Man overboard

Man Overboard - RYA Yachtmaster man overboard drill information on the RYA Yachtmaster man over board procedure

RYA Yachtmaster™ man overboard drill.

Ultimately the reason we go boating is to have fun; enjoying the freedom and exhilaration that getting out on the water provides is always the bottom line.

As with any sport, however, sailing is not without its risks. It doesn’t pay to dwell too much on these things otherwise, frankly, you’d never get out of bed. Once in a while though, it pays to be prepared.

And this brings us on to man overboard: It’s not really a subject you want to ponder as you step aboard your boat for a day’s sailing. On the other hand, in the highly unlikely event of finding yourself in the water with your boat sailing away, it would be nice to think your crew could rescue you.

It’s also good to know that if one of your crew fell overboard you would know what to do: you need a plan, and one man who knows a thing or two about safety at sea is Keith Colwell.

Brief Your Crew

Sailing isn’t a hugely dangerous sport, and you don’t want to scare your crew, but it pays to discuss Man Overboard. If you have a regular drill in place, then you could buy yourself valuable time should the unthinkable ever happen.

This is the accepted RYA Yachtmaster™ crew drill in the event of a Man Overboard:

  • Shout ‘man overboard’ to alert the crew.
  • Press the MOB button on the GPS.
  • Throw a life buoy and dan buoy to the MOB. Mark the MOB with a buoyant smoke flare.
  • Allocate a crewmember to point at the MOB in the water.
  • Send a DSC distress alert and a Mayday.
  • Keep pointing; don’t lose sight of the MOB.
  • If the motor has been started,
  • Prepare a throwing line.
  • The skipper will bring the boat alongside the MOB, with the boat pointing into the wind and the propeller stopped.
  • Get a line around the MOB and get them aboard.

    The man overboard (or fender in this case) should be to leeward as you approach

Man Overboard Manoeuvres

So that’s the crew briefed, now comes the tricky bit: actually pulling off the manoeuvre. A good method of practicing is by throwing a fender overboard weighted down with a bucket or a coil of rope. Just make sure the crew don’t lose sight of the fender!

Under Power

If you’ve got a motor, and it works, you’re going to want to use it in an emergency, so let’s deal with that scenario first:

  • Sheet in the mainsail and heave to in order to take the way off your boat pass buoyancy to the casualty and mark with a dan buoy. Instruct a crewmember to point at the MOB. Retrieve any warps from the water and start the engine.
  • Furl or drop the headsail.
  • Make ready the throwing line.
  • Manoeuvre the boat downwind of the MOB, keeping the MOB in sight.
  • Approach the MOB into the wind, so that the mainsail is depowered. Pick up the MOB on the leeward side, aft of the mast.

Under Sail
Now comes the really tricky bit! There’s a definite art to coaxing your boat gently into the breeze and coming to a standstill alongside your target. Getting it right is a great feeling.

Even if you weren’t concerned about safety, it’s a trick that’s well worth mastering and the fact is that a man overboard situation is EXACTLY the time when your motor will decide not to start, so it’s in your interests to get this one nailed down.

On a close reach you can spill and fill your mainsail to control your speed

  • As before, sheet in the mainsail and heave to, passing buoyancy to the casualty and marking with a dan buoy. Instruct a crewmember to check for warps.
  • Turn away onto a beam/broad reach and sail away.
  • Sail away for about five or six boat lengths, ensuring that you do not lose sight of the MOB.
  • Tack, aiming the leeward side of the yacht at the MOB. Let out the headsail and mainsail sheets. The mainsail should flap; if not, bear off downwind to change the angle of approach. Point the boat back at the MOB until the mainsail flaps.
  • The angle of approach should be a close reach so that the sails can be powered and depowered. Drop the headsail if there from the mainsail alone.
  • Fill and spill the mainsail and slowly approach the MOB. Pick up the MOB to leeward, aft of the mast.

Man Overboard Recovery

The final sticking point is recovery: if your boat has any kind of freeboard at all, you’ll soon realise that trying to get them out of the water is not as simple as it looks.

If your boat has a bathing platform on the transom, then you might be able to get them back aboard via the ladder. It is worth bearing in mind that in rough conditions this will be a dangerous place to attempt to recover a MOB, as there is a risk of being drawn under the stern.


This is set on the side of the boat with the foot attached to the gunwale. The head is attached either to a handybilly (block and tackle) or straight to the halyard.

MOB Recovery Raft

These are purpose built for the job. Again, you could use the halyard or, if your boat doesn’t have a solid kicker, the boom and mainsheet.

“So there you have it” Keith said: “You’ve got to hope it never happens to you, but the key thing is simply to be prepared and then you can go out on the water with confidence and enjoy yourself.”

Excerpts taken from Keith Colwell’s RYA Sea Survival Handbook. To find out more about safety at sea, you can pick up a copy by going to the RYA Web shop at: or by calling 02380604132.

You can also pick up a copy from any good marine retailer. Prices are available on request.