Man overboard recovery


In an ideal world, safety would be second nature to those choosing a holiday on a canal or riverboat.

Better still, holidaymakers would have sufficient tuition or experience to prepare for their trip. But even armed with skills and knowledge, accidents can still happen.

In holiday mode it’s easy for your attention to wane. Someone may simply slip over on a wet deck or people having fun may unintentionally cause an accident.

So what do you do if someone falls overboard?

“The first thing to do is not to panic,” says RYA IW Trainer Tim Allen from Watercraft Training in Buckinghamshire.

“General common sense and being prepared is the key to everyone staying safe on board. So don’t jump in and don’t let others jump in either.”

He explains that water can be cold even in summer and you will only be adding to the problem rather than solving it.

First put your engine out of gear to stop the propeller. Don’t reverse back or the person could be dragged into the propeller and throw a line or a lifebelt to the person overboard.

This ensures that the person won’t be sucked into the prop and they have something to hang on to keep afloat.

Keep sight of the person in the water at all times.

In shallow canals and slow rivers they may be able to stand up and walk out. Steer the boat slowly to the bank and help them out of the water and back onto the boat.

On wider or deeper waterways, throw a lifebuoy to the person in the water.

Keep a constant watch. If you are on a river you may need to turn so as to approach them slowly going against the stream. Pull them to the side of the boat and help them aboard with a ladder, rope or pole.

Be prepared

  • Wear a life jacket unless you are absolutely certain it is safe not to do so, paying particular attention to those operating locks and on side decks
  • Ensure all onboard know how to fit lifejackets
  • Keep lifebelt and rope available, and in good working order and make sure everyone knows where they are and how to use them.
  • Practice the drill with all onboard. It's better to learn it before you need to do it.
  • Have a read of the RYA Inland Waterways Handbook available digitally or in print from

What about avoiding accidents?

  •  Keep the decks clean and clear of ropes and other obstructions
  • Wear non-slip soled shoes.
  • Use a non-slip surface on the gunwales. 
  • In tunnels and bridges keep within the form of the boat.
  • The skipper should be keeping watch to tell crew about any obstructions like overhanging branches
  • If the skipper falls overboard another crew member should know how to stop the propeller and steer the boat.

Should I take a course?

Training is brilliant preparation for a boating holiday, it’s great fun and you will learn so much. The RYA’s Inland Waterways Helmsman or Crew Courses are the perfect way to build your confidence up.

Visit to find a course. Visit to find a centre.

Weil’s Disease

Although the risk of disease is small it is best to take precautions after falling in:

  • Take a shower
  • Wash all cuts and abrasions and treat with a sterile dressing
  • Wash all wet clothing thoroughly
  • If flu like symptoms develop see a doctor and tell him you fell in the canal/river