Man Overboard! Food for Thought

It all happened in an instant, yet it felt like slow motion. What started out as a beautiful “light-and-variable wind” day of sharking in the mudhole eventually progressed into fifteen knot winds and four-foot seas by the afternoon. As we started rocking and rolling, the chum in our two chum bags started dispersing at a much more rapid rate. As I reached over to grab on of the chum bags for a refill, the frayed rope holding the bag instantly snapped, sending the bag adrift. I put my knees on the gunnel and over-extended my reach as far as I could to save my $30 chum bag. At that very instant, a rogue five-foot wave lifted the opposite side of the boat and dipped my side almost into the water… I was about to become “one with the chum”, going from the very top of the food chain to the very bottom. I remember knowing that I was going in the water and feeling helpless to stop it. Head-first I slid right off the gunnel, took in a nice mouthful of salty chum water, and worked my way to the back of the boat where I had a fold-away swim ladder to get back onboard.

My incident was rather brief. Aside from losing a pair of flip flops and a cell phone, the only thing I injured was my ego, but for about 40% of people who fall overboard at sea (and trigger a Coast Guard search and rescue operation) they will never be seen again, alive or dead. As a responsible boater and angler, there are many things you can do and many things you can consider to turn the odds in your favor when member of your crew falls overboard.

The Situations
To begin tackling this topic and considering what precautions to take, let’s examine some of the more common occurrences that can put somebody in the water on a sportfishing boat. In the cockpit, you can fall in during various “fishing operations” when leaning over the gunnel. While running, especially on a center console, a rogue wave or misjudgment by the captain could toss you overboard (think clearing an inlet). Going to the bow, you could take a spill over the side. Up on the bow you could also just as easily fall over. These situations can be made worse by wind and waves, an angler being harnessed into a fish (pulled over), visibility (fog/nighttime), non-detection of the MOB (nobody onboard knows you fell), a disabled vessel (falling over the bow while setting anchor), water temperature, and any injuries that the person falling over may have received.

man-overboard-cord-rescuePutting the Odds in Your Favor
Fortunately, there are many best practices you can apply and pieces of equipment you can purchase to put the odds of keeping your crew safe in your favor. First let’s look in the cockpit. Make sure all of your crew members carry a readily accessible release knife, specifically designed to cut a line or a rope free in an emergency. This will come in handy in situations where a fighting fish is attached to your rod man or leader man in the water. On larger sportfishing boats, place a cockpit camera in the corner and monitor it on your electronics when running to and from the fishing grounds. Keep tabs on your crew at all times. Also, be sure to have some sort of substantial (not those cheap seat-cushion) floating throwable device with at least 100 feet of floating line attached in a means that can be easily tethered to the boat. This device should also have lifting capabilities and strength to haul an injured victim back over the gunnel.

Next, we’ll turn our attention to the front half of the boat. When going to the bow to set anchor there are a number of precautions you should take. First off, you should have plenty of lighting for nighttime operations and a spotlight or thermal imaging camera capable of locating a person in the water. You should be familiar with the man overboard button on your GPS system and how to immediately mark the point at which a person fell over. For the crew member going to the bow, they should be equipped with a personal flotation device (automatic inflatable is a good option which will not impede their mobility). If your boat is equipped with an AIS (automatic Identification System), you should also have the person going to the bow wear an MOB beacon which will automatically and continually transmit their exact location to your vessel’s electronics in the event they fall over. You should consider sending people to the bow in pairs and making sure there is some form of recovery throwable device handy for one of them to quickly deploy in the event the other goes overboard. Finally, and most importantly, as the person at the helm be sure never to take your eye off the people going to the bow until they safely return to the cockpit.

As we head into another great season, I hope everybody considers the ways in which they can step up their safety game. As I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, there’s no fish out there that’s worth my life.

Related Posts

Recovering a man overboard
How long do you have in cold water?
How to respond to a person overboard


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