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Man Overboard Recovery & Prevention

Man overboard fatalities are the second leading cause of death among commercial fishermen in the U.S. Learn what to do in case of a man overboard incident.

Man Overboard Recovery & Prevention

Adapted from, Beating the Odds: A Guide to Commercial Fishing Safety, 7th Edition, Susan Clark Jensen and Jerry Dzugan, 2014

John had been fishing for almost 20 years, when in the middle of the night, 40 miles out from Long Island, he went out on deck alone at 3:30 a.m. to open a hatch on the deck of the lobster boat. A sudden slip and he found himself falling backward down the stern of the vessel and submerged in the 72° Atlantic Ocean. After a gulp of ocean, he surfaced, sputtered, and hollered at his boat with his two sleeping workmates warm and dry in their bunks. He watched his boat on autopilot steam away from him at 8 knots on a clear moonlit night with 5 foot seas. He wasn’t wearing a life jacket. Quickly John found out that his thick rubber boots would float.

He took them off, plunged them inverted in the water to make an air pocket in each, and put them under his armpits for flotation. Almost 12 hours later, shivering uncontrollably, he was spotted and rescued
by a Coast Guard rescue helicopter, glad to have survived. (Paraphrased from “A Speck in the Sea,” The New York Times, Paul Tough, Jan. 2, 2014)

There is no denying it. Fishermen do end up overboard. Between 2000 and 2014, 39 percent of all commercial fishing deaths in the United States were due to falls overboard, according to the National
Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). You might never face this situation, but being prepared in case it does occur could save a life, perhaps your own. Of the 210 man overboard deaths between 2000 and 2014, not one person was wearing a PFD .

Before Anything Happens
  • Hold man overboard drills with a crewmember in a survival suit playing the part of the person in the water. The first drill can even be held in the harbor. You will need to devise a retrieval system; hauling someone on board is difficult and can result in injuries. Some forethought will allow you to come up with an effective system. Try a sling or horse collar used with a winch and boom, a net with floats, a commercial man overboard retrieval device, or a hatch cover and winch.

  • Make yourself warmer and more visible in the event you do fall overboard by wearing layers of wool or polypropylene clothing, and bright-colored rain gear or a PFD. Increase your chances of being rescued at night by putting reflective tape on your PFD, rain gear, hard hats, and anything else that might fall overboard. Reflective tape is a very cheap safety supply.

  • Whenever you are on deck, wear a PFD with a whistle or other signaling device.

  • Keep “one hand for the ship and one for yourself,” during all activities. (It is not a good idea to relieve yourself at the rail.)

  • Keep a throwable PFD—with a working light and reflective tape—handy to toss over as a marker in case someone does go overboard.

  • Use a buddy system on deck after dark, especially in rough seas.

  • Where practical, have bulwarks or safety rails of adequate height, and provide grab rails alongside or on top of the house.

  • Use nonskid deck coatings, and keep decks clear of slime, oil, jellyfish, and kelp.

  • Use safety lines and a PFD when clearing ice.

  • If you fish alone, consider using a kill switch that will shut off your engine if you fall overboard. Or you may want to use a harness with a safety line that would keep you attached to the boat if you go overboard.

  • Consider towing a skiff or knotted, floating line with a buoy on its end to provide a close target to grab or climb onto. If you use either of these methods, you must use floating line attached high up on the vessel, and be conscious of the possibility of the line getting fouled in the prop. Some fishermen believe in and use the skiff or floating line method, while others think they present more danger than they are worth. The choice is yours.

  • Consider purchasing one of several man overboard alarms on the market. Some of them also will shut off your engine so you have a chance to reach your vessel if you are alone, and one alerts other vessels in the area to your location.

Cold Water Survival Stages

Although it is hard to believe, the Gulf of Mexico in winter has water temperatures similar to the Gulf of Alaska in summer! Cold water can be found in most places in the United States depending on time of year. The four phases in cold water survival are: cold shock response, cold incapacitation, hypothermia, and post-rescue collapse.


  • Cold shock response (first 2 minutes). On entering cold water, the person will gasp involuntarily and start uncontrolled hyperventilation. If the head is under water the person will drown. Enter the water slowly if possible and it is ideal to have thermal protection. Also there is a danger of fainting and cardiac arrest.

  • Cold incapacitation (2-15 minutes). Local cooling of nerves and muscle fibers causes the inability to swim, so hold on to a floating object or the edge of the water (ice or shore). Thrashing around will cause increased heat loss and may lead to exhaustion and drowning. To delay the onset of hypothermia, use the HELP position or huddle with other people. Get out of the water entirely or as much as possible. A person who is hanging onto a boat and has no PFD should stay with the boat. A person who has a PFD should swim to shore if they think they can make it within 45 minutes and rescue is not likely in the next hour.

  • Hypothermia (at least 30 minutes to become unconscious). If the head goes under cold water, drowning will occur in about 30 minutes to 2 hours. If the head is above water because of a personal flotation device, cooling will lead to cardiac arrest and death in 90-180 minutes.

  • Post-rescue collapse (also called circum-rescue collapse) can occur just before, during, or just after rescue. Symptoms range from fainting to death. It can be due to mental relaxation and decreased levels of stress hormones, or due to sudden stress on the heart because of a decrease in pressure when the person is removed from the water. Immersion victims should be removed from the water in a horizontal position to help prevent post-rescue collapse. The times mentioned in these phases may differ in a real situation, due to varying physical types, type of hypothermia protection of PFD, roughness of water, actual water temperature, and other factors.

H.E.L.P. Position

HELP Position

When a Person Is Overboard

If You Are Overboard

  1. Take a minute for your breathing to return to normal and focus on keeping head above water, then yell for help or blow a whistle to attract attention.

  2. Assume the Heat Escape Lessening Posture (HELP) to improve your chance of survival in calm seas.

  3. Keep your clothes on. They can trap air for flotation and will keep you warm. The will not pull you down.

  4. Hold on to available floating objects that will help increase your buoyancy and make you more visible.

  5. Stay as still as you can. (Rough seas can make this difficult.) Movement cools you off quicker because it uses energy and brings more cold water in contact with your body.


Your job is to stay afloat, conserve heat, and signal for help.

If You Are Aboard the Vessel

  1. As soon as someone is known to be in the water, record the location electronically, and throw something overboard to mark their position. A PFD works well because it also offers the person in the water more flotation. Be sure to turn on the PFD light. The position can also be marked by buoys, a longline marker pole with a radar reflector, or throwable smoke. Radar reflectors are especially helpful in foggy conditions.

  2. Post a lookout whose sole job is to keep the person in the water in sight, and to point at them. A lookout is critical when you consider that one-foot seas make it difficult to see a crewmember’s head bobbing in the waves. Sound the alarm. If the vessel is not equipped with two-way deck speakers, use a person as a relay/messenger to communicate position of overboard victim to helmsman. Communicate the boat's bearing to the victim by way of hands of a clock, for example, "starboard 20 yards at 4 o'clock."

  3. Turn the vessel around so the stern swings away from the side the person is on. Before you can approach the person you must find them. If they are not in sight, retrace your path and, if it has been more than a few minutes since they were last seen, notify the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard may be able to assist in searching and will notify other vessels in your area. Search patterns depend on wind and sea conditions. If you have a plotter, use it. You may decide to approach the person from their leeward side. This does not create a lee for the person, but it may make communication easier because most people naturally float with their backs to the wind and waves. Or, you may prefer to keep them on your leeward side, but this can be dangerous in rough seas. Regardless of your approach, keep the propeller away from them. Ultimately, the approach depends on the sea conditions, your retrieval method, your vessel’s maneuverability, and the victim’s condition.

  4. Retrieve the person. This is often the most difficult step of all. Its ease depends both on how much the person in the water is able to help and whether you have something to help get them back on board. This is where earlier practice and gear preparation pay off. Putting a crewmember in the water to help retrieve the person should be done only as a last resort, but a rescue swimmer should be readied. If attempted, the in-water rescuer must be in a PFD, or an immersion suit in cold water, and attached to the vessel by a lifeline. Otherwise you might have two crew to rescue.

  5. Gently treat the person for drowning, hypothermia, and other injuries as needed. See the First Aid chapter for details.

  6. If the person is not immediately located, notify the Coast Guard and other vessels in the vicinity, and continue searching until released by the Coast Guard.


Do all you can to keep yourself on board. It’s much easier to take precautions than to get rescued when you fall overboard. Develop procedures that the crew should use on deck to prevent falls overboard and enforce them. It is very important that you develop the equipment to retrieve someone back on board before the event occurs. Rig up your own sling or purchase commercial devices such as Lifesling™, MARSARS™, Jason’s Cradle™, Lifenet™, or other retrieval system. Also available are man overboard alarms, which can signal crew and even shut off engines and autopilots.

It is a tragic irony that many lives are lost when the victim is right next to the boat but cannot be brought aboard.

Retrieving the "Victim" in a Man Overboard Drill

Retrieving the "Victim" in a Man Overboard Drill

Steps to Take to Prevent a Man Overboard from Occurring
  • Use nonskid decks.

  • Clean decks of fish slime as soon as possible.

  • Keep decks free of bights in line.

  • Keep decks free of ice and lubricants like hydraulic oil.

  • Warn crew of hazards like low overheads and open hatches and to not stand in blind spots where others can't see them.

  • Enforce a deck policy of only using vessel’s head.

  • Enforce a zero tolerance policy toward drugs and alcohol.

  • Avoid being on deck alone without notifying others.

  • Use a buddy system if disembarking from or returning to the vessel from the dock. This is especially at night or if under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

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