If someone falls overboard from a sailboat, it is firstly imperative not to lose sight of the person since finding a man in water, especially when there's waves, can be very difficult.

What techniques are there to direct the sailboat to rescue the man?

  • 9
    Take a sailing class. MOB should be on the curriculum, but ask for it to be sure.
    – Jay Bazuzi
    Commented Jan 26, 2012 at 5:53
  • 2
    The United States Power Squadron Safe Boating course covers all aspects of safe boating. Navigation, equipment requirements, fueling, operation, fires, first aid, man over board, docking, mooring, anchoring, radio, PWC operation, sailing basics, Coast guard safety inspections and sadly a GPS.
    – SkipBerne
    Commented Jan 19, 2016 at 14:30

5 Answers 5


In addition to xpda's answer:

  • Any time you're out sailing and hat or something falls in the water, it's time to practice a MOB drill. Run the full protocol, including yelling out "MAN OVERBOARD" (even it's it's a female hat).

  • Set up deliberate drills by throwing a fender overboard.

  • Practice in a variety of conditions (especially wind strength) and various points of sail.

  • If you use a motor and you're unskilled, you could hit the MOB with the boat or prop. Don't do that!

  • You can rescue a MOB under sail, and it's a good way to improve your sailing skills. There are many approaches, and sailors like to argue which is best. Maybe you tack, maybe you jibe. Approach from below the MOB, so you can point in to the wind and come to a stop just at the MOB (much like docking under sail). This gives you time to try multiple attempts to get the MOB out if necessary, whereas a downwind approach lets you have one try at it. To get to the downwind side, usually use a figure 8 pattern - this makes it easier to keep eyes on the MOB.

  • To pull someone out of the water when they're wearing a PFD:

    1. Grab by the shoulders of the PFD
    2. Push down
    3. They will pop up; use the momentum to help pull them in to the boat.
  • Know which part of your boat will be easiest to pull someone in by. On a small tender boat, that may be over the transom.

  • If your topsides are high, you may need to use a rope. Tie a large bowline to go around the MOB's chest.

  • 1
    Practice this a lot! Judging just when to point into the wind to stop at the MOB is really hard.
    – Lagerbaer
    Commented Jan 27, 2012 at 16:01
  • 1
    In a larger boat with adequate engine(s), you should use the engines rather than sails to turn around.
    – xpda
    Commented Jan 27, 2012 at 16:51
  • 1
    @xpda is right that if you have an engine you should (must!) use it, but you should also be prepared for it to fail (or fail to start) at any time, which means you need to be able to do MOB-retrieval-under-sail. While a crew member is going below to press the MOB button on the GPS, I'd seriously consider telling them to also hit the Mayday button on the VHF DSC, if any of the following criteria are met: night-time, bad weather, casualty is a child / non-swimmer / injured. If the casualty is unconscious that's an immediate and obvious Mayday for me.
    – A E
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 12:48
  1. If there is another person person onboard, have them do nothing but watch the person in the water. They should point a finger at person in the water and never take their eyes off.
  2. Toss out life buoys, life slings, floating cushions, etc.
  3. If you have it, hit a man overboard button on your GPS. If not, make a waypoint.
  4. Stop the boat, lower the sails.
  5. Motor back to the person in the water. If possible, drag a rope with a float (life jacket, life sling, etc.) on the end to the person can grab it. If that's not possible, throw the rope or get close and try to get the person to swim to the boat.
  6. If at all possible, do NOT get into the water. Only if the person is incapacitated or incapable of holding into a rope should you consider it.

Think about doing this at night. If the boat is beyond swimming distance of shore, be sure everybody on the boat has a life jacket (and hopefully a harness) with a strobe whenever they are on deck at night.

It's pretty difficult to climb onto some boats from the water. You should find out the best way to do this in your boat.

Losing someone overboard is probably the most dangerous thing in offshore sailing, and it is almost completely preventable.


Addition to the other answers:

  • when a man is overboard, one man must always point at him with the finger, so not to lose sight.
  • Throw something visible as soon as possible, such as a floating flag.
  • when you approach the victim, keep the man downwind. The natural inclination of the boat under wind will push the downwind side closer to the water, making it easier to haul the man up.
  • Extremely Important a man overboard may feel ok, but within two or three hours water produced by the body in response to seawater inhalation may start forming in the lungs, basically drowning him/her from the inside with a delay. Treat a MOB always as a full medical emergency, and organize for a trip to the hospital regardless and as soon as possible. Better safe than sorry.
  • 2
    Keeping the man downwind: This depends on the boat and the weather. If it's really windy and wavy, which is the most popular time to fall off a boat, the wind and waves can blow the boat over the top of the MOB. In some cases it is better to approach the MOB from downwind (assuming you're under power), leaving the boat pointed into the wind. This allows the boat to maintain position while the MOB is being hauled on board. If the boat cannot maintain an "into the wind" posture, it might be possible to point downwind and use reverse engine(s) to maintain position.
    – xpda
    Commented Jan 27, 2012 at 18:08
  • The 2-3 hours in the water s purely academic around here. At 50 deg F (10 deg C), most people have less than 30 minutes of consciousness. See this for other temperatures.
    – wallyk
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 6:32
  • @wallyk: re-read what I wrote. Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 20:33
  • The risk of secondary drowning is a very sensible and legitimate concern. Calling the coastguard for immediate medical advice and to be met at the dock by an ambulance would not be an overreaction.
    – A E
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 12:54

To actually load a person onto a boat, try a parbuckle. This may be a rope run from a forward cleat over the side of the boat into the water with the aft end secured and wrapped around a winch. The over board party may sit, stand or drape themselves over the rope which is then pulled taught by the winching in of the line over the side of the boat. When the line is tight fore to aft, it should assist in the crew or the swimmer in recovery.


Quick stop method.

MOB QuickStop (YouTube)

Watching this video will not enable you to do this when you actually have an MOB. Like any other aspect of boat handling, it must be practiced continuously. As compared to any other aspect of boat handling, it's as critical as tying a knot or turning on your motor. The odds are small but the consequences are steep.

Again - there is no substitute for practice (use a cushion, not a person though ;)

  • 2
    Can you add some more information in case the video link dies, or the video is removed / deleted from youtube?
    – Aravona
    Commented Jul 31, 2015 at 12:09

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