if my hands were wet and cold. That pull-cord is here led underneath the snapshackle, making it harder to see the way the tension-bearing lines are led.

At present, there is no tension at all on the carabiner visible above. It will be used later to secure the net into the basket-shape, after which the snapshackle can be detached.

The pull-cord has been tied with a cobra lanyard stitch. This is the same type of lanyard I created for the snapshackle on my PFD tether. It is sturdy and easy to grab for the same reason: I want to succeed even with cold, wet fingers.

Step 5: Lower the head of the net until there is a bight in the water. Maneuver your casualty using a boathook into that bight.

Step 6: Ensure that the spare halyard is led first to the winch on the cabin roof, and then (assuming you have the crew available to do this) to a sheet winch.

Step 7: Roll your casualty up the side of the boat until he is close to the toerail, and face-up.

If you have the crew available to use, have one amidships to keep a close eye on the casualty, one on the winch on the cabin roof, and the third on the sheet winch. While it is POSSIBLE for a 6 foot, 220 lb man to raise me up into the boat using the halyard winch alone, it is BARELY possible. Parbuckling the person up the side is pretty easy. But once you detach the net from the toerail of the boat, any further progress is a matter of LIFTING the casualty, not rolling him. And even more, you have the friction of the casualty's body against the hull to contend with.

So if you have the people, use two grinders.

Don't secure the halyard between the self-tailing plates of the cabin-top winch, as you see in this picture. When we did this, we broke the mechanism of the self-tailing plates, due to the enormous power of the sheet winch. Wrap the line three times around the cabin-top winch, and then lead it directly to the sheet winch further aft. The lifting power will be almost the same, but will not involve breaking the cabin-top winch mechanism.

If it was my wife by herself trying to recover me out of the water, her best bet would probably be to parbuckle me up until I am a couple of feet out of the water. At that point, she probably has insufficient strength to lift me any further.

So she leaves me secured to the side of the boat while she radios the Coast Guard and waits on them to arrive. I would still be at risk of eventual death from hypothermia while hanging to the side of the boat, but it will take me several hours more to die than if I was left in the water...and she has eliminated the chance of me drowning.

By the by, you want ALL of your crew to know how to send an effective Mayday call. Tape a piece of paper with a script for them to follow next to the VHF down in the cabin. Do some VHF role play with them, a little each day, for the first two or three days of your one-week cruise.

Each day, give one new person the chance to be at the wheel for a heave-to, sail-to, heave-to maneuver. Let them sail up alongside a fender, or a pair of milk jugs secured together with a line, that you have cast over the side, so that it can be fished out with a boathook.

And at least once, go through the exercise of rigging the MOB net out in the channel. Do a full "rescue" of your fender/milk-jugs. If you are in warm waters, then you can rig the net one evening while you are at anchor, and have a person jump in, swim around to the net, and be retrieved by the balance of the crew.

People are not going to be at their most relaxed if an emergency actually materializes. You want them to have some sense of what their procedure will be, before they actually have to USE that procedure in an actual rescue.

Step 8: Affix the three, up to now unused, carabiners along the foot of the net to the outboard portion of the net. Once this is done, you can release all three snapshackles, and the casualty will be 100% suspended from the halyard.

Step 9: Continue hauling the casualty up. If there is crew available to do it, have one amidships to help hold the casualty off of the lifelines as they continue to be raised. This will make life easier on the grinder(s). Further, this crewperson that is forward can ensure that the casualty doesn't go banging into the mast when they finally clear the lifelines.

Note in the photo that the clew lines are still affixed to the cleats at this instant. It is just that since the lines were doubled through the snapshackles, once the snapshackles are released, there is a lot of spare line to play with.

Step 10: There IS no step 10. 9 steps will do it. It just seems odd to finish with 9.

I will say that if your casualty is seriously hypothermic, and you expect Coast Guard assistance within 20 minutes, you might keep the casualty in the cockpit. You might elect to detach the net from the halyard and cleats, and use it as a sort of stretcher to help move/drag the casualty.

If it will be some time before you expect assistance, you will want to get the casualty down into the cabin to begin warming them up. Again, leaving them in the net until you get them below decks could give you something secure to wrap your fingers in as you are trying to get the casualty down the companionway stairs.

Because of what you know about hypothermia, you know that if the casualty is able to walk, you can let them do so...but slowly, and for only a moment to get down the companion way stairs. Then they should lie down again. You don't want them upright and active until they have warmed up a bit.

If they are mostly conscious, you can give the person a warm beverage to help warm them up from the inside out. Not TOO warm. The casualty will be less able than normal to recognize that something is so warm it must be sipped carefully to avoid scalding the throat on the way down.

You should try a sip whatever you plan to serve before handing it to the casualty, to ensure the temperature is right.

If he is mostly unconscious, wrap him in a sleeping bag.

But before you do this, wrap him in a plastic tarp - if you have one - to serve as a vapor barrier to protect against further evaporative cooling, and to keep the sleeping bag dry. A dry sleeping bag, of course, has much better insulating qualities than one that is wet.

Making Your Own MOB Recovery Net

I will tell you how I proceeded...but in the context of building this web page, I came upon the US Netting company. Before you start tying your own net from scratch, you might try pricing out a custom solution from these guys.

If you are going to make your own, it is going to cost you...first for the parachute cord, and second for a collection of mountain-climbing-grade carabiners. The net cost me on the order of $150 to make. You can see in this photo a spool of parachute cord. (Of course, you also see my PFD, tether, and the Mark 4 net in its bag. Why on earth there was a box for a server motherboard on the bed, I have no idea.) Paracord is available from Supply Sergeant at the West Edmonton Mall.

Let me stress that you will need "mountain-climbing-grade carabiners". Dollar-store carabiners are the wrong items to include with any piece of safety equipment. And while you can get steel carabiners from Home Depot, they are HEAVY, and subject to rusting (which you do NOT need in your saftey equipment). You want lightweight, aluminum carabiners that have been certified for mountain climbing use. Expect to spend from $8 to $15 apiece. In Edmonton, you can buy what you need either from Atmosphere, on the second floor above Sport-Chek at the West Edmonton Mall, or from Mountain Equipment Co-op, on 124th Street.

The overall shape of the net is an isosceles triangle, 5 feet wide at the base, and 10 feet from base to peak.

Start by braiding a long line that will serve as the base of your net. It needs to be as long as the sort of vessel you expect to sail on...plus some, since you will double a portion of that line through the snapshackle. If you go with a three-line braid, the cords will need to be about 3X as long as you want the finished product to be. This part of the construction is boring...and it is difficult to manage such long lengths of cord. I spent a couple of evenings sitting on the floor of the living room, watching TV, and braiding cord.

When done, tie a loop in the center of the line with a snapshackle in the loop. Tie another loop right next to it. The second loop will go around the stanchion and clip into the snapshackle. Put a third loop in for a carabiner you will eventually use to clip to the outboard portion of the net.

I made my net 10 feet wide at the base (of course, the braided line is a good bit longer than this, as you will lead it from the corner of the net forward, or aft, to a cleat). Put two loops in at each of the two points I am calling the clew of the net. One has a snap shackle in it. The other will have a carabiner inserted, which will eventually be affixed to the outboard portion of the net.

Next, find yourself someplace where you can affix that base cord, pull it taught, and begin tying in the lines of various lengths you have cut to make your roughly-triangular net. I used some shelving in our basement.

I tried to tie all my lines about 3" apart i.e. the width of my fist. Then you begin tying lines across horizontally, trying to get the squares of your nets to be 3" by 3". Given that paracord is a bit slippery, if you use sheet bends, the knots can capsize in ways that degrade the integrity of the net, I have found that the best knot to use to tie the net is the carrick bend. You can lock it in and it is not going anywhere.

The Mark 4 took me around 20 hours to make in total, i.e. tying the base line up in the living room, plus 3 or 4 Saturday mornings down in the basement. This is an impossibly long and tedious job if it was nice warm weather outside. But if you do it in the depths of winter, it makes a good project.

Hardware list for net

5 carabiners - one for head of net; two for the clew (one for each clew - will be used to clip to net to make basket shape); two for center of net's base (one will be used to clip to net to make basket shape; one will be led around outside of stanchion and secured by a snap shackle)

3 snap shackles - one for each clew and one for the center of the net's base. These are all used when securing the net along the toerail. When the casualty is well out of the water, and once the free carabiners along the foot of the net are secured to the outboard portion of the net, the snap shackles are all popped open.

The One Totally Unresolved Problem

When we were practicing all our various MOB boat-handling and recovery strategies early this year, we found an unexpected problem.

With a Mustang inflatable PFD, there is no place that you can snag with a boathook. That is, even after you have skillfully brought the boat up beside the casualty and reduced the boatspeed to 0.0 knots, you are STILL going to have to maneuver the casualty into the bight of your recovery net. And there is simply no way to DO that. We tried!

In our case, we had fully conscious "victims" who were having a lovely time in the tropical waters of the Virgin Islands. But if they had been unconscious, and we needed to rescue them, we would have had a serious problem...given our general objective of not putting yet another person down in or very near the water.

If you have an inflatable PFD, you already know that rearming kits are a bit expensive. You hate to spend $75 just to find out if a particular rescue idea will work or not. But the PFD is no damn good if you spend hundreds of dollars on a it, only to die of cardiac arrest because nobody could get you out of the water in the timely fashion.

So on the next trip, the plan is to finish the trip by:

- tying a polypropelene floating line to the back of the harness,
- jumping into the sea,
- having the PFD inflate, and then
- see if it is "snag-able" by a boathook.

Mustang's Official Corporate Position Regarding this Design Deficiency

The short version: "We don't give a rip."

The long version: I emailed the design guys at Mustang after this trip, to ask if they could incorporate a loop behind the head that we could catch with a boathook...much as lifejackets for dogs and children already have.

Their general position is that it is THEIR job to make sure you don't drown. If you die of cardiac arrest, that is YOUR problem so long their PFD is holding your face out of the water.

Email: goethe at shaw dot ca