We were sailing along a few years ago, racing in one of the winter series yacht races at Naval Point. We must have been doing ok on this particular day as we weren’t too far behind Legacy II one of the faster yachts. They had rounded the mark in front of us and had hoisted their spinnaker.
Just as we were considering hoisting our spinnaker as well, their bowman fell overboard.
It was cold. Mid-winter, and I saw it all happen in front of my eyes. It is of course extremely difficult to simply turn around and pick someone up when you have a spinnaker up, particularly when you have lost your bowman over the side.
He wasn’t wearing a life jacket.
We sailed directly for him, and with a smaller trailer yacht beside us, I called out to them to tell them what was happening. We were going reasonably fast as we got up to him, probably about a minute after he had fallen in. We could hear him calling out for help. Ken threw our life ring which landed right in front of him as we approached. We tacked around, and kept watch while the trailer yacht picked him up.
Life jackets or Personal Flotation Devices – PFD, these days are pretty easy to wear, and could literally be the difference between life and death. I don’t know how long I would be able to float around for in a freezing cold ocean wearing all my wet weather gear, so I usually wear my life jacket most of the time when we are sailing, and we make the kids wear their life jackets whenever they are up on deck and we are sailing, or motoring as well.
The local regulations require you to wear a life jacket at all times in any vessels under 6m in length – i.e our dinghy.
Being inflatable, life jackets these days are reasonably low profile, and are becoming more and more comfortable to wear. Mine has got a soft collar at the back, so it doesn’t rub your neck if you are wearing a T shirt.
Yachting NZ have got some requirements surrounding life jackets for New Zealand registered yachts racing and sailing offshore. Are your life jackets up to scratch?
- They must be compliant with ISAF safety standards and provide at least 150 newtons of buoyancy
- It must be in sound condition
- Crotch straps are mandatory
- It must have a light
- It must fit the wearer correctly
- There must be a life jacket (that fits) for every person on the vessel
- A splash hood is recommended
- It must have a whistle – without a pea
- It must have reflective tape fitted
- The name of the owner or boat must be printed on the lifejacket
My life jacket also has a sturdy clip on it so it doubles as a harness. It is worth paying the extra to get this facility integrated. You can also decide if you get a manually activated or automatically activated cylinder. Mine is automatic so that if I get knocked out when I go overboard then it will inflate on its own.
We also have inflatable life belts for wearing on our paddle boards. They are also handy for in the dinghy as they are small enough to go in your backpack if you are leaving the dinghy unattended.
If you are flying with your inflatable life jacket, be aware that some airlines don’t let you carry the CO2 cylinders on board the plane. It is worth calling in advance to seek advice from the airline on their policy, and also declaring it when you check in. They may require you to carry it in your suitcase or carry on luggage. If you can’t take it on board, then call ahead to a chandlery and ensure that they have one to suit your PFD. You can find more information here.
In addition to life jackets, you need to have a harness and a tether. If you have bought the right life jacket, then you will already have the harness integrated, so now you just need the tether.
- Yachts must carry a safety harness and tether for each crew member on board
- They must be in good condition and show no signs of overload
- The name of the boat or owner must be printed on the harness & tether
- They should have two or three clips
- Clips should be able to be released under pressure
- The tether should be no longer than 2m
- It is recommended that tethers have a coloured flag to indicate overload
- Date of manufacture is recommended
- You should carry a knife in your pocket as well
We clip on to jack lines that we attach to the cleats at the bow and stern of the boat in such a way that you can walk up and down the deck without having to unclip. You can get jack lines made to fit your boat, we thick webbing as it lays flat and is less likely to get tangled with the other lines.
The trouble with tethers is that if you do go over the side, and the boat is still moving along, it can be very difficult for you to keep your head above the water. I do carry a knife in my pocket, and the clip on to your harness should be one that you can release easily with one hand. The recommendation is that you have a short tether and always move around on the high side of the boat, so if you do fall in, then hopefully you won’t go in the water.
One comment we had from the guy who went overboard was that our life ring wasn’t particularly buoyant. Infact it was probably about 30 years old. So this year we bought some nice new red ones. There are regulations surrounding life rings as well:
- Ocean going yachts should have two life bouys
- They should be marked with the yacht’s name
- They should be equipped with a drogue, self igniting light and pealess whistle.
- If self inflating they should be serviced annually
- They should be brightly coloured and have reflective tape attached.
- You can also have a pole and a flag attachment – Dan Buoy
In addition to the life buoys, you should also have a heaving line. This should be:
- Designed especially for the purpose
- A minimum 16m or 52′ long
- 6mm minimum diameter
- brightly coloured
- floating line
- With a floating weight tied or spliced to the end
Of course it is a good idea to have the other end attached to the boat before you throw it…
You should also have an emergency knife easily reachable from the cockpit.
We also have a life sling on board. This can be attached to a block and tackle system to assist with retrieving someone from the water if required.
I remember reading somewhere that you should consider the life lines on your boat as being the edge of a very high cliff – whatever you do – don’t go over the side! Even with your life jacket and a tether on, it is extremely difficult to get back on the boat in anything other than flat calm conditions.
Some other tips to consider:
- Check your life lines and staunchions are secure
- Carry your personal locator beacon on you.
- Press the Man Overboard button on the GPS to mark your position if you lose someone over the side.
- Only start the motor if there are no lines in the water
- Have a ladder that is easy to deploy
- Practice your man overboard and retrieval systems before you need them
- Learn how to treat hypothermia
- Service your life jackets annually
Have you ever had a man overboard situation? Please comment below and let me know how you handled it.