If Someone is Thrown Overboard

Apr 13, 2023 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

What do you do if you or someone else falls overboard? As boat insurance professionals, we know this happens more frequently than many realize. 

If you quickly search the news, you’ll see that before Christmas, a cruise ship passenger fell overboard and had to tread water in the Gulf of Mexico for 20 hours before someone rescued him. In early January, a man died after being ejected from his boat after colliding with another watercraft in the Florida Keys. Recently, a man who hooked a huge tuna was pulled overboard off Honaunau on the Big Island of Hawaii. Rescuers have still not found him after searching for a few days.

Here are some tips for what to do if you find yourself in the water:

  • Immediately yell, “Man overboard!” as loudly as possible. It’s possible that people on the boat may not hear you, but it’s worth trying.
  • Don’t panic. If you splash around, you’ll waste energy, and you don’t know how long you’ll be in the water before rescuers retrieve you. If you have a life jacket on, float. If you don’t have a life jacket, you’ll need to float and tread water, pacing yourself to sustain your energy.
  • Try to retain body heat. If you’re wearing a life jacket, you can curl up into the “HELP” position with your knees drawn up to your chest and your arms hugging your torso. Don’t discard clothing. Keep it on and try to trap air into it to make yourself more buoyant.
  • Consider whether you can safely swim to shore. Boat safety experts recommend staying put and waiting for help if there are strong currents, you aren’t going to be visible to other boaters, or if you’re not confident you can swim to shore safely.

If you see someone else go overboard, here’s what to do:

  • Yell, “Man overboard!” as loudly as you can. Other boaters will hopefully hear you and be alerted that there is a problem. 
  • Stop the boat as soon as possible. It’s critical to stay as close as possible to the location of the person who went overboard. 
  •  PRO TIP: If you have a GPS, does it have a “man overboard” button in the chart plotting function? If so, press it! Otherwise, save your current location to the GPS. Recording the location is helpful in case the overboard victim goes under the water. 
  • Have someone keep visual contact with the person who went overboard. Maintaining visual contact will help you rescue the person. The spotter can keep a lookout as the boat is turned around, not only ensuring that you don’t lose sight of the person in the water but to keep everyone informed about how close or far away they are.
  • Approach the overboard victim slowly from down current or downwind. This will reduce the risk of running into the overboard victim.
  • Once you get close to the overboard victim, throw flotation devices around them. US Sailing calls this “littering” the water, and it serves two purposes. First, it keeps the victim’s location visible. Second, it gives the victim options for flotation devices to assist in the rescue. Floatation options are critical if the victim is injured, panicking, or not a strong swimmer. Don’t worry if you throw flotation devices past the overboard victim because they can swim to the rope.
  • If someone has to jump in to rescue the overboard victim, ensure the rescuer is wearing a life jacket. It’s always best to rescue someone with a flotation device in case they panic and drag the rescuer underwater. However, if the victim is injured or a child, someone might need to go into the water to retrieve them. Rescue experts advise a life jacket and even a tether to the boat.
  • Use your judgment. If you need more help or the victim appears to need medical assistance, call 911 or make a distress call on your marine radio. You can always cancel the distress call if you decide it’s unnecessary. 
  • After you pull the overboard victim in (grabbing under the arms), keep them dry and warm. It’s critical to keep the overboard victim warm in case they are in shock or suffering from hypothermia. Have the victim remove wet clothing or assist if they cannot do this themselves. Get them into warm, dry clothing and wrapped in blankets as soon as possible.
  • Perform first aid or CPR as necessary. If the overboard victim is unconscious, call 911 or make a distress call and start CPR immediately if necessary. 

Before you head out on the water, ensure everyone on board is prepared for accidents and knows the emergency plan. Boat safety courses are a great way to be ready (and might lower your boat insurance rates!).

Contact the boat insurance professionals at Global Marine Insurance for a complimentary review of your marine insurance needs.


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